My first memory of Washington DC is that of passing it by on what I would later learn was the beltway. I must have been 5 or 6 years old and my family was driving down to Florida to visit family see alligators and go on mouse themed rides. This must have been some time around Gerald Ford or perhaps Jimmy Carter since Nixon didn’t do a full term, as I recall. My grandmother and mother were bickering in the front seat and we kids were crashed out in the back. All of us not wearing seat-belts.
I poked up my head from the back of the station wagon and looked in to the distance and there was the lights of various monuments, perhaps I could see the Washington Monument, perhaps I am inventing that memory. It must have been about 1976 since we were traveling about seeing the foundations of This Great Land and I recall visiting Boston and seeing the USS Constitution as well as visiting Philadelphia to see more tall ships and a bell with a crack in it. This was still the age of a Common Culture, and this was my parent’s way of sharing this Common Culture with us and to fill in what School House Rock and a still majority Caucasian Sesame Street didn’t teach us.
I was not to return to Washington D.C. for decades. While I followed the news quite more than any normal child (I tracked the days of detention for the US hostages in Iran on the wall by my bunkbed), I did not have occasion to visit Washington D.C. It cost money to get down there, money I did not have, time I did not have, and some interest in seeing the home of parties I did not like or elected officials I did not vote for. When I finally drove down to D.C. with a friend, and two (former) strippers to join in the war protest (hey Craigslist ride share was the Uber of my age), I had been to Moscow more times in my life than D.C. The protest was a disaster. The drive down took forever. The two women turned out to not know each other and as the hours passed they both started creating their own factions, which considering it was just myself and a friend, was a very interesting dynamic. We got to the protest late, and the entire shit show had been scattered by the police or leftest bad planning. One of the girls started trying to engage people in the park in some form of political discussion which considering they were hobos or tourists from Asia didn’t go to well. I guess it was her way to salvage the day. Far off we saw some protesters but they seemed some splinter group and not worth the cold and now darkening day to chase after. We stared at a few monuments. Then went home. We stopped off at a bar in Baltimore, another city I had yet to travel to. We managed to find a real nice part of that struggling city. It was cute. Very cute and all the guys were cute and as I looked about I saw it was only cute guys and… we were in a gay bar. My friend was in recovery for various substances including alcohol but he was OK being in a bar – one of the few grounded people I know. I, on the other hand, amn’t a hot mess, but certainly I am not a grounded person and at that time I needed a drink. He offered to drive. He had a Coke. I drank until the day made sense. The girls were now no longer talking to each other. I was in a gay bar with a recovering addict and two former strippers, only one of which was actually a stripper. The other one said she was a film maker but in a private conference with my friend in the bathroom, we decided that she was also a stripper. And did nasty things on film too. “We should just leave them here, sneak out the back,” one of us said. However, in further discussion we understood we could not in good conscience just leave these two girls in Baltimore to fend for themselves, not that they were throwing in gas money or toll money or buying us food (I am not sure why this was the arrangement). But it was tempting to just take off and imagine their faces…
The worst part of all this though was that nothing we did that day prevented the war. Or the next one.
It was some time before I would again be in our National Capital. The next visit was years later. I had already been to Moscow three times more in my travels. I was to holiday unexpectedly in D.C. with a then current paramour. This was a strange autumn vacation but I thought going there was no worse than anywhere else. It was her treat, and I liked my paramour just fine, and she wanted to go so “D.C. it is.” We stayed in a very lovely bed and breakfast and toured some of the Great Mall until our feet hurt and then for some reason went to the Holocaust Museum. A great way to knock the fun out of the day. After seeing dead people’s articles and various depressing stories writ large, we retired to the district with the canal and did touristy things to wash the sad from our brains. It was autumn and a crisp day. We did not tour the capital but did stand in front of the White House next to the protesters and tourists and police so we could say, we were there. A lot has changed, I imagine, since I first drove on the Beltway past all this mess. Our relationship, despite this and many other very romantic holidays, did not last. My paramour happened to be someone I met on line and while in recovery, I took a chance since I of all people know, no one is perfect. Unfortunately was not ready for a relationship and it ended in a messy night of crashed cars, detox, and rehab. I still have two year coin that was given to me as a peace offering. It’s certainly not mine, but I keep it anyway. It represents those good moments where we had fun.
I was again in D.C., this time for work. I had no idea why I was selected for the trip but I had to go down there to do a site visit at a [redacted] for [redacted]. We took Amtrak down. As I was leaving the platform I noticed our train had hit a very large goose of some kind. The visit never got better than that. We went to the wrong location, got separated from the rest of the group and managed to have me sent to the other side of the city, the part that exists behind the facade, the shooty and stabby part of town and here I was trying to find a way in to the [redacted] in order to do an observation for unknown reasons. I was told later, we needed to show up in force to prove we had a “deep bench.” My erstwhile bosses (I left the organization having no fewer than four) enjoyed sports and war analogies despite the fact that none of them had played sports and a few of them couldn’t serve openly in the military. When the adults had gone to bed, I sneaked out to the empty and dark city streets like a cat finally finding its freedom from a confining room. I was unattached and ungoverned and set out on foot to see this city, this Moscow of Amerika. What I found surprised me. Not the protests. Nor the Bed and Breakfasts. I did not find the [redacted] I had been sent to witness. In the glimmering lights of the city, large spaces of stone punctuated by homeless and poverty spread in all directions. I became tired with the ground I covered and I dashed into a bar, the Capital Grill or some such fancy chain. It was the right night to do so. There at the bar were several older representatives and some young whelps, a lot of whelps all snapping for attention from the Old Men. The bright-eyed whelps lapped at the feet of the Old Men who were drinking neat that night. I ponied up to the bar and ordered something neat too. I was dressed the part and a person of a certain age like many others in this fine establishment but neither the Old Men nor the Whelps paid any attention to me as my value in this context is somewhere between zero and shit. There was deep political talk, by people making rules, this was like a Monday night in Gothem where the really good bands play. I enjoyed it as a fly on the wall but like most flies, there was nothing more interesting to report than experiencing the moment.
In the past year I have been to DC quite a few times. Sometimes on assignment but primarily in transit on the rail, renting a car, or catching a flight. I have spent a few hours wandering about and visiting various collections, museums, as well as having toured the more spicy parts of town both intentionally and quite by mistake. I am not sure what to make of the city that hasn’t already been said – that it is out-of-touch, that it is a city of facades, that there is little to recommend beyond the monument alley since the city does not extent the wealth for everyone, a microcosmic speck of our greater society and national financial state. I may continue a deeper relationship as the years progress and perhaps my work or life will take me there more frequently. One thing is certain; I have now been to Washington D.C. more often than I have to Moscow.