D.C. adventures

The first day at the bureau was spent going over ground rules, learning the basics and touring what will be our stomping ground for the next four months: The United States Capitol.

In the weeks before we arrived, we were told that we would be going to the State of the Union (yes, that State of the Union) and I didn’t really believe it. Something was going to fall through; it wasn’t going to happen, so why get my hopes up? But that first day, the dream became a reality when our bureau director, Steve, told us that we were going if we so chose. We obviously so chose.

The morning of the State of the Union, we met at Union Station. When I arrived, I snuck over to Le Pain Quotidien and ordered a cappuccino before I joined my eight other bureaumates. After a few minutes of chatting, Steve rounded us up to give us our assignment. Standing there, in a group of powerful women who are led by an elusive male director, I began to feel like Charlie’s Angels. And Charlie was about to give us our first mission.

At 3:00 p.m. Steve came into the newsroom with two cameras; one for me and one for my bureaumate Danika, who was also set to interview a guest attending the State of the Union. After a quick briefing with the DSLR, a camera I’ve only successfully used once before. At 3:08 p.m. I was off.

The interview with the congresswoman was set at 4:00 and it takes about 45 minutes to get from the front step of the bureau to Statuary Hall, that is, if you’re walking — this was not a day for a mid-afternoon stroll.

I ran to the Metro stop and rode to Union Station. When those doors opened I charged out like a racehorse out of the gate. Stand right, walk left? More like stand right, sprint left. When I got to the security checkpoint my lungs were on fire but to the Senate subway I flew. When I got off, I took a hard left down the hallway to the house side.

Nothing can stop me n—

My confidence was met by three men wearing long black coats and solemn expressions, coolly leaning against the rail at the top of the stairs. Hearing the echoing footsteps of some crazy person sprinting their way, they were ready for me to make my entrance. I know this because as I entered the room they simultaneously pulled back their coats a little, each revealing a gun on their hip. Instinctively, I stopped dead in my tracks.

Are they Secret Service? Is the President close to me? Did they think I was a terrorist?

Well one thing’s for sure: They weren’t about to take down a lost-looking young reporter with wind-blown bangs that had probably morphed into some kind of mullet-like monstrosity because upon seeing me they looked away disinterested. They must’ve been looking for another idiot.

As soon as I was out of their sight, I picked up the pace. Corner, after corner, after corner, I reached the long corridor to Statuary Hall at 3:54 p.m. I did my best to make it look like I wasn’t just finishing a marathon, shook my bangs back into place with my fingers and tried to catch my breath.

I walked into the hall with feigned confidence and found my people. In 20 minutes the interviews and pictures were done and I met up with Danika outside the room. What I didn’t know when I left the office was that I was leaving for the night. Danika was heading back to the Bureau to report from there, but if I wanted to be there for the State of the Union, I had to stay. Steve gave me a choice — if I wanted to come back I could. I chose to stay.

We exchanged cameras, I gave her my memory card to get the pictures back to Steve in time to publish the article and, just like that, I was alone again.

At 5:32 p.m. the story was done and the waiting game began. The sweep of the Capitol, a security check of the building, was set to be at 6:30 p.m. After that happens, no one gets in or out until the address is over. If my bureaumates were to make it here, they needed to hurry. Each minute passed with painstaking sluggishness.

I walked around, looked at Twitter with close inspection and took “test” photos.

It was then that it all finally became real. I was going to be at the State of the Union. Though I wasn’t going to actually be in the room, I was still standing less than a football field’s length from Congress, the Supreme Court, the Speaker of the House, the Vice President and, oh yeah, the President of the United States.

My first thought when I came to this realization probably should’ve been something like, “Wow, I’m at the State of the Union! Time to do my best reporting job and write a great story about it.” But really it was something like, “Wow, I’m at the State of the Union! Who the hell let me in?”

I would love to tell you I felt completely comfortable there, like I had found my purpose, but the cold hard truth is, I didn’t. I was terrified. Standing there bureaumateless, I began to feel smaller and smaller, like someone with one of those big cameras could mistake me for a crumb and crush me.

The minutes ticked by: 6:00 p.m. — They’ll be here any minute, 6:10 p.m. — Where are they? 6:15 p.m. — I called them. On the phone, Sammy told me calmly that they were held up at security because of a problem with their credentials. They had called to get the press-gallery involved but they were waiting for them to take action.

It was then, I became acutely aware of just how alone I was. If they don’t make before the sweep, I won’t be able to get out. I could’ve probably pulled off something mediocre on my own but this was the main event and to cover it well, I needed the team.

Internally I panicked and externally I was occupied with something very important on my phone.

At 6:26 p.m. they made their heroic entrance. Now I think I know how it would feel to be a castaway and see a ship on the horizon. They heard my SOS and they had come to rescue me.

Minutes after they docked, the sweep took effect. We were ushered out of the room while bomb sniffing dogs padded around the equipment. Then, they gave us the “all clear” and we rushed back in and took our places.

In the center of the room was an aisle marked by red velvet ropes. When making their entrances and exits, guest walk down the aisle and reporters try to snag them for comments. It’s quite a game actually.

We watched for the members of congress from Arizona as people walked in. Senator John McCain walked through on his cell phone (I wonder if he was using my trick) and Congressman Ruben Gallego just behind him. They both passed quickly and without comments.

Then the procession began. The crowd came in waves of people and the narrow aisle makes it very hard to search through a dense crowd to find people. I ended up mostly snapping photos of people’s ears or the tops of their heads.

It was like playing political Where’s Waldo and these were just some of the people I could check off my list: Justice Elena Kagan, John McCain (again), Bernie Sanders, Paul Ryan, John Kerry and Joe Biden. Keeping up that “I’m a professional and I totally know what I’m doing” act just got so much harder. I don’t care what your political affiliation is, seeing the people we talk about every day in the news — walking no more than three feet in front of you — is pretty cool.

The flow of people slowed down to a trickle and then stopped all together. But most journalists stayed by the ropes, so we followed the cue. Then, there was a commotion and photogs leaned over the ropes, contorting their bodies and aiming their cameras at the doors to the House chamber. Then, the shutters began to click and the president came into view.

Though it was from very far away and I only saw the back of his head, it was the president! I scrolled through the pictures on my phone and found one where, if zoomed in, you see the outline of his head (it’s the ears that really give it way, isn’t it?)

We sat during the address and listened to the audio being streamed from people’s phones and tablets echoing throughout the hall. The speech ended, the doors opened and the frenzy began again.

The stream of people came more steadily this time but we managed to grab several of our congressmen for photos and comments. We sent out tweets and texted quotes to Steve and the two reporters at the bureau with him.

We did it. I think I speak for all of us when I say that it was quite a rush getting to be there. Though it was a seven-hour reporting trip, the adrenaline of not knowing what was going to happen kept us all going strong. Exhausted and frozen, we all made it home to our warm beds to get some well-deserved sleep.

And that was just our second day.

More adventures to come.

– M.R.A

Keep checking back for more D.C. Adventures in our blog section. 

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