First, let us admit the worst about Washington's tourists: they flood the city with bad taste. Your average tourist will hit the Washington Cathedral done up as if it were luau night at the Vfw. Tourists are directly responsible for the alarming rise of fast-food restaurants in the blocks around the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building; all things considered, they are probably responsible for the J. Edgar Hoover building as well. And they certainly bear the prime, though sadly enough not the only responsibility, for the record number of sloganed-up T-shirt salespersons on the city's curb sides this summer. (It is not at all impossible anymore to conceive of a tourist showing up at the Supreme Court in a "Lawyers Do It . . ." T shirt.)
Tourists create unsightly lines precisely where Washington should be the most crisp and pristine. As anyone who has tried to board a Metro at the Smithsonian stop knows, a million tourists and a million Farecard machines cannot produce one Farecard proper in a baker's minute. By the District Building -- with their maps flapping tattered in the breeze, desperate to find the National Gallery of Art -- they are virtually impassable. Try to take a quick lunchtime run through the Air and Space Museum and they are, you will find, virtually unbearable.
That is the worst to be said about tourists, and it hardly outweighs the good they do us.
The Board of Trade is fond of reminding Washingtonians that tourists enrich us both with the money they spend and with the jobs they create. And indeed it does well to remember that every new Total Burger shop on E Street is providing a dozen or more entry-level jobs for the semi-skilled -- something this city is chronically, dangerously short in; and that every wild-eyed father from Kansas, lurching among the Smithsonians, is helping to foot a month's rent, a grocery bill, a bus fare somewhere along the economic chain. But the real wealth that tourists bring us is far greater and certainly more lasting than that.
Tourists remind us that this is a densely patterned and mysterious place. Watch a tourist family confronted with the enigma of a New Jersey Avenue, better still watch the family try to unravel the Chinese puzzle of Dupont Circle with its endless radiants; and you will catch some of the sense of awe that Pierre L'Enfant and subsequent planners had every intention of investing this city with.
Tourists remind us also of what we are most jaded to, and often loath to admit: that Washington is, first and foremost to those who exist outside of it, a symbolic place. Stand by the Lincoln Memorial as the bus groups flock through and you can very nearly hear those half-formed notions of emancipation, honesty, of that greatest of all Americanisms -- the backwoods boy who made it all the way -- rending the air. Washington cries out these days to be taken as real, but the simple truth is that our tourists will seldom allow it. And however, much that might explain why the D.C. voting amendment is dead in the water, it also is a large part of the singular glory of this city.
We are, in a sense, a king of uncaged zoological display here, a national small-mammal exhibit nicely kept up by the Park Serive; but we are mammals with a meaning. And it is here that tourists bring us their most painful message -- that to a large percentage of our fellow countrymen we are, each and every one of us, symbols as well, bit players and bigger in a national allegory. The gawkers at the Capitol, the stragglers idling by the Department of Agriculture are not often thinking that here passes Senator So-and-So or the Assistant to the Undersecretary of Watever but that here passes the concept of elected government, here passes the concept of bureaucrat. And it is the loading-on of these perceived concepts, at times badly bungled ones, that explains more than anything else the curious, even vacuous, frightened stare tourists are likely to fix on us.
The stare humbles us, or should; and in a city short on humility that is perhaps a gift enough for tourists to bear us. But the stare should also serve to fill us with some of that same sense of awe and mystery, and not a little wonder at ourselves and our place and, most of all, at what we attempt to do here. And for that we should thank tourists on our knees and forgive them anything -- their unsettling gaze, the lines they create, even their get-up.