“So I came to Washington, where I knew I would be farther away from America than I could be on some foreign shore…”
There is something intriguingly quiet about Constitution Avenue at night. This famous road, which bears some of the nation’s most famous landmarks the Vietnam Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Smithsonian is a buzzing hub of daytime activity as throngs of dazed and bewildered tourists with cameras and guidebooks in tow, descend en masse to gape and “Ooh” and “Aah” at the imposing structures. But at night, this street becomes a different creature. Dark, hushed and mysterious, it shows off its beautiful historical buildings, their treasures safely secure behind their firmly shut doors, with the help of flickering lamplight. Late at night, the unusual silence is intimidating. The Capitol building looms large in the distance; the stunning Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial are only a stone’s throw away; and standing here on one of Washington’s most illustrious avenues, however you want to mark the spot, one can capture the true essence of this often-maddening, contradictory, powerful, and eccentric town by simply looking around.
Washington, DC ain’t for the faint-hearted. This is the school of hard knocks, baby. The place where they eat politicians, lawyers, and other movers-and-shakers for breakfast. This is the home of the Watergate scandal, which sent President Nixon off into the disgraced dustbin of history. This is where they crucified Judge Clarence Thomas over the Anita Hill fiasco. This is where President Clinton was lambasted for his involvement with the young Monica Lewinsky. Those who escape run away screaming, vowing never to return. New Yorkers may be the tough-talking braggadocios of the nation, but New York has heart and soul. Washington doesn’t. New Yorkers may talk about despising California but Washingtonians actually mean it. This is a ruthless, critical place where its powerful residents are forever placed under a microscope, scrutinized for every wrong move. Washington is an unforgiving town, steadfast in its righteousness, frowning upon those who don’t play by its rules. New York welcomes those from all walks of life; Washington is more particular. But what Washington offers instead is potent bait: intrigue and power in a place where one’s every move is watched closely by the entire world.
Forgive our snootiness and cynicism, but long-time residents love this controversial town, despite all its political shenanigans, crime, and dichotomous aspects. Frankly, we don’t give a damn. Sticks and stones have never broken our bones, and so many have been thrown our way. The world’s eyes are always upon us, and we are both horrified and amused at every lie and misconception. Washingtonians remain as confident as ever in the background, quietly laughing as the world watches.
I was once asked if I could take a single photograph of Washington, a picture that would best convey the real spirit of the city, what would it be? Forget the postcard-perfect images of the White House or every other stately structure gracing the city. This place has multitudes of facets, of which so many people never see. Just as London can’t be summed up with only a photo of Big Ben, and New York can’t be fully depicted by only the image of the Statue of Liberty, so too, Washington can’t be expressed solely with a picture of its White House, from which presidents just come and go.
Granted, this is a government town, swarming with lobbyists, policy wonks, and the journalists who report their every move, but it’s also throbbing with a surprising rhythm felt only by those who live here. If Washington could be depicted in a solitary photograph, it would have to be a group shot of the many faces depicting its diverse array of residents:
The stripe-tied handsome lawyers who crowd K Street; the tired, weary-looking government employees who swarm the Washington metro, each holding a fresh copy of the Washington Post; the fresh, young, ambitious African American student who cycles to classes at Howard University; the non-English-speaking Colombian immigrant who shares a tiny place with six other people as he looks for a job; the old, wrinkled grand dames of society who gather for tea and gossip at the Mayflower Hotel; the Ethiopian cab-driver who speaks impeccable English and mourns for his country’s better days; the saxophone player who plays in the city’s U-Street jazz corridor, harking back to the days of Washington’s former jazz legends; the young political interns who frequent the North Capitol Street bars after hours; and the long-lost souls who are forever trapped in the rundown, wrong-side-of-the-tracks world of murder and drugs of the Southeast section of town.
But despite their own rhythm, no average Washingtonian can escape the looming shadow of the political powers-that-be whose presence overshadows everything. After 9/11, when a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, somber Washingtonians came to accept full well their role as a serious target of attack. We always knew we were living in a city that is despised by many, but the devastation overwhelmed us to the level that we came to further realize the importance of our hometown. Presidents and their administrations may come and go, but Washington always remains, and so do we.
