Washington is a sad city. It is depressed. It is in mourning. It is stunned and it is cold and its faith in the future is shaken. The economy is rotten and the federal government is cutting back and unemployment has spread to white-collar jobs and the Potomac River is a morgue for people who were heading for the sun.
The plane crash took 78 lives; the subway three more. The streets are covered with snow. The weather has been miserable and pipes burst and cars would not start. It has been hard to walk. It has been hard to be cheerful.
The town is gripped by sadness. There is no bounce to the people on the streets. There are few smiles on the faces. People talk openly about the depression. Some call it an oppression. There is a sense that things will get worse.
It is understandable. There's been a plane crash, a train crash. A town that works for the federal government has been told over and over again by its boss, the president of the United States, that it's the enemy. The belief that government can do good is out of style. The belief that government ought to at least try to do good is also out of style. This administration does not want to even try.
The real estate industry is dead. Retail business is no good. The growth that Washington always took for granted now seems a thing of the past. The heady optimism has turned to pessimism. New homes sit empty. Houses built to be sold have been put on the rental market and still they sit empty.
In Washington, poor women walk miles for some free American cheese. They stand for hours in numbing temperatures and then, after having done that, they have to produce documents to certify their poverty. A day later, the administration parties in honor of Lynn Nofziger. The party cost something like $30,000. A city can not see this sort of obscenity time and time again and not get depressed.
The paper brings a daily outrage, another dollop of insensitivity from the White House. The ears of Mrs. William French Smith dangle earrings that cost more than a house. Her husband parties almost every night. My God, doesn't he ever stay home to read a book or, God forbid, the Constitution? Where are their values? What are their values?
In an office, a secretary looks up from a newspaper and says she's depressed. Someone in my office stayed home the other day, because they, too, felt depressed. The nights of the snow, the town was empty and very quiet. It was not like the fun snow of years ago. There was no joy in snowball fights. This year the snow is just tough to walk on.
But we are learning about each other, aren't we? Shortly after the plane crashed into the river, Washingtonians seemed to materialize out of nowhere to donate blood at the Red Cross. When the plane went into the river, federal workers who are employed at places like the National Park Service risked their lives to save people. Firemen scrambled and the cops did their best and strangers dove into the nearly lethal water to save people they had never met.
Some people got out of cars stuck in traffic and tried to clear paths for emergency vehicles. On the bridge itself, people did not joke, as people sometimes do at tragedies. They did not give the cops a hard time and they did not complain about how they were going to be late for dinner. I have been to a lot of tragedies and seen some awful behavior. I saw none of that this week.
In the snow that day, a Metro bus could not make it up a hill. The driver told all the passengers to get off and get another bus. One of them was a kid, nine years old and returning from school. He went to the next bus stop and he waited. No bus. He started to walk home. It was a long way, several miles, but he thought he could make it. He walked and he walked and after a while he got very cold and very scared -- maybe more scared then he's ever been. He flagged a police car and on a day of awful chaos, the policemen found the time to take the boy home.
Later that night, after a day of Metro crashes and a plane in the river, of awful snow and terrible cold, the boy told me that story as I tucked him into bed. He thought the policemen deserved something -- a commendation, is what he meant. They do.
The whole sad city does.