Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. Click here for the table of contents.
I set out the next day, my first full day in Washington, to explore the city. I don't, so many years later, remember all of what I saw that first day -- the day when, if I remember correctly, everyone else was heading off to their internships to become part of the work of Washington. I do remember, though, two feelings: one, excitement, and two, disorientation.
The photo album where I keep the pictures of that year, my year in Washington and Morocco and then the few months afterward when I first began living my life as the person that I had become through these experiences, has a map of the world on it. I picked out the album before I actually went on the trip -- picking it out because it just felt like travel. Which makes sense. It is, after all, a map.
Back then, I, too, felt like travel. From the moment I'd decided as a lark to just travel off to Washington, to go to Morocco, I wanted, suddenly, to move, to go places, to see things, to do things, to experience new things. To try life outside of the narrow confines of the existence I had.
I didn't know, even, that I had been narrowly confined. I didn't know, even, that any narrow confinement was entirely of my own doing. I just knew, suddenly, that I could travel and I wanted to travel and I needed to travel, I needed to get outside of the life I'd been living and try something else on. The feeling, looking back now, is one of having been put in a box and never knowing I was inside the box until suddenly I was let out of the box and I could turn around and say Hey, I was in a box.
Inside the front cover of my photo album is a comic strip that I cut out a while after putting all the photos into the album. If the map on the front cover symbolized my excitement at getting to go someplace, the comic strip on the inside symbolized one of the conclusions I came to at the end of those trips.
But just one of the conclusions. Travel isn't inherently stupid. It isn't inherently smart. Like the rest of life, travel is what you make of it.
I like to sometimes look at maps and trace my route from one destination to another, looking at where I am on a map and then to where I was on a map, to get an idea of the route that I took and how far it actually is from where I was to where I am. That's a habit I got into when I went to Washington.
(It would have been difficult to get into that habit earlier than that, since I'd never gone very many places prior to going to Washington, and since I'd never gone anywhere by myself prior to Washington. Traveling with family or friends doesn't leave quite the same feeling of having traveled, maybe because bringing family or friends along brings so much more of home with me.)
But I didn't begin tracing routes on a map simply because I went to Washington and I didn't begin it as some sort of intellectual enterprise. I began, in Washington, tracing routes on a map because I had to figure out where in the city I was and where I needed to go, and I did that by looking at the Metro map:
Just looking at that now actually made me sad and excited, at the same time. The way airports do. I get excited and sad in airports, too. Excited because when I'm in an airport, something exciting is going to happen. I'm either going someplace or coming from someplace or at the least picking up someone or dropping off someone who is going to or coming from someplace. Excited, too, because once I enter an airport, the rules of society are off.
Let me explain that last one: It's not as though once I enter an airport, I can just shed my pants. I mean that once I'm in an airport, there is nothing else I should be doing other than traveling. At least not when I'm not traveling for business. Traveling for business is not the same thing as traveling, and I try to avoid traveling for business at all costs. Business, work, wrecks everything about traveling. How can I enjoy a trip, say, to the Wisconsin peninsula, an enjoyable drive that takes me past scenic terrain and through Green Bay and along the North Woods, when at the end of that trip I've got to depose somebody?
It is possible to enjoy that trip, but it takes a lot of music and it also takes stopping at a little cheese store that I drove by four times when working on that case; on the fourth time, I finally decided You know what? I'm gonna stop. And I did, and I bought souvenirs. Which made the trip more enjoyable because it made it less like work.
Traveling for enjoyment is different than traveling for business, and different than regular life, too. During regular life, there's always something else you could, and probably should be doing. Say you're at the office. Should you really be reading comic strips on the Internet and blogging about the time you went to Washington? Or should you be, I don't know, working?
It doesn't stop at home, either. Lying around on my bed on a Sunday afternoon trying to read a bit of the book I've been working on, there are a million billion things I could be doing. I could be putting away my laundry organizing my dresser working a little more on my novel doing the dishes getting snacks ready for the Superbowl that night calling my mom back calling my dad back folding the laundry organizing the photos on the computer mopping the floor where I spilt Red Pop just now...
... see? It never stops. If you look around you right now, I bet you can name twenty different things in the room where your sitting that you should be doing, things that you'd rather not do but at some point you'll have to.
Traveling eliminates those things.
