The more challenging aspect of life that this blog has not explored is the act of leaving. It’s been a cinch to say what it’s like to be new in someplace majestic but that’s only half the story. The other half is the hole inside that never really fills – and that’s the piece of you you left behind.
My journey began in Washington, D.C., a city that I never really loved that was full of people I did. The whole truth is that a lot of weekends I wake up homesick in Los Angeles, wishing I could still walk to Peregrine Coffee with my friends AJ, JC, and Kam to talk about nothing. Some of this is emotional and some of it is logical. After all, life is tougher without the security of social and professional standing that’s only earned over time. Standing isn’t something that fits in the trunk of your car.
My friend AJ sent me an email before I left Washington that summed it up: “Even the shitty parts of the adventure are still an adventure” and under that umbrella goes the feelings of homesickness, loneliness, and anxiety. They are table stakes for any adventure and they are as much a part of new life on the West Coast as beach volleyball, mountain climbing, and entry-level Hollywood glam. This isn’t a bad thing — it’s just life.
So in hopes of expunging the pain that even the Pacific Ocean cannot heal, here is a partial diary of five years in Washington that I never took the time to write before. Call it therapy, call it nostalgia, and call it self-indulgent because this post is as much for the writer as it is for the reader.
Monday Morning in the U.S. House of Representatives. 2012. You come into work six minutes late. You’ve been meaning to leave home five minutes earlier but you just can’t get around to it and truthfully, no one really cares. Five minutes is nothing in your workweek that you claim is 60 hours but it is really closer to 50.
You check to see when your boss, the Congressman, is back – not until the afternoon – and then you look for what’s hot. Not food, not music, but legislation. This is a skill you learn in politics. Between the airwaves, the Internet, and the Congressional calendar you do your own type of weather forecasting. It’s raw instinct and it’s what sets good political operators apart from bad ones: the ability to know what issues are going to explode in America and when exactly that will happen.
You spend the next hour reading because you’re not going to have time to learn this on the fly. You have to do it now while things are quiet. You check Library of Congress reports and Wikipedia articles on basic subjects, mining them for primary sources written by academics and trade insiders. You build a web of sources from here and by lunch you’re ready to start putting in calls to the Congressional Committees. Once you’ve got the eggheads on your side, you’re finally ready to call-up K Street.
You never call Downtown until you’re ready.
U Street. Washington, D.C. JC and AJ’s Place. 2012. You sit on JC’s faux leather couch in an apartment that looks more like Bruce Wayne’s townhouse than a place for 26-year old attorneys who use plastic silverware. There are ceilings high enough for a shopping mall fountain and a hardwood floor that’s scratched from furniture that doesn’t sit on a rug.
JC has a fridge full of beer that’s leftover from a party two weeks ago. You make use of it while you listen to music that you’re sure never existed before Spotify. He’s not the type to really care but you’re sort of fixated on hanging out with the girls who live upstairs and as of post time, they haven’t really RSVPed to any of your offerings.
One drink becomes four and 9 PM becomes midnight. You are now closer to sleep than you are to fun – in the harbor of what they call “fear of missing out” as you stay up for another beer, wondering if the girls want to do something. Midway through your fifth drink, JC gets you to admit it: you’re soft for one of them. When she finally answers, it’s too late. You know you’re chasing it, but you, JC, and his roommate AJ schlep to Stetson’s bar next door because hey – it at least feels good to be part of the world.
Things are not the way you want them to be though. There are people – too many of them – and you can smell and feel their warmth. It marries the stale beer on the floorboards and the sweat on everyone’s back. You are too late to this party.
You drink half a Budweiser with JC and acknowledge the truth: it’s time to go home.
9 PM. U.S. Capitol. Washington, D.C. 2011. You walk across Independence Avenue, not even bothering to look up at the Capitol Dome, big enough to be the moon crash-landed on the other side of the street. You’re more concerned with your Blackberry than aesthetics as you flash through old emails trying to figure out where exactly you’re going and why you’re here three hours past dark.
Clearing security is muscle memory for you and the police officer who pats you down in the Capitol Carousel. You enter the building walking briskly, your footsteps echoing underneath the painted ceilings in an otherwise silent temple. There is a dying echo of security’s radio, soon lost in the maze of marble corridors inside.
You reach the rotunda and the 180 feet of ceiling above you does what it always has: it forces you to stop, look, and wonder. You begin to think of something. You are making a promise to yourself and as you do, you are interrupted by a door swinging wide-open. You might have heard a mouse, but this time it’s an elephant – many of them – as a parade of suits files out from behind an unmarked doorframe. It’s the Speaker of the House and his entourage. They hurry towards wherever they’re going in a silence so complete that you can hear the loose sheets of paper stuck into their portfolios banging in the air.
All alone in the sleeping Capitol, you remember the promise you were about to make: never forget this.
Georgetown. Latenight. January 2013. JC’s stands on a tabletop yelling out 2 Chainz choruses with a bottle of champagne in his hand a bow tie around his neck. It’s a room full of loud music, tuxedos, and cocktail dresses and this is surprisingly normal. That’s because today is Saturday and Monday is the President’s inauguration. It’s Mardi Gras for Democracy. JC’s adoring fans laugh and clap, sipping their own drinks at this Inauguration Ball after party.
No matter who you voted for, Washington is alive until the early morning with the giddiness of the old truth – the Republic continues on.
Dupont Circle Park. Saturday. August. It’s only 10 AM but the heat is already building. In truth, it never really went away. Yesterday ended but the air here in August is more like a swimming pool than any atmosphere the Board of Health would approve. Its humidity stores discomfort like a battery, and as the sun rises, it activates the same sort of you heat you imagine on an oil derrick in the bayou.
