John Kelly's Washington

John Kelly
Washington Post Metro Columnist
Friday, June 19, 2009; 12:00 PM

Post Metro columnist John Kelly was online Friday, June 19, at Noon ET to chat with John about Hinckley's driver's license, vanity plates and D.C.'s sports hall of fame.


John Kelly: I spent a lovely morning out at Fort Belvoir. (To see why, you'll have to read Sunday's Answer Man column.) Now I'm ensconced in The Post's Fairfax bureau, or as we journalists like to say, "buro." (Saving two letters while typing allows us to knock off that much earlier.) I'm with my Number One Daughter, who is driving with me down to North Carolina the minute the chat ends.

I wrote this week about vanity plates. I could do one column a week on the subject and not run out of material. We are awash in the things around here. Just driving over here this morning I saw plenty, including an SUV that had something like NTZ4LABZ. She had a "WOOF" bumper sticker which makes me thinks she transports a lot of Labrador retrievers.

A former colleague said he spotted a car with "DIABTS" on it. He wondered: "What could that be other than DIABETES? Why would anyone have that on their plate? What, we're putting our maladies on our license plates? CANCER. TUMORS. IMPOTENT."

I also blogged this week about John Hinckley being allowed to get his driver's license. Several people criticized me for making fun of the mentally ill. Whaddya think? I tend to think if you try to kill the president, you give up any right to be treated sensitively.

That list of local sports stars up at Nationals Park? Looks like it's finally going to be updated. Who would you add and why?

Let's get going....


18th Street: With the economy hurting, is the Fenty administration trying to hurt it more by cracking down on recycling in downtown office buildings?

John Kelly: Explain please: How does cracking down on recycling in downtown office buildings hurt the economy?


The Cute Area Between Logan and Dupont: Hi John -- here's my question: does anyone yield for pedestrians in this city? Every morning I need to cross 16th Street at a crosswalk with a "Yield for Pedestrians" sign, and every morning I fear for my life (plus crossing takes forever). Is there anyone I should contact, or anything I can do other than sport one of those neon vests worn so fetchingly by the safety patrol?

John Kelly: There was a guy who yielded to pedestrians but he was transferred to Poughkeepsie.

I sympathize. Trying to cross somewhere where there isn't a stop light and a crossing signal is a challenge. Different places try different things. There are those crosswalks with flag, like on Connecticut Avenue near Chevy Chase Circle. In Fairfax the other day I saw a light with a sign that said "When flashing a pedestrian is crossing ahead." It wasn't actually a red light--they would never do anything as disruptive as force vehicles to stop--just a warning that you might encounter a person in the middle of the road.

Of course, cars are supposed to stop when there's a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Occasionally they do. I find that if you walk into the crosswalk with a purposeful stride and stare right at the oncoming driver, he's more likely to slow down. In fact, studies have shown that the lack of eye contact -- because of things like heavily tinted windows -- contributes to a lack of connection between motorists and pedestrians.

Some cultures are very good about stopping. In England,"zebra crossings"are sacrosanct. Here, not so much.

But there's a flipside to your observation: Do any pedestrians in this city follow the rules about crossing streets? Plenty cross against the light or jaywalk.


Guess where I am: John, guess where I am. There is a big hole in the ground, the food sucks for the most part, I can only get one radio station on the FM dial, and there are too many people here!

John Kelly: Hmmm. Let's see. Big hole in the ground? Arizona?

The food sucks? England?

Only one radio station on the FM dial? North Korea?

Too many people? New York City?

I give up. Where are you?


Rockville, Md.: More of a gripe than a question...Automated checkouts outnumber the checkers in the Giant in the Montrose Center. Aside from the fact that each automated checkout represents one less job, these checkouts also mean less social interaction in a time when computers and PDAs have already greatly reduced face-to-face social interaction, to the point where some "couples" begin and end relationships without ever seeing each other in person, and kids rarely interact with one another except in cyberspace.

John Kelly: Gripes are welcome.

How important do people think such interactions are? Even before there were automated check-outs we were moving away from interaction. Before there were supermarkets, you went to a butcher AND a baker AND a fishmonger AND a fruiterer AND a cheesemonger. You had a relationship with each of them. Then that was rolled into a supermarket and you knew, or at least recognized, a cashier. Now we don't even have that. But as those relationships fall away, have they been replaced by new ones? Do we know our cable installer or our yoga instructor? Or are we, as you you suggest, living our lives more virtually?

