SO HERE IT IS, the most promising day of the week in the most important city in the universe -- or whatever it is they call Washington in those slick and expensive television commercials.
But here we are, feeling slack and inexpensive.
Yes. There are a million big-deal things to do in the naked capital city. And we don't feel like doing any of them.
I suppose we could go to one of the Smithsonians -- we've lived here for how long now without setting foot inside the Hirshhorn? -- but, well, everybody there surely will be strolling around, acting so sincerely impressed.
The way we feel, we would definitely have to fake it.
We are feeling, in fact, more like maybe having a beer someplace comfortable, preferably familiar. Preferably where we can argue freely about religion, or at least whether pizzas should be ordered plain the way God intended, or with seven million extra toppings.
Or perhaps we would like to cross the Key Bridge on foot. Just to feel how walking through Rosslyn on a Saturday differs from walking through Georgetown on a Saturday. (In Rosslyn, footsteps echo.)
Or "waste" several memorable hours wandering through an overstuffed surplus store downtown, examining nothing in particular but everything in detail.
Or pick a familiar name on the map -- Wheaton, Waldorf, Falls Church, F Street -- and then get familiar with more than the name. Namely by spending an afternoon exploring it.
Or head for that secret sunset-watching perch with a friend, there to playfully construct a hypothetical conversation between Mozart and Madonna. Or hit the local bowling lanes for lunch. Or that barbecue place we've passed a hundred times but never visited (because we were always on the way to dinner).
You know: nothing special. No big deal. BYOA.
Bring your own ambiance, that is.
Because sometimes, you just aren't up for a Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Sometimes, a long walk and a diet soda will do.
Sometimes, you just don't feel like, say, "celebrating the moments of your life," or whatever it is that we do whenever we serve General Foods' International Coffee.
I mean, sometimes you just feel more like a cheese blintz at IHOP and a quick pass through Drug Fair while the contact- lens cleaner is still on sale. And if a "moment" occurs in there somewhere, fine -- celebrate it. If not, at least your eyes won't be so red next time one comes around.
The point here, of course: Special Moments have been known to occur in surroundings that are eminently Nothing Special -- no view of the Capitol, no glossy color catalogue available, no champagne, no plush carpet, no reservations necessary. No need to feel bad about not feeling up to major-outing velocity.
So many of us already haunt a few spots around big-deal Washington that are no big deal -- whether it's the friendly, no-concept bar around the corner, or the quiet stretch of road that consistently inspires ideas the boss likes, or the diner where the waitress likes her job as much as you like the home fries, or the neighborhood shopping center where the 7-Eleven actually makes good coffee and the clerk good gossip. But most of us can always use another place like this.
Hence the following digest of some favorite workaday pleasures around Washington, each of them officially no big deal. And all potentially big deals; it's just that they don't look like it at first, or cost like it, or act like it.
They certainly never would presume to use aerial photography in their TV commercials, in any case. INCIDENTAL MENUS
Styrofoam? The S&W Cafeteria in Falls Church is against it, as far as I can tell. It is in favor of fundamentally good, hot food -- including not-always-overdone vegetables and a lot of stuff that just needs seasoning. Plus real plates, real glasses, cups with saucers, metal flatware, a Lion's Club insignia on the back wall. And too much interior lighting (except during the cheap all-you- can-eat daily breakfast, when light is allowed to drift in from the parking lot outside the front windows).
Also regularly appearing at S&W are the older folks who bring their own books or companions (there are several "aunt colonies" in operation here), or salt substitutes. And the younger ones who coax baleful looks from the ladies with the ladles, most times out of tradition rather than animosity. Plus young couples who just couldn't face cooking for the kids -- or themselves -- again tonight. And veteran couples who seem to communicate only by means of chewing and nodding.
All this in the neighborhood shopping center at 155 Hillwood Avenue -- just a few yards from the site of the original, actual Falls Church itself. Which, like the actual "Silver Spring" of Silver Spring, is something you just don't get to until you've li in this area much longer than you thought you would.
Here are some other standouts in nothing-special food service:
THE DIXIE PIG -- U.S. 1, south of Alexandria. Go for the booths and counter stools (gold vinyl and chrome), the breakfasts, the hairdos (the King lives on) and the minced barbecued pork sandwich, which is what this nearly 40-year-old landmark is named for. If you order just one Dixie Pig ($1.85) and finish it in under five minutes, the waitress will generally ask you if you want another. If you went easy on that spicy stuff in the squeeze bottle, you might say yes.
