THE OTHER DAY, a day not too long ago, there was news in the paper that the Kennedy Center was leaking again or still leaking or leaking some more, and at the same time some of Metro's brand new subway stations had sprung leaks of their own. Someone suggested a column about how they don't build things like they used to - which, of course, they don't, and it was on my way to that breath-taking conclusion that I thought of something that happened in a restaurant and I knew right off what was wrong with the Kennedy Center. It should change its menu.
Bear with me. Bear with me because not too long ago we were in a restaurant and my guest and I decided to split a salad. (This, I should point out, was even before Newsweek's cover story on weight control.) The waitress took the order and then said it would cost us a dollar extra for the additional plate, explaining, I think, that this was "policy." She could have cited "the management" and I'm really not sure she didn't, but the person with me did ask to see the "management," which is something that can never be done.
I know. I am a long-time battler against "policy" and a long-time seeker of "the management" and I have learned the hard way that you cannot find a secular religion, a deep-seated American belief, and if you put something on a menu and sign it "the management" it will be believed by most patrons and enforced by the help.
I can only cite the time I drove out of a parking garage, discovered my portable radio was missing, pulled back in and was told that since I had already left the garage I could not file a claim. The man pointed to a sign and the sign was signed by "the management" and the attendant kept invoking that as if it had religious significance.
Anyway, the woman at lunch insisted on seeing "the management" and so she summoned the waitress, who nearly blanched. She said that she was not "the management" so she summoned the hostess, who said she was not "the management," and she in turn called for the manager of the restaurant. He was not "the management," either, although he was well-dressed. He then summoned the manager of the hotel who, need it be said knew from nothing about "the management," but he did get the owner of the hotel, who regally waived the dollar rule right on the spot, explaining he was doing this for us only, not as a matter of "policy." "Policy" was set by a restaurant committee and that was "the management" and it was not meeting at the time.
So now we come to the Kennedy Center. The Kennedy Center is a lot of things to a lot of people. To some it is simply a cultural institution - home for the symphony, the ballet, the theater and those horrible noon-time programs on the so-called serious musical stations in which the announcer refers to himself as "we." To others, mention the name Kennedy Center and You're likely to get an earful about the state of American know-how, craftsmanship or plain honesty. These people, you have to admit, have a point, the center being either an abomination or the most cleverly designed example of planned obsolescence you're likely to find anywhere.
The problem, to put it bluntly, is that the place either used to leak like a sieve or still leaks like a sieve, depending on whether you are talking about the roof or the terraces. Suffice it to say that the roof used to leak until it was temporarily sealed, and the terrace leaks and the plaster is falling down in places and water is getting into the lighting and the kitchen floor leaks. At one time, there were these cute little pots and pans around the place to catch the drops, proving not only that money can't buy happiness but that $74 million wasn't even enough to get you a good roof.
Anyway, I was going to write this indignant column about this situation because it seemed clear to me that someone had to be at fault. But it turned out that the Kennedy Center was brought to you by the same people who bring you restaurant menus. No one is at fault. No one is guilty and the buck just keeps going, never stopping. Everyone is suing everyone and it goes without saying that the architect is not at fault, nor the builder nor the General Services Administration nor, for that matter, the National Park Service, which maintains the place. So many people were not at fault for so long that the leaks got worse and finally the center itself, which is also not at fault, had to use its own money to repair the roof because none of the usual government agencies could detime. Congress had to appropriate $4.5 million to repair the place, proving that the buck, in fact, does stop somewhere - with the taxpayer.
Anyway, you read these stories and you go down to see the place and everytime I do that I think of how it was that day in the restaurant. So the only thing to do is to write somewhere that the Kennedy Center will leak and sign it "the management" and everyone will accept it.
They'll have to. It's policy.