Washington is back, baby! De-ice your Outlook calendar! Crack open that musty inbox! Grease your creaky calves by racewalking to the Metro and, whoops, there’s a woman in medical distress on a stalled train at Farragut North. Single-tracking during morning rush hour! Ah, the warm embrace of routine.
The longest government shutdown in our history is over, and it’s Monday morning in America. Listen to the buzz of activity in Washington’s brutalist honeycomb of agencies, associations, departments, foundations, commissions, councils, institutes, bureaus and boards!
What national priority shall we tackle first?
“There were many of us going, Oh, God, what is my PIN?”
Laurel Bryant works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, up in Silver Spring. The mood Monday was joyous, like a big family reunion — if your family had to suddenly drop everything and scatter for five weeks. Everyone’s equipment had to be left behind, and passwords were forgotten, but the wizards from IT were circulating, checking in with everyone, asking if all was okay. Too many people were logging on at the same time to fill out their timecards, so the system kept crashing.
“I came back to 4,459 emails,” Bryant said. “I’m down to 4,222.”
It was barely past 11 a.m.
“I’ll get through it.”
Our soundtrack for the day was Sheila E.’s “The Glamorous Life,” blasted during the morning rush by the brass band at K Street and Connecticut Avenue. There were finally enough cars jamming up Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road that the honking was comfortingly continuous. The only thing on President Trump’s public schedule Monday was lunch with the vice president, though there was the usual errant tweeting about — let’s see here — the Bible, and about how the former CEO of Starbucks is dumb and gutless. Ah, routine!
On 20th Street NW, Peace Corps employees were greeted by boxes of Dunkin’ doughnuts, signs that said “THANK YOU FOR YOUR PUBLIC SERVICE,” and the rumor of champagne upstairs. Burnt coffee, the odor of productivity, floated on the breeze at L’Enfant Plaza, where local reporters ringed the escalators looking for bureaucrats to interrogate.
“Ma’am, are you back to work today?”
“Ma’am, are you back to work today?”
“Sir, are you back to work today?”
The unsung functionaries of the federal government have become, momentarily, like capital Kardashians — though decidedly more demure.
“No, thank you.”
“I’m not interested.”
“I’m just trying to get back to work.”
“I kind of have someplace to be. Finally.”
Finally! Last week, before the reprieve, Washington was getting jittery. Federal workers were somehow both restless and complacent, like everyone was infected with cabin fever and senioritis. GS-14s, cushioned by savings, worried about their newer colleagues, the lesser-paid GS-7s, whose workplace diet is ramen and PB&J sandwiches. One attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency picked up additional hours at his second job, at Home Depot — which, he said, has given him higher-percentage raises over the years than the federal government. Office-plant parents actually came into work, during the shutdown, just to water the pothos and jade and ferns. (Without love, work ain’t much.)
Feds tried their hands at acting like retirees. “It was sort of a test run,” said Bryant, who plans to retire from NOAA next year with her husband. “Can we play in tandem together all day?” (Answer: Yes, thank God.)
Feds re-tiled their parents’ bathrooms, because Mom keeps complaining and Dad has bad knees.
Feds started to normalize the abnormal. Though she was furloughed for the entire stretch, Eleanor Marusiak got up every weekday at 6 a.m. and got dressed, to preserve a sense of normalcy. She Marie Kondo’d her house. She cooked a bunch of meals and froze them. She slipped her underworked dog-walker $50. By Monday, she was relieved to be back in her office at the EPA, along Pennsylvania Avenue, where Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler was greeting employees in the lobby like a host at Bob Evans.
You could still see the shutdown on people’s faces.
“People have this kind of vacation-hangover look,” said Marusiak, a procurement analyst for the EPA. “They look a little bit distant. And it’s very quiet. . . . It just feels — awkward. I don’t know why I’m using that word. It’s like we’ve all witnessed something, but people aren’t really talking about it.”
What did we witness? “Trumpcation” is a word that feds used at work on Monday — as in, “How was your Trumpcation?”
And what aren’t we talking about? The fact that the shutdown cost us twice as much as President Trump’s proposed border wall? Or is it the staggering amount of catching up the government has to do? Thousands of tons of snow needs to be cleared from the parking lots of national parks. The IRS has millions of unanswered letters to get through. Inspectors at the National Transportation Safety Board must pick which train, plane and automobile crashes to investigate first. At NOAA, the cartographers who chart the seas have new buoys and shipwrecks and coastal rock formations to account for.
It was a routine day, except not. One of the first things Dawn Smith noticed upon returning to work at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was the tinsel. And the candy canes. And the elaborate cardboard fireplace heaped with stockings, presents, a bejeweled wreath and a stuffed Santa Claus. The Christmas decorations were still up, an accidental memorial to lost time.
“We won first prize in the office decoration contest,” said Smith, an office administrator at HUD. “We won a pizza party, but haven’t had it yet, since everyone got furloughed.”
By the afternoon, the holiday decorations had been removed from the hallways, and HUD’s help desk had gotten 1,000 calls about computer issues. This is how the government wakes up.
Eleven months till next Christmas.
Three weeks, maybe, till the government goes back to sleep.