The Butterfly Effect

By Dan Southerland
Sunday, August 24, 2008

IN JULY LAST YEAR, a butterfly landed on my shoulder while I was taking a break from my office for a few minutes one afternoon to talk business with a colleague. I was sure the butterfly would soon fly off. We were walking through an L Street canyon near 19th Street NW that was surrounded by granite, concrete and glass. I had never seen a butterfly in this part of the city before. Now I had one clinging to me. It migrated to my shirt collar and stayed there.

After half an hour or so, with my new friend still perched on me, I decided that I should have a picture taken to record the

butterfly's remarkable arrival out of nowhere. So together we ducked into a MotoPhoto shop on 19th Street, just north of L.

The gentleman running the photo shop seemed to find nothing unusual about a man walking around with a butterfly on his collar and began clicking away with his camera. I thought that his flash would scare the butterfly away, but my little pal stayed put.

I decided to get the butterfly something to eat at the Smith & Wollensky steakhouse across the street. My colleague Catherine Antoine and I plunged into the rush-hour traffic on 19th, slipping between cars that were jammed together waiting for the light to change. Neither the noise nor the fumes seemed to bother the butterfly.

I asked the waiter standing outside the door of the steakhouse to find a corner table for "me, my colleague and the butterfly."

"Right away, sir," responded the waiter, acting as if there was nothing extraordinary about a butterfly dropping in at a steakhouse. We ordered calamari and two glasses of pinot noir, and I asked the waiter to get something for the butterfly.

The waiter, Emad Salha, returned with Erika Kowkabi, the restaurant's night manager, who said that they had conducted a Google search that showed butterflies like overripe fruit. They would prepare some chopped strawberries for the little guy, she said. Restaurant manager Phil McMaster also showed up to see whether he could be of assistance. On the wall behind us, portraits of George Washington and Ben Franklin looked down on the scene. The butterfly took no interest in the strawberries, and as I took out my credit card he left my shoulder for the first time, landing on the window blinds next to the table. Catherine managed to use her office identification card to coax the butterfly back to my shoulder.

It was dawning on me that I knew nothing about butterflies. My new friend's upper forewings sported reddish orange bands set against a black-and-brown background. He measured a little more than two inches from wingtip to wingtip.

A couple from Austin, sitting with their son at a neighboring table, enjoyed listening to our conversation about the butterfly, and we exchanged pleasantries. It occurred to me that a butterfly could bring out the best in people, even in this unlikely setting of dark wood, brass trim and rib-eye steaks.

I somehow lost my sense of time. We ended up discussing Middle East politics with Emad, our Palestinian American waiter. Finally I took note of the time again. We had spent nearly two hours with a butterfly in downtown Washington.

I paid the bill at exactly 5:52 p.m. (I've kept the receipt as a souvenir) and decided I might as well call it a day and head home -- with the butterfly. I phoned my wife, Muriel, to ask her to put off the movie she had planned to go to and wait for me, because I'd be bringing a butterfly home.

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