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Welcome to D.C., "The American Experience"

In Washington, D.C.'s National Zoo, there lies a striking paradox of personal space: The park's three Asian elephants occupy a relatively small space, while the zoo's prized giant pandas have a sprawling enclosure full of trees and shrubbery they can hide behind when they're feeling shy.Today, the normally uncluttered District of Columbia probably felt to its locals like it had shrunk from the size of the pandas' environment to that of the elephants'. After all, people from around the country (and the world) are streaming in to see President-elect Barack Obama become the 44th President of the United States. The District's slogan, as of 2007, is "The American Experience." Tuesday promises to see millions taking part in exactly that.

Many of those who will pack the capital on Tuesday are already here, though locals I spoke to said the number of people crammed into the city by Sunday was no more than is seen yearly during the Fourth of July. Normally, the town can present an austere face with its imposing government buildings, high crime rate, popped collars and trenchcoats, and white and black sections. Currently, however, it's a temporary mélange of blurred demographics with a froth of cheerfulness. If Starbucks could bottle this.Today I met an outspoken activist named Nezahualcocóyotl Alonso, of Roswell, New Mexico, who made a 2,000-mile trip to be here. "This is the mother of all inaugurations; this is the first black president ever to be inaugurated," he says. "When will that ever happen again? Who knows? Could this be our last heyday? I don't know." Alonso holds a sign saying "Arrest Bush," in protest of the outgoing administration's attempt to build a "reprocessing" plant for radioactive waste from the U.S. as well as six foreign countries in his home state.
After Sunday's star-studded We Are One concert ended, around 4:30 p.m. local time, crowds streamed up 18th Street from the basin of the Potomac for more than a mile into the northern sections of the capital. Restaurants along the way quickly filled with chilled revelers looking for food and warm shelter after standing outside in the 35-degree weather. At Luna Grill & Diner, two miles away from the National Mall, the staff held its own against a surge of patrons who showed up around 5:30. A waitress at the restaurant told me that things started picking up last night; she expects business to be humming all week-though they are not bringing in extra staff for the inauguration rush. "We have two managers instead of one," she says, "but that's all."

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