I don’t remember my first trip to Washington D.C. although it has become the stuff of new-guest-at-dinner-table-embarrass-Tara family legend. Apparently, at the age of four, during a White House tour I became so enamored with the place that as the tour group wound its way back out to exit I threw a hysterical fit and at some point made a break from my parents and a run for it across the White House lawn, where I was intercepted by and whisked into the arms of a friendly but stern secret service agent who gave my parents and I a brief talking to. Still, I was not deterred and as my dad always reminds me — shaking his head in mock annoyance — I asked every day for several weeks when I could “go back to my house.”
Now, 26 years later, I have finally returned. Standing at the back gate the house is smaller than I imagined it. I can see people slowly moving inside. It is dark out, around 8:30 p.m. and I wonder if I am watching the distant shadows of the Obamas before their bed routine, though I know realistically it is probably just the staff. The way the house is lit up from underneath gives it an imposing presence.
I am here in Washington for the next four months studying journalism at American University. Goodbye my San Francisco Chronicle, good morning Washington Post. Being a stranger in a strange land, albeit well dressed and monochromatic, I have already learned a lot about myself. For example, the jostling, flickering florescent lights of the DC Metro have taught me that I do, in fact, suffer from motion sickness, especially riding in the mornings, when usually all I have in my stomach is coffee. If I bring my Washington Post I can often find a word or letter and focus in on it for the duration of the trip and the nausea will go away. So don’t be fooled when you see trains and trains full of smart looking business people reading the paper to work in the morning. They are not trying to stay in step with the world around them as much as they are trying to not throw up all over their loafers.
I have also deconstructed the ancient streetwise secrets of the diamond-shaped city grid when traveling the city on foot. Seems it is all alphabetical and numerical. The lower the street number or letter in the alphabet the closer you are to the capitol. State named streets run diagonal, or something like that, I am still working on it. Finally, I have learned that everyone here is indeed an expert on something and if you give them two minutes they will tell you just where their scholastic aptitude lies and why the government has it completely wrong.
I leave the White House, and, as if on cue, it starts to gently snow. I am giddy. I have never been snowed on before. I take the long way back home and walk directly down the center of the deserted and vast horizontal national mall. Behind me the Washington Monument stands tall against the deep gray night and the ground is the same marble white as the surrounding pillared buildings and museums. Further down in the distance directly in front of me looms the domes of the capital building.
Maybe the four-year-old in me never got over that first trip to D.C. Growing up I was always jealous of previous generations because they seemed to know how to be a part of things. My parents’ friends were always talking about the 1960s — they never seemed to get over it. They kept reminiscing as if they were trying to remember something important they’d forgotten. I wanted to be a part of some national revolution. I wanted to march on this very mall for civil rights and equality, to say “no” to empty wars and bureaucratic abuses and injustice.
I can remember being a teenager in the 1990s when my friends and I were anxious for a cause, some ideal to revolt against (we chose corporate America and socks). As silly as it sounds today, I remember thinking, “where is my war, where is my fight, where is my revolution?”
Yet tonight as I stand here, on a night when Washington has turned in early, I can’t help but think I am standing where thousands have stood, stood for their beliefs. I think about Afghanistan, about my brothers and sisters in the gay and lesbian community, , the millions without real health care, without jobs. Things are not okay. What are we doing? Why are we sitting back as if somehow one president, one man is going to magically get it all done for us? I don’t remember my first trip to Washington D.C., but I have a feeling I won’t forget this one.