Agony to admit it, Washington does a Houdini this month. It climbs in a trunk, the trunk gets wrapped in chains and dropped overboard, and that's it. The place takes a powder until after Labor Day.
"Agony" because to say so confronts the true nature of Washington. Places have hearts, and Washington's heart is about 16 blocks long. Congress heads for home districts or military transport. The president goes, almost always these past 17 years, to California. Sober-sided editorial writers try to keep the game going with long agendas of What Must Be Done When Congress Returns. But it's all sham.
The great pump of the place stops beating. The arteries and veins collapse. The little capillaries that feed the vital tissues dry up. "Agronsky & Company" goes to remotes from the Vineyard. (At least, I assume it does. Does anyone watch a news-talk show in August? What would the talkers talk about?) Nobody who knows anything bothers to bring a stethoscope in: there's not a murmur to be found.
A lot of us who live here like to deny this; we prefer to think of ourselves as living in a city of many parts, one that just happens to house the capital of the Free World. But what are the working symbols of Washington? Laminated identification tags on chrome-plated chains and power lunches.
Duke Zeibert's doesn't exactly turn into one of the late Evan Sholl's cafeterias -- those wonderful experiences in democratic steam-table dining -- but in August it is possible for someone who doesn't know Bob Gray from Zane Grey to get a table at Duke's, and not next to the service center.
As for the I.D.-tag-and-chain crowd, the gypsy moths of Washington, their numbers thin to a few stray flitterers. The Capitol South Metro station belongs to the tourists, who no longer have to wonder why so many people would be wearing such odd adornments.
Still -- and here's the anatomical miracle of the place -- something else emerges when Washington dies in August. It's not Washington: Washington is a federal district layered with suburbs, and the business of federal districts is federalism. But it is a city, or as close as Washington ever gets to one.
For a moment, one month of 12, the shadow life of the place -- the ordinary business of eating, drinking and getting on from day to day -- becomes its real life. Freed of the 100 or so people who dominate so much of our attention so much of the time, Washington becomes a place of 3 million people, less whoever can afford four weeks at Block Island, Bethany or Nag's Head.
Cleared of the underbrush of lesser, working totems, the monuments and memorials that are Washington's permanent symbols stand out all the brighter, as they do at daybreak on bitter-cold winter mornings before the long train of drudgery makes its way in from Maryland and Virginia. Myths of undercrowding in August are greatly exaggerated, but what's lost in local celebrity this month is gained in humanity. And the line-item veto be damned.
The shamans of the Aztecs are said to have been fascinated with the challenge of removing the heart from a human sacrifice while the sacrifice was still alive. Washington in August answers the puzzle: the body changes; the vital signs get measured differently; but yes, the place minus its heart survives just fine.