A hard coming it had of it, this spring of '82 in Washington. On March 21, the city's happy talk TV newspeople had exchanged their traditional inanities about the vernal equinox, but the weather remained cold and unresponsive. In subsequent days, some daffodils did make it out of the earth to sway their trumpet heads in unison with the brisk winds, and some blossoms did make tentative footholds on the branches of the city's trees.
But then winter ran back into the streets, battering the budding spring into dead blossoms and shocked daffodils.
For Easter Sunday, Gordon Barnes had predicted more cold, but as the church bells rang, a surprise sun warmed the city. Romantic spring watchers took it as a sign: Spring was alive.
They rooted for it. Over the ensuing days the winds of winter and spring battled it out. But then the air warmed and took on a lightness.
Now was the time for celebration, for festival, for theatrical enactments of rebirth. Like their primitive ancestors, Washington people were drawn to a clearing, this time a clearing in the concrete.
It was a circular space, the city's special circle: Dupont Circle. Out of Massachusetts Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, Nineteenth Street, P Street, they came into the circle. Out of apartment buildings, offices, condominiums, institutions, embassies, rooming houses, townhouses, they felt drawn.
They came not in procession as their forebears might have come, but randomly, in ones and twos. Still, their coming had the character of ritual players entering an ampitheater to act out roles in a cyclic drama, a socially choreographed response to the surprise of springtime.
Enter the Chess Players. Shut indoors for the winter, their contests have lacked the benefit of audiences. Spring for them is the return to the public forum, to stone slab tables shaded by the budding elms on the northeast quadrant of the circle. It is a time for kibitzer-disciples to come again to witness silent battles, while cars and buses roar around the perimeter of the circle.
Inside the quadrant, sun filters through the sparsely leafed branches overhead, giving the space the feel of a hidden jousting ground in a medieval forest.
Unlikely opponents come in unlikely colors for combat. In a brightly flowered housedress and drab, flat shoes, a small pale lady, her hair in a net and thick glasses on her nose, takes her place at a stone table. She carries her battle implements in a plastic shopping bag. A powerful opponent squares off against her at the other side of the table. He is a tall black man in blue bandanna, red T-shirt, orange trousers and running shoes.
Joust begins. The only movement is the intermittent stir of a hand to lift a figure across the board. Onlookers stand frozen around the players like discarded pawns, castles or queens. Outside the circle, in other parts of this city of power, movers and shakers square off in carpeted offices to engage in more deadly, ulcer-generating battles. But that is far outside the circle.
Enter the Unemployed. They come to the circle probably from far out New Hampshire Avenue and P Street. The ghettos of the poor have been receding lately from the circle as preservation, renovation and gentrification take their place. But some still migrate from the ghettos to the circle, as a place in spring to socialize, drink cans of beer covered in paper bags and philosophize in groggy conversation.
On political power: "Hey, bro'. We talkin' about the people who have and have not. Those who are ruling us are able to deceive us simply because they have. Might makes right."
On God: "Do I b'lieve in God? Well, I got God in me, man. But that ain't religion. I don't go for religion."
On the recession: "Burn, baby, burn comin' back. Even I got the downs."
On Reagan: There's no morality involved with that man. Reagan is bad. That guy ain't got no feelin' for nobody.
Mr. Reagan's oval office is less than a mile from the circle, but it is in a circle which is galaxies away from this circle.
Enter the White Baggers, bearing hot styrofoam lunches from take-out shops or croissants, bananas, apples, cans of diet soda bought at street carts.
These are people who have spent a winter speaking into telephones, sending memos, puzzling over computer printouts, cursing defective copiers, climbing responsibly up career ladders, in some cases shoving competitors off their rung.
They've seen spring today, from the corners of their eyes, through the sealed plate- glass windows of their offices. Somehow its scent penetrated their buildings' sealed climate controlled systems. It wakened an ordinarily dormant Dionysian strain in them.
So they take lunch to the circle. In tailored suits, they stretch out on the grass, feel the stirring earth. There is danger in this ritual. Like lotus eaters, they could become drugged with springtime in the circle and never go back to offices to return important phone calls. The circle has a power to waken irresponsible dreams of play which are alien to office dreams of power, achievement position and wealth.
Enter the Enigmatically Idle. These take solo positions along the benches that ring the circle, their arms draped across the bench backs, one leg cocked over the other. They are Enigmatically Idle (disinct from Unemployed) in that they appear neither rich nor poor and seem exempt from the obligation to work. They could be bartenders or waiters who work nights, or entrepreneurs without employers to hound them, or shrewd investors who have no need of the work ethic, or even, in some cases, fallen White Baggers.
The Emigmatically Idle act out the dream of enviable idleness which teases the city in spring. Their role is simple: They look. They look at the blue in the sky, the yellow in the tulips, the green in the grass. They look at one another. The look at the circle's minor dramas, as when a spunky sparrow dives into a gaggle of pigeons and makes off with the Big Crust, ruffling the pigeon establishment. (When this happens, the Idle smile conspiratorially at one another and shout "Aaawriight!" to the sparrow.)
