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Swapping a House for History

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     On the night of Nov. 4, hundreds of thousands gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park to celebrate the election of our first black president, Barack Obama. I witnessed it all – from my couch here in Tahoe. I cried along with Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey and the thousands of other tearful spectators who were so overjoyed that Obama’s promise of hope and optimism and change would finally become a reality.

     Yet watching this historic moment on TV was not enough. I had missed Obama’s campaign rallies and town-hall meetings and debates. Even voting by mail had deprived me of feeling like a part of something bigger than myself. But it was not over. I had one more chance to participate in history.

     I would go to the inauguration.

     There was one small problem. I was not the only one with this idea.

     A record turnout is expected for Obama’s inauguration, anywhere from three to five million people. The current record was set in 1965, when 1.2 million people came out to see Lyndon B. Johnson sworn in. Having lived in D.C. for six years, I had the opportunity to attend two inaugurations – Bill Clinton’s in 1997 and George W. Bush’s in 2001. For Clinton’s swearing-in ceremony, I was able to maneuver myself through the crowd and get so far up the Capitol steps that I actually found myself standing next to John F. Kennedy, Jr.

     It seemed it would not be that easy this time around.

     But as they say, ignorance is bliss, and before the realization of the many hurdles I was up against set in, I sat down at my computer full of excitement and energy, expecting to find a hotel room in a matter of minutes. It took exactly 10 minutes for my blissful state to be shattered. Apparently, a few million other people had beaten me to the punch. There were absolutely no hotel rooms left in Washington, D.C. or its suburbs in Virginia and Maryland, that is unless you were willing to shell out $1,000 or more a night. Even many hotels in West Virginia are sold out for the week of Jan. 20.

     But I was determined. I would not let a minor detail like shelter discourage me from going to Washington and seeing Obama sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. An NPR story in November told of a couple that was renting out their backyard for $100 a night for inauguration week, tent not included. (Mind you, it’s usually snowing and 30 degrees in D.C. in January). Apparently, that deal of the century was snatched up by some folks from Alaska. (And no, I don’t think it was the Palins.)

     If a couple from Alaska could find a place to pitch their tent in D.C., I could find a place to rest my head. And then I had my 'ah-hah' moment. Where does anyone with an Internet connection and an ounce of technical know-how go to when they need to find something? Craigslist, of course. I would find a cute apartment to rent.

     About five minutes on Craigslist and Blissful State of Ignorance #2 was also shattered. People were charging astronomical prices for their houses and condos. It was like the Olympics had come to Washington, D.C. Here’s a typical ad: $1,000 a night for a four-bedroom house in Arlington, Virginia, which requires a two minute drive to get to the metro. Forget that. Then I found a four-bedroom house inside the Beltway only a 10-minute subway ride to the Capitol, but alas, they were asking $1,800 a night.

     It was time for Plan C. Perusing the Craigslist website, my eyes fell across an option I had never considered before – Housing Swap. Might as well give it a shot, right? I clicked on the D.C. page. There sure were a lot of people looking to get the hell out of Dodge for the inauguration (or trying to make a pretty penny), offering to trade their homes for just about anywhere. I could understand. I guess staying in the Capitol for inauguration week is the same as staying in Tahoe for Christmas or the Fourth of July, but with about 3.5 million more people.

     I decided to post an ad and see what happened. In a few hours, I had about 10 responses. It seemed a house in Tahoe, minutes from the ski resorts, is quite desirable, even for East Coasters. Jason offered us his one-bedroom condo on the outskirts of D.C. and just about everything else he could think of, including brand new sheets and towels, three Netflix movies of our choosing, a fridge stocked full of any food we requested, a personal tour of the Pentagon and a weekend at his time-share in Breckenridge, Colorado.

     Jason was sounding a little desperate. Jeff, on the other hand, seemed a little geographically-challenged. He wanted to swap his four-bedroom house in Queenstown, Maryland, which is an hour from D.C. I wanted to see the inauguration, not the Baltimore Orioles.

     After about a week of getting more emails and corresponding with a few people, I finally settled on an apartment in an old Victorian in the heart of D.C. I picked the place because it’s near the metro and also, if 4 million other people decide to use the subway, it’s walking distance to the Capitol.

     On Jan. 20, 2009, I may not get far enough up the steps of the Capitol to catch a glimpse of Obama, but at least I will be there, with history by my side.

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March 14, 2019