Enter an airport, and there's nothing else you should be doing. Once you're at the gate and you've put your shoes back on and made a comment to your wife about the ridiculous nature of the "protections" that we put into place to make us feel safer, shuffling through airports with no shoes or belts like mental hospital patients, once you've done that, airports and traveling present the only down time you will ever experience.
Want to read your book? Go ahead: There's nothing else you should be doing. There's nothing else you could be doing. When I'm sitting in an airport, it doesn't matter that the car needs to be cleaned, it doesn't matter that I need to return that book to the library, it doesn't matter that there are Cinnamon Toast Crunches being ground into our living room carpet. I'm in an airport, and All Those Things That Need Doing are not in an airport. The freedom is even greater on the airplane, when you can't even make a phone call. Getting on a plane on the way to Florida is the only time I ever was able to get off the phone with my Dad without feeling guilty, because everybody knows that if you make a phone call on a plane, it'll crash. Even Dad doesn't want to continue a conversation at that price.
The Metro map embodies that same kind of excitement for me, and it's hard to explain why. But I would love a poster of the Metro Map, or a t-shirt of the Metro Map. I loved the Metro.
The Metro is how people get around in D.C., and it's how I always have wanted to get around ever since then. It was, is, far and away my favorite way of traveling, above car and bus and train and plane. I would like Madison to get a Metro. (And a Chunnel, under Lake Mendota, but that's only tangentially related to the Metro.)
I loved the Metro even before I figured out how to use it, which took some time. There was a Metro station right near the school. It could be reached by bus, or it could be reached by walking. I opted to walk to the Metro station, carrying my camera and backpack with me, and figure out how to get someplace to see things I wanted to see. I'd never ridden a subway before, so I was very excited, and got even more excited when I actually saw the Metro.
The Metro in Washington is what the future used to look like before it arrived and didn't look like the future at all but just looked like our lives, instead.
The Metro is all clean stone and recessed lights and smooth edges and walkways and tunnels and rounded-off sides. It's quiet and quick and polite. And it is clean. It's clean because the Metro police do not brook anything that might mess it up. I treated myself at one point on the way home from "work" to a large cookie, which I bought outside the Metro and then was eating as I waited for my train. A Metro policeman came up and tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I was not allowed to eat in the Metro. I had to wrap up the cookie and carry it in my pocket until I got off at the college stop and could eat it while I walked to the dorms. I even liked that, though. I liked being told I was violating the Metro's clean, polite, futuristic-retro rules.
To ride the Metro, I had to get a metro card. I would get lots of Metro cards while I was there. The one shown here is the last one I ever used in Washington -- I left with $3.65 of Metro riding still available to me.
I was unduly excited to get that Metro card, so unduly excited that I did not, at that point, give much thought to the expense of traveling around by Metro, and plunked down $20 to get my Metro card.
I didn't have a job, or any source of income beyond the student loans I'd taken out and my savings, but I didn't think about that at all. I just thought I want to ride the Metro.
Riding the Metro is the first instance of why my first full day in Washington was marked by excitement and disorientation. There I was, in the greatest city in America, and I was going to hop on the Metro that took all the other important people to and from their important jobs. Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, Congresspeople, Secret Service agents, lobbyists, all working in and around Washington and all (in my imagination) riding the Metro to and from work. Just like me. I was a part of them. An unemployed, no-internship, backpack-toting student part of them, but a part of them nonetheless. I brandished my very first Metro card with pride, and studied the map to decide where I would go first.
Despite the length of time studying that map, that day and on all other days after that, I have no idea what Washington D.C. is actually like, geographically. That's because of the Metro. That map itself doesn't actually show the city or anything that can be related to the city. It looks a lot more like Slim Goodbody than it does a place to live. That's one reason that I don't really know how the city is laid out.
The other reason I have no idea how the city is laid out is because I traveled so often by Metro. When I wanted to go someplace in Washington, I walked up to the Metro station near the college, and got on the train, and then got onto other trains, if I had to, and then got off where I was going. All of that was largely done underground; the Metro in Washington travels mostly underground. To go anywhere on the Metro, I would go underground, and then would travel around, and then come back above ground where I needed to be. Sitting on the train, listening to my walkman, watching the smooth, rounded, futuristic walls flash by, I had no idea if we were going up, or down, or sideways, no idea whether we were traveling north or south or east or west. I knew I was moving. I just didn't know which direction. I had become a living example of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.
