Washington was rocked by two events this past week: One was the arrival of Michael Jordan, the basketball star who made people feel absolutely wonderful; the other, Tuesday's sprinkle of snow amounting to less than half an inch, which tied them up in knots.
The Chicago Bulls hero is throwing in his lot with a losing team called the Wizards--they are anything but. His performance at a packed and rapturous news conference, attended by the mayor, was a slam-dunk that captured the city's soul.
He was talking about practicing with the Wizards and he said, "The best evaluation of a player that I can ever give is to look in his eyes and see how scared he may be."
Jordan doesn't have to go to the basketball court if he's looking for fear. Just let him step out onto the streets of the nation's capital when the first snowflake falls and he'll see stark terror all around. Do Washingtonians overreact to snow? Yes. Nobody is sure why.
Everybody here is from someplace else, but even those who started out in stern climes such as Maine's or Minnesota's succumb to the panic that grips such moments. The instinct to cancel is powerful--madrigal concerts, basketball games, PTA meetings, whatever. The question "How will I get home?" is lowered like the sword of Damocles over the bureaucrat's head. Once the weary travelers have struggled back to their firesides, the brooding over how to get back to work the next day clouds the mind: If I have to take the Metro in the morning, will the sidewalks be shoveled or salted? Will I break my ankle on the ice? Washington merchants are often indifferent to the fate of would-be customers, taking their cue from the city government, which can be stingy with the sand and salt and ploughs, which are not numerous because sometimes we hardly have any winter at all. Shoveling sidewalks is not automatic, as it is elsewhere.
People trying to figure out these contingencies sometimes wake up at night and can't get back to sleep. They lie awake digging the slough of despond ever deeper. They start planning their funerals.
In some cities, when the snow starts falling, people go on about their business. But in the capital of the Western world, the municipal government, like its citizens, gathers by the windows and asks two questions, which none of the stupendous advances in technology can answer: How long will it last? Will it stick? By the time they reached some conclusions about Tuesday's little joke of a storm--0.4 inches--it was already too late to do much. The flakes fell on freezing streets and a glaze fit for Olympic skating occurred. Commuters who generally need 15 minutes portal to portal spent dinner time in gridlock. It took an hour to traverse a mile of one of the city's main drags, Connecticut Avenue. Some students on Prince George's County buses got home at midnight.
The next day, the storm had wiped clean Washington's conversation slate. The obsession faded about the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., along with talk about the loneliness of the present occupant, home alone with his dog, and Chappaqua's most famous new resident and the witness-protection makeover of Linda Tripp and Monica's diet and Elian and W. and the Confederate flag in South Carolina and even the new nuclear missile defense weapon's failure to hit the target. This last was not so surprising--Washington worries much more about a snowstorm than a missile attack.
There was a great swapping of horror stories, recriminations, rationalizations. The only thing that took people's minds off their trials with Mother Nature was Michael Jordan. Nobody thinks that he will stop winter, or that he can kindle in the District's faint hearts the Spirit of Valley Forge. But his attitude is excellent. As the Wizards's principal owner, Abe Pollin, observed, "He makes everybody better" and "He won't accept losing." D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who had just dug himself out of the post-mortems on the Tuesday sprinkle, hailed Jordan as a "role model." Indeed, he is a sports celebrity who is a good citizen.
Jordan was a great basketball player--he won six championships for his team--but he's not a wizard, and we're putting a heavy burden on him: We are asking him to bring us together. Washington is not much of a community. Occasionally, we find a tie that binds in the feats of our football players, the Washington Redskins, but the poor soul who flubbed the snap in last Sunday's playoff sent the fans scattering.
Jordan certainly does not have the defeatist attitude that makes our city faint at the sight of a snowflake. We can hope that the mad scientists toiling in cellars in Iran and North Korea don't get wise and realize that ICBMs are not needed. It's snow that can stop the heart of the mightiest nation on Earth.