On the tracks, two perspectives of Obama

January 22, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

Artemus Davis took the train to Washington on Tuesday with firsthand experience of the day's backstory, something Andrew York has only recently come to know more about from the History Channel.

Amid the crowd of 1 million or so who gathered for President Barack Obama's inauguration, they didn't actually meet, although I guess they're now separated by a single degree - I happened to sit next to Davis on the MARC train to Washington and then, about 12 hours later, rode back home with York.

Davis, 59, who is black, lives in Southwest Baltimore and is a driver for a transportation company. York, 21, who is white, is originally from Frederick but moved here to work on a combined doctor of pharmacy and law degree at the University of Maryland.

For Davis, it was a day to marvel at how far the country has come, from segregation to its first black president, in his lifetime alone. For York, it was a day to celebrate someone who has captivated young people not so much because of the history that preceded him but the future that he represents.

In the end, despite having arrived from different worlds, they shared many of the same experiences and emotions Tuesday - arriving without tickets, enjoying the spectacle of it all nonetheless, meeting people who might have been strangers but with whom they shared common ground.

"We were in one of the lines waiting to go through security, and everybody was expressing their thoughts about Obama," Davis told me yesterday when I caught up with him by phone. "We as Americans think Obama is just for us. But then, behind me, there was this voice that said, 'Well, people feel the same way about Obama all around the world.

"I heard an accent, so I asked, 'Where are you from?' 'I'm from New Zealand, and I've been here all week.' That opened the door, and the next person said, 'I'm from Mexico.' Everyone started saying where they were from, and we all kind of felt the same way about Obama."

The train rides were pleasant bookends to what was a long and often frenzied day - although for some, including Davis and York, there was a major crunch at Union Station in Washington, which got packed to the gills at one point, apparently when some passengers arrived late for their scheduled departures and got jammed up against those arriving on time or early for later trains.

But once on the train, most seemed grateful just to be sitting down after a day on their feet. It was warm and the miles and minutes peeled away with everyone chattering about the events. Maybe it's just that something about riding a train invites a good, easy conversation - unlike an airplane, where exchanges more often involve clenched-teeth discussions about seatbacks being set too far back - or maybe it's that there was basically one subject that anyone on the train wanted to talk about.

Heading into Washington, Davis and I talked about the inauguration, but also about the Ravens (his take: they must sign Ray Lewis so he can spend his whole NFL career here) and whether he knew Mayor Sheila Dixon, who lives on the other side of Cooks Lane from him (no). Heading home, York and I mainly talked about the day, but also a bit about what he'd do with his two degrees (maybe something in the policy field) and where he gets his a lot of his news (The Daily Show).

The civil rights movement is nothing that York has experienced personally, and yet sometimes he'll see vestiges of it - he has participated in the University of Maryland law school's efforts in the New Orleans area, where students have offered legal assistance to Hurricane Katrina victims. Still, he feels people his age were largely apolitical until Obama came along and swept many of them into his campaign.

"I think it just seems like the nature of our generation that we've been apathetic," he said. "We haven't been through the trials and tribulations of other generations; everything's been handed to us. We've sat at the wayside, letting things happen."

Now, though, with all the problems facing the country, from the wars to the economy, Obama emerged to him as someone smart and capable and charismatic. "He exudes that extra something special," York said.

Davis hopes his own son, who is 14 and attends Cardinal Gibbons High School, will similarly get swept into this, or perhaps a future cause.

"I wanted to take him, I wanted him to feel the moment," Davis said. "But he didn't want to deal with the crowds. When I got home, though, he was the first one to come down the stairs and ask me about it. I told him, maybe one day you can be a part of something like that."

Davis thinks his son underneath it all wishes he had come - school started late anyway because of the snow, and then in his Latin class they ended up watching the event on TV. Davis himself has always regretted that when he was just a little younger than his son was today, he missed out on going to the Mall for Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. His father had died the year before, his mother was busy with her six children and Davis isn't even sure if he was aware of the gathering until after it had happened. "But I told myself," he said as we made our way to that same spot 45 years later, "if I ever get the chance to be a part of something like that, I'm going."

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