“Bill-eeeeee! Billy! Hurry up, goddammit!” Mom is rushing Billy from the Air & Space Museum back onto the Tourmobile, the blue and white snake that slithers its way around Washington every day. “Put that popsicle down,” she orders. Billy whines. “No, I don’t want it on the bus with us,” she says. “You’ll just get it all over.”
Defiantly, Billy shoves the rest of the creamsicle into his mouth, a deep orifice that I imagine to be full of cavities. Billy is about 10, and he’s fat. The frozen treat disappears into puffy cheeks. Mom sighs.
Once Billy and the rest of us are safely seated, the tour resumes. “They have 17 Smithsonians,” says our guide, Melissa, in a voice whose singsongy modulations sound so practiced they are flat. “Fifteen here in Washington, and two in New York City.”
Then she launches into trivia questionsWhich three presidents died on July 4? Which five were left-handed?and elicits a few halfhearted answers. (She then gives us the real answers, should you care: Jefferson, Adams, and Monroe; Garfield, Truman, Ford, Bush, and Clinton.)
But most riders don’t care. They are happy to be out of the heat and, for the first time since their soggy French fries at the Air & Space cafeteria, seated. Billy in particular doesn’t care. He hasn’t said much since boarding the Tourmobilean apparent cause for concern.
“Billy, hon, what’s the matter?” Mom asks as we pass the west lawn of the Capitol. “Billy, look at the Capitol! See! Look!”
Billy lurches forward, apparently excited by the view. I think he’s going to break the rules by standing while the bus is in motion. Instead, he vomits his creamsicle onto the floor with startling velocity. It splashes Mom’s Avia walking shoes, a snarly teenager’s Tevas, and some other boys’ Airwalks. Besides the white cream, Billy’s discharge contains what could only be partially digested beef macaroni. My own Doc Martens are thankfully spared.
“Oh, Billy!” The ensuing tumult involves copious Wet Ones, several napkins, and a Marlboro beach towel that someone pulls from a giant handbag. “He fuckin’ charfed,” a ball-capped teenager observes with a snigger.
Fortunately, we come to the next stopUnion Stationvery soon, and Billy and Mom depart. Because we are in the back bus, separated from the front bus by an accordion joint, Melissa and the driver are none the wiser. “Notice the Roman centurion statues guarding the train station…,” Melissa is saying.
August is here, which means the proportion of residents to tourists in Washington has reached its least favorable. Thousands of visitors are streaming through airport gates and into the city every day, and many of them board one of Washington’s dozen or so bus tours.
Some shell out $100 or more for a fancy bus with an “insider” guide, or a spot on a tony river cruise, gourmet meal included. But the masses mostly take one of two toursTourmobile or the Old Town Trolley Tour. In fact, this year 2 million people will ride Tourmobile, the only service authorized by the National Park Service to rumble into Arlington National Cemetery and around the FDR Memorial.
For the average District resident, the tours are part of Washington’s backdropthat huge swath of the federal city we learn to ignore unless we work there. Indeed, to be a resident and to take one of these tours is to see Washington in a way you’ve never seen it before. And never want to again.
“You’re in where, sir?” The woman answering the phones at Old Town Trolley Tours seems alarmed when I tell her I’m in Adams Morgan. “You can’t catch the trolley there,” she says. “Hold, please.”
“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley…,” sings the hold music.
The woman comes back on the line. “Sir, you need to find Washington Park Gourmet at 24th and Calvert,” she says, sending me safely into Woodley Park. “You can catch the trolley there.”
I comply, and soon enough the bright orange and muted green trolley picks me up. It doesn’t clang at all, mostly because these “trolleys” aren’t really trolleys. Trolleys, in fact, are simply the transformers that carry power from overhead wires to cars running on tracks below. So the Old Town Trolleys aren’t even trolley cars, since the defining feature is missing from the top. In actuality, we are riding in propane-powered buses designed to look like trolley cars.
