A world awash in nature’s itching powder

John Kelly
Columnist April 17, 2012

It didn’t snow much in Washington last winter, but a blizzard of a different variety is underway right now. Trees — in their annual orgy of procreation — are madly pumping out their seed, unleashing everything from puffs of pollen to those big helicopter pods that flutter down from above.

It’s an assault from the skies.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

When I walked my dog the other evening, strands of oak pollen crunched under foot. The yellowy ribbons floated down in profusion, making the air look like a staticky TV screen or some organic version of the Matrix. The oak strands have accumulated in drifts along curbs and are turning my lawn into a wormy mess.

Also catching a ride on the spring breeze: inchworms. As I unlocked my car the other day two little green caterpillars seemed to be floating right in front of my eyes, magically suspended. The thinnest of silken threads attached them to a tree branch high over my head.

When the sunlight catches all of this drifting material the right way it can be almost pretty. Then I see my dusty, pollen-streaked windshield. Or sneeze. Or screw my fists into my eyes in a futile attempt to stop the itching.


(Tom Toles/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Is there a word for the inside of the eye, that part closest to the nose? When the pollen comes out, mine gets incredibly watery and itchy. I try to resist, then find myself taking off my glasses and desperately rubbing. As long as I’m rubbing, I’m not itching. But every time I blink, it feels as if I’m pulling a bedsheet over a gravel-covered mattress.

Hurry up, winter.

Weather, or not

Remember the old Verizon weather line that seemed destined for the grave? The service moved to a different number — 202-589-1212 — but the same guys are providing the forecasts, now sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and Clean Air Partners. And they’ve just added another feature: a daily air-quality forecast. It measures fine particles and, in summer, ozone.

The play’s the thing

Now wait a minute, several readers said after my Tuesday column, how can Gonzaga’s theater be the oldest in town when we have Ford’s Theatre and the National Theatre?

Well, Gonzaga doesn’t claim to be the oldest theater in Washington, just the oldest continuously operating theater. They haven’t missed a show there since it opened in 1896. Ford’s Theatre opened in 1861, but it was closed for many years after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, finally reopening for performances in 1968.

There has been a National Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue NW since 1835, but the building has been rebuilt several times in the same location. Between 1948 and 1952, it presented only movies. The National Theatre does share a distinction with Gonzaga: It too can use ropes and sandbags to “fly” scenery, making it a “hemp house,” one of only six professional hemp houses in the country, said reader (and professional stagehand) Lynn Kibler.

Kevin Reed says there were girls onstage at Gonzaga before 1967. He played Cyrano de Bergerac when he was a senior in 1966 and his Roxanne was a girl from Maret named Mamie, one of a half-dozen females in the cast.

Kevin suggested that “Doc” Warman, the musical director of Gonzaga’s shows, should be entombed after he dies in the walls of the theater, like some of the popes at St. Peter’s.

Pump it up

A while back, I wrote about the Watergate Exxon and the exorbitant prices it charges for gas. Prices weren’t nearly so high when Arnold Szyfman worked there, reader Yale Richmond says.

Szyfman, Yale explained, was a Polish Jew who found refuge in the United States during World War II. He was a theater specialist, but the only job he could find was at what was then a Gulf station and is now Watergate Exxon.

Yale wrote: “Returning to Poland after the war, Szyfman became editor of the prestigious magazine Teatr and was put in charge of supervising the rebuilding of the Warsaw opera house, which had been completely destroyed by the Germans during the war. Today, called the Teatr Wielki (Grand Opera House), it is the largest opera house in Europe and a monument to Szyfman’s perseverance in overcoming opposition and seeing the rebuilding through to completion.”

Yale was the cultural officer in in the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw from 1958 to 1961 and met Szyfman then. Yale wrote: “Szyfman, who died in 1967, enjoyed telling his American friends, how he pumped gas at Watergate.”

To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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