What if you did something just to do it? For me, that something is painting fire hydrants, a small way to stop the madness.
Perhaps you've seen those little painted figures on hydrants around town? There are still some around, 14 years after the Bicentennial. (Who remembers the naked Elvis impersonators water skiing in New York harbor or other Bicentennial events? Yet I know a woman who moved into her D.C. apartment specifically because it had a painted hydrant in front.)
The original program was sponsored by Woodward & Lothrop. Woodies provided the paint, the designs of Revolutionary movers and shakers, got permission from the authorities and put us through a two-hour course called Fire Hydrant School. ("Always paint the chains first, holding them away from the body of the hydrant with coat hangers.")
No one knows how many hydrants were eventually painted by Scout troops and civic groups. I did 13.
From April to July those many years ago, my friends and I painted hydrants every weekend. We were just starting out then, junior associates in trade associations, artists, computer hackers, grad students, speech writers. As we crouched in the beating sun in various neighborhoods, we got to know people -- street people, worried homeowners who wondered if we were going to lower their property values, police officers who always accepted a cold soda and shyly ventured artistic advice. We heard a lot of jokes about dogs.
After 12 weeks of painting George (Washington) and Tom (Jefferson), we went a little nuts and did a "rogue" hydrant of gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, resplendent in yellow Hawaiian shirt, in front of the offices of Rolling Stone. A photo of Hunter made it into The Post. We were described as "anonymous street artists."
It would have been a fitting end to our hydrant days. But life takes some funny hops sometimes.
What a long trip it's been. I quit a well-paying job and am trying to break into screenwriting. I'm now the mother of an 8-year-old daughter. The speechwriter is running for D.C. delegate. The trade association gofers are now vice presidents. Some of the former grad students drive BMWs and Jags, others beat-up Volkswagons. Some of us got married. Some of us even stayed married. Some of us are social activists. We volunteer. We give to causes. We raise our kids. We soldier on.
Unfortunately, my daughter doesn't give points for "hanging in." She can't believe I was ever cool. So I decided it was time to paint another fire hydrant.
But as what? Boy, are the '60s over. The idea of painting Marion Barry was rejected ("bad hydrant model"). Ditto for Jesse Jackson ("D.C. newcomer"). H. Rap Brown was out of the question. The hydrant, we decided, was to become the two pandas, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing.
My friends thought perhaps I should obtain permission ("defacement of public property" and all that, you know). So I began calling. The first dozen bureaucrats to whom I spoke professed indifference. On the 13th try, though, I hit the right guy. (One thing I've learned after a lifetime in Washington is that for every idea, for every project, there is one person you have to find and get through to.)
He said no. All fire hydrants have to be green.
I stifled the urge to paint the pandas in various shades of green. Instead, I did a weird thing: I gave up. After all, this wasn't "important." Sometimes you get tired of fighting.
Then a miracle: the guy called back. He'd changed his mind. "Why not?" he said almost cheerfully. No one else would ever want to do this. He gave me his beeper number in case we were stopped.
"H-Day" dawned sunny and bright. I and others of the original painting crew prepared for surgery, washing the hydrant as prescribed in fire hydrant school. The chains and side flanges were painted first by my daughter and two of her pals.
The candidate for D.C. delegate then took charge, outlining Ling-Ling's front legs streetside. The wife of a famous sculptor, also a 1976 painter, had brought her two sons. The artistic genes had held true. The young boys, along with their mother, did most of Hsing-Hsing's legs on the sidewalk side and the ears. The senior graphic designer for the Red Cross didn't lift a brush: busman's holiday, no doubt.
The only pause in the general hilarity was the approach of a fire engine, sirens screaming. We froze. Oh, no. But it screeched on by.
After four hours, friendships had been renewed, new friends made, old times rehashed and remembered. It was a soft, comfortable afternoon. Looking back, I can conclude only one thing: luckily, we didn't know then what we know now -- or we couldn't have done all we've done.
The pandas look great. We loaded their chains with sprigs of real bamboo and took pictures. All we needed was a dog.
-- Jean Lawrence