My first attempt at Pokémon Go has brought me to my favorite used bookstore, owned by an endearingly irascible man whose handwritten house rules include: No cell phones. I’ve bought a mile of books from this store, including volumes of Shakespeare and Livy, the plays of Lillian Hellman and poems of Wilfred Owen and an incredibly ratty paperback version of “The Guns of August,” which was scandalously overpriced but I was in a panic to finish an assignment and am too cheap to join Amazon Prime. Fortunately, the hovering red Pokémon figure isn’t actually in the book store, but I still feel like an idiot standing outside peering through the phone’s camera with no idea how to capture the virtual temptress. I stroke the screen, tap it violently, slap it hard and then shake it and curse audibly, but no luck. For a moment I wonder if the owner has seen me make an ass of myself; if so, I will lose all credibility. Fortunately, the chances he has heard of Pokémon Go are vanishingly small.
I successfully bag my first creature, a Charmander, while walking the dog. Charmanders emit no detectable odor, so my dog is bored out of his mind as I jerk him around the neighborhood. The Charmander’s bad luck is my good fortune, advancing me to the point that some hipster professor figure who runs the game insists that I create a screen name. I choose Karl Kraus, because I’ve always admired the great Austrian satirist and social critic who died in 1936; but someone has already picked that name. Next, I try Susan Sontag, the American essayist and author, but that name is also taken. Is every pretentious twit on the planet playing this game? Finally, the professor dressed in spandex knickers lets me pick Elias Canetti, author of “Crowds and Power” and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Canetti wants a drink, so I head home. Unfortunately, there is nothing of interest, Pokémon-wise, in my house, and the nearest Pokéstop is some tacky lawn sculpture about a block away. I’m done with Pokémon Go for the evening.
Pokémon Go and I are heading to the National Gallery on the No. 36 bus. No sooner have I fired up the app then some blue creature appears on the screen and when I point the camera at the seat in front me it’s hovering there, sweet, innocent and vulnerable. I hurl a red-and-black ball in its direction and it disappears in a flash. After the app congratulates me for sucker punching a cartoon, it tells me that it has added the creature to my Pokédex, which is apparently something like a Renaissance Wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Curiosities, where the stuffed carcasses of your hunt are cataloged and displayed.
When I arrive at the National Gallery, Pokémon Go is flashing a big circular form at me, which looks like an elaborately decorated manhole cover. This is a Pokéstop, marking the entrance to the building. I click on it and it shows me a picture of the Gallery taken in the spring of 2014; I know this because there is a banner hanging on the building announcing the wonderful Garry Winogrand photography show that closed in June of that year. Winogrand would have made delightful images of people playing Pokémon Go. He was a master of the slightly surreal, the gently absurd, capturing the sad, odd, weird and bizarre without ever being cruel or exploitative. Something about his photograph “Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1958,” which shows a baby in a diaper with a tricycle overturned in the foreground just screams Pokémon.
Unfortunately, I don’t know what to do with a Pokéstop, which has apparently no data or information other than a picture associated with it. As I stand outside the gallery, I notice two teenage boys looking through their cell phones; they are playing Pokémon Go. Surely they can help me. But then I realize that, as a general rule, middle-aged men who hang out at art galleries should not solicit gaming advice from teenage boys. A parent appears and scolds them, and I move on.
Inside the museum I head for the sculpture galleries on the ground floor. I pass by centuries of magnificent art, carved marble and cast bronze, oblivious to anything that isn’t Pokémon, and within a few minutes I espy an Eevee in a room with some lovely Paul Manship bronzes. The poor thing doesn’t even try to hide and so I bag it in front of Manship’s 1916 “Dancer and Gazelles.” And then the entire Pokémon menagerie goes into hiding. I can find nothing in the French Galleries, nothing in the Dutch collection, nothing amidst the glistening gold ground paintings of the Italian Gothic: 1270-1360, where I am momentarily distracted by the animals paying homage to Christ in Duccio’s “The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekial.” My only prospect is a purple Pokémon who seems to be hiding along the south wall of the gallery in the American rooms. But to get to him I would have to pass through the patinated plaster of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw. I’m forced to detour and backtrack and I’m angry now, and moving with determination through the American rooms until finally I nail some kind of cuddly brown vermin in between two Winslow Homers.
