Idled workers find places to pass the time during government shutdown

For the 'nonessential' employees out of work due to the shutdown, one community center in the District is making sure spirits are kept high. The Fold's Henry Kerali visits 'Shutdown Central' cafe where doom and gloom are left at the door. (The Washington Post)
October 6, 2013

The cascading fountains were turned off and the trash cans overflowed. But neither those differences nor the sawhorses placed outside Meridian Hill Park deterred hundreds of people from claiming it Sunday as their personal neighborhood space.

People walked dogs, played stickball, strolled with babies, read novels, laid out picnics and smooched on benches, enjoying the mild weather as if it were any other Sunday and the park in Northwest Washington were not closed, officially speaking, as part of the federal government shutdown.

And just in case those quiet activities were not a sufficient challenge to the powers that be, they drummed.

At midafternoon, an informal circle of drummers that has gathered and played in the park on Sundays for decades began to form, hesitantly at first.

“We’re not sure if they’ll kick us out, but we are awfully hard to silence,” said Babatu Olubayo, 68, who was the first player to arrive with his twin congas in a grocery cart. He has been part of the circle since 1972.


From left to right, Beth Semel, with the Sixth & I Synagogue, and federal workers Nistasha Perez, with the Smithsonian, Paulina Montanez with the Department of Commerce, Rachel Fefer with the FDA, and Tarik Islam with the U.S. Census Bureau, spend downtime during the "Shutdown Central" event at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

“This is not noise. It is an act of spiritual and mental health,” Olubayo said. “It’s a community institution.”

An hour later, there was still no sign of anyone in uniform and a crowd was gathering around a dozen drummers as they warmed to their deafening rhythmic ritual.

Meanwhile, at scattered church services in the Washington region, furloughed federal workers and frustrated tourists tried to assuage their disappointment and count their blessings.

“I’ve been studying my Bible and praying about all of this,” said Glenda Gregg, an employee of the Food and Drug Administration who was worshiping at the University Park Church of Christ. “It just seems like God is trying to get our attention.”

Some of her fellow worshipers were not as philosophical. Ken Wyatt, 46, who works at the Library of Congress, said he felt he was being “used as a bargaining chip by our government leaders, just to get what they want.” Several other federal workers said they were afraid to comment because of their jobs.

But Rebecca Simpson, a visitor from San Antonio, expressed indignation at the petty ways that officials prevented people from enjoying national landmarks. She said her husband and two daughters saw the graves at Arlington National Cemetery but were blocked from peeking into historic buildings there.

At Arlington House, a 200-year-old mansion overlooking the cemetery, she complained, “they even put black plastic in the windows so we couldn’t look in.”

Before the weekend, young furloughed workers were welcomed at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in the District for some morale-boosting fellowship.

Dozens streamed in and out of the building, looking for affirmation and trying to make sense of an uncertain future. Several smirked at a cartoon figure on the entrance sign with a thought bubble that said, “My Mom says I’m essential.”

During the recession, when furloughs seemed like the pitiable plight of the private sector, several young federal workers said they had opted for the most stable employer they could find — the government.

“These were the things I watched my friends go through and thought they couldn’t happen to me,’’ said Sarah Reynolds, 34, who works at the Corporation for National and Community Service. “And now I’m wondering if I even have the skills set to get a job in the private sector.”

But around the region, restaurant owners and other businesses found creative ways to attract federal workers and boost their spirits. Bars extended happy hours; a dance studio offered free pole-dancing classes.

There were free theater tickets, beer discounts and trapeze lessons. In Columbia Heights, Z Burger offered free hamburgers to anyone with a government ID.

Bill Blackburn, owner of Pork Barrel BBQ in Alexandria, said he felt he had to do something to ease the burdens of his regular customers.

“They’ve really supported us, so we wanted to support them,’’ said Blackburn, who gave out free pulled pork sandwiches to 276 people on Tuesday. He said he hoped the shutdown would end soon, however, because he couldn’t afford to give away sandwiches forever.

At the synagogue, spokesman Hannah Orenstein said staff members came up with the idea of becoming a shutdown hot spot last week. They arranged for free yoga classes and sessions on networking techniques. To keep the tone light, they slapped cutouts of House and Senate leaders on table tennis paddles.

Some played table tennis and others watched “The West Wing.” One called his parents to make sure they’d be able to support him if the shutdown is prolonged.

Conversations were laced with sarcasm. One visitor asked another the familiar Washington question: “What do you do?” His new friend, a lawyer, replied. “I’m a pawn for a staggeringly baroque government.”

Several colleagues from the same government agency wondered where might be a good place to hang out.

“The Smithsonian must be filled today,” mused Doug Hale, 29. “All that space, the beautiful atrium, the free WiFi.”

Then someone reminded him that the Smithsonian museums were also shut down, and they all sighed.

Rahkia Nance was also in search of something to do. She is a communications manager for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, which is partly funded by Congress and thus shut down. She said she had already toured the National Geographic Museum, grabbed a discount lunch and taken a free knitting class.

“I had never knitted before, but I thought this was a good time to learn,” she said. “We are all looking for deals. There are a lot of things that I haven’t gotten to do that I have the time to do.”

In Meridian Park on Sunday, the mood was defiantly carefree and therapeutic. Several furloughed workers playing stickball or walking their dogs asked not to be quoted, but they were clearly relishing their semi-
scofflaw status.

One couple said their regular weekend ritual was bringing their dog to run around and watch the ducks.

“For us, this is a safe place near home where we can let her off the leash,” said Melissa Peli, 29, an architect.

When the shutdown began, Peli and other visitors said, they were confused and worried about crossing the park barricades. But by Sunday, with dozens of dogs romping and the drummers pounding away, it felt as if the shutdown had never happened.

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