About a month into living in Washington, it was warm enough for me to go out for a jog. I jogged a lot in ninety-four. Part of jogging so much was that I was trying to lose that 10 pounds I'd told Laurie I would lose. The other part was simply that I'd gotten in shape the year before and was not going to get out of shape. Plus, I think I was a little addicted to running, and especially to running farther. All that year, I kept running farther and farther, each time I ran. I got up to 17 miles at a time, running two or three times a week, and each time going 12 to 17 miles. I did that while smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and living primarily on diet Coke (and, later, black coffee and goat.) I jogged everywhere, and jogged in circles, a lot. I jogged, once, around the National Mall about 8 times. It's really something, jogging from the U.S. Capitol past the Washington Monument, around in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and back. It's even more really something to do that 8 times.
Anyway, on the particular occasion when I first went jogging outside in Washington, I set out in a random direction. I didn't really know what was around the school at all and so I just headed off in a straight line, listening to one of the mix tapes I'd brought with me. After about 10 minutes or so, I realized that I was near the U.S. Capitol and National Mall -- and I was shocked. I'd been, at that point, to the Capitol probably two or three times, and the Mall, but I'd never realized it was only about a mile from my dorm room. As I jogged that day, I tried to superimpose the route I ran onto the only schematic of Washington I knew, the Metro map. (I failed.)
I know now, and eventually learned then, that everything in Washington is close to everything else. Washington was, for a while, a square that was 10 miles on a side. It's not that, anymore, although I was told it was back when I was there. When I lived in Washington, the one firm geographical fact I always believed was that it was a perfect square, 10 miles on a side, 100 square miles of land and water holding every important thing about America inside it. As it turns out, though, that was false and had, in fact, been false since about 1846. When I was there, then, Washington was actually only 68 square miles of land and water, making everything even closer together. I'd never gathered that from my early travels around on the Metro, and even after it got nice enough for me to get out and walk around the city (something I did only rarely because I loved the Metro so much) the geography of the city never sunk into my mind. As I sit here today, Washington is not so much a city as it is an isolated set of outposts and experiences: here, the Capitol. There, Arlington Cemetery. Over by that spot, the Jefferson Memorial. Scattered throughout like jimmies on a Sunday are the Smithsonian Museums and also Gettysburg, which I realize is actually located in Pennsylvania but which for purposes of my memory is now a part of the District of Columbia.
That first day exploring, confronted with the Metro and with the entire panoply of Washington experiences and buildings and history and politics and sights, I began with the Post Office.
One of the things I've long wondered about cities is this: how do people live in them? I've lived in what I consider to be big cities, including Milwaukee, and Washington. Well, just those two, now that I think of it. Those are the only two big cities I've ever lived in. And I don't know how people really live in a big city because I've never really lived in a big city.
When I lived in Milwaukee, I was a student, at least part of the time, and I was poor. So I didn't so much live in the city as simply go through my life there. I didn't have a car a lot of the time, and I didn't have money, and I got most of my meals through my job at Subway, and my social life was spent mostly going to cheap bars and drinking, or working. I never really did the things that make up at least part of an ordinary life for most people. I never grocery shopped, much. I didn't go visit friends or go to parks or whatever it is that people do when they're not working or reading in their tiny L-shaped apartments. In Milwaukee, when I did have money for groceries and felt like buying them -- something I did only rarely before I went to Washington -- I had two options. One was to walk up to 35th street, where there was a grocery store that sold some of the most disgusting groceries I could imagine. The store was mainly stocked with what I assumed to be the groceries that other grocery stores had gotten rid of. I would walk through the produce section and shudder. The canned goods were dented and dusty. The meat was gray, and it wasn't just the lighting. The area around 35th and Wisconsin in Milwaukee -- then and now -- was not an area that high-end retailers wanted to get into. It wasn't an area that low end retailers wanted to get into. It was an area where they sold gray meat, an area where it was not all that surprising, in retrospect, to wake up one morning and find out that the police were hauling body after body out of a serial killer's apartment -- and the serial killer lived within a mile of your own apartment.
The serial killer was Jeffrey Dahmer. I found out that Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer and lived within a mile of me thusly: I was in my apartment one day reading most of the day. That was what I did back then: I read, almost all the time. I would read three or four books a week. Without money and with only a few friends, and with a television that had trouble getting in the three or four channels that existed then, there wasn't much else for me to do.
