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Comedian Jon Stewart performs at the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)
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I Settled In to the Experience Like I Was Settling Into an Unfamiliar Drug

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If you would have asked me ahead of time about where we would have positioned ourselves amidst the crowd, I don’t think I would have had an unreasonable answer. I don’t think I had unrealistic expectations. I would have told you that we would have been too far back to have a decent view of the stage but that we would have had a clear shot of the jumbo screens that were going to be throughout the park.


Furthermore, we would be able to hear just fine, and we would befriend those around us in such a way that we would watch one another’s spots while the other went to the bathroom or checked out the crowd. They would come back and say, “If you go over there near Beau Thai, there’s a guy dressed like a stormtrooper. Not like a member of the SS. Like, a stormtrooper from Star Wars”.


Except for the stormtrooper part—both SS and from Star Wars, actually—none of this ended up being true. After working our way through the street vendors and the congested crosswalks, we found ourselves on 7th Street, a main vein through the park. This was not a place to settle, though we did so, anyway. People continued moving on either side of us. I could vaguely make out some sound coming from one direction and everyone seemed to be turned that way, so we turned that way, too.


“Can you see anything?”


“No. Can you?”


“No.”


Off to the side was a flickering of color. One of the jumbo screens. Too far away and too obfuscated by people to see clearly. I held up my camera like a periscope, took a picture from each direction. I looked at the images. Nothing but people. “Throngs” doesn’t capture it. Neither does “sea of”. The best way to put it is that there was nothing but people.


“This is it,” I said to Morgan. “This is the rally.”


“I can’t wait to watch it on TV,” he said.


People were in trees. People were on streetlights. Adults were on the shoulders of other adults. We would hear an indiscernible voice from the speakers, and then a wave of people would start laughing.


“What did he say? Could you hear him?”


A chant started, “Lou-der! Lou-der!” But it was unheeded.


In lieu of the entertainment being provided for us, we turned to those around us for our amusement. There were people in tinfoil hats, multiple people dressed up as Mario from Super Mario Brothers, one even dressed up as Luigi. One guy was dressed up as the devil—horns, arrow-shaped tail, face painted red—he held a sign that said “Arizona”. Another woman carried a cardboard psychiatrist booth like the one Lucy sits behind in Peanuts. The front of the booth said, “Ask me about the Tea Party”. Someone said, “Are you really from the Tea Party?” “Yes,” she said. Her booth was fashioned out of a TV tray.


The signs alone were worth the trip: “What Do We Want? Moderation. When Do We Want It? In a Reasonable Amount of Time.” “Stop the InsaniTEA”. “Bring Back Crystal Pepsi”. My favorite was a plainly pretty 20-something woman who stood at the edge of the crowd with a dry-erase board on which she had written, “I think the president is doing OK”.


caption

Comedians Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart perform at the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall on October 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held the rally, which tens of thousands of people attended. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)


Initially my fear had been that we would miss the rally entirely. Now my fear was that we wouldn’t be able to suffer it all the way to the end. I looked at my watch. It was a little after 2PM. We had almost another hour. We unleashed the kids from their strollers. Jonah picked up his John Adams sign and instinctively held it above his head. Then he took it from the handle end and started pushing the sign across the ground like it was a shovel. I thought, Either he’s an unheard voice in a swell of unheard voices or he’s using a cause to shovel shit. This pretty much captures my dilemma.


There was a point at which I became acclimated to being smack in the middle of 200,000 people. There was a point at which “This is the rally” became “This is the rally.” I can’t pinpoint the moment exactly, but I know it was a result of me relaxing into the experience, like I was settling into an unfamiliar drug. I caught what I could. Kid Rock was announced. This is so Stewart can say he included the right, I thought. I recognized Sheryl Crow’s voice. And when I could barely make out Stewart and Colbert’s climactic debate, I didn’t for a second think, “I’m missing it”. All that stuff on the stage. That was just to get people’s attention. Those of us in the crowd that day, we were the important part.

I wasn’t missing it. We were it.


*****


After Tony Bennett sang “America the Beautiful” the crowd dispersed pretty quickly. We stayed in the middle of the street as the National Mall revealed itself to us. Morgan and Heather had never been to DC, and it’s always invigorating to watch people experience for the first time that which is familiar to you.


We walked toward Congress. Our path took us by the stage, now being disassembled by teamsters. Heather took a picture with the Capital Dome framed between the stage. Above it: “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”. I thought What must John Stewart and Stephen Colbert be thinking right now? I remember Stewart from MTV. We’ve grown up together. There’s a legitimate case to be made that he has himself become such a sanctioned member of the media that he has lost his edge. His annihilation of Jim Cramer last year boarded uncomfortably self-righteousness, and interviewing a sitting president, as he did with Barack Obama in the days before the rally, scores more street cred for the president than it does Stewart.


But I’ll leave that discussion for pundits who prefer a different angle than mine. Any sympathetic thoughts I had toward this point of view dissipated that afternoon into nothing but pride.


As we drew closer to Congress, the Capital Dome loomed larger and larger, and damnit if I didn’t get all choked up. I’ve been known to do that from time to time, to invest with great emotion that which does not deserve it. One of the few bits I heard clearly from the show was a song that Stewart and Colbert performed together. The chorus went something like “We are the greatest, strongest country in the world / The greatest, strongest country in the world / We are the greatest, strongest country in the world”. These were the words going through my head when we stepped into Congress’ shadow.


“Greatness” and “strength”. I don’t know that these are the traits that I value above all else, though I would be a fool to deny their significance completely. Instead, I continue to be awed by America’s ability, often despite herself, to inspire.


caption

Comedians Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart perform at the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall on October 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held the rally, which tens of thousands of people attended. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)


Kirby Fields lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. When he is not working or writing, he enjoys spending time with his wife and son.


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