Zoos at 6

A few hardy, curmudgeonly insiders know something about enjoying the beautiful, and beautifully free, National Zoo that most don't -- or don't care to -- know. Which is: It opens at 6 a.m.

For a precious few hours (until about 8:30, when the day shift shows up), the only visitors are the occasional jogger, camera folk with professional-looking rigs, and the aforementioned curmudgeons. People who arrive later will never hear the wolves howl, see the cheetahs prowl, or smell the morning mist.

The animals are generally on their feet (or whatever) at this hour because it's feeding time. Ever see camels prance in anticipation of a meal? You won't when they mellow out later in the day.

The downside of visiting the zoo far from the madding crowd is that not every animal is accessible. The indoor exhibits don't open until 10 a.m., and even some of the

mammals with outdoor access are doing what most Homo sapiens prefer to do -- sleeping in. So maybe you get to see the rhinos, giraffes and gibbons, or maybe not.

More certain are the camels, elephants, tapirs, bongos, kangaroos and New Guinea singing dogs, all enjoying a few minutes of near-solitude before the tranquillity is shattered by the howling, mewling and cage rattling of the visiting herds.

Kevin Patterson, Washington

Joltin' Painting

We have America's first modern-art museum in Washington, and tourists come here from afar to view . . . a famous French masterpiece? Yes, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" is the glamour shot at the Phillips Collection, renowned for its European impressionists.

But those who go there are, after all, at 21st & Q streets in the heart of America's capital. And though some great American artists, such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove and Richard Diebenkorn, are represented in the collection, they seem an afterthought among the more celebrated Old Worlders.

In the midst of this Eurocentrism, there is one classic bit of pure Americanism I always find refreshing. It never moves from its location in a stairwell just off the museum's majestic Music Room. It's called "Night Baseball," and it was painted by Marjorie Phillips, wife of the museum's founder. She died in 1985 at the age of 91.

The painting is Americana and Washington history. Not only does it portray the national pastime, but it shows it at the former Griffith Stadium, where every president of the United States, from William Howard Taft to John F. Kennedy, could be found throwing the season's ceremonial first pitch.

And it shows the arena filled with fans of the hometown Senators, displaying the loyalty needed to follow a team whose famous informal slogan was "Washington: First in War, First in Peace, Last in the American League."

Marjorie Phillips was not a great painter, but a charming one. "Night Baseball" exalts no kings or religious figures and shows nothing extraordinary except the drama and poetry inherent in the game.

But if you slink off from the Thursday "Artful Evening" happy hour in the wood-paneled Music Room to look at "Night Baseball," you'll realize -- if you recognize his stance -- that the batter on that captured night, now displayed without fanfare in the unadorned stairwell, is none other than that greatest of American artists, the recently departed Joe DiMaggio.

Michael J. Raphael, Washington

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CAPTION: The slugger in Marjorie Phillips's "Night Baseball" is graceful Joe DiMaggio.