Not surprisingly, it’s this specific governmental power that draws so many to Washington, not only from other sections of the country, but also a vast majority of immigrants notably Iranians and Ethiopians whose families were once connected with former toppled governments in their own countries. These long-lost souls sought refuge in the great “melting pot”, and opted for Washington DC the nation’s capitol, and the seat of power of the Free World which in so many ways serves as a reminder of their former places of residence: capitols and government towns where wielding power and influence was the main aspect of the city’s routine. Washington’s imposing monuments, government buildings, and the day-to-day political grind remind them of their former homes, where so many of them also played important roles in their country’s political/governmental foundations. This city’s peculiar otherworldliness also distinguishes it from other US cities, and it’s this sense of remoteness and internationalism that makes Washington such an ideal place for immigrants whom, though cut off from their homelands, can still immerse themselves in a worldly community.
Washington’s “Democrat vs. Republican” role also allows it to act like a chameleon, and it’s this consistent power play that makes this city as significant, interesting, and surprising as it is. Every four or eight years, there is a buzz that electrifies the city, as a new president and administration sweep into town, hoping to make changes and implement the new administration’s vision for the nation and the world. They come from all around the nation, with their briefcases, cell phones, suits, and egos, and for a few years, hope to make a difference in a tough town which sees the likes of policymakers and politicos come and go at a drop of a hat.
It’s this very transient nature that has made Washington a world unto itself; a remote island in a sense, cut off from other parts of the US where, aside from us few long-standing residents who watch quietly as so many come and go, the city serves as only a temporary home to thousands who flock here with ambition and dreams, and depart when a new power-that-be holds the reins. The city is largely comprised of transitory wanderers who hail from elsewhere, establishing it as an important pit stop along the road to some other place. Those of us who call Washington home, though, merely laugh and shrug off the new crop of transients who wander through the city, most of them eager to leave when their stint is over.
Outsiders (tourists, temporary visitors, or those who have never been here but think they know this place) rarely see beyond the media images of a routine, busy, albeit fascinating, Capitol: home to the White House, CIA, and FBI, entities designed to cater to the president-in-question’s whims, whether that may be to pass a bill in Congress or wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq. (When foreigners usually speak of “hating Americans”, they are largely referring to the government, hence Washington.) Such outsiders have described this city as boring and staid, populated by poorly dressed, no-nonsense paper-pushers who are about as interesting as their cold and dull city. (President Eisenhower once famously quipped: “There are a number of things wrong with Washington. One of them is that everyone has been too long away from home.” And Alistair Cooke pithily stated that “Washington lies securely in what the guidebooks call an amphitheater and what you and I call a swamp.”) Touché. All right, we have heard all the quips and cracks about our town and its horde of blandly garbed residents, going about their daily routine in a grave manner. Forgive our lack of lightheartedness, but this is a serious town with a serious mission to accomplish. Let them say what they want, but their eyes and ears are still pointed in our direction.
Yet if, as they say, power is the greatest aphrodisiac, then Washington is the sexiest city of them all, where political matches and liaisons are part and parcel of the city’s diverse aspects. Washington draws the very powerful, and the very strong, and the very influential, and it’s this gathering of forces that make it one of the most intriguing and important cities in the world.
Yes, we may be cold and aloof weary of the constant slew of tourists and transients who treat our town as a temporary hotel, and write us off as a mere playground for presidents but this beguiling town is kind to us insiders who wouldn’t trade this place for anywhere. Those of us who have chosen to stay know this city’s real charms. We know all of its nooks and crannies; its tucked-away art galleries that boast some of today’s best talents; its delightful churches in the Southwest neighborhood that showcase incomparable free jazz on Friday nights. We know its cheapest dives, where for a few dollars you can get the greasiest burgers in town; the spectacular spot that offers a stunning view of the Potomac River; and the easiest way to beat rush-hour traffic. Having declared this city as home has granted us permission to scratch the surface of this intimidating and deceptively aloof town, to find a vast array of charms which Washington only allows those who truly belong here to see.
As I often wander around this breathtaking town with its spectacular scenery and impressive history, I am frequently reminded of a particular quote in Shakespeare’s Richard II which, had it been written to express his admiration for Washington (instead of England), would read as such: “this little world . . . this earth, this realm, this Washington.” Amen.