"All you've got to do is keep your cool. There isn't anybody else's cool you've got to keep, and there isn't anybody else who will keep yours." -- Ron Loewinsohn, Magnetic Field(s)
Ever since it first got horrendously hot this year -- something that seems to have occurred about March -- people have been running in the Metro stations. This is especially true in the late afternoon and early evening, a time when the air makes you feel you're doing the breast stroke through a pitcher of slime.
The train comes in and slides to a stop, invariably at the other end of the station from where the majority of the commuters are standing. So they run for it, briefcases slamming into knees, pocketbooks strung around necks, desperate to squeeze in before the chimes sound and the doors attempt to slide shut. You'd think this was the last train out of town.
Perhaps it is. But you have to wonder, in this thirst to get away, where everyone is striving to end up. Musing on the hammock about ways to reduce Gary Hart's campaign debt? On the next flight to the Coast to audition for a part in "Jaws V"? Building in the basement a shorter supply route to the contras? Or just drinking lemonade in the shadow of an air conditioner?
Best wishes to them all. Meanwhile, here are a couple of D.C. places that people are going -- or not going -- during this torrid summer.
Troubled Waters This is the age of diminished expectations, which means you shouldn't go to the National Aquarium's piranha show expecting to see a couple of bloodthirsty fish ripping apart a whole cow, or even a fatted calf. In fact, if you get there late, you won't see anything.
"Late," in this context, means less than 15 minutes before the start of the show, held each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 2 p.m. This is a popular attraction -- at least among people who haven't seen it before -- and on a summer Sunday, you can have 25 patient, curious, sweaty adults and another 30 squirmy, eager, sweaty kids, all crammed into an area not much larger than a bathtub.
Before the show, the piranha keeper makes an appearance. How many think they're gonna see blood and guts and limbs ripped asunder by nine little fish, he asks. The children nod hopefully. Well, forget it, he replies. It ain't gonna happen.
No one seems to get the message, but he's right. A couple of white hunks of ex-fish drift into the tank. Two of them allegedly get eaten, but basically, as one child remarks, "The piranhas just played football with them." Says another: "I'm hungrier than that." Watching your dog gnaw on a bone is more thrilling.
The disappointment is especially palpable among the adults, who were expecting to see shredding techniques that would put Oliver North to shame. "I want my money back," a woman says. "I didn't see anything." It costs the grand sum of $1 to get in to the aquarium; she doesn't get a refund.
The keeper later points out that piranhas have small stomachs, so they don't eat much at one time anyway. As for more interactive food, "We could throw guppies in, and have the U.S. Guppy Association after us," he muses. "Or we could throw goldfish in, and have the U.S. Goldfish Association on our tail."
The most horrifying note in the whole afternoon is the minimum weekend price for the parking lot across the street: $5.50.
The Plane Truth From the Washington Sailing Marina, located between National Airport and Alexandria, there is an estimable view of downtown D.C. On a hazy day, the city seems to float on the humidity, and after a beer or two at the Afterdeck Cafe, you could swear it was sinking, monuments and all.
The marina is right under the incoming flight path for the airport, and on a Sunday afternoon they come in every couple of minutes. In spite of all the frustration and outrage over near-misses, overbookings, pilots mixing up their landing fields, late departures and later arrivals, airplanes are still among the most graceful crafts around.
Spending 20 minutes watching the Beltway at rush-hour will only induce carbon monoxide poisoning. Spending an hour at Union Station will only cause depression. But on cooler days, some parents have actually been known to take their children to the Metro stop at National Airport, from whose platform the landing spectacle is unparalleled and very exciting, at least for the first 10 minutes. (This also qualifies as one of the cheapest things you can do with kids today.)
At the marina, the noise precedes the sighting. There's a whistle, the plane appears directly overhead, and then it lands, leaving a deeper roar in its wake. The takeoffs are almost as elegant.
You could drive to the marina, but this would be cheating. Much more healthy is to walk from Old Town along the bike path. Part of this route goes through a dried-out swamp, which is helpful because the wooden planks allow you to know when there is a bicyclist approaching, which is roughly about as often as the planes sail through.
On the way out, as you head toward the airport and its Metro station, you lose this advantage. The bicyclists sneak up behind the pedestrians and, like rabbits, make them jump out of the way. This is also good exercise, unless of course one hits you.
There is, however, a point to walking this way. If you have ever looked for a cab and not found one, you may have wondered where they all were. They are at National Airport. On Sunday afternoon, you can see perhaps 150 cabs there, stacked into a holding pattern that would rival O'Hare's.
The Dead Zone Reason No. 43 to lose weight: If you want to be buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, there's an interment charge of $425 for a "single depth" adult. But if you need some "extra depth," you'll have to fork over another $150. Saturday, you pay overtime.
If, on the other hand, you just want to look around Rock Creek while still able to appreciate it, there's no charge. This isn't a widely used option -- all across the city, people aren't saying "Want to go walk in the cemetery tonight, dear?" -- but why not? Rock Creek is cool, green and quiet. You walk around the paths, down the hills, by the stagnant lake and under the trees. Mildly exerting and mildly refreshing, it takes the edge off the day.