HOWARD JOHNSON'S -- Virginia Avenue NW, opposite the Watergate. This is where those of us in the know (and notice I didn't say "in the money") invariably go before or after a big date at the Kennedy Center. Especially if what we know about are those huge cold things that cost $2.75 and have four scoops of Swiss Chocolate Almond in them, plus bananas, hot fudge, a cherry, a Volkswagen or two. Last Sunday, the first cup of Hojo coffee was great. The second cup was burnt. In between, every tourist under 13 who walked by was wearing either pastel pink or blue. There are no easy explanations at Howard Johnson's; there is a game room.
PENNY'S BARBECUE -- Route 925, Waldorf. You're just going to have to stop whizzing past this place on the way to your sister's house, or to the weekend flea market in Hughesville. Pull over; this is Historic Southern Maryland you're ignoring -- and Penny's is, in various reincarnations, at least a quarter-century old. A rack of pork ribs is $10.50, including big stacks of both Wonder Bread and napkins (somewhat interchangeable), and is enough to satisfy three people -- unless you're built like the guys who pulled in ahead of you, in which case it'll feed one (and afterwards the pickup will need new shocks). In any case, get extra sauce.
ITALIAN DELIGHT -- Fair Oaks Mall, Fairfax. Okay, so the decor here is Early Shopping-Mall Italian, with its standard portions of blond wood, red-checked cloth and terracotta tile. And the "cheeses" and "meats" hanging over the grill area are ceramic. So what? The important thing here is that this little nook of outer suburbia serves some of the best pizza to be found in the metropolitan area: A thin, crisp crust under a perfect blend of cheese and sauce. How can this be? Turns out to be an easy explanation, this time: The chef is from Seaside Heights, N.J. -- birthplace, as you know, of modern pizza. LIKE, JUST A BAR
Everybody who needs one has a favorite neighborhood bar. Because of this, I mention just three time-tested spots:
Cold Duck Restaurant & Lounge, 1732 Connecticut Ave. NW. A plain-faced and scrawny antidote to this evermore puffed-up neighborhood around Dupont Circle. Here, people who are sad, look sad. Which is not as much of a downer if you consider the alternative.
Whitey's Restaurant, 2761 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington. Because real bars are so hard to find in Virginia, because "I Just Want to Celebrate" by Rare Earth was playing on the jukebox the first time you walked in, because the blackboard says the manager had a boy and veal parmigiana's on special tonight, and because it currently harbors a unique amalgam of rednecks, yuppies, lifers and civilians.
Millie & Al's, 2440 18th Street NW. The usual sensory assault: Darkness. Ball game (or game show) on the TV. Boxing magazine on the bar. Loud Atari-style blurping and schmunching sounds coming from the back somewhere. She calls you Hon, brings you a Bud. He trades cigar-in-hand gestures with guy at the bar who's saying five years ago Julius Erving was a great athlete but now he's a bum. Pizza arrives. Game (or game show) ends. Sunlight seems much too bright on way out. On the way home -- the walk home -- whiffs of dialogue in Spanish, French and Amharic brush past your consciousness and drift into the street, where they are crushed by Metrobuses. BROWSE-ARAMA
Some of us, when we finally do go broke, will no doubt blame it on places like Sunny's Surplus. Sunny's has four locations in the city and all of them are full of so many little widgets and neat olive-drab or denim or leather or aluminum gadgets that I can never leave without spending most of the mortgage payment on stuff most people give away at yard sales.
And now I know what boys really want: stuff.
Neat stuff, if possible.
And you never know when a snap-together knife-fork-spoon set will come in handy, especially for 99 cents. And that 30mm ammo box for $9.99 now holds pens and stuff on the desk, and looks far more appropriate, considering what I do at that desk, than anything made of vinyl and brass-plated metal.
And no one at a surplus store has ever asked if they could help me.
I am also partial to $5 cotton sweaters, $6 pairs of not-so- flawed corduroys, and anything waterproof. All these things help reinforce my persistent good feelings about such ridiculously low-rent shopping trips.
