The ticket-holders' line was nearly a mile long.
WASHINGTON, D.C. For our last president, it was not like this. Not like this at all.
In January 2001, at the inauguration of George W. Bush, which I attended, the city of Washington, D.C., felt subdued. There was an undercurrent of anger and disappointment among Democrats, who felt the election was stolen. And there was joy verging on arrogance among Republicans, whose candidate prevailed.
It was a divide that the city - and country - never quite got over.
I spent that inauguration in a "free speech zone" surrounded by police in riot gear, among the hundreds who came to protest Bush's inauguration parade. The weather was cold and sleeting, and the mood was sour. People chanted and gave the finger to the mayor of Washington, D.C., who arrived to watch the parade in a heated tent across the street.
When Bush's motorcade finally drove past the free speech zone, he was hunched in the back seat of his limo. It sped up so fast that the secret service agents had to run alongside it.
This time, everything was different. When I arrived in Washington on Sunday for Barack Obama's inauguration, excitement tinged the air. People greeted each other with huge smiles. They swapped stories, they praised the moment.
Millions of Americans had descended on Washington, and all of them, it seemed, were of good cheer.
On Monday night, inauguration eve, thousands of people thronged the National Mall. There were no official events scheduled, but people converged here because they wanted to be together. The simple act of walking up and down the mall, taking in the country's new vibe, was more fun than any ball or party could ever be.
Riding the Metro, I overheard a young woman tell her friends that she was a Republican who had voted for John McCain. "But I'm still excited," she added.
So were we. My sister Becky and I had scored a pair of coveted tickets to the inauguration. We were going to be standing in front of the Capitol to watch Barack Obama make history.
That was the plan, anyway.
We got up on Tuesday at 3:30 a.m. We left our friend's home in Virginia in time to arrive at the Metro station by 4:30. Even though it was early, the line to the subway wound all the way back through the parking garage where we were leaving our car.
When we finally made it onto the train and pulled away from the station, there was a cheer.
The mood stayed upbeat, even as our train repeatedly stalled in the subway tunnels. Our one-hour commute to D.C. took more than two hours. The train was stuffed with people, who spilled out into a downtown station where even more people were waiting.
As we walked to the ticket-holders' line, the morning light was beginning to filter down. We were directed through a mini-barricade by a police officer who checked our tickets. Then we took our place at the end of the line - nearly a mile away. The temperature was about 16 degrees.
Still, everyone was happy, chattering excitedly. They took pictures of the line. They started up chants and gave whoops. They periodically looked at their watches.
The wait was long. We checked in frequently with friends who were closer to the entry gate. They'd gotten in line at 5:30 a.m. No one was moving, they reported. By now the line stretched through the Third Street tunnel and beyond. I couldn't see the end of it.
My sister recalled that in 2001, when she was working for Sen. Russ Feingold, she was given a ticket to Bush's inauguration. She'd shown up at 11:30 a.m. and walked right in.
Four hours passed while we stood in line. People started chanting and singing again, to cheer themselves up. But it was rapidly becoming clear that we might not get into the inauguration at all. As we moved along, I could see that someone had drawn a smiley face and the word "Obama" in the grease on the tunnel wall.
We never got in. At noon, when Barack Obama took the oath of office, we were standing just outside the entry gate. People in line were waving their purple-coded tickets at the security guards and begging to be let in. The security guards paid no attention.
Rumors abounded that the security gates for our section were never opened. Our friends who had arrived at 5:30 a.m. and stood near the entryway never made it inside either.
For the entire wait in line, we never saw a single organizer, volunteer, police officer or security guard. There was no crowd control for a crowd that numbered in the thousands. It's undoubtedly a measure of the mood of the day that no one trampled anyone else. For the most part, people were polite and considerate of each other. No one got hurt. We just got left out.
The mood was different now. Women sobbed, men wiped their eyes. One crying girl said she had worked on Obama's campaign for a year and a half, only to be turned away at the gate. Most of the people with tickets in our section were campaign volunteers.
When Obama began his inauguration address, people huddled in groups around those who had brought handheld radios or miniature TVs. I watched part of Obama's speech on a small TV that a man was holding for everyone to see.
But it was hard to hear and eventually we gave up. We had missed our chance to witness history. We walked back to the Metro, dejected and tired. And unbearably envious of those who'd gotten to see Obama become president - even if they had just watched it on CNN.
On the train ride home, one man heard the same story from others and tried to cheer them up.
"Did your guy get inaugurated today?" he asked. "Then you should be okay."