Not too long ago, I went to my neighborhood police station in Southeast Washington to get a temporary parking permit for my son, who had just come to town to take his first job.
The handsome old building rests on a cozy, tree-lined street, but the atmosphere inside is bleak. A sullen officer greets us with a grunt. He is barricaded behind a huge desk and doesn't look up. I've done this before, so I take the officer's rudeness for granted. Charles is surprised.
With abject politeness, I explain. I own a house afew blocks away. My son is staying with me until hefinds an apartment. He needs to be able to park his carin front of my house for a few weeks. He doesn't want it to be ticketed, fined or towed away. He wants to obey the law.
"Nothing we can do for you," the officer replies.
I see the alarm on my son's face and persist. "He can get a temporary parking permit, can't he?"
I take the man's rude "Uh-huh" to mean yes. Like miners digging precious ore out of the relentless earth, we secure the three-week permit and the grudging information that it can be renewed.
"Yeah, once, just once," we are warned in a tone of voice that should be reserved for bank robbers.
Robert Frost said the world was as likely to be destroyed by ice as by fire, and I don't know which I resent the most, this man's hostility or his indifference. No smile for a newcomer to the city, nothing cordial to say to a neighbor, a homeowner, a taxpayer.
Walking toward the door, I realize the muscles in my neck and arms are as tight as if I had been warding off physical blows. Why, I wonder, in this beautiful city's most beautiful season must we endure such treatment at the hands of people hired (and supposedly trained) to serve the public?
My son, a peaceful fellow still wearing the good manners he brought with him from Atlanta's inner city, automatically thanks the officer. He repents immediately: "I could kick myself for saying, 'Thank you.' He didn't want to help us, and he wasn't about to say anything nice."
By the time his temporary permit expires, he will probably be hardened enough for the ritual initiation into the life of the city that begins with registering your car at the District Building and ends in a fist fight with other irate car owners deluded into believing that a "short wait" will get their cars inspected before the inspection station's mysteriously designated closing time. By mid-June the humidity will be about right to maximize the human boiling point. August would be even better, but by then the lines are shorter.
Fortunately, the weather was cool last spring when I got to the inspection station and found that the neat folder I had been handed after a four-day struggle to register my new Honda contained registration papers belonging to somebody's 1976 Buick.
I have a friend who prepares herself for District business by setting her alarm clock for 6 a.m. and taking two tranquilizers; another puts herself into a meditative trance. Some recommend vodka. All agree that early morning is best, before pandemonium breaks loose in mid-afternoon as veteran D.C. dwellers along with newcomers succumb to despair.
During the winter, people who work and live in the city were outraged by the District government's inept and impolite handling of record-breaking snowstorms. A few months later we are stunned to learn of negligence in the emergency ambulance service. I believe we would all react more sympathetically and more constructively to such major concerns if we weren't already harassed to our limits by the hostility and low morale of the city employees with whom we deal every day.
I love this city: the rich mixture of cultures working together, the urban variety just minutes away from the countryside, the joining of North and South, black and white, old and new. I'd like my children to love it too, but my daughter stayed only a year after college before fleeing to New Orleans, where, she tells me, "People smile at you on the streets."
-- Judith Paterson