Well, right now we are, obviously. We're not having this conversation in the same room.


Vienna, Va.: I'm sorry, but I had to laugh at the story of the Bethesda family who objects to the renumbering of their house. My family lived in a suburb of Rome in the mid-1960s. When we moved in, the area was sparsely populated; but over time a lot of the vacant lots were given over to housing. Whenever a new house was built, the same man on a bicycle would come by and renumber the houses. We started out as # 17, then went to 21, 23, 27 and so on. By the time we left, I think we were # 39. This also meant that the house numbers did not align as they do in this country. The house across the street was # 24 for a couple years and then jumped up to 34.

What can I say? It was Italy. It somehow seems to have worked.

John Kelly: I saw the movie "Il Divo" at the AFI other night. It's about the Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. If you want to get a feeling for how dysfunctional Italy is, that's a good movie to see. As the movie starts, Andreotti is forming his SEVENTH government. But as you say, somehow the Italians make it work. They seem to focus more on nice wine and tasty pasta then the distractions of infrastructure.

I remember hearing that the Japanese (who do infrastructure pretty well) have some odd house-numbering system. Anyone know anything about that?


John Kelly: Imagine if they had to make the White House 1602 Pennsylvania Ave. Or the British Prime Minister lived at No. 12 Downing St.


Freedomville, USA: Greetings, J. K. Happy Father's Day! Anything special planned for the day?

Perhaps your beautiful daughters will surprise you by doing the "lawn mowing" this weekend. Followed, perhaps, by a day at the Nats Ballpark.

Enjoy your special weekend!

John Kelly: Thank you. No, nothing special planned. I imagine I'll get breakfast in bed then be carried on a litter to a hammock in the back yard to be gently pushed back and forth while cooled by palm fronds and fed Vienna sausages and malted milk balls for lunch. We'll wait till afternoon to open my presents. Then I suppose I'll watch a war movie on TV, maybe jog on the treadmill and work up an appetite for the seven-course dinner.

Which reminds me, I really must call my father on Sunday.


Guess Where I am -- guess: Grand Canyon?

John Kelly: Is the food bad at the Grand Canyon? I'm not a great fan of Navajo fry bread, but it's not that bad.


Springfield, Va.: I'd like to submit this for those people who still cannot get the digital channels 7 and 9 after rescanning. This tip did the trick for me.

For the best reception of channels 2-6, extend the rods all the way. For the best reception of channels 7-13, reduce the length of the rods to 12-18 inches.

John Kelly: Thank you!

Now how do I get rid of the CIA broadcasts in my fillings?


Guess where I am -- guess: Regent's Canal towpath in Islington, North London?

John Kelly: Wow, that is a very obscure reference to my blog today, which features a link to this little bit of sidewalk art.


Reston, Va.: My favorite vanity plate that I've seen is a mite obscure. There's a car in my 'hood with "ZARDOZ" plates. Zardoz is a wretchedly bad movie starring Sean Connery a few years after he ceased to play Bond. He's sporting a We-don't-need-no-stinkin'-badges mustache and spends a good chunk of the movie in an orange speedo with matching bandolero. What's not to love?

John Kelly: Ah, yes, "Zardoz." I've only ever seen snippets of it on late-night TV. It's so bad that you only need about three minutes to tell that it's bad. Post-apocalyptic movies are hit-or-miss affairs.


Automatic checkouts: That's funny -- when I use those automatic checkouts, I'd say about 1 out of 5 times the thing malfunctions, or the receipt printer runs out of paper, or something like that, so I get to have that interpersonal interaction with surly employees that I would otherwise be missing. Make that 1 out of 2 times if it's Home Depot.

(I figure the hole in the ground person is in London -- see your own blog! But I didn't think the food was bad at all when I was there last year.)

John Kelly: So automatic checkouts actually increase interpersonal relations, but forcing us into closer proximity? Interesting theory. And the DMV must be a hotbed of social capital.


Minneapolis, Minn.: John, as you surely know, house numbers in the UK are idiosyncratic. Sometimes they go sequentially down one side of the street, and then circle back, continuing, on the other. Example: 10 Downing Street is next door to 11 Downing Street.