Canetti wants a break so I retire to the East Garden Court. My phone tells me that a few blocks away a giant purple dinosaur is causing all kinds of mayhem. I click on it and the annoyingly smug hipster professor figure explains that this is a “gym”-a coliseum for Pokémon blood sport-but then adds, condescendingly, that “It looks like you don’t have enough experience” to enter the gym and that I should come back when I’ve made level five. I can say with 100 percent confidence that no one in the education department of the National Gallery would ever tell someone new to the experience of art, “It looks like you don’t know squat about postimpressionism so don’t show your face here again until you’ve leveled up.” Professor what’s his name is a snob.
The National Gallery, it turns out, is not a Pokémon-rich environment. It yielded very few prospects inside the building, though while sitting on a bench outside, a Cubone and a Spearow just waltz up to me and beg to be blasted with my magic red balls. I do so. A few minutes later, as I cross the National Mall, I nail a Rattata near the humble stone marker to the founding of the National Grange, the fraternal organization that was once so vital to rural America. As I near the National Museum of the American Indian, I clobber a two-headed and presumably flightless bird known as a Doduo, and then, standing in front of Nora Naranjo-Morse’s earthen sculpture “Always Becoming,” I bag a Pidgey. One of the figures in Naranja-Morses’s slowly decomposing forms is “Ping Tse Deh,” or “Mountain Bird.” So I’ve iced this poor Pidgey right in front of Ping Tse Deh, which means I’ve now zapped two exotic birds outside a museum dedicated to the people who were once stewards of our primal forests and fruited plains and purple mountain majesty, and this strikes me as a bad omen.
Canetti is done for the day.
Life in intrudes, and yes, I have a life. No Pokémon today. I wonder if Professor Willow notes my absence; I wonder if he cares.
So I’ve been told that I haven’t actually killed any Pokémon figures, just captured them. Professor Willow, the too-cool-for-school teacher with the great abs and yoga mat permanently attached to his back explained all of this, but I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t like that man.
Apparently, I am merely capturing Pokémon (the plural of Pokémon is Pokémon, not Pokémons or Pokémata) and submitting them to the scrutiny of science. But later I can also use them to combat other Pokéman, which makes it feel like I’ve fallen into some sick world of virtual cock fighting or dog baiting. In any case, the distinction between killing Pokémon and capturing and enslaving them is rather flimsy. It reminds me of the nature series, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” back in the 1960s and ’70s, in which host Marlin Perkins presided over a team of people who “hunted” animals with tranquilizer darts, usually in the name of science or medicine. Everyone knew that this was just a ruse and the show was a transparent proxy for big-game hunting, but we all fell for it, deluding ourselves into believing that Perkins’s only ambition was to render the world’s charismatic mega-fauna temporarily catatonic.
So I’m off to level up at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where I hope to “capture” enough Pokémon to reach level five. The Sculpture Garden looks full of opportunities, but the heat index has reached 219 degrees, so I head indoors, to the third floor, and wonder around the inner ring of the circular building. One full circumnavigation yields only a solitary Nidaron, which I capture right in front of a family which is actually there to enjoy the art. Outside, braving the heat once again, I capture several other figures, enough to edge me to level four, but then Willow and his ilk begin marking down the points I’m receiving to the point I realize it could take me the entire day to get from Level Four to Level Five. Sitting in the shade are a dozen teenagers with pads of paper and pencils, drawing the sculpture. These may be the last children on the planet not looking through their cellphones.
I head to the Lincoln Memorial, for one last attempt at Level Five. Onscreen, the Lincoln Memorial appears as the Mother of All Pokémon gyms, like a massive Alexander Calder sculpture swirling slowly on the banks of the Potomac. The crowds are thick, everyone is taking selfies, and Pokémon crowd in from all sides. And I’m too embarrassed to pull out my cellphone to hunt them, so I carry it close to my chest with the screen turned in. This doesn’t look suspicious at all. The heat is oppressive, and Level Five is miles away. I mount the steps and read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in,” he says. No, let us give up.
I walk to the shady back side of the monument and look out at Memorial Bridge crossing the Potomac. A cool breeze blows, and my head clears. For a moment, not a Pokémon thought crosses my mind. And I resolve to keep things that way. I’ll never reach Level Five, I’ll never sic Pokémon upon Pokémon, never revel in Pokémon gore, never join a team, never play again.
Willow, you’ve won. Canetti gives up. I’m returning to the world.
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