Despite the tear and accolade fest that rightly (and I think, and hope, sincerely) accompanied the farewell ceremony for Gabby Giffords in the House of Representatives, no one need be a genius or even moderately sentient to know that people think precious little of what goes on in our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.
One need only have listened to President Obama this week try, yet again, to impress upon the members of Congress the fact that most Americans don’t think much of them or of the work they don’t get done while continuing to collect taxpayer-funded salaries and outstanding health care benefits. Or heard Newt Gingrich, despite possessing the kind of Tiffany’s credit line that usually only can be possessed by one with a lobbyist’s salary or a large trust fund, say he wasn’t a lobbyist.
So yes, the American people are right to think that a very great deal is indeed rotten in Washington.
But as one who did two tours of duty in the city, spanning a total more than five years, I thought it was time that someone, and it may as well be me, talk about at least some of the Washington, D.C. that doesn’t involve members of Congress who don’t get anything done besides act stupid in the name of the American people they claim to serve and make fools of themselves and our nation every single day. Because although those members and the lobbyists who court them determine a whole hell of a lot of what goes on in Washington, they are not representative of all of Washington. Or life in Washington. Which I know will come as a surprise to some of the more supremely egotistical members of Congress and lobbyists. Actually, that probably will come as a surprise to many members of Congress.
Of course, there is the Washington of majestic monuments, which are stupendous and worth every visit they get. But there also are monuments of another type, that being the great many museums that are mostly free of charge. Now, lots of tourists as well as residents visit the museums and rave about them because they are free. And free is free in a city that is not inexpensive or absent of poverty. Or people go because they really want to see icons of Americana such as Jackie Kennedy’s inaugural gown, the original Star-Spangled Banner, Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz, or John Glenn’s spaceship. Although, having had the honor of working with Glenn some when I was at the U.S. Department of Education and handled public affairs duties for a commission on math and science teaching he ably chaired, I can say he is worthy of all of the hero worship and Godspeed he’s received in the past 50 years. That’s another good thing about living and working in Washington. Despite the rot, it is still possible to see, and even get to know if you go to the right places, a fair number of famous, non-politician people you can boast about meeting without being squirted with alcohol-based sanitizer by your not famous friends.
Actually, speaking of the museums, I used to go to them on many a spur of the moment, especially the National Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Museum of Natural History. Like when I was missing the Midwest and then I’d get to any of these museums and realize, well, Minneapolis has its charms but it doesn’t have the National Gallery of Art and a bunch of other institutions that you can visit all in one day if you are particularly intrepid. World-class museums that don’t charge admission also are great places to go and think things over when you need to contemplate getting a job at somewhere other than one of the city’s too many dysfunctional nonprofit organizations, though I know I said I wanted to talk about things other than rot. Because I did meet some of my very best friends at one of those dysfunctional organizations during my second tour in the city. Multi-museum therapy also helps when you don’t want to get drunk that particular afternoon, because the night before you were at a wine-soaked, open-to-more-people-than-you-might-think-exclusive for a supposedly swish embassy party, masses of easy-to-get-invitations-to embassy parties requiring tuxedos or ball gowns being another thing unique to Washington. And you might need the therapy after yet another guy you met on Match.com turns out to be either unhappily married or looking more like Jabba the Hutt than the man in their profile photo, which had to have been taken at least 15 years earlier. Or both.
Then when you’ve had your museum nutrition, you can hit the streets and get something that is not very nutritious but is pretty much the official food item of Washington, D.C. I’ve had one in New York but it wasn’t the same. They don’t even exist in Minneapolis. And that’s the half-smoke. This goodie that looks like a larger hot dog with a coarser texture is composed of half-pork and half-beef that is, per its name, smoked. You do not put ketchup on it unless you want to be taken for a tourist, which no person who has lived in D.C. for at least a month (long enough to have gotten an electric bill or a summons to jury duty) wants to be confused with at any time. Even though most everyone in the city is from somewhere else in the United States or the rest of the world. And that’s another thing I like about Washington. Unless you and a bunch of your high school or university friends all decided to move to Washington at the same time, you are going to have to make real nice and do better than what Rodney King asked: you ARE going to have to just get along. And so is everyone else. I was in a large meeting once at Education that looked like a veritable United Nations, except none of us had microphones and everyone was a U.S. citizen and spoke good English. The person chairing the meeting, which concerned something no one sane wanted to talk about, scanned the room and said, with one of the biggest smirks I’ve ever seen in my life, okay folks, everyone here is one of “those people,” so if you say something really idiotic, we’re all going to beat you up. I miss that diversity and brutely realistic talk.
Anyway, when you find a good half-smoke street vendor, or you go to the wildly popular Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street (and they will serve you if you are not a celebrity, they will, but you won’t get on television if you are a nobody), you will find that even some otherwise devout vegetarians, Muslims, Hindus and kosher-keeping Jews, are there with you. No one says anything to blow anyone’s cover or religiosity. Everyone knows why they need the fix of the half-smoke.
And when you’re finished with your half-smoke, and if you need some liquid refreshment to tamp down the fire (even if you were at an embassy party the night before, or are going to another that night), there are few cities with more drink specials and happy hours than Washington. I think it’s because the place is absolutely packed with eager-eyed, intensely driven young people who either want to serve their country or get hired by a big lobbying association. In the meantime, few of them have any money and all of them need drinks to get through their long days of writing grants, schlepping coffee, or answering constituent phone calls.
I did go to more than a few of these happy hours with young colleagues and was happy to realize that another great thing about Washington is its eminent walkability. Which is very, very useful if you’ve tried to drink cheap margaritas with people in their twenties and you don’t want to spend the rest of the night in abject pain. Now you could take Washington’s still pretty excellent Metro, though I don’t know, I only recommend riding the Metro when buzzed or fully drunk when you have at least one buddy along for support. On the other hand, there is nothing like a climbing march of a few miles up Connecticut Avenue or Wisconsin Avenue to clearly remind you that you are an adult of a certain age with a good job who should be doing your drinking at one of the posh hotel bars where you know the bartenders, they know you, you know some of the famous regulars, they admit to knowing you, and where even you can’t afford (for reasons of finance as well as personal dignity) to get too smashed.
So yes, while much of Washington is spending our money and giving us almost nothing in return, it’s also a beautiful city with a diverse population full of things to do that you cannot find almost anywhere else in America.
And there are those monuments. I admit that part of the reason I moved to Washington the first time was to try to have the kind of romantic D.C. experience one sees in the movies (and not one involving testifying before Congress in a power Armani suit). One thing I never got to do, but still hope to do some day, some way, National Park Service rules notwithstanding, is sit at night, luminous full moon included, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and then walk around the Reflecting Pool. Maybe in a floaty evening gown. With a man in a tuxedo, his shirt open and tie loosened, perhaps beckoning me to join him for a wade in the pool as we look toward the floodlit capitol building.
I know. It’s ridiculous. But perhaps no more ridiculous than a lot of what goes on in the Washington most people hear about all the time.