I was confused in London many times before I finally figured this out.

John Kelly: I had a step-aunt who lived in a house not far from Kew Gardens whose address was "The Cottage." That's what you had to write on the envelope. It was an old cottage around which the neighborhood had grown. She always got her mail, so I guess it worked.

The other interesting feature of that house was the bathtub. It was in the kitchen. If you wanted to take a bath you had to tell everyone to stay out of the kitchen for a while.


Re: Where am I?: I dunno, any water main break sinkholes in town today?

John Kelly: I thought the person might be in Petersburg, Va. My daughter and I are going to stop there this weekend and tour some Civil War stuff. Isn't that where they had "the Crater," the Union's ill-fated attempt to burrow under Rebel lines and detonate a huge mine? Man, the Civil War was full of all sorts of ill-advised stuff.


Vanity Plates: I saw a vanity plate last weekend that I'm surprised got approved. It was a Redskins logo plate, and it said FSNIDER.

John Kelly: That's great! You could maybe claim it was your name: Fred Snider. Or, Flora Sue Nider.


These checkouts also mean less social interaction: Call me a grinch, but I do not want social interaction at the supermarket checkout; I want quick, efficient, courteous service with no forced socializing. The Safeway cashiers have been instructed to say, Thank you, Mrs. Last Name after they read your name once you swipe your card, but their managers do not place the same emphasis on the cashiers learning the codes for the produce, or on their not slowing things down by shouting back and forth at each other about their plans for Saturday night (granted, it's the kids who do this, not the older cashiers).

I'm not saying they should be completely silent, but they should be focusing on their job -- that would constitute actual customer service.

John Kelly: Does such behavior bother you so much that you would consider using Peapod or another of those grocery-delivery services? I think that part of being a member of society is accepting your fellow society members. But I understand your annoyance. We see this dynamic most frequently at movie theaters: People decide to just use Netflix because they're sick of the way people act at the movies. I'm getting into this in Monday's column and blog, when I officially launch my Radical Civility movement.


Bathtub: When I lived at Kykotsmovi (that's on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona), the bathtub was in the kitchen because that's where the hot water heater was.

John Kelly: I'm trying to remember if there was a hot water heater in the Cottage or whether we had to fill the tub from the kettle.


Gallery Place, D.C.: I remember when Dr. Gridlock used to have the vanity plate puzzlers.

I had once heard that Virginia had the most vanity plates in the country. Do you know if this is true?

John Kelly: Yes, it's true. Highest per capita, anyway.


Reston, Va.: John, with Fisher now gone from the Thursday at noon spot on the chat lineup, could you or Milbank move over there? I've got nothing to do on my lunch hour on Thursdays now. Thanks for your help!

John Kelly: Would that be better? I always liked having a column on the day I had my chat -- easier to remind people. But there's something kinda Friday-like about this chat, too. It is hard going up against Hax, though.


Automated Checkouts: There are only two problems with automated checkouts:

1) There's never enough of them, and

2) Idiots who don't know how to use them.

I go to the supermarket to buy groceries, not to have "social interaction." For social interaction, I have friends, a fiancée and dogs. There's nothing worse than a chatty cashier. Seriously, I'm sure you're a very interesting person, but please just ring up my groceries and let me on my way.

Social interaction is overrated. Seriously, ordering pizza online is the greatest thing ever because you don't have to talk to anyone on the phone. If only the pizza delivered itself. Ditto for online bill-pay. Let's face it, most people are worth socially interacting with.

That said, there should be a test you have to take before you are allowed to use the automated checkout. There's nothing worse than being behind someone who thinks it's a difficult and complicated piece of machinery.

John Kelly: The thing that always worries me about automated checkout -- that has me sweating as I approach it with my cart or basket -- is the produce. What if I can't remember what it is? It doesn't have a nice, neat bar code.

(Right about now My Lovely Wife is muttering, "When does he ever do the grocery shopping?")


Radical Civility: Can't wait! I am going to implement a chapter out here in the Midwest!

John Kelly: Great! I'll send you a membership kit. You'll have to find your own fezzes.


Annandale, Va.: I do have to share one of my favorite vanity plates, spotted on the Beltway years ago. "28 IF" on a VW bug. Hardcore Beatles fans will recognize that as the plate number on the VW on the cover of "Abbey Road" as well as a clue that Paul was dead.

