For as long as I can remember--which so far is getting longer every year--the maternity wards of this town have been doing a pretty good business. That would seem to indicate that quite a few babies are born here every day and that they may even go on to spend the best years of their lives in the nation's capital. But once any one of them reaches adulthood and mentions, confesses or lets slip that he or she is a "native Washingtonian," comes next the stock reply: "I didn't know anyone was actually born here."
William Kramer was, and has lived to tell about it, as well as about all the wonders that we natives and even later-comers such as his coauthors, Judy Duffield (to whom he is married) and Cynthia Sheppard, find appealing in this city. They love it here--and in their unabashed ardor, they have succeeded in their announced purpose of producing "the visitor's most useful and usable guidebook" to the people, the life and the elegance of Washington.
Usable is the operative word, applying equally well to the veteran Mall-hoofer and bug-eyed novice, neither of whom is up for a six-credit-hour cram course on forgettable facts. How many precious moments around the world have been spent with head in guidebook, culling and announcing trivia to the deaf ears of the rest of the family? Give us practical, at-a-glance straight poop, please--and never mind that Washington's first clothier lost his shirt after two months in business on the shady side of F Street.
It isn't that the authors have ignored history; they have included quick pops of background on scores of sights, and each short take is tightly written and easily absorbed. The introduction to Capitol Hill, for example, explains how "this bustling community evolved slowly from L'Enfant's idea of locating the 'Congress House' on Jenkins Hill. L'Enfant faced the Capitol east, since he expected the new capital city to grow first in that direction, around the deep, commercially promising Anacostia harbor. While he was wrong in his estimation of where the city would develop, the designer's use of the hill--'a pedestal awaiting a monument'--was exquisite."
While extolling the charms of the Hill, the authors have resisted the urge to gush, pointing out candidly that on Capitol Hill "crime is a problem . . . so restrict your nighttime travels to well-lighted Pennsylvania and Massachusetts avenues . . . ." Other chapters--the book is conveniently organized by sections of town--are frank as well: Union Station is a mess, the FBI building is ugly and parking in Georgetown is "incredibly difficult."
Only now and then does the book go in the provincial tank, semi-glossing over a few lackluster sights and services. To assert that public transportation is "excellent" is to assume that your vacationing Cousin Carl, Aunt Acid and the three preschool hellions here from Oshkosh can just whistle right up to the nearest bus stop, decode the "Georgia and Alaska" or "Ivy City" destination signs, determine the fare, ask for transfers and expect to be told when to get off.
True, survivors of wars with super-choosy foreign cabdrivers know what it's like to be told where to get off--or not to get in. Yet the book pretends that cabs are easy to hail and that cab-sharing is--get this--romantic: "Washingtonians often buzz with tales of jobs or hearts won thanks to the sociability of riding in taxis." Buzz? Fume, maybe--when they are taken on the Great Circle Route to Everywhere in due-but-not-true course.
Still, users of the Big Three F's of guidebooks--Fielding's, Frommer's and Fodor's--should find this guide combining the best features of each, in better packaging. Graphic symbols make all information instantly available, from data on transit, cabs and parking at each spot, to food, interest for children and services for group tours and for those with impaired mobility, vision or hearing.
The "Kids" ratings are most valuable, and here no punches are pulled; to separate the fun from the potential testy time, the listings diplomatically note that many stops are "not recommended for younger children," have "limited interest" or are "recommended if related to schoolwork."
Help is on the way for the foreign visitor, who can be easily defeated by a morning of inaudible grunts from bus drivers or shrugs from store clerks. A special chapter and other references should assist the international arrival in getting around town, changing money or finding the home embassy. Another chapter with suggestions for tours of one, two or three days is thoughtfully assembled, as is a section with advice for all traveling groups that stresses planning ahead because "a group is like a dinosaur: It moves slowly and reacts badly to adverse situations."
Other well-organized and pertinent material includes a list of members of Congress (who dish out passes to the House and Senate and can arrange White House tours); a set of emergency numbers, a calendar of events and various phone numbers for up-to-date taped information. More ambitious and subject to debate are listings of eateries and accommodations--which can change overnight when a cook quits or a motel converts to something less than one-night stands. Nevertheless, those on a tight budget will find good counsel.
One of the great attractions of Washington for families and other not-so-big-time spenders is the abundance of free attractions: government facilities, outdoor activities, picnic areas and museums. As this guide points out, the fun doesn't stop at the District line, either; in addition to reports on the city's outer skirts, there are detailed chapters on suburban Maryland and Virginia, and even a briefing on how to spend a day in Annapolis.
For a town that strives to thrive on tourism, Washington for too long has had so much to brag about and so little clear advice on how to make the most of it. This book has the makings.