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Report from Washington

Posted Wednesday, May 14, 2008, at 1:55 PM

------------Pointy, isn't it?----------
I just got back from a trip to our Nation's Capitol, so I thought I would report on the state of things up there for those of you who haven't been lately. I have a lot of respect for authority (when it comes to writing, anyway), so in the time-honored tradition of travel writers throughout history, I will be making broad sweeping judgments based on brief exposure to a very small corner of the metropolis and a lot of people who, like me, don't even live there. Then you, in the equally proud tradition of readers of travel writing, can say either, "That's spot on!" or "This guy's full of it!" And you needn't have been there yourself to hold either of those opinions.

Having a tradition to fall back on makes everything so warm and comfortable, doesn't it?

The first thing that strikes a visitor (or rather the second, since the first was a faceful of driving rain) is the comical prices the locals charge for their food and beads and trinkets. I seldom uttered the words, "How much?" without their being followed by a hearty laugh at the answer. But of course they weren't kidding. This is just the way things are in a tourist-oriented locale anywhere, so there isn't any point complaining about it. The difference is that in London or Paris they ask for their god-awful price in some unfamiliar currency with a complicated rate of exchange thrown in to fuzz things up further. In Washington it's good old dollars and cents, and there's no doubt at all about how deep the gouge is. It's just basic economics. With fuel prices what they are it costs a lot more to ship the Washington souvenirs from the various countries they're manufactured in.

One other money-related item and then we'll let that rest: Every large city (and many smaller ones) has its "panhandlers" as they used to be called. But this experience, too, has changed over the years. There used to be a sort of deferential attitude on the part of the person asking for money. Something along the lines of, "Say, buddy, could you help me out?" In today's hustle-bustle world even the down-and-out have too much to do to waste time on that sort of thing, and the transaction is boiled down and streamlined considerably. In fact, it's pretty much only the presence or absence of a weapon of some kind that lets one differentiate between a panhandling and a mugging. But the difference is still an important one, so pay attention.

The main impression of Washington, D.C.'s central area is a strange mixture of grandeur and squalor. A monumental marble edifice lined with a blowing drift of McDonald's packaging. Six-hundred-dollar shoes and three-thousand-dollar suit stepping over huddled mass of rags. It's probably similar to what Rome was like when it had fallen but the Romans didn't know it yet. There is a similar jarring dissonance among the visitors. It's like an amusement park on a day when the Tokyo Civic League, Newbern First Baptist Church, the National Gay Alliance and some L.A. street gang all have busses in the parking lot. Oh yes, and the Gates of Hell have also swung open to let several unclean children of the damned out to take a look at John Glenn's capsule in the Air and Space Museum.

I don't mean to seem to put myself above my fellow visitors, though. I was right in there with them doing "the tourist walk" with the best. That's where you stagger with your mouth open first in one direction and then another while looking vaguely this way and that, but never in the direction you're walking. When you finally do firmly decide on a destination and launch off in that direction, it is usually directly into the path of an oncoming city bus. I got one sobering reminder in the "there but for the grace of God" category when I showed up at the Hirschorn Museum of Art only to find that the place, and by extension all the other museums, wasn't open yet. Suddenly I was just some guy standing in a pouring rain with nowhere to go, and I realized once again the fine line between "tourist" and "homeless." On the other hand, I learned that when they're closed is the best time to go to a museum if you want to avoid the crowds. (You're probably saying that this was my own fault, since I should have found out what time the museums opened before I went all the way down there like a dope. And it wasn't like it was a secret that it was raining, so maybe some sort of sensible footwear might have been in order, not to mention at least a long-sleeved shirt since, after all, it was 45 degrees and the wind was blowing thirty miles an hour. Yes, well, that's just the sort of thing you would say, isn't it? Maybe you should consider that smug attitude of yours when next you wonder why I never invite you over anymore.)

So why go through all this stuff? Well, the Lincoln Memorial, for instance, is one of the most impressive things you'll ever see. Stand there in front of that statue and read the Gettysburg Address engraved on the wall. That will take some of the sting out of the six-fifty you paid for that bagel that morning. And yeah, so it's raining. The rain lets you see the reflections of the faces of the people studying the names on the Wall at the Vietnam War Memorial, which is not something you are likely to soon forget. And standing there with only a pane of glass between me and Thomas Jefferson's handwriting in the National Archives, I turned and saw a similar look of awe on the face of somebody with whom I almost certainly have not one single other thing in common except that we were both born in the country Mr. Jefferson helped create. But that one thing is something, isn't it?

So go if you get the chance. It may be a slightly disturbing experience at times, but there are things to be seen that seem so powerful that you can believe that even those people in that big house behind the high fence and the big building over there with the dome on top can't completely screw them up, no matter how hard they try.

And they're trying, believe me. They're trying every day.

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Have you deserted us//////// you haven't enlightened us in over a month............. ?????????????????

-- Posted by Johnny Yuma on Mon, Jun 23, 2008, at 6:21 PM

Ken, I wish I'd known you were going.. could have recommended some good eats while you were there.

Old Town Alexandria is a must see!

-- Posted by CodeyH on Fri, May 16, 2008, at 9:10 AM

It'll take someone a helluva lot smarter than "W" to screw up something that has been 232 years in the making............ and at the risk of sounding corny,,,,, God Bless America, and Rev. Wright can go to Hades............

-- Posted by Johnny Yuma on Wed, May 14, 2008, at 8:21 PM

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