Every Washingtonian’s visiting relatives bring with them a different and specific kind of tourist hell.
For Ashley Eisele, that hell is encapsulated in Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt.
“I don’t know what it is,” says Eisele, “about that shirt.”
But her guests love it. They love visiting it. Their love for it is deep and relentless. Whenever friends or family members come into town, she tries to guide them to alternative tourist attractions. She says: “You’ve got to see the Roosevelt Memorial.” She says: “There are art museums.” They say: “I heard Seinfeld’s puffy shirt is in the museum.”
Their love for it crosses the international date line. For several years, Eisele, an associate producer for a documentary film company, lived with her husband in Australia. They still have friends there. These Australians now fly across the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean, and they demand to be taken to the puffy shirt, which is from an episode of “Seinfeld” that aired 20 years ago and which lives in the National Museum of American History. “I think I have seen the shirt four times,” she says, and that isn’t counting the times she recused herself from a blouse expedition.
“There was a while,” she remembers, when all of the good attractions in the American history museum seemed to be in one location. When you could descend upon the building “and you could just see everything at all at once. The puffy shirt, the ‘All in the Family’ chair, the ‘Star Wars’ stuff.” Turn around, and just a few steps away, she remembers, there would be Abraham Lincoln’s hat.
Take all of the stuff in Washington. You know the stuff: Take the Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin, Amelia Earhart’s airplane and James Bond’s car, the copy of the Constitution in the National Archives, all of it. Factor in that it is June, peak tourist season, and that all of the schools are out, and that the spotty grass covering the Mall — still tender and emerging from the ground — is about to be trampled by the weight of a million Reeboks. Lo, it is summer.
The stuff seems endless, but, in fact, it is finite. Sooner or later, you are going to get sick of seeing the stuff.
For a Washington host, summer means mapping out an escape route. Seeking out empty benches. Forgotten exhibits. Silent hallways. Air-conditioned seating.
Lord, deliver us from the Hope Diamond. Lord, lead us not into the Spy Museum.
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“I would actually love to go to the Spy Museum,” sighs Jeanette Fast Redmond, a freelance editor living in Maryland. But her guests never want to go to the Spy Museum. They want to go to Arlington National Cemetery and see the Tomb of the Unknowns. Repeatedly. Overandover.
“People seem particularly bowled over by the fact that it’s on a hill and there’s no parking,” Redmond says. (Her relatives are from Kansas, where there is always parking.)
The required Washington pit stops — the U.S. Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial — are universal. But each District resident’s visitors may also self-identify with something particular: a tourism talisman to which they must make repeated pilgrimages. “But, Ron, we can’t leave until I pretend to fall down the ‘Exorcist’ stairs!”
Can there be an exchange program? Can the people of Washington enter their friends and relatives into some kind of tourist swap? Can the relatives from Kansas who must see the Tomb of the Unknowns be traded for the relatives from Buffalo who will not rest until they have gazed upon the Hope Diamond?
“To me, the Hope Diamond just looks like a fake piece of jewelry,” says Nguyen Do, a mechanical engineer in Vienna who has personally shepherded multiple sets of visitors to the Hope Diamond in the National Museum of Natural History. “Like something you’d buy in Spencer’s.”
This is summer in Washington. The wet-blanket heat outside, the mummified air inside, the hypotenuse formed between the Botanical Gardens and the Museum of the American Indian as determined residents lead expeditions of Midwesterners across the dusty plains of the District of Columbia. Everyone smells like Coppertone. Everyone is strappy tank tops and sunburned shoulders and iPad cameras, and the sticky purple residue of melted red-white-and-blue patriot popsicles.
Here, at this intersection of hostly duties and resident exhaustion, an unstoppable force meets an immovable object:
I understand that you want to see the Hope Diamond before you die. I will die if someone makes me see the Hope Diamond again.
I am sitting in a theater in the National Air and Space Museum. It is small. It is dark. Instead of seats, there are only carpeted risers. I am watching a clip of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” which is a 1939 musical about a vaudeville comedian who becomes a World War I fighter pilot. I am alone.