And if any such terminal browsing tendencies afflict you, there are other good places to avoid:
KRAMER EQUIPMENT -- U.S. 1 south of Alexandria. A warehouse-like cross between a surplus store, a commercial tool dealer and hardware store, where the prices are good and the owner is passionately helpful (he will call three or four nearby places to find those special staples). If Kramer isn't open and you've just got to see some Stuff, you'll find the previously owned kind just across the highway at the Amvets Thrift Store, or -- on a more ambitious scale -- just south on U.S. 1 at Thieves Market II.
BRUCE VARIETY STORE -- 6922 Arlington Road, Bethesda. The epitome of your basic floor-to-ceiling variety store: sewing supplies, everything for ironing, model planes, kitchen stuff, a great selection of kid-type party favors -- construction paper and crepe, etc. Right next door to Breads Unlimited and Strosnider's Hardware, two other dangerous places for willpower-less people with wallets.
THE WIZ -- 1201 F Street NW. Head for the bargain-record bins -- said by our resident Bargain Bin Expert to be the best in the city -- and prepare to flip for a long but usually fruitful time.
FISH MARKET -- On the Maine Avenue waterfront (follow your nose). Someone really should shoot a pivotal, emotional scene for a major movie with this place as the backdrop. It's just kind of colorful and alive -- a nice contrast to our good gray-marble capital -- and it reeks as much of diverse, bustling humanity as it does seafood. (The former arrives in cars of all makes, models and license plates; the latter arrives in trucks, despite the channel frontage.)
DATING FOR DONUTS My first real date with the woman of my dreams took place in a Howard Johnson's, for reasons beyond anyone's control. I had a cup of coffee and a danish, possibly; I was too nervous to eat anything much.
Today we are married with 22 children and a reassuringly blemish-free existence.
I mention this to show that sometimes, what seems to be an insignificant cup of coffee and a danish, or possibly a whole- wheat donut, can have all sorts of unforeseen consequences.
Weekend coffee breaks can be special, if the circumstances are right. Let me make just two suggestions:
1. The best cups of coffee -- not always, but most consistently -- are had at the counter of a Dunkin Donuts. There are about a half dozen of these around the area; I'm partial to the one at Wintergreen Plaza in Rockville. It's the only one where the cashier explained how to judge the freshness of the donut batches: It has to do with the color of the paper under them. Next time you're in -- if you don't take 30 minutes to choose 12 donuts -- she might let you in on it, too.
2. And one of the best whole-wheat donuts I've ever had came recently from a tiny bakery on Washington Boulevard in Arlington: the Westover Pastry Shop. The donut was unglazed, although they also make them glazed. And unexpectedly crispy on the outside but soft inside. And unavailable after about 9 a.m. most mornings; obviously I'm not the first to discover this.
Westover, incidentally, is one of those small, self-contained, highly explorable "villages" that dot the suburban landscape. Though recently remodeled, it isn't quite big enough or diverse enough for a day trip. Others are. Which brings us to: PLAYING THE WHEATON GAME
In five years, after Metro opens a subway station here, Wheaton Triangle may well become the northernmost kin of Old Town Alexandria. For the time being, though, the most quirky, cheap and entertaining three-block area north of Adams Morgan remains roughly anchored where Georgia Avenue meets Viers Mill Road and University Boulevard.
Besides Wheaton Plaza, we're talking major no-big-deal diversity: anything Italian, and most of it not on your diet, at Marchone's Deli; everything reggae at Bebo Records; salesmen who are also showmen at Barry's Magic Shop; piranha the kids can feed (25 cents for food; fingers go in for free) at Glenmont Tropicals; huge bags of tiny plastic beer cans (and other cake-decorating supplies you never thought of) at Little Bitts; used, good-quality rock and jazz bargains at Choice Records; championship duckpin bowling at Wheaton Triangle Lanes. There's also a biker-bar-turned-Scottish pub called Royal Mile and a darts-and-oldies-saloon called Dabby's; a baseball card emporium called House of Cards; and yes, a Dunkin Donuts. UP ON HOSPITAL HILL That's what the locals call it. It's a short drive known by only a few as Pepsi Place; it starts at Prince Georges General Hospital and ends at the Pepsi plant in Cheverly. Midway, at the peak of a huge hill, there's a hospital building called Residents Hall, opposite a helicopter d -- with open parking spots adjacent.
On one of these late spring afternoons, some of us will be sitting on that hilly lawn of Residents Hall, talking about nothing special while the sun sets over Washington.
Which is the most important city you can see from there.