John Kelly: That's a good one. Now, who knows what a car with the license plate KAR 1200 would refer to?


18th Street: Fenty is fining building owners as much as $1,000 for the slightest infractions by tenants, as if building owners can micro-manage their tenants.

John Kelly: Wow, I'm all for saving the environment, but that sounds harsh. This wouldn't be more about raising money for a cash-strapped District than encouraging recycling, would it?


Re: Sidewalk art: What does the picture look like from the other side?

John Kelly: You mean from under the sidewalk?


Woodbridge, Va.: Hey you -- no dissing cats. Sheesh.

This might be stupid, but is Hinckley ever going to get out of St. E's? I mean, will he ever be a productive member of society, or will everyone be petrified that he will shoot someone else in an effort to impress another female?

John Kelly: The sense I got from the stories was that his doctors think he can be released eventually to live with his mother. They are going to require him to carry a cell phone with a GPS tracker on it. And you know how hard it is to escape from a cell phone.


Automated checkouts: ...are SLOW. And if you bring your own bag, you have to get it to sit in the bag area (where it doesn't fit) so that the machine doesn't yell at you to bag the item. They are loud. The entire store does not need to know that I'm buying "Bananas, two. Dollars. And. Fifty-eight. Cents."

John Kelly: Wow, you buy bananas? I'm impressed. I can only do cans and boxes.


When flashing a pedestrian is crossing ahead: I completely misread this as "When flashing a pedestrian cross ahead." I was wondering what kind of behavior we were supporting with that kind of message...maybe a nicely placed comma would help.

John Kelly: Or I could re-read my comments before posting them! Flashing would certainly get a driver's attention.


Richmond, Va.: Meh, it's not Safeway's responsibility to give me social interaction, so I don't care if they facilitate it or not. Safeway's job is to give me good food for fair price. Do that. I'll go find my own friends on my own time.

John Kelly: On an unrelated note: Is anyone besides me curious about the expression, "Meh"? It's a relatively recent thing. Where did it come from? Who started it? How has it spread so much?


Recycling: Landlords can't micromanage tenants, but they can pass along the fines, as long as it's in the lease. It's about creating a culture of environmental stewardship.

John Kelly: Is it too hard to fine individual tenants? Someone will have to be the detective, whether it's the city finding non-recycling buildings/landlords or the landlord finding non-recyling tenants.


Fisher's gone?: The Post must anti-mustelid.

John Kelly: Ho ho. A carnivorous wildcat joke.


KAR: K-AR is the radioactive potassium -- argon decay reduction and is used as an absolute dating method, particularly in volcanic ash and lava. I don't know what the 1200 might be.

John Kelly: No. Or, rather, maybe yes, but that's not what I was thinking of.


Meh: I believe it's from the Simpsons.

John Kelly: I don't think I've ever heard it. Plus, it's something you see spelled out, as opposed to hear spoken.


Harrisburg, Penn.: Meh: Don't know the lexicology, but it's a big expression used in "The Simpsons." The entire Simpson family (including Grandpa Abe) has said it at one time or another in the show, especially in the last 10 years.

John Kelly: Really? Could I be wrong about this?


Anonymous: I think you can give Gene W. credit for the popularity of 'Meh' on this site, or his readers anyway...

John Kelly: Does he use it a lot? It's the perfect embodiment of bored indifference.


Harrisburg, Penn.: Vanity Plates: 2 best I've seen in the last year 1) Driving in front of the State Capitol in Harrisburg, a recent model Lexus with PA plates that said "GIGGETY" (Glen Quagmire's catchphrase on "Family Guy") 2) Going down I-81 S near Scranton, PA, a tractor trailer with Maine plates that said "DILLIGAF". Consult urban dictionary or a 14-year old kid for an interpretation.

John Kelly: I just consulted the World Wide Web and urge anyone who is easily offended not to follow suit. To which I'm sure Harrisburg would reply, DILLIGAF?

(I will also add that I don't think you can have that many letters on a license plate.)


Washington, D.C.: On the early topic of license plates, I saw a car with the plate MR PDFL. Maybe I have a sick mind, but that should have been caught. I think I still have a picture of the plates on my phone...

John Kelly: Perhaps he was "Mr. Pitiful," not "Mr. Pedophile."