They are the still center of the circle. They sit in counterpoint to the relentless flow of the Lemmings, who have literally a walk-on part in this theater of city spring. The Lemmings are the busy people who rush through the circle with one objective: to get the other side. They have business in destinations beyond the circle.
From diverse ends of the city, Lemmings on foot and Lemmings on wheels are pulled briefly into the circle's orbit and then shot out about their business. There is a giving and a taking in this passage. The Lemming give the circle what it could not live without -- the beat and bustle and energy of the city. And the Lemmings take from it, more often unconsciously, the brief refreshment in the subtle transformation of spirit which the circle casts.
The centerpiece of this refreshment is water at play. There, at the Center of the Center, stands the Fountain, the graceful work of Daniel Chester French. In it, the deities of Sky, Wind and Sea form a pillar supporting the massive marble bowl from which the water cascades, splashing against the deities and spraying passersby with mist.
Ostensibly the monument reminds those who pass of Admiral Samuel Francis du Pont "IN RECOGNITION OF HIS DISTINGUISHED SERVICE" (as a Union naval officer in the Civil War). In fact, the admiral is long forgotten, if ever heard of, by those who are hypnotized by his fountain. The hypnosis induces some to lie along the fountain's rim to take the sun. Some even dangle arms or legs in this pool. Such liberties have drawn censure from those who did not understand the playful spell of the circle.
"I was over there myself," reported a shocked Parks Department official in 1965," and I saw some people stepping around barefooted in the soil around the base and washing their feet in the water and I thought, 'This is terrible. We'll have to put up a fence to keep people out and the water clean.' " Up went a fence, courtesy of the Parks Department.
Something there is that doesn't like a fence, that wants to tear it down. Which is what the circle people demanded. The fence came down.
Such a clash of perceptions was not the first generated by a circle which has both fascinated and unsettled respective parts of the city's population. One of the most famous of such clashes was the case of poor Eddie Hicks, the young man from the country who took out his guitar and played the blues in the circle one night in 1963. He was arrested for vagrancy. The ACLU came to his rescue, the case became a cause celebre in First Amendment rights, with it the circle became a cause c,elMebre for the East Coast flower children of the '60s.
By 1966, their presence had come to be known as "the Dupont Problem." It was capsulized by Frank Bias, then president of the Connecticut Avenue Association, when he catalogued the population of the circle in this poetic barrage of name-calling: "bums, kooks, teenage toughs, hoodlums, panhandlers, drunks, dope peddlers and addicts."
The nation somehow survived the '60s and so did the circle, which is now a quieter place but not devoid of some of the population categories named by Bias 15 years ago.
But the circle also has entertained the carriage trade, when nannies and governess pushed perambulators around the fountain to the music of concerts in bandstands. These were the days when Cissy Paterson, owner of The Times Herald, entertained society at 15 Dupont circle, the late Italian Renaissance mansion which still stands, now as the Washington Club and backdrop to the chess battles.
Equally well-healed neighbors lived up the street, Andrew Mellon and Vincent Astor in luxurious apartments at 1785 Massachusetts Avenue and Alice Longworth Roosevelt on the other side of the Circle at 2004 Massachusetts. Other ornate structures from the carriage trade days still ring the circle, such as the Spanish renaissance revival People's drug store, the stodgy Riggs Bank constructed in 1921 at a cost of $225,000 and the Dupont Circle Building, now an office building, once an apartment house favored by artists.
Like the chicken or the egg, it may ultimately be impossible to determine which inspired which: the spell of the circle or the playful architecture around it. That is the way it is with city places that work. Just as spring, no matter how often experienced and knowledgably predicted, comes still as something of a reassuring surprise, so also there is a recurring surprise in a city place that works.
Maybe the circle works because people unconsciously sense cosmic resonances in it with the shape of the planet, the arcs of solar systems, the cycles of the season. Or maybe it is simply that they are reminded of merry-go- rounds.
A deeper explanation may be the more probable one. L'Enfant, who drew the master plan of the city of Washington, drank beer from a pewter mug as he worked. The hodgepodge of traffic circles on our map are, claim the Enigmatically Idle, the product of ring marks left by the L'Enfant beer mug as he absentmindedly set it down on his drawing board.
But out of that multitude of circles, only one was granted the power to draw people into it. That was Dupont Circle. Why? Because, say the Enigmatically Idle, knowingly nodding their heads, precisely at the instant of the vernal equinox of 1791, the L'Enfant beer mug landed on the intersection of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire Avenues. That is cosmic pedigree. The inspiration that generated that beneficent accident created the Stonehenge of Washington.
"Aaawriight!" shout the Enigmatically Idle.