To say I was hesitant when my husband first mentioned the possibility of moving to Washington is putting it mildly.
For the past six months, I had been shuttling to Washington to work on one of those government commissions that seems to be as much a mainstay of life here as is media in New York or meditation in San Francisco -- my two former homes. I was still recovering from culture shock.
The language barriers alone were enormous. The people on my commission spoke about children in terms of linkages (and unlinkages), dissonance factors, parameters, modalities, cohorts, institutional loci and baseline trends. All this in an effort "to impact on" that "subset of the population" given to runny noses and wearing diapers. I learned to conjugate nouns: to impact, to interface, to network, to access. Accesso, excessas, accessus sunt.
The nightmare I had read about in Charles Peters' Washington Monthly was coming true. Poverty was described as "less than ideal." I had to pass up a "site visit" to see firsthand a certain subset of our target population and was told that I had missed "some great rural poverty." Papers were generated by the ton, paid by the pound, and read in inverse proportion to their weight. There were many jokes about forests being decimated, but no noticeable slowdown in the rate of cutting down trees.
My husband's new job seemed almost as spooky. He was to work for an organization that spends vast sums of money in an effort to convince the government not to spend vast sums of money. It lobbies for government self-annihilation. In the lobby of this lobby is a huge clock whose second hand sweeps off the tens of thousands of dollars our government wastes with each passing tick (never mind wastes on what). When introduced as a consultant to that government, I was greeted with, "Oh you're one of those!"
I had trouble understanding what almost everybody did. They worked for alphabets, not organizations, and were designated by terms such as "GS-15." They talked of working "on the hill," and the joys of joining the professional "staff." To me, the staff is the housekeeper.
One day, someone canceled an appointment with me because he had to go to this secretary's office. I was embarrased to ask what he meant. Did he have an appointment with THE Secretary? And if so, which one?) Or with the Secretary's secretary? It turned out that he had an appointment with the Secretary's "office," which was a living organism on its own.
Of course, my view in those six months was restricted to glimpses gathered from the windows of taxis and hotels and shuttles. (There are no windows, I learned, in government buildings.) What I saw were great white buildings that reminded me of Moscow -- warehouse for hives of busy workers, built to the scale of bureaucracies, not human beings.
Outside the buildings, the populations, like the streets, seemed remarkably free of litter. No garbage, no graffiti, no streetcorner freaks. The look was "appropriate"; the mood of propriety. There was no Daily News. Even the criminals were lawyers (or was it vice versa?) I was told that it wasn't a status symbol to be seeing a shrink. v
When you come from two cities where the fashion is to stand out, it's a shock to visit a place where the passion is to blend in. No bangles and beads, but conservative haircuts and clear nail polish. No painted ladies in shirts open to the waist and skirts slit to the navel. No chest hair, no chains, no white patent shoes. Anything that didn't have an alligator on it seemed to be considered crude.
My worse suspicions were confirmed the day I ran into a former New York San Francisco friend who had always been on the forefront of feminist politics and fashion. My friend was not only sporting short hair, shaved legs and underwear, but planning a July wedding to a computer programmer in a Catholic church. She explained that people in Washington take their work very seriously.
If New York was a media event, and San Francisco a slow mudslide into semiconsciousness, Washington was a long career ladder that led into the depths of government. Work was to Washington what identity crises were to the citizens of my former homes. Washington was a company town. I was told twice at one dinner that I should be impressed that "a real congressman" was present. How could I explain that where I came from, a "real congressman" was about as impressive as a "real accountant" -- certainly not as interesting as any minor celebrity who makes it to the pages of People magazine.
We moved here a few weeks ago. That's when I learned that the city has a different look altogether when you have a 4-year-old instead of a briefcase in tow. This particular subset of our family has already seen real rocketships and panda bears and more museums than he saw in a lifetime in the Big Apple, more sunshine than ever seeped through the fog on the Golden Gate. We sit on our front porch swing and watch fireflies light up trees like stars at night. The neighbors brought us a plate of cookies. The house next door has a scarecrow. Even our decrepit old boat has found a comfortable home at the foot of a housing project, aptly named Buzzard Point. c
Cities, that is to say, are no easier to stereotype than people. If Washington seemed an awfully stuffy place to visit, it certainly is a very homey place to live.