While doing that, a friend called me up and asked if I'd heard. Heard what? I asked. They're hauling bodies out of an apartment near you. There's a serial killer who put bodies into barrels and they're just finding them out now. And it's right near you. The friend could not emphasize enough that the serial killer was right near me.
I told the friend very funny and got off the phone and killed some more time reading until it was time to go to job number two at the movie theater. Walking to the theater to spend a night ushering people and tearing tickets and scooping popcorn, I stopped to buy that day's Milwaukee Journal. The front page was covered with the news of Jeffrey Dahmer's arrest and the discovery of what he'd been doing all those months in an apartment that was within a mile of mine.
When I got home that night, there was a message from my mom on my answering machine, telling me to call her immediately. I did. You have to move, she told me. When I asked why, she said because they'd found a serial killer in my neighborhood.
Yeah, but now he's arrested, I pointed out.
I think, though, to this day, that Mom is secretly a little proud of the fact that she'd been right all along -- that there were serial killers just around the corner.
The other option I had for grocery shopping in Milwaukee was the discount food outlet that was right behind my building. This was a "grocery store" in the loosest sense of the word. It was kind of like a warehouse-shopping club, but the warehouse was a building that appeared boarded up and could only be entered by a nondescript looking door. I don't even think the place had a name, and I'm pretty sure that the food was all hijacked or stolen or something. They mostly sold restaurant-sized cans of various things like cranberries. I didn't shop there, often, either, other than to go get what I presumed to be stolen diet sodas.
That kind of life equipped me just fine for living in Washington, D.C., a city nobody actually seems to live in. There are no grocery stores in Washington, no mid-market restaurants, no regular places that fill up other cities. Everything's hidden and miniature and combined with other things. Years later, when Sweetie and I went there on vacation, we nearly starved to death because on vacation we like to eat at restaurants, usually lower-end restaurants like fast food places and buffets and Denny's, and there are pretty much none of those in Washington. The closest place we could find was a McDonald's about a mile from the hotel we stayed in.
Washington is a hard place to survive if you are used to surviving in the real world. If your world has existed primarily of sub shops, theaters, classes, and reading, then you'll do just fine, and I did just fine, even that first day, when I decided my first stop would be Pennsylvania Avenue. I chose that because even I knew that Pennsylvania Avenue was where the White House was located, and I figured the best possible place to start sightseeing was on the street where I'd see the White House.
Before seeing the White House, though, I ended up at the "Old Post Office Pavilion," which claims to be "ranked as one of Washington's top eight attractions." I read that on the "Old Post Office" website just now, and I recall reading it back then when I arrived there. Now, as then, my response is this: No way.
One of the top 8 attractions? Which of these would it be above: the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Air & Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Memorial, or the U.S. Supreme Court? Those are 8 just off the top of my head, 8 that I can recall without much effort, just sitting here typing. The Old Post Office is above at least one of those? It has to be, to be in the top 8, doesn't it? Ahead of those and others.
The Old Post Office is not just an old post office, though it is that. To get an idea of the glamour and glory of the Old Post Office, read this history from the website:
1899–The eve of a new era in the nation's capital. The original Old Post Office embodied the modern spirit that was sweeping the country. Today, its vitality and innovative architecture continue to thrive. Washington's first skyscraper, its steel and granite frame stands an impressive twelve stories tall. Built to house both the U.S. Post Office and the D.C. Post Office, it was the largest and tallest government building in the city. The Old Post Office was the first government building to have its own electric power plant, with engines to drive over 3,900 lights. With the new century came new ideas. Only 15 years after its completion, The Old Post Office was considered dated and plans for its demolition were undertaken. Fortunately, the Depression era delayed these plans. By the time they were reconsidered in the 1960s, a new appreciation for Washington's classic architectural monuments had taken hold. The D.C. Preservation League, with the help of Nancy Hanks, head of the National Endowment for the Arts, spearheaded the preservation movement. Thanks to such forward-thinking people, we can stroll through The Old Post Office Pavilion and experience both its glorious past and fun-filled present.
If you read that carefully, you'll see that the most exciting things about the Old Post Office, the things that the historians felt you must know about the Old Post Office, are these facts: (1) it's old. (2) it was going to be demolished but they forgot about it for a while.
