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Long Islanders watch Obama take the oath

At long banquet tables in a Jamaican-Chinese restaurant in Hempstead, the patrons stood as they watched President Barack Obama take the oath of office - even though they were hundreds of miles away from the U.S. Capitol.

So did the giddy crowd packed into a theater on the East End, dutifully rising to its feet, mimicking the throngs at the National Mall in Washington.

And at First Baptist Church in Coram, cheering parishioners fell suddenly, solemnly silent as the nation's first black president began to speak.

"We were a part of this," a jubilant Lillian Peterson, 61, of Middle Island, told a friend as they watched the inauguration in the church basement, at tables adorned with red roses, white carnations and American flags. "We were a part of this."

Across Long Island - in churches and cinemas and even a few barbershops - the rhythms of daily life stopped, however briefly, and gave way to history.

More than 400 people watched on a 10-by-12-foot screen at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Hall in Hauppauge, home to a major Obama phone bank during the election.

Last night, about 300 showed up at the Long Island Inaugural Ball, a black-tie, $65-a-plate party at the Carltun Restaurant in East Meadow's Eisenhower Park. Long Island Citizens Inaugural Committee chairman Rodney Brown said the group wanted to give people who couldn't go to Washington a chance to celebrate. Proceeds from the gala will go to Barack Obama Elementary School in Hempstead.

"I think [Obama] really challenged the country to do a self-evaluation and to recognize that we need to be responsible for the situation we're in and the changes to come," said Obama school principal Jean Bligen.

The Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor used its 20-foot movie screen to televise the ceremony in Washington, and filled its lobby with red, white and blue balloons. It didn't take long for the entire house - all 299 seats - to fill up.

"We said we would open the doors at 10 a.m. People were knocking on the door at 9:15 a.m. and saying, 'Let us in,' " said general manager Tracy Mitchell.

Inside the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, the 500-odd spectators leaped to their feet, cheered and hugged as Obama took the oath.

"It was like a family gathering of the people you live with in the community," said the Rev. Bernadette Watkins, 63, of Huntington.

Not even New York cabbies were immune to the sense of history gripping the country. Traffic slowed through Times Square as cabdrivers got out to take cell phone pictures of people who had come there to watch the event on a giant screen.

Some people huddled around transistor radios to listen to the inaugural address, and some asked the cabbies to roll down their windows and turn up their car radios.

A small clutch of Hempstead village staff assembled around a clunky, 15-inch portable television in Mayor Wayne Hall's office, a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. hanging on one wall.

"Now when you talk to young people, you can say you can be anything you want - even president of the United States," Hall said. "Before, you couldn't do that. It's real."

For a few minutes, the business of the village took a backseat.

A phone on Hall's desk rang several times before secretary Shirley Martin grabbed it.

"Why are you calling on the day the president is sworn in?' " Martin teased the caller.

Down the street, nearly 100 people gathered at Nakisaki Restaurant on Fulton Street in Hempstead, where the Urban League of Long Island had sponsored an inaugural viewing party. As Obama finished the oath, the hush gave way to roaring applause. People wept and hugged. They prayed, or they frantically snapped pictures with cameras or cell phones.

"He's so full of life," Urban League president Theresa Sanders said of Obama. "He makes me want to do something, like, right now. And when you look at him, it's like you're colorblind. You don't see race or gender. You just see greatness."

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