Washington D.C. is all about travel.
Everyone who works in ‘the district,’ as it is called locally, seems to be from somewhere else. Three major airports, five major universities, and headquarters of every federal contractor, all within an hour.
And the embassies. Every country in the world. Right here.
People are going and coming always.
Add a building height restriction to keep those monuments looking monumental and you have a sprawl to beat any Nevada town. So lots of people moving laterally means the worst traffic in the country. The place buzzes with people talking, jostling, hustling.
But what does everyone DO?
All I can offer is an example.
Yesterday I had an appointment at the USDA building on the national mall. I left my car at the end of the orange line and sped into town in 40 minutes flat. My knees do not quite fit straight in the metro seats so I shifted them up, struggling all the while to avoid the staring glare of a depressed-looking 50-something man in a puffy brown coat whose bulging eyes suggested Grave’s disease.
An unintelligible voice announced the entrance to D.C. as we travelled under the Potomac River. It didn’t say the most interesting truth: ‘we are under immeasurable tons of polluted water right now.’
I knew the voice was welcoming us to the district because the voice says pretty much the same thing every time I ride, it would be followed by something about next station being Foggy Bottom. I didn’t hear the voice announce “Smithsonian,” the stop that lands right outside the USDA building. But I happened to be avoiding Mr. Grave’s Disease by looking to my right at the right time and the giant letters awakened me. About 50 percent of the time I ride the metro I either get off at the wrong place or get on the wrong train. I can’t blame the signage or the mumbling conductors though. Something about the metro launches my imagination elsewhere … and it takes force to bring it back.
I took the wrong exit so I had to walk a block and as I did so, I scoped out the demonstration gardens in front of the USDA headquarters, located a stone’s throw from the headquarters of the Smithsonian. The winter garden was frozen pretty much solid.
But wait, someone thought of that.
A steamy greenhouse with a timely sign about how to grow food in winter defied the subfreezing temps. I reached under the plastic with my cell phone to take a picture.
As a gardener, I was impressed. For a moment I forgot I was in a city, I was in a familiar place.
I went through security to my appointment in the complex that is workplace for about 5,000 people. The building’s layout is logical and orderly, but I can only call it labyrinthian. Long halls with fixtures dating to the 1950s, I got the sense of permanence I would hope this country would grant agriculture.
My appointment was with someone who works in the Ag Marketing Service, which, among other things, oversees regulation of anyone using the organic label on any product sold in the United States. In short, these are the people who guarantee that pears grown in China sold as ‘organic’ at your local store are actually grown without the use of herbicides, toxic insecticides and synthetic fertilizers. Their work is important. Regulation of labeling is how we know it is okay to eat things from somewhere other than our own gardens.
After my hour-long visit I stepped outside but instead of heading for the metro escalator just 10 yards from the door, I decided to spend a couple hours in a museum. I had three choices facing me from across the mall: History, Nature or Art. I had other choices but these are my favorites. I chose the former, the National History Museum; maybe I could find something that would interest my teenager who is enrolled in Advanced Placement United States History (the kids call it A-PUSH).
It is tempting at this point to expound on the many wonders of the Smithsonian. Instead I will focus on a detail I found thrilling: I found my great-great uncle in there. I say this because I looked around me and realized that everyone wandering around the museum is represented here. But here is the one example that specifically applies, appeals, to me:
When I was a child I remember my grandfather talking about my great-great-grandfather’s brother, Cyrus Field. “He laid the first trans-Atlantic cable,” I can hear grandfather’s proud voice still, although it has been silent 18 years. This crazy obscure detail of history is pretty interesting if you think about it. It linked up Britain to the states almost two hundred years ago. That was kind of a big step at the time. Okay, not really fascinating. But to me it is huge. To me it is real.
What I learned at the museum was also pretty funny. Uncle Cyrus cut up the extra cable—20 miles of it—into 4-inch segments to sell as souvenirs. And here was one piece, right here in the museum.
I looked over at a couple women reading a nearby exhibit. I wanted to shout at them—hey, check this out! But I realized they were having their own experience. They were probably descended from the millions of slaves brutally transported across that same ocean … my bit of history seemed insignificant in comparison. I wondered what they were thinking.
They probably wanted to yell at me, “Hey, check this out!”
Mentally I started preparing my response. “My relatives were abolitionists …”
But even if they hadn’t been abolitionists, there’d be something for me to gain here. Just standing here looking at those women taking in the shackles their ancestors wore. We don’t have to judge anybody, whether my great-great-uncle selling his bits of cable was profiting unethically for example. It’s history.
I tucked my scarf into my coat as I crossed the mall to the entrance to the metro. That first cable, which was a failure, had been laid in 1858. The same time those shackles were in use. We were born only a hundred years later. Three generations.
An Asian family posed for photographs in front of the capitol. I wondered if they were Japanese. Just 70 years ago, they would have been behind barbed wire in the desert of southern California.
I got back on the metro and headed home, choosing a seat next to a young woman with earbuds installed. I wanted to ask her where she was from. Then I wondered if she even knew.