On this day every year, much hay is made over the refrains of “never forget” and “where were you?” It’s probably necessary but in a way, it cheapens the experience to tell the same stories by the campfire over and over. So this time around, I’d like to do something different. I’d like to tell the story of some other days I’ll never forget – the good ones.
Like history itself, it’s hard to say whether or not they ultimately mattered. But they were fun and joyful for their own reasons and I’d like to tell you why.
Here are a few days I’ll never forget.
Midnight in the Capitol – February 2011
Some stories are driven by plot. Others, character. In rare situations, the setting tells all.
At the age of 24, I had taken on responsibility for managing half of a Congressman’s legislative portfolio. I was in charge of keeping his positions, friends, and grudges in order on a handful of topics that are not important to this story. But in my first week, the Tea Party wave of 2010 hit Washington and a new Republican Majority was calling the shots in the House of Representatives.
In retrospect, it seems like our leadership’s strategy at the time was to wear out the hard right. Let them breathe their hot air and then bring them into the big tent of a center-right coalition. It didn’t happen that way and by the end of that week, the writing was on the wall.
Our first big bill was the Continuing Resolution, which is the parliamentary way of saying that we needed to pass a budget that was months overdue. Rather than closing up the House floor and ramming the bill through as a more experienced ruling party would have done, our leadership opened the floor for General Order and by the end of day one, there were 500 amendments waiting on the docket. To give you an idea of scale, a dozen amendments is usually enough to fill a whole afternoon.
We went forward, letting all the new firebrands take their pot shots and stroke their pet issues one amendment at a time. We waited for them to tire but by Wednesday it seemed clear to everyone that the government was going to run out of money before we ran out of amendments. Even then, the chances of securing passage for a budget were slim. That’s when the midnight sessions began.
Late nights in the Capitol are a special thing. Like all rites of passage, you don’t look forward to them but in the rearview mirror, they are some of your favorite times. There is always the hope that Congress will adjourn, as it usually does, by 6PM. But when it’s 8PM with no end in sight, you’ll find yourself sneaking around the Capitol, trading scuttlebutt with friends in other offices who are on duty for the night. By then the Capitol is mostly silent, except for the sound of your shoes clapping on the floor and the police radios echoing deep into its marble caverns. When a door opens, it booms like a rock in a canyon. When a sheet of paper slips, it howls like a gust of wind.
Around 9:00 PM, the Members of Congress came back from their evening fundraisers to find the House exactly as they left it – rambling and disorganized. That’s when the bar rooms of the Democratic Club and the Capitol Hill Club opened for business, their oak-paneled basements swollen with suits in loosened ties. In the standing room-only space, politicians and their staffs traded intelligence, then war stories: the flukes that got them elected or pushed a bill through that never stood a chance. You learned things about these people. You learned things about this place.
By the time the Speaker of the House showed up it was past midnight. Today was officially tomorrow and his appearance, though celebrity, told the room everything there was to know – nothing doing tonight, come back tomorrow for another round.
It went on like that for a full week. At the time, I was a little upset to be working 16-hour days and taking taxis home when the subways closed. That was short-sighted of me though because midnight in the Capitol is the best time to be there – the lights down low, unseen whispers bouncing from marble wall to marble wall, the small players at home, the big guys – somewhere. We weren’t making history but we felt near it and on a good day, maybe even part of it. That’s how I’ll always remember it.
Flying Home from College for My First Thanksgiving – November 2004
There is a part of being a college freshman that feels like summer camp with beer and then there is the hangover that comes after. I started college in the fall of 2004. I moved to urban Philadelphia from the suburbs in Louisville, Kentucky, and fell into what seemed like an easy routine as a member of a sports team: built in friends, plenty of beer, and always someone to go to the dining hall with.
But when fall became winter, I broke down physically and mentally. I was medicated for bronchitis, sinusitis, and a viral cold all at the same time, my coach called me “Ebola” and the toughness of a Northeastern city made me homesick for the South, which I had been so desperate to escape just months before.
Winter came early that year. There was a deep chill in the Northeast and there were horrible snowstorms around the Great Lakes the day before Thanksgiving. The buzz around the freshman dorms was morbid – everyone’s flight home was being cancelled and a lucky few, like me delayed. People sat on their luggage, crying on their flip-phones while they begged airline representatives for a ticket home. Some of them were hung-over in sweatpants. Others were dressed their finest, excited to see their families for the first time since leaving.
I ignored my delay and went straight to the airport that morning, operating on the belief that my flight would eventually be cancelled and that I’d have a better chance of securing passage at the airport itself. Remember, this was before smartphones. Just about everything that could have gone wrong did but somehow I managed to get a ticket on another plane headed for Cincinnati, which was close enough to the mark.
I had a window seat on that flight. It was so cold that the glass itself could have frozen my nose off my face. It was only November but some anomaly had opened the gates around the Arctic Circle and flooded the city with a bone-chilling freeze you could feel through walls.
While the plane boarded, I looked out the window and over the wingtip that curved up at the Delaware River. The air was so clear; the sun was drawing low, steam rising off a refinery between here and Center City where the highrises were beginning their dusk-time twinkle. What remained of the sun was a pale orange rim along the horizon. A wisp of deep purple bordered that and the darkening night sky.
As the plane took off, I felt like I’d done it. That I’d passed my first test as an adult. In that moment, I decided I was no longer intimidated by this city. I’d survived there for three months and I’d escaped this stupid cold that was hell-bent on keeping me from home. These things are menial as an adult but at 18, it was enough to convince me that I could handle whatever came next.
