There were a lot of cops waiting for Gorbachev to get here, and they all seemed to be leaning against something. It was that kind of afternoon. North wind blowing, sun shining, geraniums looking good down in Lafayette Square, some tourists trying to get a nice picture of an albino squirrel on the White House lawn.
"It's not like it was when he came before -- it's just people saying Gorby's coming, that's about it," said B.D. New, the security guard who functions as the unofficial mayor of 16th and L, just down from the Soviet Embassy. "I'll tell you the ones who are excited, it's the tourists. I had a family this morning from Iowa, they saw all the cops out here and they asked me was there a murder. I said, 'Not quite.' "
"The first time was different," said Dmitri Koulouriotis, who sells hot dogs across from the Madison Hotel, where a lot of Russians are staying. "People sort of like normal now, this time is second time."
The first time was 2 1/2 years ago, when Gorbachev still had the magic, when it looked like he was "the new man," as the leftists used to say, and Washington was going nuts over him before he got here: 200,000 Jewish demonstrators on the Mall, Mr. Rogers singing "won't you be my neighbor" to Soviet Embassy kids, Buddhist drummers in Lafayette Square, the New Hampshire Conservative Union pushing a 10-foot-tall Trojan horse up 16th Street, black balloons, coffins, no-nukers, pro-nukers, an armless Afghan kid, the Ukrainians carrying pictures of the Virgin Mary, the T-shirts, the buttons, people screaming "Gorby we love you," then-Secretary of Education William Bennett grumbling about "gorbasms," a whole day of sirens and the police motorcycles flying around the streets like birds right before a thunderstorm.
There was a crowd down in Lafayette Square, watching Louis Young, a television reporter from ABC in New York, talk into a camera.
"Three, two, one, Gorbachev is expected to arrive tonight," Young said. He kept doing it over. "Three, two, one, Gorbachev ..."
Over at the chess tables, where the police had all their horses last time, an old guy named Phil hammered a guy named Ted three games straight. Ted said, "Bush is propping up somebody who's ready to collapse. He should let him collapse."
"We played from 9 until 3," said Eugene Poplavsky, a spokesman for a Soviet rock band called Gaza. "It was pretty good. We had 200, 250 people here during lunch."
"Three, two, one, Gorbachev ..."
Down the sidewalk, Concepcion Picciotto has been doing her peace vigil since 1981. She sleeps sitting up and she wears a big wig that "protects" her, she says. She remembers the last time Gorbachev came. "I don't know, last time we had the monks out here in the park, we had the people from Singapore, we had the religious people trying to release the Christians from jail. Today, no."
"Three, two, one, Gorbachev ..."
After a while the crowd went away. Young finished the take and said, "This guy is a tour guide, he comes up and asks me what's happening. I told him Gorbachev. He said, 'Gorbachev isn't coming?' I said he was. He said, 'Is that a big thing?' "
Over at Joe and Mo's restaurant, where they were laying in the Stolichnaya vodka in 1987, Mo Sussman said: "We were thinking about doing something but we didn't get up the energy."
At Chapters bookstore, owner Robin Diener checked her computer for Gorbachev's book, "Perestroika." She said: "We sold one copy this year."
At the U.S. Institute of Peace on M Street, a Czechoslovak defector named Mila Svec said: "Now the miracle image is corrected by the harsh reality in the Soviet Union. It is better, it is more balanced. Before, the image was larger than the real thing. Now it is where it belonged."
And finally, as Gorbachev's motorcade headed in from Andrews Air Force Base, a crowd gathered at 16th and L behind the police lines.
"The soon-to-be ex-president of the Soviet Union," said Stephen Von Oehsen, 26, who works at the Society for International Development. "It's going to be a last glimpse. From that standpoint I think there's a lot of interest."
After a while the crowd tried the Miller beer chant: "Tastes great! Less filling!" The wind settled. A lovely evening. A grumble of motorcycles, a squeeze of dozens of limousines through the barricades, 10 or 15 seconds of polite applause mixed with a few boos and a little yelling in Lithuanian, and that was it. There was no clear view of Gorbachev to be had.
"Is it live or is it Memorex?" asked William Burton, 39, a marble tile worker.
Three, two, one ...