After Aimee and I were treated to surprise mariachi on the New York subway we boarded the Amtrak in Penn Station and bumbled our way down to Washington D.C. Aimee got our her smartphone, as she does, and navigated us over to Columbia Heights where we stayed with my good friend Callie from back home in Central Florida. Callie works with the government to try and improve standardized testing across the nation, is heavily involved in mentorship programs in Washington, taught English for two years in Japan, and also plays golf.
When we emerged from the subway onto the bright, hot street, life moved at a different pace. The power walking necessary to not get knocked aside in Boston and New York City didn’t jibe here. Rows of pedestrains ambled around us clapping their flipflops and yakking on their phones. We couldn’t pass or weave and had to settle into a languid stroll. We were back in the South.
Not exactly the South, Callie informed me, but Washington D.C. occupies a space at the corner of many regional and cultural identities. The South sends its easy pace upward into the district, and the Mid-Atlantic
lends an air of sophistication. The city possesses some hard edge of the east coast, requires an educated workforce, and sees its share of international infusion.
Columbia Heights used to be numbered among the many ghettoes of the city, but has recently been gentrified. Now many South Americans, young families, yuppies, and hipsters occupy the same area as the long standing African-American population. A ginormous Target overshadows the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. However, back on the side streets we found numerous bars and restaurants, all with strong and varied personalities, and row houses that lend a classical symmetry to the streets.
At midnight Wednesday it turned Aimee’s birthday. We were gathered around three tables pulled together at the Wonderland Ballroom, yelling in conversation over the blasting music. Callie and our other friend Mills, who I’ve known since kindergarten, were there, as well as Callie’s gentleman caller, and Mike and Viriginia, friends from Tallahassee who drove down from their new home in Baltimore. When midnight struck, we yelled happy birthday, and Aimee said the greatest present we could give her was to take her back to Callie’s to sleep.
Let me explain. We had spent the day fulfilling our duty as Americans in the capital to tour the monmorials, museums, and zoo. I’ll say this: unless you get a bus tour, there is no easy way to tour the capital, especially on a blazing July day.
We started out in the morning and Aimee led us with her smart phone onto the correct bus for the National Zoo. If you’re looking to see a city, the bus, rather than the subway, is the way to go. For a few miles I looked out the window at bevy of cool-looking coffee shops and restaurants, and bars with enticing happy hour specials. The city appears to cater to its young professionals whose drive and energy keep the national wheels spinning round.
At the zoo we saw the zebras and the emus, an octopus and an elephant, missed the famous pandas but made sure to see the sloth bear. Sloth bears are handsome and charismatic. Balloo from The Jungle Book is a sloth bear. In some eastern countries people capture sloth bears, train them to perform, and put them up as roadside attractions. Other people cage them and extract their bile for use in medicines. That broke my heart.
As the sun rose higher, the day got hotter, and by noon we headed sweaty and thirsty toward the National Mall. The bus let us out in downtown Washington amid huge office and department buildings, all having the look of marble. They spanned whole blocks, with huge columns in front and mid-relief carvings on top.
If New York City’s largeness comes from its height, vastness, and commercial mass, Washington D.C.’s comes from the sheer number of these impressive buildings. Bright white light glowed off the structures, and we began our walk toward the White House. Just as we started getting close, a cop came from the other direction saying “You have to turn around. This sidewalk is closed.” So we turned around and headed east.
Another came from the west on a bicycle yelling, “You can’t go out this way. You have to turn around.” I turned around but there was the first cop, still yelling and pointing west. So we turned south, walking toward the Washington Monument.
“No!” The first cop yelled. “Go out toward 15th Street.”
Screw this, I said, and kept walking. And then I recalled when I went to D.C. as a kid and my dad told me all the joggers were members of the C.I.A. listening for potential assasins. I believed him then, but these officials didn’t seem so competant
Later, when we took a cab from Capital Hill to the Lincoln Memorial, I asked the cab driver if he knew why they would have closed off the sidewalks to the WHite Hous. He had no idea. I said, “Maybe Obama wanted to sneak in a cigarette.”
“No, no,” the driver said. “He goes to the bathroom to smoke.”
I wish I could say the memorials spoke to me, that they evoked deeply my sense of patriotism. But damn, that mall is miles across, and by the time we made it to the new MLK Jr. memorial, and going on the seventh straight day of hoofing it through a big city, we could hardly walk. The sun brutalized me so that my ankles had developed a heat rash. Getting off our feet and out of the heat was imperative.
I will say, though, in the Smithsonian museum of American History, I became a little verklempt at the “Stars and Stripes” exhibit. Maybe it was the blessed air conditioning pouring over me, but Francis Scott Key’s lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the story of America enduring the War of 1812, made me proud, and grateful.
Back in Manchester, New Hampshire, when my mother and I hugged goodbye, she sniffled a bit and I walked away feeling like I was leaving something behind. Aimee and I dropped our bags off at the bus station then went to get something to eat. We walked in a restaurant on the main drag and there at a table inside was my mother, brother and his girlfriend. We were reunited.
Last Thursday brought another tearful goodbye. However, after I left Aimee at the airport, she did not show back up on the train, or in the coffee shop where I ate outside the Amtrak station. Our parting was conclusive, and projected to last 40 days or more. No navigator, no girlfriend, I was alone in America for the first time on my journey.