I was waiting in line at the U.S. Botanic Garden to see the titan arum, that big stinky plant that blooms but rarely and that drew thousands of visitors earlier this week.
They say it gives off the odor of rotting meat, and I had stuffed my pockets with rotting meat for comparative purposes.
The line was long and it was raining, but we were a happy bunch. After all, we were standing in the rain so we could see a plant. A big plant. A big plant that smells like rotting meat.
That has a tendency to bring out the best in people.
And so we chatted and shared our umbrellas as we shuffled forward in the drizzle, as nervous as brides, none of us quite sure what was in store.
The guy behind me had a London Fog trench coat cinched tightly around his waist and a Barbour waxed cotton hat pulled down low on his head. Though he was bundled up against the elements, there was something familiar about him, something about the eyes. They were dark and dreamy and bespoke a certain ancient longing.
Plus, he was only 31 inches long, weighed about 19.2 pounds and had black fur sticking out of his pant legs.
Yes, it was Tai Shan, the nearly 5-month-old giant panda from the National Zoo.
"Tai Shan," I said. "Is that you?"
He made a sharp, barking sound and then, in an irritated voice, said, "Oh, great, my cover's blown. Who are you all of a sudden, Magnum freakin' P.I.?"
"What are you doing here?" I asked. "Shouldn't you be back at the zoo, where you are currently the hottest ticket in town, hotter even than the big plant that smells like rotting meat?"
"I've got it covered," he said, tapping his nose with a single claw and giving me a wink. "Two words: stuffed animal. I coulda used one of the ones they sell at the gift shop, excuse me, the Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat -- they're that good -- but I went with a custom-made, anatomically correct double that matches me in every detail. I defy you to tell the difference, especially when I'm 'sleeping.' "
"Isn't that kind of dishonest?" I asked.
"Look, Boy Scout, half the time when you're looking at an adult panda at the zoo, it's really a dance student in a panda suit. Be honest: Haven't you always felt they looked a little fake, a little too perfect? Dad always tells them, 'Make the white fur a little yellower and the black fur a little dingier.' But do they listen? No. They've got some hotshot art director from the Rhode Island School of Design over there. He's got a whole Hello Kitty thing going on. Do I look that cute to you?"
He pulled down his collar and whipped off his hat. Frankly, in the fur, he wasn't that cuddly. He looked like a rust-stained poodle.
But he seemed a pleasant enough fellow, and as the line inched forward, we fell into an easy conversation. I asked him what it was like being adored by the multitudes.
"It's all I know," he said with a shrug. "Sometimes I think it'd be nice to be as anonymous as Bob Woodward's Valerie Plame source, but I'm used to it. I'm even getting to know the regulars, the people who obsess over pandas. You know who comes around a lot? That redheaded Maureen Dowd. Dad doesn't like her -- says she's trolling for dates -- but she's kinda hit it off with Mom. 'Are Men Necessary?' Mom snorts. 'I guess we know the answer to that, huh, Tian Tian?' "
You will recall that Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated.
We finally entered the Botanic Garden. Tai Shan had to go through the metal detector twice. ("Stupid cell phone," he muttered.) The line didn't move any faster inside, but at least we were out of the rain. We shuffled past the orchids, the medicinal plants and the room full of flowers that look good in the catalogue but die as soon as you plant them.
Tai Shan kept looking for bamboo; he was getting hungry, and several times I had to stop him from stripping the bark off a monkey puzzle tree.
A "peaceful mountain" he ain't.
Finally, we approached the titan arum, which, true to legend, gave off an unpleasant odor.
"Phew! What's that smell?" Tai Shan said. "Is that the Redskins? It smells like. . . . "
"Shhh. Tai Shan, that's enough. Be polite."
The massive flower was impressive. It resembled a shredded purple shower curtain stitched around the base of a five-foot green candle. It would have made a great Thanksgiving centerpiece, except for the scent of putrefying flesh that it gave off.
The smell ebbed and flowed, and some of the people behind us seemed disappointed. They'd been gleefully expecting something immediately vomit-inducing, a kind of botanical ipecac. The curator standing next to the titan arum would rub the plant's obelisk-like spadix every now and then and let people sniff his fingers. Tai Shan declined, but I took a whiff.
Not good, but then I'm not a carrion beetle.
I asked Tai Shan if the smell bothered him.
"Me? Actually, no. I live in a zoo, remember? When the wind shifts, I catch the Elephant House -- and let me tell you, it's not pleasant. You need more than a few Renuzit air fresheners to take the edge off of that."
It was still raining when we left the Botanic Garden. Tai Shan offered to share a cab, but I felt like walking. I'm sure I'll see him again sometime. I hear I ought to be able to get tickets to the panda exhibit before the titan arum blooms again.
My e-mail: email@example.com. My address: The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.