My Brother’s Graduation Party – May 2006
My brother Dougo isn’t like you. He’s been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and is basically frozen as a nine year old for the rest of his life. It took him six years to finish high school, which doesn’t sound quite as strong as “Olympic Gold Medalist”, but I think that the amount of effort it took from him and my Mom to get his diploma was worth about the same.
Like the rest of us, he graduated in May in a convention hall that his school rented out. In the parking lot after was when the clouds appeared – a front, as they say – because spring thunderstorms in the Ohio Valley tend to look like a moving black wall. They roll off the prairie and sweep over our city, coming down from the north like a thundering shadow. Our power was out before we got home and that was a big problem because we had a graduation party to host that night.
Never fear. We lived in the woods where tree branches were in the habit of clipping power lines. There was nothing abnormal about losing electricity; it was more of a summertime ritual.
By the time the party started, the house was lit entirely by candlelight. Our guests must have thought they were in a Russian novel and as more came in, perhaps the cave of creation itself. Shadows moved in the flickering light. Wine glasses stretched across tables. Human silhouettes lived their own life, existing on a parallel plane as they danced between flickers, animating a second reality on the living room wall.
There is and will always be a primordial connection to me in that night. You see, my brother can be hard to love – that is the nature of a disability – so the people who come out for him are the kind that will be there until the bitter end. Some of them are family. Some of them are friends. All of them have the character to love someone less perfect themselves.
It seemed like bad luck at the time but we all agreed in retrospect that Dougo’s graduation party was the best of all of them. Its imperfection was unforgettable and in a way, made it perfect. That’s a lesson by itself: that sometimes bad luck gives you your best hand of cards.
The Georgetown Solstice – December 2011
When I was 25 years old I met a girl named Rebecca at a party at the Danish Embassy. To be clear, I had not been invited to this party but my friend Will had. And to be even more clear, Will had never actually planned on bringing me. He’d arrived the day before from Berlin, where he’d been living for the last two years, and by coincidence, we’d run into each other on the street in Washington, D.C. Jet lagged and with no one else to take as his guest, he offered it to me, and 24 hours later I was eating salmon imported from a fjord in the Baltic and toasting a wealthy Danish couple with liqueurs I had never seen and could hardly pronounce.
The Danes had invited Will to their party to introduce him to Rebecca but instead, Rebecca and I hit it off. We weren’t lovers but we were fast friends and that winter, I received a coveted invitation to her family’s Winter Solstice party, an annual gala at their mansion in Georgetown for of the wealthy and eternally itinerant. You know, the people who float around the planet on money and social pretense – the last of the Gatsbys , if you will – and this was the Washington, D.C., stop on their global tour.
The invitation came with the hostess’s strong suggestion that I bring eligible young men with me, which I was happy to do. Come Saturday night, I put on my tuxedo and took a cab to the address in Georgetown Rebecca had given me. I brought JC and AJ, my two best friends, and from cocktail hour on we were in the company of living Hapsburgs, plantation owners in Jamaica, and a former Scottish Prime Minister. While I have occasionally wondered who was in that house that I never introduced myself to, I’ve never regretted it. That’s because each of us three found exactly what we were looking for:
Me: a girl named Sam. She was from North Carolina, short, blond, cute, and a great dancer.
AJ: a joint in the bathroom upstairs. He shared it with the Head of the FAA. On the way out, he met a woman who I never saw. They spent the night together in the guest room.
JC: chaos. JC loves chaos. A good drinker, an even better dancer. Someone’s aunt took a liking to him and he hid the first place he could find – the unlocked guest room, where AJ and his friend were curled up without any clothes on.
This is not information that any of us had in real time. For my part, I was drunk and amazed that for once the prettiest girl in the room seemed to like me. I did not notice my friends’ absence anymore than the passage of time.
The mostly middle-aged crowd seemed to be conditioned for drinking martinis deep into the night. They were well-practiced from years of the black tie circuit; hundreds of charity balls and high-end birthdays that gave them an Olympic athlete’s ability to continuously swim up a river of gin while I floundered under the weight of a few Manhattans and danced with Sam until the sweat soaked through my shirt. Time and space became blurry things and I left the dance floor knowing I was too gross to be presentable.
When I came back, Sam was gone, either absorbed by the crowd or the city beyond it, and around 4:00 AM I decided it was time to call it a night. I went downstairs to the basement where the coatroom was. At the bottom of the stairs, the dream world ended. It was cold down there and it smelled like must with a trace of mothballs. Time came roaring back with a hangover not far behind and I realized it was now early on Sunday, that I had work Monday, and had slim chances of getting a cab home from here.
I stood in the basement, the cold winter air seeping in through the unlined windows, as I looked between a library of coat racks and listened to the ceiling stretch and relax underneath the steps of the dancers still going strong above. It seemed impossible – finding my black wool coat in a room full of them – but I found Sam instead, confronting the same problem as she searched jacket-by-jacket for the one that belonged to her. We kissed in between hanging coats. I held on to one of them for balance, afraid to touch her for reasons I don’t know. We left in separate cabs but it was the beginning of something, not the end of it.
Around dawn, JC arrived at my apartment. He was bloodshot and missing the jacket and tie to match his slacks. AJ we found several hours later, still in his tuxedo, drinking vodka out of a flask on U Street. We had a lot to talk about. A lot of gaps to fill, and a lot of stories to tell that were too strange to be real.
When the Winter Solstice came around again the next year, Rebecca had moved to Lisbon, AJ to New York, and Sam to Charleston. Two years later I moved to Los Angeles. If there is ever a room I will never set foot in again, it is that mansion in Georgetown.
So those are four happy days I’ll always remember. The Carpetbagger’s challenge to you: just spend an hour today remembering yours.