Monday, June 13, 2005


Among middle Americans the most despised place in the country. Why? It's really a crude projection: Americans despise their politicians, especially the ones at a distance, and you know where they all hang out; that's Washington for you.

For me it was very different: Washington is the center attracting the brightest people in the world. Of course if I had been raised in Cambridge or Berkeley, I no doubt would have felt differently. In fact a knew a boy educated at Cambridge who felt like he had been exiled to Washington-- to do trivial things like writing speeches for Kissinger.

But as I said, for me it was very different; I was raised in Calhoun, Clay, and Clayton, LA., the deepest depressions of Middle America. Mother and Dad went to college at LA Tech when I was 8 and 10. They came home and talked about their PhD professors: Whiskers, Windbag, and a few other complimentary names. I got a dim view of academicians.

At 40 I had gotten as far as Winston-Salem, NC. A party of Baptists were going up to D.C. to visit the Church of the Saviour. Ellie and I joined them. It was one of the most creative weekends of our lives.

In two years we lived up there -- for the next14 years in fact. We had met a church full of beautiful people, and many of them were Ph.D.'s, although they went by Bill, Harry, Tom, etc.

I had never had the privilege of exposure to those kinds of minds in an intimate relationship. Washington was beautiful.

As the years went by, it wasn't politicians that impressed me. It was the Nat'l Gallery, the Catholic church where they performed the St. Matthew's Passion. And it was Adams Morgan and Columbia Rd, where gather the melting pot: blacks, yellows, Latins, Ethiopeans; but these were the smartest and the brightest of their kind.

I went back to visit at my old job in the courthouse at WS. A former associate said he wouldn't be caught dead in that hell hole; I thought "you poor provincial boob", but I said nothing. Later my former boss there told me to look for a place for him. He was from Indiana and had been around a bit.

What you think of D.C. is a function of your own personal experiences. Have you had any?


Liz Opp said...

My fondest memory of D.C. is one when I was living in Milwaukee some time after college. (Actually, the more I think about this particular memory, the more I realize it is a composite of several visits. Oh well.)

I was making a trip to the D.C. area to be with some professional colleagues at the time for a convention, and I had some extra time to pass before heading back to the midwest.

I think it was my mother who suggested I call Irene and ask her to show me around the city. Irene was a distant relative whose mother was best friends with my grandmother on my father's side.

I'm not sure why I decided to do such a thing, since I don't usually care for much of my extended family. It doesn't matter now. The fact is, I called Irene.

She and I took a driving tour. I remember we paused to watch a game of cricket being played, and I remember we stopped at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials—statues my parents had never taken me to see, even though we lived just 3 hours by train from D.C. I was awed by the size, by the presence, by the power of the words engraved in stone that surrounded each of them.

Irene took me to the Vietnam War Memorial. I was moved. I was speechless. I was sad.

She let me just be with the experience entirely.

After a few minutes, she quietly asked me what I was feeling.

I don't remember my answer. But I remember it was the first time that anyone cared enough to ask me how I was feeling.

The most recent time I saw Irene was about a year ago, at my cousin's memorial in Bethesda, Maryland. Even then, having found each other as both of us had to hurry away at the end of the event, we still postponed our leave-taking.

Irene had asked me how I was.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Mark Walter said...

I just finished up a four month work assignment in DC. I wasn't sure what to expect. Here is what I discovered:

Working as a consultant in the EPA I found very professional, intelligent, and considerate people. I am overwhelmed by how many free museums and cultural activities there are. My two favorite places were the National Gallery of Art and the National Cathedral.

I met a group from a very tiny church. They are positioned at the geographic center of DC. They, along with a surprising number of people, feel the government is really wanting a deeper connection, relationship, move toward God... whatever you want to call it. I had numerous people tell me that they were finding far more receptivity within government than within the local population.

Larry said...

Thank you, Liz and Mark; it's nice to develop commonality with friends this way.

Liz, down here in the South it's pretty standard greeting to ask 'how are you?'; but maybe that's a little different from what you have in mind. I can report, happily that my wife very, very often asks me how I'm feeling, and I'm solicitous to her in a similar way.

Mark, EPA! yes, yes. I worked at headquarters at Riverside Mall 1978-88. I was the docket clerk for the Clean Air Act-- oodles of submissions from all sorts of interest groups over rule making.

Actually they hired me to create that docket after a congressional mandate-- that was a fun job, although after the first couple of years it was pretty much marking time until I made 62.

We had about half of the ground floor as I recall, filmed all the papers and made the clients do all their own copying and pay us 10c apiece--cash.

It was a fun job. My assistant was also chauffeur to the administrator and he used to talk to the people upstairs abour our "little paradise".

Lots of good times. I agree with you about govt employees. They are an entirely different animal from the politicians that the public hates.

They uniformly have more integrity than any local civil service I've seen. It was always cheaper to have govt employees do a job than to contract it, although the politicians would have it otherwise.

Well thanks to both of you for recalling fond memories.

Lorcan said...

I've had a love-less love ( as a Quaker I can't hate :) ) relationship with D.C. I have lobbied and lectured there on the rights of the most marginalized people in the US ( Romany people "Gypsies" and state recognized Indian nations... ) and have come away realizing it is all about power. Government does nothing ( or very little if anything ) for the rightness of doing it. And, that took some of the shine off the place for me.

Here in the US, we are content to have well over a million Romany people neglected by the social contract, profiled aggressively by the police, hatred taught openly about them in mass media, while not recognizing their rights as nomadic nations to the limited self government they practice and have practiced long ( even on these shores ) long before this was the United States... It is one of my heart breaks...


PS a sobering tangent... Quakers rather than D.C. - the AFSC closed it's one person Roma rights office in Hungary, and there are no on going projects Quaker projects for Roma rights in the US. On the other hand, the New Jersey office of the AFSC has helped greatly in several Political Asylum cases involving European Roma - for which I am grateful.

Larry said...

Thank you, Lor. Yep, lots of people go to Washington to get their hearts broken.

Mark Walter said...


EPA HQ moved to the Ronald Reagan Building, Ariel Rios and East/West buildings in the Historic Federal Triangle. I've been up there doing an assessment in HQ on their facility operations and maintenance. They are really cool people. Heading down tomorrow to RTP in Durham, where I am doing more EPA work.

James Chang said...

Ah yes D.C. It's such an eclectic place. To a certain degree it is Southern (geographically and historically) and in another sense it is Yankee. In yet another sense it is international. I've met some of the most colorful characters there.

My defining experience of the city happened last summer, when I was offered an internship at an ultra-libertarian legal think tank. I was offered this fellowship by an institute affiliated to the George Mason University, and I had to live together with a group of young Libertarians in an apartment complex. Some of these guys were strange people. And others insighful and exhilarating characters. On the whole it was a challenging experience as it challenged all the "conventional wisdom" (to quote Kenneth Galbraith) we previously held.

After the fellowship program I lived in an apartment formerly rented by a friend, who works as a charter-school teacher. It was quite a difficult time as I had to practice my LSATs every day, seven days a week. I got to know many people, mostly unusual characters. And I loved it!

Larry said...

Thanks, James. You should consider working there. There are many opportunities for bright young men, and IMO DC. will never slump.