EMILY YOFFE, a former staff writer for The Magazine, is now a senior editor at Texas Monthly.
SEPTEMBER 1985 -- As I write this I am leaving Washington after living here eight years. I scarcely have time to pack -- let alone capture some still missing elements of The Washington Experience.
For example, the cherry blossoms. They are the one- night stand of Washington sights. Why is it that every year it rains the night before I plan to go see them? It's now too late for me to hear Rostropovich conduct. More philistinism: I've never been to the Folger, I've never had a power lunch and I don't get up early enough to have a power breakfast.
Other experiences that are forever lost to me:
I have never been charged the same fare twice for a ride home from National Airport.
I have never been picked up at the social Safeway in Georgetown.
I have never had bean soup in the Senate dining room. (Does Dominique's version out of a can count?)
I have never eaten anything at Dominique's that's on the endangered species list.
I have never filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
I have never attended a Smithsonian Folk Life Festival.
I have never been to Georgetown on Halloween, after a Redskins superbowl game or a Hoyas victory.
I have never gone to a midnight (or any other) showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show -- or Caligula, for that matter.
I have never gotten a $10,000 water bill.
I have never bought anything with John Riggins' picture on it.
I have never jogged across the Memorial Bridge.
I have never pleaded nolo contendere.
I have never figured out which Advisory Neighborhood Commission I'm in.
I have never found my name struck from a voter registration list.
I have never said, "inside the Beltway."
This is not to say I haven't made any effort to become a Washingtonian, as the following proves:
I have had my car booted (three times), vandalized (three times), towed (twice), flunk inspection (twice), hit by an uninsured motorist (once), and stop dead in rush hour traffic on Massachusetts Avenue (once).
I have dated a congressman (House side).
I have appeared in court over a landlord-tenant dispute.
I have ridden the Eastern shuttle with Christopher Dodd, Stansfield Turner and my dentist. (Three separate trips.)
I have been mugged in Georgetown.
I have seen Nancy Kissinger walk her dog.
I have gotten food poisoning from an 18th Street carryout. I have spent a Sunday afternoon at the George Washington Hospital emergency ward. (I woke up with grotesquely swollen eyelids. After four hours of waiting, the diagnosis: "You have swollen eyelids.")
I have ended up in Baltimore while trying to get to Annapolis.
I have bought a bed at Mattress Discounters.
I have ended up in Baltimore while trying to get to Bethesda.
I have appeared in the Ear column.
I have said, "It's not the heat, it's the humidity."
I have ridden (once) in an air-conditioned cab in August.
I have seen Mark Russell perform at the Shoreham.
I have owed five cents to Addfare and had nothing on me but a $20 bill.
IN THE PAST MONTH I have tried to rectify my complacency by taking a crash course in tourism. Although I've had enough relatives visit over the years that I've been on several forced marches through Washington, I was still left with a substantial but idiosyncratic list of places where I'd never been.
Acting like a tourist reawakened memories of when I had first arrived. When did I stop reading the plaques on the statues, or stop admiring the little gardens in front of the town houses on 19th Street? Why didn't I go to the Lincoln Memorial everyday to look down the reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument? I was once in awe of the bureaucracy and its buildings. How could that many people work at the Federal Trade Commission or the Department of Agriculture? I long ago stopped marveling.
Joining the sightseeing hordes gave me renewed faith in the future of the nuclear family. Despite dripping popsicles, the imminent threat of sunstroke and interminable lines, most families appeared to be in a serene state of harmony. Husbands and wives held hands, siblings frolicked, babies dozed in snugglies. Nothing from the trivial to the awesome passes unremarked upon. "Dad, Dad, you can get a shot glass that says Washington, D.C.!" one boy reported ecstatically to his father after surveying the souvenir table in front of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. "Laura, this is 50,000 names," a father said to his solemn-faced 10-year-old daughter at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The first stop on my catch-up tour was the Florida Avenue Grill. I went by for breakfast at 10:30 a.m., figuring I would be the only person there. I was wrong. Every seat was taken. And by the time I finished an hour later, I had to fight my way out past the lunch crowd.