Everyone else in the museum is crowded around the Wright brothers’ airplane a few doors down, where a middle-aged guide tells a tour group about the birth of aviation. Downstairs, huddled in front of the Apollo 11 command module, are several baby boomer patriarchs. A dissertation could be written about baby boomer men and the Air and Space Museum: the nostalgia, the longing, the hero worship and quieted dreams.
But I have reached this theater — this serene, tourist-lite zone — at the suggestion of Isabel Lara, the media relations manager for Air and Space. I e-mailed her and said that I needed a new set of must-sees: a quiet corner of the museum, far away from the crowds. Lara told me to visit “Knights of the Sky,” a theater dedicated to showing old-time Hollywood clips about aviation.
Patrons occasionally wander in, but they leave after a few minutes once they realize that nothing is happening here but black and white snippets introduced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Since I am alone, it is time to ponder the meaning of awe.
It is easy to have awe the first time you see the Wright brothers’ airplane, or a Renoir painting, or Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. It is even easier, though, to become jaded. Blind to wonder. Immune to the embarrassment of riches that is automatically provided when you live in a major metropolitan area.
The same sensory dulling that leaves one unimpressed by bountiful ethnic food and same-day dry cleaning will eventually lead one to walk past the Lincoln Memorial, an impressive and meaningful piece of architecture, and go, “Eh."
When touring Washington as a host rather than as a visitor, one does not look for splendor. One looks for different things. There is no awe in the “Knights of the Sky” theater. But there is air conditioning. There is air conditioning, and there is quiet, at least until a set of grandparents arrives with their brood so Pop-Pop can rest his eyes.
Later, at the Museum of Natural History, I ask a volunteer docent if she has any recommendations for unpopular exhibits. “You know,” I explain, “the ones nobody wants to see.”
She raises one eyebrow. “Why would you want to go to such a place?”
I explain. She sighs. She is weary. She understands my weariness. We are mutually weary.
“Well, I don’t know,” she says finally. “You might try the Ice Age.”
But the Ice Age is bustling. It’s all bustling, everywhere except a small basement exhibit called “Birds of the District of Columbia.” (But who among us, really, wants to look at those birds?)
Away, away, in search of peace, in search of things we have not seen, in search of places to rest our eyes.
On the walk, the sounds of a hundred half-coherent tourist conversations:
“And then the door closed on her. It just closed. And she got beheaded and other people had, like, limbs cut off.”
“But I told her, don’t blame me if you get a headache. You got to take an Aleve with a Diet Coke first thing in the morning.”
“If you love this museum so much, why don’t you marry it?”
“I saw it. That’s what I came here to see, and I saw it.”
Now we are in the National Museum of American History, upstairs in the first ladies exhibit, where the inauguration gowns of American presidential wives are displayed in long glass cases. What the woman was so excited to see is Jacqueline Kennedy’s dress. This dress is her puffy shirt.
Another woman, with steel-wool curls, circles the glass case that contains Michelle Obama’s dress from the 2009 inauguration. She gives the gown a frank, appraising look, and then calls over her friend.
“Ginny. Ginny. Look at this dress. I don’t think her butt can be as big as people say it is.”
Leave your guests. Leave them. Let them roam and discover and be filled with awe.
You, take the elevator or the escalator back downstairs.
Walk into the exhibit hall called “Lighting a Revolution.” This exhibit hall contains many types of steam engines. Walk past them. Walk past the Skinner Unaflow engine, the Westinghouse compound engine, the Porter-Allen high-speed steam engine. Walk to the Matthias Baldwin engine. It is against a brick wall. Walk behind the brick wall. On the other side of the brick wall is a bench. In front of the bench is nothing but the other side of the brick wall.
It is quiet back here, and uninterrupted, and the air feels three or four degrees cooler than it does in the rest of the exhibit, whether because the lighting is dim or because you have removed yourself from the stickiness of the crowds, from their grimy coating of sunscreen and Mall dust. You can sit on the bench and stare at the wall, and the voices echoing from beyond it (“Sometimes I do this thing with cheese where I mix the blue cheese with port wine cheese and, like, the cream cheese”) will roll together until they sound like nothing, until they sound like white noise, until they sound like clattering seagulls at the beach, which is where you would rather be instead of where you are. Which is at the Museum of American History.
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