Meet Danny Aiello, “not the actor” but a beat cop retired after 36 years on the streets of Philadelphia. It’s a sad week for him. Thursday will be the first anniversary of the death of his wife, Mildred, from cancer. Their daughter Crista and her husband, Alex, figured Dad needed cheering up. So they pulled together some money and mapped out a four-day vacation in Washington, a city they’d never seen.
Now they’ve seen it. “Yeah,” said Aiello, 71, his soft voice underlined with a flatfoot’s weary sarcasm. “Seen it all — from the outside.”
On Day One of the U.S. government shutdown — a warm, sun-drenched Tuesday that felt like June in October — Aiello stood with his family in a slice of shade outside the closed Smithsonian Castle on the Mall, groping for a polite way to describe how he feels about the politicians who spoiled his first visit to the nation’s capital.
“Disheartened,” he finally said. “It was supposed to be a fun time for all of us. I mean, I was really looking forward to this,” especially the National Air and Space Museum. “People who’ve been here, they told me they have planes hanging down from the ceilings, historic planes. I was interested to see that.”
He was far from alone in his frustration as a strange, quiet day passed in the District, the city’s normal rhythms conspicuously absent, as hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal employees were idled and tourist attractions stood dark and empty.
Sheryl Mason, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency’s civil rights office, said she and her colleagues began their layoff with a “shutdown” party, featuring a white-frosted cake. “More like a mourning party,” her co-worker Tawanna Cathey said.
About midday, a group of students in matching red blazers stood in a nearly empty Capitol Rotunda, staring at the dome as a tour guide explained its history. Craning his head next to them was Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.).
Under the shutdown rules, Capitol tours are permitted only if a member of Congress is present, so Huelskamp tagged along with the small group of visitors from his district. “We don’t have a lot of folks come from Kansas,” he said.
Metro trains and buses carried fewer people than normal Tuesday, the transit system said. But roadways were no less congested than usual, according to a regional traffic-monitoring system, possibly because many furloughed federal employees traveled to their offices to gather personal belongings. At the Federal Triangle Metro station, some were headed home with potted plants, not wanting them to wither and die in empty offices.
On the Mall, which was largely barren of tourists, here and there a parent staggered along, pulling a tired child and squinting against the sun like a lost survivor, hoping for the salvation of something to see. But the attractions were locked.
Even the carousel on the Mall was still.
Johanne and Nicolai Asmussen are here from Copenhagen for a couple of days. They’re on a three-week tour of the United States with their children, 5-year-old Robert and 4-year-old Rebecca. The kids like dinosaurs, and the parents looked forward to taking them to the National Museum of Natural History.
“Because we absolutely don’t have that in Denmark,” Johanne Asmussen said. “Not that size, the entire skeletons.” And they wanted to see the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives. “But we did see the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia,” she said. “So it is not that frustrating.”
“A copy, in Philadelphia,” her husband said, mildly exasperated. “We didn’t see the signatures. It’s an original copy — but a copy nonetheless!”
At the Smithsonian Castle, Danny Aiello stood with his daughter Crista Aiello-Kutis, his son-in-law Alex Kutis Jr. and his only grandchild, Alex Kutis III. It wasn’t easy for them, affording a trip to the capital. Alex Kutis Jr., a former carpenter, is disabled, and his wife works as a food server in the galley of a Coast Guard station.
They drove from Philadelphia in Aiello’s Ford Edge on Monday, a three-hour trip to Greenbelt, where they booked a room with two beds in a Holiday Inn. “We got a special,” Alex Kutis Jr. said. “Like, $155 a night. It was more, but we got it down to that.”
“Plus the tax,” his wife added quickly.
As a result of the spending impasse between Congress and the Obama administration, the vacationing family will remember seeing a lot of little signs: “Because of the federal shutdown, this National Park Service area is closed, except for 1st Amendment activity.”
Officials estimate that the Washington area could lose up to $200 million a day during the shutdown. Tour bus operator John Holbrook is already weathering the cancellation of a tour for 600 students, a potential $195,000 in lost bookings.
“We’re in damage-control mode,” said Holbrook, whose company has been arranging tours for students for 20 years, including all the biggest sites: the Lincoln, Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials; the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; and all the federally funded museums.
Tour operators in other cities can take visitors to alternative sights that aren’t closed, he pointed out. “But with Washington, D.C., all our eggs are in one basket.” Holbrook said. “And all those eggs are cracked.”
The Potomac River continues to flow, of course. But the National Park Service docks in Georgetown and West Basin at Ohio Drive are closed. That means people who planned to take a riverboat excursion from Alexandria to Georgetown or the Mall have had to cancel, costing the Potomac Riverboat Co. about $5,000 per weekday.
Willem Polak, president of the Alexandria-based company, said he can still run his water taxis between National Harbor and Old Town Alexandria. But canceled boat charters on the weekend will cost him dearly. “If the shutdown lasts until the weekend, that’s $15,000 per day,” Polak said.
Jordan Polhamus shook his head. A Detroit resident visiting Washington for the first time, for a conference to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, he had planned to stop in every noteworthy building he could find. With little to do Tuesday afternoon, he stood on 15th Street NW, not far from the White House, and sighed.
“I’m a big history nerd,” said Polhamus, 28, who studied political theory at Michigan State University. “And I think it’s dangerous when a democracy can’t figure out how to take care of its business. It’s dangerous when they can’t even keep the doors open.”
Behind him, in long a row of curbside souvenir stands, four vendors sat like bored sentries, waiting for customers who weren’t showing up. Their names are Young Ok, Lee Ly, Mu Joo and Hai Nguyen. They sell T-shirts and ball caps, lanyards and coffee mugs, tote bags and lapel buttons emblazoned with “I [Heart] DC.”
“We love Washington,” Ly exclaimed, smiling broadly. “Washington! Great! Very great!”
Then he frowned, allowing that many folks would probably disagree with him just now.
Ashley Halsey III, Keith L. Alexander, Annys Shin, Ann Marimow, Patricia Sullivan, Jackie Kucinich and Matea Gold contributed to this report.