Bored by weather, Washington tries to make something out of nothing

October 30, 2012

The blob rested in the shallow burble of water in the nearly empty C&O Canal Tuesday morning. Shaped like a body curled in the fetal position and draped with a dark tarp or jacket or blanket, the blob was conspicuous against the canal’s pebbly tan bed.

First question: What was it? (Or who?)

Second question: Why was the canal not raging with water after the visit of superstorm Sandy, that soused harridan who flounced her way through Washington before kicking in New York and New Jersey’s teeth?

“On the top, it looks like human hair,” noted Lt. John M. Hedgecock of the D.C. police, surrounded by a group of high-school-age British tourists, Georgetowners walking their yip-yip dogs, a curious news crew from New Zealand, and seven emergency vehicles, lights twirling, blocking all traffic on the Wisconsin Avenue bridge.

As first responders prepared prods and ladders, the young Brits excitedly theorized that the blob was a bomb, and some emergency crew members pondered the same possibility. Or was the blob a drowned Georgetowner, washed by Sandy into the great gutter of Northwest D.C.?

Soon a lone firefighter mounted a ladder and began the short descent to the blob. Spectators held their breath.

‘Sandy in Wonderland’

There were other quaint local dramas unfolding during and after Sandy, the perfect storm that hit Washington imperfectly. Yes, she knocked out power in 120,000 area households, but this region has been through major outages in weather both wimpier and fiercer (the June derecho, for example). And yes, Sandy was responsible for four area deaths, but there were few situations of prolonged utter direness — unlike on the tattered Jersey coast and amid the temporary apocalypse of Lower Manhattan, where lives hung in the balance.

So what was Washington to do with a couple days off work, not much danger to avert or damage to crawl out of, and gloomy weather that authorized sheltered stasis?

Go stir-crazy, apparently, and scrounge for amusement. And make a little something out of mostly nothing.

“I spent years indoors during the Serbian war,” said Jelena Srebric, 42, an engineering professor at Penn State University who was staying at the Hotel Helix. “Staying inside for 12 hours is really nothing. But everyone here is dying to get out.”

Since the weather discouraged venturing, the Helix staff turned a conference room into a “Frankenstorm Hospitality Suite,” where guests emptied bottles of wine and scarfed salty snacks during a screening of “Alice in Wonderland.” Ritz-Carlton hotels throughout Washington had a special turndown service with glow sticks, in case there was a power outage (or if people got bored and wanted to rave in their hotel rooms).

Hotel lobbies became purgatories. Tuesday morning at the Renaissance Marriott on Ninth Street NW, two Italian tourists were disappointed about the closure of Smithsonian museums, which should’ve been the perfect rainy-day escape. A gaggle of Russian tourists tried to figure out how to get to Orlando despite hampered travel routes.

“My advice is to hire a private bus or driver, but that will be expensive,” the concierge told them. “It’s a long walk to Orlando.”

“I know, it’s like 1,220 minutes,” said one of the Russians.

Several blocks south, a family of four American tourists in slickers paused at Seventh and F streets NW.

“McDonald’s?” said the mother, looking left, then right: “Or Starbucks?”

Both were closed.

Non-tourist Washington busied itself. Washington cleaned. Washington gorged. Washington had (cliche alert!) “West Wing” and “Homeland” marathons to approximate the feeling of work (as if). Private-sector Washingtonians still clocked an eight-hour day; they just did it in their jammies. Washington went jogging in the chilly drizzle Tuesday and Stairmastered away any antsiness at the gyms (or in the nine-flight emergency stairwell of their apartment buildings).

Washington scorned shuttered chain eateries in favor of homegrown establishments.

Washington realized that everything was just fine.

“It’s a nice day!” said Silver Spring resident Wes Kirk, who was tossing a football with Cleveland Park resident Beth Bu on the National Mall around noon Tuesday. The sky was grave-gray and spitting cold rain — a dreary environment now preferable to the indoors.

“Yesterday was fine but today we had a little bit of cabin fever,” said Bu, who is expected to report back to work at American University on Wednesday. “It’s nice to get out and see the fallen trees.”

“I had a beer before we came out,” Kirk noted.

A beer on a Tuesday morning! This is what Sandy meant to many of us lucky folk: The ability to have three Sundays in a row. Seventy-two hours within the brunch zone.

Another bloody mary?

Oh, if you insist. Cheers to our more embattled brethren up I-95.

The blob, exposed

But what about blob?

Back to that small piece of D.C. theater — the case of the possible dead body discovered on Halloween eve — at the C&O Canal, which was not raging with water because Washington didn’t get that much rainfall or storm surge, compared with parts northward.

When the descending firefighter reached the canal bed, he walked to the blob and lifted the wet tarp.

Underneath was a large orange traffic cone.

The spectators, deflated, dispersed in the general direction of coffee. Ranit Mishori, a doctor and professor at Georgetown University, tugged on the leash of her shaggy dog, Pyke.

“All that ruckus for nothing,” said Mishori, who had initially called the police, thinking the blob was something rather than nothing.

Ned Martel contributed to this report.

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