My next stop is embarrassing: The Jefferson Memorial. In eight years I never went to the Jefferson. The only way I could justify never having gone there was that when I finally did arrive everything was flawless. It was one of those handful of summer days when it's not humid, the sky is blue not yellow, and you feel lucky you've stayed in town while every other Washingtonian is crammed onto some beach.
I decided to walk from the Jefferson to Hains Point. The guard at the Jefferson pointed me toward the Tidal Basin then said to turn right -- I couldn't miss it. Half an hour later I was at the fish
That was all right because I'd
never been to the fish market
either. Amid the rows of shining red snappers on ice, salesmen teased the live crabs,
whose irridescent blue claws
clattered in baskets. There
were also rows of something
called sea claws. I asked how
much one was, and the man
behind the counter handed me
one for free. The sea claw is some sort of flaked, reconstituted fish that tastes like soggy particle board, but it was a nice gesture anyway.
THE NEXT DAY, I continued my tour at the Washington Cathedral. Inside the cool stone building a charming and efficient docent whose lavender outfit was topped with a four-pointed lavender cap was guide to a group of 15 of us. We learned, among other things, that it is the only cathedral in the world with two sets of bells; that there are over 9,000 pieces of glass in the rose window depicting the last judgment; that Woodrow Wilson is buried there; that Elizabeth, the queen mother, made a needlepoint kneeler for the congregation, but it's kept under glass; that the foundation stone was laid in 1907; that the ashes of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, are interred there.
DESPAIRING OF EVER finding my way to Hains Point on foot, I took a cab there from the cathedral. Parts of the man emerging from the ground in "The Awakening" statue have been worn smooth by visitors draping themselves over him in search of photo opportunities. The day I was there a baby in a stroller was parked under his knee while the mother examined the sculpture's teeth. "All 32!" she exclaimed. (She was wrong. I looked myself.)
After you've looked at the statue, watched the planes take off from National and seen the fire rescue boats zoom back and forth, there's not much to do on Hains Point (which is part of it's charm). The problem is that if you've taken a cab to Hains Point there is no immediately obvi- ous way of getting off Hains Point. I walked.
It turned out to be a good thing. Just past the large golf course (who are those people playing in the middle of the weekday?) is something much more my speed: a miniature golf course. I stopped in for 18 holes. I was going along quite well, getting mostly bogies, until the 18th hole, where it took me 10 strokes get the ball up over the bridge, through the tunnel and into the hole (par is four). I blamed it on the heat -- not the humidity.
ONE THING that is worth skipping is the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The wait is about an hour, and one of the first things you are told when you make it to the front of the line is that there are no restrooms at the end of the tour, which I thought set the wrong tone. The tour consists of a short film then a quick trip through a corridor above the printing presses. Signs all along the way order "Do not stop." There isn't that much to see. The presses themselves look sort of puny. The most interesting part was seeing the viscous green ink that ends up on the dollar bills oozing out of the rollers.
I DID HAVE ONE sightseeing failure. I never made it to the top of the Washington Monument. The three times I approached in the stifling heat I thought I saw what was certainly a mirage: scores of people in shorts circling the base of the monument. It was no mirage. The wait to get to the top takes a good part of the afternoon. My sweat glands begged for mercy, and each time I turned back. But I tried.
IN THESE FINAL DAYS, I have felt the tug of last times, big and small. I know soon it will be the last time I walk past the White House at dusk on my way home from work, the last time I ride the 42 bus, the last time I get Sunday breakfast at the local deli. I have said goodbye to some personal landmarks. One is my first residence, the George Washington University dorm where I pretended to be a summer school student and talked myself into a $5-a-week room (why did I ever leave?) while I looked around for an apartment. Another is that first apartment, a mildewy basement in Georgetown with a view of the feet of passersby. I once thought that place was the height of luxury.
I have started to say goodbye to friends and colleagues. We fool ourselves and say we'll call and write, and certainly business will bring us to together now and then.
But I realize that when if I do get back to Washington to visit it will all be different. The next time I'm here, I really will be a tourist.