You sip coffee on a park bench, your sunglasses on as light glares off of pavement that is damp from the humidity. You are miserable and satisfied at the same time. These feelings are odd bedfellows but they are the only real emotions you have in August, when the city is empty and you have every inch of bleached asphalt to yourself.
The taxis drive up and down Massachusetts Avenue, looking for customers who never appear. You look at the park, where there used to be picnic blankets, Frisbees, and first dates. Now there is only a couple with their toy dog, two bums playing chess, and a squirrel wiggling his jaw as he sits alone a bench, confused about the quiet he never expected.
5 PM. Saturday. I-66 East. June 2012. You drive in from the Shenandoah Mountains. A roofless Jeep, your friend Z, and the summer air thumping in your eardrums.
The highway winds through Virginia and into the red taillights that announce the Key Bridge, a sort of customs checkpoint for the J Crew glitterati that lives across the river in Georgetown. As Z hits the breaks, the air clears and the highway thump is replaced by humming engines, idling Mercedes and other European imports looking for the M Street off-ramp.
Z turns on the radio and it’s playing the type of love song that 12 year-old girls paint their toenails to. You find yourself sympathetic to this kind of emotion, that high school infatuation, and wonder if you’re too old to ever feel it again. Have the dry cleaning tags and corporate fluorescent lights beaten it out of you? This girl singing: she’s talking about love as imagination – and you – are you now an unfortunate citizen of reality? You don’t really know the answer. Maturity may have robbed you of infatuation but it’s taught you not to panic. To be comfortable in uncertainty. To enjoy the music.
And you do. You and Z crawl forward in a traffic jam that you’re not really in a hurry to get out of. There is beauty in this mess, as puffs of clouds blow in from Virginia, spaced like cookies on a sheet that seems to go on from this horizon to the next. Beneath them, the Nation’s Capital reveals itself in the lazy turns of the Potomac River: Georgetown first, then the Washington monument, and later the Capitol dome.
You don’t know it now, but this is the way you will always remember Washington, D.C: The Key Bridge in the summer.
Wednesday November 4, 2012. Independence Avenue. The city is cloudy and quiet. Wind pelts the flag over the Capitol so that the knot at its base bangs against the flagpole.
It’s the day after a presidential election and there is no joy in the city. Bitterness is the only flavor from the losers and to the victors – there is sadness in them too. A feeling that they had sacrificed whatever joy they had left to survive re-election. For you, it’s graduation day. You have survived a full presidential term and you think about this, reflecting over it in the three seconds it takes to look out over the Capitol and down the Mall to the Washington Monument.
Grey clouds mute the Capitol’s wonder and in the following weeks, you watch as the politicos come in from the field, no mud on their boots, no blood on their sleeves, but walking and talking like soldiers who have buried their dead and are back in a world that they wish they could have changed.
Bar. 13th and U St. Washington, D.C. 2010. You stand in a crowded room, surrounded by as many friends as strangers. Not that it really matters though, because it’s hard to hear anything in here where the exposed brick magnifies the clatter of a hundred people standing in a room meant for thirty. You are two years out of college and now asking yourself why hot, crowded rooms full of elbows and loud music were ever appealing. You try to say something to JC and AJ about this but they just shrug their shoulders when they can’t hear anything you say over whatever stupid Flo-Rida song is playing.
Bar. Dupont Circle. 2012. You’ve grown up. You wear a blazer where you used to wear a Polo. You’re comfortable hanging out in places with higher stakes, which is why you’re here at Bar Dupont – a swank lounge that seems devoted to preserving the feeling of Manhattan in 2005.
You, JB, Kam, and AJ order call-brand cocktails and eye women who are probably too old for you. It’s close, maybe it could work, but you know you’re putting the cart in front of the horse when you ogle over women in couture dresses who think that a third date is something that happens in a Miami hotel suite. The dim lights, the candles on the tables, the low house music that was cast in the same mold as the minimalist furniture – they are aspirational. They are where you think you belong even though you aren’t there yet. But for some reason as you, JC, Kam, and AJ drink more you become high on the feeling that this is the first step. You are done with the mediocrity of your early 20s and the booze basements you spent them in.
You do nothing and yet you state your intentions, one martini shaker at a time.
Capitol Hill Club. Latenight. Votes. It’s standing room only in a country club basement at the foot of the Capitol. By the looks of it, you’d think the Capitol Hill Club was a sports bar and that’s kind of the point, except that the TVs are all tuned to a CSPAN feed that shows an empty House of Representatives.
Congress is empty because it’s packed into this room, twiddling it’s thumbs in loosened ties, faking dinner on the latenight menu and trading rumors about why exactly the legislative freight train has ground to a halt at 10:00 pm on a Wednesday. This is a portrait of legislative gridlock and yet – it’s a spectacle. You are living behind the marble wall that CNN’s cameras are watching.
You sit with your boss – the Congressman – and another Member from Illinois asks if he can join. The two Congressmen talk, swapping stories about small towns and the straw hats that run them. All politics are local and there is a timelessness to how they discuss the barnyard chieftains who still run American politics from the ground up.
“I hear we’ve got the votes,” one Congressman says, only to be contradicted a minute later but another. The smartest lobbyists are here now, having late dinner with their spouses and “accidentally” running into the Congressman who they couldn’t get appointments with last quarter.
No one knows what’s happening but everyone feels apart of something, whatever that is.