Gaithersburg, Md.: To change the subject, just a bit, I am curious about your thoughts on the Katie Couric and her 35-year-old love interest. My goodness, a 17-year age difference seems a bit much. Agree or disagree?

John Kelly: Who am I to deny Katie Couric her happiness? And I think the difference between 35 and 52 isn't as big as between 17 and 34. By 35 you're a grown-up. I can't understand 23 year old men who date 16 year old girls. Would Couric's relationship strike you as weird if she were a man? And if he were a woman, I mean.


Meh: started either with Hax or de Moraes. It's the perfect onomatopoeia (spelling people!). You can just see the person's shoulders going up in that Seinfeld shrug when you read it. In fact, Seinfeld 'might' be the original source...

John Kelly: Hax, de Moraes, Weingarten AND the Simpsons? Me thinks "meh" has jumped the shark. Time to come up with something else.


Meh etymology: Meh (Urban Dictionary)

John Kelly: Ah-hah. This says it WAS spelled out on "The Simpsons." Literally.


Petworth: Oooh, the Prisoner's car!

John Kelly: Correct! Who is Number One?


Jersey: Re: self-serve checkouts (why call them automated? you still have to do the work?):

I don't know about down there in D.C. My local Try 'n' Save up here has them, and offers a 5 cent refund for using cloth bags. But there is also a very sensitive scale in the bagging area. Thus if you put your cloth bag in the bagging area, the automatic sensor shouts out "unexpected item in bagging area" and the display says, "I'm using paper or cloth." Why they don't ask that first is beyond me. (and I have suggested it.)

John Kelly: A patient goes to the doctor. The doctor says, "The test results are in and I have some good news and some bad news."

"What's the bad news?"

"I'm afraid you have a very sensitive scale in the bagging area."

"And the good news?"



Would Couric's relationship strike you as weird if she were a man? And if he were a woman, I mean.: Yes. It bothers me that otherwise seemingly evolved George Clooney consistently dates uneducated 23-year-olds. Why doesn't he want to be with an emotional and intellectual equal?

John Kelly: I agree about the 23-year-old. But not a 35-year-old. A 35-year-old has laughed, has cried, has lived.


Sterling, Va.: None of the grocery stores out here have automated checkouts, unfortunately. Wegmans does allow you to weigh and print out your own produce bar codes though. Combine that with the automated checkout, and that would take your problem away.

John Kelly: So you're someone who wants them.


Denver, Colo.: I think whether you desire social interaction at the grocery store has a strong regional component to it. I just moved to Colorado from Washington, and everyone behind the counters here is so chatty! Completely different from my D.C. experience.

John Kelly: Do you like it or does it bother you? I guess it depends on your mood. I know I've had my day brightened by random little encounters with service people who reminded me that I'm part of humanity. The fact that these are rare enough to stand out might suggest that they aren't common, but I'd hate to eliminate the chance to ever have them.


17 year difference? Meh: I have been delightfully happily married to my husband for 15 years. He is 22 years older than I. It depends on the people involved. And, uh, what business it is of yours, truly? Why do you have any interest or say in the ages of other people's love interests (assuming everyone is of legal age)? And, FYI, my parents adore my husband and have only ever cared if I were happy and being treated well. THAT is what matters.

John Kelly: I'm happy for you. As long as you didn't start dating when he was 23 and you were 1, that's fine.


Age Difference: So what do these people think an acceptable age difference is? And should there be governmental authorities to enforce it?

John Kelly: I guess there are, up to a certain point.


Petworth: You are Number 6.

John Kelly: I am not a number, I am a person!

And this person is hitting the road. Thanks for stopping by today. Say "hello" to the self-checkout next time you shop. It gets lonely sometimes.

Answer Man will be back in the paper on Sunday and,


willing and the creek don't rise, I'll be chatting here in a week's time. Have a great weekend.


Meh: ...may have only recently been spelled out but as an utterance it has been around along time. I associate it with older Jewish women from the Lower East Side of New York (like my grandma).

Also, on social interaction, someone in my office complained the other day that our new paperless case management system was only going to "isolate us even further" -- I'm sorry, but if handing a file to a co-worker is your idea of high quality social interaction, you have some serious problems.

John Kelly: The last word on "meh." Thanks.


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