Below the Beltway

Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2001; 7:35 PM

Today being April Fool's Day, and this being Washington, it seemed appropriate to visit the offices of Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce Flora Pilos, whose responsibilities include policy analysis, consumer affairs and, most to the point, hoax management.

Under federal law, a hoax is a fraud perpetrated without criminal intent or economic consequence, but with the effect of confusing the public. Pilos's job involves identifying such pranks and limiting their spread.

I asked her: Aren't hoaxes, by their nature, harmless? Is this really necessary?

She smiled dryly. "You're asking a bureaucrat if her job is necessary?"

Good point.

Necessary or not, her office was a bee-hive of activity. Pilos and her two deputies -- Sam Mitnik and Alan Smithee -- were gearing up for a particularly difficult month.

"Once every seven years or so," she said with a sigh, "April 1 falls on a Sunday. Every tinhorn newspaper editor in charge of some Sunday-only light features section with a dweeby name like 'Wheee!' or 'Laffs and Leisure' decides it would be clever to pull a harmless trick. Frankly, I think newspapers who do this are squandering a sacred bond of trust with their readers."

Pilos, a former executive with Phlogiston Inc., an alternative energy company, has no patience for practical jokes. "So-called harmless hoaxes," Pilos said, "sometimes have unintended negative impact. Some are stitched into the very fabric of Washington." For example, she said, the embarrassing illiteracy at the heart of the nation's capital -- the absence of a J Street -- was the result of a hoax.

I hadn't known that, I said.

"Few people do." Shortly after the streets were laid out by Pierre L'Enfant in 1792, she explained, a wealthy blacksmith named Ambrose Corcoran hatched a plan. Corcoran, an inveterate prankster and something of a mono-maniac, had purchased property on what was to be Q Street. One moonless night he removed the street signs along the length of his block and replaced them with some of his own making, naming it "Corcoran Street." To disguise his handiwork, he then transferred the Q Street signs to P Street, and P to O, and so on down the line, stealthily heading south in his lorry, for as long as he was protected by the cover of darkness. It is an accident of history that when daylight broke Corcoran happened to be holding the signs for J Street in his hand; these he pitched into the Potomac. Corcoran Street remains to this day and J Street was nevermore.

I was agog. Pilos was matter-of-fact. She had trod this ground before.

"You know about the generals, right?" Pilos asked.

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