I had a dream. In my dream it was the summer of 1998 and I was asleep when the doorbell rang. I awoke and ran down the stairs and there was a tall man standing there. He said he had come to install my cable television.
I was plenty excited. I had been waiting about 18 years for cable TV, but since I live in Washington it had just never arrived. The rest of the country was completely wired. They were seeing movies and sporting events and there was even a channel that played nothing but the movie "Casablanca." It was the most popular channel in Cambridge, Mass.
Washington, of course, had nothing like that. Leaders of Third World countries, making state visits to Washington, had a hard time believing that the city was not wired for cable. Ethiopia had been wired two years earlier and Bangladesh the year before that. A total of 26 embassies had moved to Arlington just so visiting heads of state could watch cable television while in the United States.
So you can imagine how excited I was in my dream when the man came to hook my house into the cable system. The installer was an employee of District Cablevision, a local firm owned entirely by local members of the local minority community. That company, in turn, was owned by a Denver cable television company that, in turn, was owned by a bank that was held in trust by Rupert Murdoch, the owner of every newspaper in the United States.
The installer switched on the set. Over the years, District Cablevision had scaled back its proposal several times. There were now only two channels -- neither one color. One of them showed a picture of Mayor for Life Marion Barry. He was pictured as he looked in 1985 -- just beginning to gray. No one had seen him in years, although from time to time developers reported meeting with him. Nevertheless, he was given credit for the revival of the old center city by permitting the Sheraton Washington Hotel in Woodley Park to expand to meet the Washington Convention Center in the old downtown.
Mayor for Life Barry had also enabled Washington to become the Department Store Capital of the Country. Through the astute use of tax breaks of all kinds, he had lured a Bloomingdale's, Neiman-Marcus, Macy's, Gimbel's, Saks, Sachs, Hechts, Woodie's and Bradlee's to a single block of Washington. The mayor used the summer youth program to pay kids to hang around the stores and pretend they were customers and at night the homeless moved into the stores and slept in the model rooms. Mayors from all over the country came to Washington to study this program.
The second channel carried city government meetings in Spanish. This is the channel the council itself had insisted on when Bob Johnson, the original president of District Cablevision and now a resident of Rio de Janeiro, had announced that he had to scale back the original proposal for 87 channels. Johnson at first said he could offer no more than 67 channels and then it was 53 and then it was one. He also said homeowners would have to do their own installation. At that, the city council said it had had enough.
"We have had enough," said D.C. Council chairman Dave Clarke.
Johnson, fearing the wrath of the council, at first threatened bankruptcy and then offered the compromise of two channels -- but in black-and- white. The council, not wanting a further delay, accepted but insisted the second channel carry city government proceedings. In this way cable television came to Washington.
Oh what a dream this was. First I spent an hour gazing at the face of Mayor for Life Barry. Then I watched a half hour of a zoning commission hearing in Spanish. Los exceptiones. Los variances. This was thrilling. I switched to see what was on the noncable channels. Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert at Wimbledon, an 11-year-old won the men's title and Richard Nixon gave a stag dinner for 10 young journalists, none of whom had ever heard of Watergate. The usual news.
I switched back to cable. Mayor Barry's face. La Commission de Zoning. La Commission de Traffico Adjudicaciones. Oh what heaven! Oh what joy! Finally cable TV. Then I awoke and not sure if I had been dreaming, rushed to the TV set. I turned it on. No cable. I was furious but then I reconsidered. For a system like this, I can wait.