Across the street, in the U.S. National Cemetery, the white stones are in neat military rows, all identical, all uniform. But here, diversity is all. The most impressive grave site belongs to Thomas Trueman Gaff, which consists of a beckoning statue next to a metal door sunk into the hillside. In the center of this door, which looks like the kind of thing they put in bank vaults, is an enormous iron ring. If you give it two sharp tugs -- oh, nothing happens, but wouldn't it be neat if it opened?
As cemeteries go, Rock Creek is fairly sedate. There seem to be no cats, nearly all the memorials are low key, and it's usually empty of the quick. Even on a Thursday evening that is only semi-hot, there is no one wandering around here looking for unique names -- the Redheads, the Sleeper family -- or the four-sided NO TURNS sign, oddly plunked down in the middle of a bunch of gravestones.
When visitors do come, there's one place that draws nearly all of them. The memorial to Clover Adams, wife of historian Henry, is set in a six-sided grove of holly. You squeeze in through the narrow entrance, sit on the long marble bench, and contemplate the austere cowled statue. It is unnamed, and seems to be gradually succumbing to the elements -- there are spider webs between the cowl and neck, and the bronze itself is wearing smooth and turning blue-green.
This is not a totally idyllic spot -- the snarl of the traffic on North Capitol Street can be clearly heard. Nothing, however, could take away the haunting quality of this work. Clover Adams, a suicide at age 40, has been transformed by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens into a universal symbol of grief.
Later, you can always go back to searching for slightly incongruous memorials, like this one: "Owen Lafayette Dawson, 1892-1983, Foreign Service -- China." And then there's his wife, Velma Spooner, 1892-1986. Says her inscription: "Humor Strength Grace." Joan Collins and Peter Holm, take note.
Pandas Under Glass Spend enough time looking at the National Zoo's leading attraction, and it will finally come to you: These aren't animals. These are men dressed up in panda suits.
Sound delusional? Well, you try spending longer than five minutes in the tunnel adjoining the panda cages. It's full of slick, stale air, and amazed, cooing people.
"Don't be upset," urges a teen-ager to Ling-Ling. "You'll get another baby soon." The female panda is obviously still suffering from the loss of her children. She picks up an apple and cradles it in her paw, sitting down mournfully. She doesn't eat it, just holds it close.
"She's sleeping," says one member of the audience. "No, she's not," says another. "She's just disappointed." The crowd collectively sighs. Hsing-Hsing, meanwhile, is putting away his lunch with gusto. If a panda could be said to smile, he is grinning. "Typical male," mutters a Ling-Ling sympathizer.
Oddest of all is when the pandas are hiding behind their rocks. They are nowhere to be seen, and still the people stand there, waiting. If you've come all the way from Tucson or Tuscaloosa, a bit more time isn't going to make you completely melt. "Five more minutes, okay?" says one hopeful mother. "Then we'll go."
Booking Along On Friday night at the Library of Congress, scholarship slows down to a crawl. There are 225 seats in the main reading room; at 7:30, only 34 of them are occupied. Downstairs, the exhibit halls are empty. In the canteen, a lone scholar recites in a drone from his algebra notes: "This course is equal to the area ABFD ... the sine ... but the cosine ... take the square root ... "
Go up the main staircase and walk into the marvelous marble courtyard. With the sun streaking in through the windows, it's still hot here, but at least it's not humid. The light comes in and hits at odd angles, and there's a pleasantly golden glow. No one's home here, either.
Up one more flight is the tourist's balcony onto the main reading room, which at the moment contains only a guard. Ask her if it's always like this on Friday night and she says "no," but refuses to say anything else. The speaker phones drone on to themselves, talking about 80 million items and the architecture of the dome. The reading room smells of old books, wood, stone and, ever so faintly, of the perspiration of intellectuals -- nearly all of whom, it appears, have taken the night off and are home reading Jackie Collins.
Going for the Holes Donuts aren't a summer food. On sweaty days, they stick in the throat. Neither is hot coffee a drink for hot times, unless you couldn't manage without it even on a trek through the Australian outback.
Nevertheless, Montgomery Donuts is an oasis of sorts. There are nine branches, but the Old Georgetown Road outlet will stand in for the rest. Undistinguished on the outside, it's clean, roomy and undistinguished on the inside.
You can tell by its hours that it's a relic of the old, non-yup Bethesda. "Yeah, we never close" the waitress said proudly late one recent evening. All night long, people can be difficult here.
"There's too much sugar," one man says about his coffee. He's got blue tattoos running up and down his arm, and people take his complaints seriously.
"Knew you'd say that," the waitress says.
"Heh," he snorts. "Enough to kill a mouse in here."
She gives him a new cup. He's right -- there's too much sugar in the coffee. The donuts aren't too swell either. It must be the atmosphere that's appealing -- the cool and slightly smoky air, the video game ("Another quarter?" the waitress says, making change. "You gonna buy that machine?"), the fact that many of the regulars seem to bring their own cup.
And then there's the laconic conversations, like this discussion of "The Untouchables":
"I recommend it highly," says one customer.
"Found something you like?" asks another. "You're right hard to please."
"Awww," he demurs, pleased.
In a half-hour, three more customers -- one wearing a "Happiness is a Yorkshire Terrier" T-shirt stretched tight over his belly -- come in, but none of the original five departs. "No loitering" a sign says. That's the best reason for being here.