The "fun-filled present" of the Old Post Office was embodied, in ninety-four, by the ability to go up to the top of its 12-story tower and take pictures out of it. They have safety wires across all the windows, so it looks like this when you take a picture:
Those aren't bars, and they're not window grates. I never determined what they really are, or how safe they might be. I did determine that they kept me from taking a good picture of Washington through them.
Not that I took many good pictures of Washington. I took a ton of pictures -- a phenomenal number, especially when you consider that this was in 1994, and there were no digital cameras back then, so each photo was precious. It wasn't like today, when people can indiscriminately snap pictures of anything that catches their eye and that image is preserved for ever and ever, regardless of how interesting or not it might be:
Back then, pictures were precious. Film was expensive, and nobody got to see the picture before it was developed, which might be days or weeks later. In my case, I took all of these photos in Washington, and then kept the film, undeveloped, until I got back from Morocco later that year. So it wasn't until months after the fact that I was able to look at a photo and think things like Now, what is that again? and/or Is it possible I might have wanted to focus a bit, or at least hold the camera level?
That's why, in this series, the photos do not appear in any particular order. Or, to be more accurate, they appear in one particular order, and that order is the order in which they appear in my photo album, which is almost, but not quite, chronological order, a chronological order that is interrupted to group photos together by subject matter or by lack of identifiable subject matter, and sometimes to group photos together by using the time-honored this photo fits on this page method.
(The images in this series are almost all photos that I actually took. In this post, for example, the only image that isn't originally mine is the Metro Map. I would have taken a picture of the Metro Map, but pictures were precious, as I've said, and also, it's emblazoned in my memory permanently. My neurons are probably shaped, at this point, exactly like the Metro Map.)
(The photos that accompany this entry show you how I grouped them, too. They're from pages 4-6 of the photo album, and are, in the order in which they appear, (1) my last Metro card [which isn't a photo; I've got the actual card], (2) something I don't know, (3) Me, Carlos, Rip and a bald guy hanging out somewhere in front of someone's car, (4) I think the Lincoln Memorial, (5) view from the Old Post Office, (6) my foot at the grocery store Saturday, and (7) probably the statue outside of Union Station.
The other excitement of the Old Post Office came from the fact that it is a mall. And a food court. Mostly, it appeared to be a food court. There were shops, candy shops and t-shirt shops and souvenir shops and clothing stores. Almost every store seemed to sell really cheap t-shirts, t-shirts that were about $2.50 each. And lots of stores sold ties, too. They even sold ties on the street; it's the only city I've ever seen where you can stop and buy a very nice tie for $10 from a guy with a cart full of ties on the street. (One theory that I was told for this is that if people spill on or stain their tie, they can buy a new one to wear all day and not be embarrassed. I guess it's reassuring that the people running our country have a plan in place for what to do if they can't control their soup spoon.)
But the main purpose of the Old Post Office seemed to be for use as a giant lunchroom. When I was there, in ninety-four, the bottom floor was filled with table after table after table, mostly empty. There weren't that many restaurants in the place, and I couldn't imagine why they needed so many places to sit. I still can't; I don't recall ever seeing the Old Post Office full of people, eating or not.
The Old Post Office, then, served as a suitably mystifying entry point into Washington D.C. sightseeing, giving me everything I needed to know about getting around the city, everything I needed to know being:
First, everything in Washington D.C. is either tucked into something else, or outside the city. Restaurants and shops are in train stations. Museums are part of other monuments. Monuments are part of parks. Even parts of other states -- Gettysburg, and Virginia among them-- seem to get folded into Washington, as I'd learn when I finally did get an internship, and found out that I'd be working in Washington D.C. by going to Virginia.
Second, everything in Washington, D.C. is historical. You can't shake a stick without hitting a placque or a story or the Vice President jogging by with his secret service detail. It's not just likely that you'll get on an elevator in a Senate office building one day and realize that the person on the elevator is Senator Bob Packwood. It's inevitable. (I'd use that to my advantage when I set about to begin meeting important people through the not-at-all-insane method of writing to them and asking them to meet.)
Third, I still never really knew where I was, no matter how often I got out around the city. I was constantly amazed and constantly lost.
And, fourth, you're never very far from a cookie store in Washington. There was even one at the Old Post Office.