Wednesday, July 1, 2009
As the kid and I were hoofing it from the Capitol along the Mall back towards the Smithsonian (we'd let Mom rest on a park bench), she remarked that the whole show here must be kind of intimidating to foreigners when they visited. In fact, she said, one can see where it would overwhelm many Americans. I thought about it a bit and then agreed, remarking that if one thinks about the history of our capital city, one can easily see that those who think that early American leaders were somehow these kind, gentle, pastoral types of guys, don't know their history very well. Just taking in the federal area in Washington makes it pretty clear, at least to me, that being the biggest and baddest kid on the block has always been part of the agenda. L'Enfant knew it. Tocqueville knew it. The rest of the civilized world has always known it. I'm not prepared to say I'd want it any differently. I just wanted to highlight what's always been clear to me: Washington, D.C. isn't about pretty monuments, etc. It's about power.
It took us about eight hours drive-time to reach Northern Virginia. As anybody who's driven around the nation's capital recently knows, we encountered something very much like rush hour traffic (on a Saturday afternoon) once we got near the Beltway. I first drove on I-95 in the stretch known as Shirley Highway something like 40 years ago. It was under construction then (it's in Springfield, VA) and it used to be called the mixing bowl); it's still under construction.
We reached the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City at cocktail time. The kid, who'd flown in earlier in the day, was waiting. Her conference was being held in this hotel, so against my better judgment I'd agreed that we would stay there as well. Here's why I say "against my better judgment": $81 per night for Saturday and Sunday; $200+ per night for Monday and Tuesday. Smacking myself in the forehead, I said, "Well, shit dummy, what'd you expect? It's a business hotel." So here I am, the retired schmuck, fighting the guys on expense accounts—as I used to be—for a not so great room. Oh, and then the guy from whatever foreign country who greets us as we drive up says, "I'll just unload your bags and take the car to valet parking. And it'll only cost you $25 a day." Wow. Welcome to D.C. I figured I'd go along with this for the first night, but then find something cheaper. Well, a parking garage around the corner was $20. Welcome to D.C. indeed. I don't want to overdo the whining about the hotel, so my final word on cost will be to note that breakfast for the three of us Sunday A.M. was about $65 with tip. Next time, we're staying at a motel a ways out.
The main point I wanted to make about being a visitor to D.C. is that it's just like visiting almost any other seat of government in any other developed nation. I used to make the rounds a lot—from a D.C. base—and I know my foreign capitals. Ours is pretty much like London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Seoul, you name it. Lots of very self-important people running around, lots of expense account folks trying to suck money out of the government stiffs they visit, and third worlders doing all of the service work and heavy lifting.
Sunday was a splendid day. It was Father's Day (and the first day of Summer to boot) and I was with the kid and the wife. Additionally, the Gods cooperated and we did not have to endure one of those miserable, steamy D.C. summer days. Sunday and the next two days saw highs in the low 80s. After our $65 breakfast, we caught the (free) shuttle to the Crystal City Metro station, where we caught the subway on over to the Washington Navy Yard stop, where one emerges from the underground cavern only a couple of blocks away from the magnificent new ball park the taxpayers of D.C. (and us, of course) built for only around $700 million. A mere drop in the bucket in our fair federal city. We scalped some decent tickets from a self-employed businessman working the streets and enjoyed ourselves drinking $8 beers and eating overpriced foods. The game was not memorable and the Nationals, owners of the worst record in baseball, looked every bit as bad as one might expect. This was the second lousy Washington team (out of three) that I've seen in person. The first was the now-Texas Rangers, then Washington Senators, whom I saw in RFK stadium in the late 60s. I missed the first Senators team, the one that's now in Minnesota, but by all reports they were every bit as bad as incarnations number 2 and 3. In fact, I'm happy to report that I was able to educate some forlorn Nationals fans by reciting something I learned as a youth: "Washington, first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." They hid it well, but I know they appreciated my recollection of this immortal baseball phrase.
If you want really good Italian food, you can't go wrong at Ristorante Filomena in Georgetown. It's a typical D.C. power place, to include photos of the rich and famous, along with their recommendations regarding entrees. Figuring that with his girth and well-known love of fine food, he'd know, so I went with the pasta dish that Bill Clinton always had. The slick one did not disappoint; I had a fine meal. The martinis were delicious as was the red wine. All in all, a great dining experience, none of it paid for by me.
We spent Monday hanging around the Mall, with most of the time spent in the Smithsonian and the National Gallery. This was kind of old home week for the kid and I because we used to spend countless weekend days doing just that. A little background here: I was first in the D.C. area (actually Baltimore) back in the 60s when I attended a lengthy training course at the Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird, in the Dundalk section of Ballmer. I was single then and I have many fond memories of the D.C.-Baltimore area. I was back just a few years later, this time with a bride, and this time going to school right in D.C. It was during this time in D.C. that I first met the kid who treated me so well during this visit, greeting her as she made her debut in the world at Fort Belvoir, VA. I left the bride and the new family member only one month later, going off overseas. A year later, it was back to D.C., actually Northern Virginia, where I even got the very rare opportunity to work in this nasty old building. I suspect I am one of the very few military folks in history who did not mind working in The Pentagon whatsoever. "Why?" you might ask. Well, I actually had an operational rather than staff job, something that makes all of the difference in the world to intelligence workers. I'll see if anyone can figure out why I didn't mind working in the five-sided monstrosity all that much.
In addition to working in The Pentagon, I also worked on the second floor of a shopping center in a strip mall in a suburban Northern Virginia city. This was another of those places I've worked that didn't have identifying signs on the door. We bought our first house during this time in D.C., in the small town of Ocoquan, VA, about 15 miles south, which was just then beginning to boom. More on this house later. But then we left again, this time headed to Monterey, CA, where I went to school for a year. Then came Germany.
Back to D.C. in the late 70s, this time for a long stay. Bought the second house and the kid stayed in one place all the way from 3d grade to high school graduation. Which leads me back to the daughter and I and D.C. We were actually living in Maryland, near Fort Meade. I had one of those jobs that saw me on the road, in the U.S. and overseas, on just about a weekly basis. So the weekends belonged to the kid. She absolutely loved the Smithsonian and all of those monuments. Dragged me there almost every Sunday, it seemed. We had a great time, but those years, as well as all of the obligatory tour guide stuff one must do for visiting family and friends, kind of made me think I'd never have to do the touristy stuff again. Not so. Despite my whining, the kid made me do it and I'm glad I did. More thoughts on that later.
I'm going to break this up at this point. It's getting too long. So we'll call this the end of Part One. Part Two, which will include more meditations on the nature of American life and how our capital city fits into that will follow soon.