SEVEN YEARS AGO (this month!) I moved to Washington with every intent of wallowing in the history and culture of Our Nation's Capital. And like others who develop a crush on the city, I somewhat rashly vowed to visit the Smithsonian museums weekly, checked daily on what was going on in Congress, and got a secret thrill each morning when I saw the Capitol dome line up with the Washington Monument.
But -- does this sound familiar? -- I quickly became trapped in a vicious triangle: home, office, gym (or more often, neighorhood bar). And so I all but forgot the green expanses of America's front yard, the columns and colossi of the Federal architecture, and it took my visiting family's insistence to get me to set foot in the Air & Space Museum.
It was too easy to forget that other people actually come here for a vacation. So one day recently I decided to play hooky and be a tourist in my own town.
Did you ever notice how seldom we really notice tourists? Even though more than 18 million tourists arrive every year (only 3.1 million people live in our metropolitan area), they're largely invisible to the natives -- except when they jam up the Metro farecard machine lines ("Now you put your dollar in, Madge . . .") Or when they suddenly, inexplicably descend en masse, like cicadas, upon that favorite (and previously deserted) watering hole.
But when you're playing tourist, you soon find that the sightseers are as much a part of the sights as the statues. While waiting for one of those ubiquitous green-and-orange tour trolleys to pull up at the Capital Hilton (one of 10 scheduled stops), I eavesdropped as a family of four engaged in a highly amusing squabble about what they were going to see on their one-day stopover. Meanwhile, I -- the wise, maybe even smug resident -- waited to be whisked away on a breezy, narrated, no-mess-no-smell tour.
As I boarded the car I was greeted by tourguide Eric Anderson, who turned out to be training instructor for Old Town Trolley Tours. Personable and very quick on his feet (and a good driver, too), Anderson isn't a native -- the Boston-born tourguide learned his D.C. lore from a two-inch thick tour script. But native or no, he sure knows where the bodies are buried (as he proved when we passed the National Cathedral cemetery).
Inside the trolley were handsome and comfortable park-bench style seats, oak with green iron frames. Anderson's semiserious narration came over eight ceiling-mounted speakers, and the large open windows offered vistas you can't get in a taxi or compact car.
The trolley was nearly full, so I settled next to Teresa Bert, a Native American from Oklahoma, who listened (I think) to my own (unofficial) tour sidelights. As the trolley made its wide, two-hour loop around the central city, I found I knew more than I thought I did about Our Town, and enjoyed sharing it. And I couldn't resist pointing out my own apartment. Teresa feigned polite interest.
"Get your cameras ready -- the Russian Embassy is on the right," Anderson said, as a cluster of shutterclickers poised tensely at the windows. "That's a secret service agent. Don't stare at him -- he's supposed to be secret."
It was quite clear that ours is really a city of acronyms and statuary -- as we breezed past the NEA, the NRA, the DEA and the early home of the CIA, Anderson pointed out the bronze generals at all the traffic circles. Like General Scott, "the fattest general we ever had -- 355 pounds, and that was before dinner." Everyone flashed the "V" sign back at Winston Churchill as we passed the British Embassy.
Whenever we stopped at a light or traffic circle, Anderson would pop a TV Trivia question -- the winners won a Ronbo postcard (if no one got the answer, Anderson would announce the prize was a Jaguar or a dining room suite.
I learned a thing or two: where the Embassy to the Vatican is; that the 36 pillars around the Lincoln Memorial represent the number of states in the Union in his day, the 56 steps represent his age; and that the pillars atop the Supreme Court steps stand for the 24 hours of justice.
I also spotted some amusing sights not on the official tour: a noisy altercation betweem a motorist and a cop; a Christian crusade tent meeting in full swing; kids and dogs on ultra-green lawns in neighborhoods I seldom see. The sight of a woman sitting in front of the bright red doors of an old firehouse on New Jersey Avenue made me wish I had a camera.
Anderson would often point out unsuspecting "townies" and work them into his act. And every time we passed by a mural or poster of Marilyn Monroe -- why are there so many? -- Anderson would claim it was Nancy Reagan in her youth. (Have you ever noticed there are more public images of Monroe than of the First Lady? I wonder why . . .)
Of course, the Old Town Trolley Tour isn't the only tour in town -- there's also Discovery, Tourmobile and Spirit of '76 double-decker buses, among others, and someday, I suppose, I'll get around to those. At the very least it'll brush me up on my fun factoids for when the relatives arrive expecting a "personally guided tour."
For one afternoon, I tried to see my adopted home through visitor's eyes, and I loved it. I think I'll stay.