On board, I pay my stunning $20 fee, which gets me a boarding pass good for all day. The trolley stops at 18 Washington landmarks (well, 17 landmarks and the Washington Park Gourmet), and I can visit each one and then re-board the next trolley, which comes about 20 minutes later.
Since I’ve already seen Washington, however, I stick with my driverone of 35for his entire loop. His name is Al Tyre (pronounced, as he does every time new riders board, “Tie-Ree”), and he’s a bespectacled man with a significant stomach and an Afro poking from the back of his mesh baseball cap. He has one of those rotund radio voices.
“Hello there, guy!” he beams. “Where are you from?”
“Walla Walla, Wash.,” I lie.
“Well, welcome, Walla Walla!” he shrieks. Ding Ding! He pulls a cord above his head to ring the bell atop the bus.
Unlike Tourmobile, which navigates a narrow east-west strip stretching from Arlington Cemetery to the Library of Congress, the Trolley passes through a residential neighborhood on its way to the Cathedral. “Cleveland Park is not a park at all,” Tyre hums, adding that homes go for about half a million dollars in this part of town. The tourists, all of whom are white, coo appreciatively.
The Trolley Tours advertise themselves as purveyors of “TRANSPORTAINMENT,” a word they always put in capital letters. Unlike Tourmobiles, the Trolleys have one person who both drives and speaksone TRANSPORTAINER per bus. The “-tainment” part of the bargain runs pretty thin after a while, though.
We are told that Helen Keller is buried at the National Cathedral School, that 60 percent of the world’s countries have embassies on or near Massachusetts Avenue NW, that Ronald Reagan was shot with two bullets, one that lodged in his lung and one in his back.
And those are the more interesting things we learn. Mostly, Al buffets us with an endless stream of Washington miscellanea, from the number of feet that Mount St. Alban rises above sea level (424) to the number of feet the house at 2726 P St. NW stretches from side to side (nine). We also learn the number of feet tall that you must be to visit the third floor of the Holocaust Memorial Museum (four), the number of documents acquired by the Library of Congress each year (75 million), and the number of statues on the outside of Union Station (six). It’s a Harper’s Index for boobs, a meaningless collection of data nits too insignificant to say aloud in sentient company. But it fills the time, and it has a patina of importancethis is Washington, after all.
Tyre literally does not shut up the entire tour, so there are no opportunities for questions. When he’s not spouting minutiae, he’s still talking: “Look at those smiles! Thank you, young ladies, for those beautiful smiles. Oh, yes. Uh-huh. We are doing just fine. Good job. Watch that step…” All the womeneven the doddering eightysomethings from Iowa (especially them, in fact)are “young ladies.” The men are all “guys.”
Then it’s back to the facts surrounding the Battle of the Bulge, Constitution Avenue’s origins as a canal, and the time of Abe Lincoln’s death (7:22 a.m.).
Tourmobile manages to be even less informative, mostly because its drivers talk much less. (But it also costs lessonly $12 for an all-day pass.) They mostly identify various buildings. And while the Trolley drivers all seem to be seasoned TRANSPORTAINERS, the Tourmobile’s “narrators” are younger: My three narrators were all college students here for the summer, earning $7 an hour ($10.50 for overtime) to work on the Tourmobiles.
“It was really, really easy to get,” says one driver of her job. “I just went in, and they took me.” (She attends a college in the area but asks me not to say which one.) In preparation to be a narrator, she underwent a two-week training course and memorized a large manual of trivia. “They always have openings,” she says, “if you’re interested. But it gets really, really boringI mean, you know, ‘On your left, like, it’s the Department of Health and Human Services,’ for, like, the 20th time today!”
But if the Trolley Tours are more professional, both share a skewed vision of Washington. For example, the tours skip only one Smithsonian museum or gallery in Washingtonthe one in Anacostia. When we were passing the Capitol, one Tourmobile driver noted that residential neighborhoods were all “at least a 10-minute drive away.” What about Stanton Park, Chinatown, and Eastern Market? I don’t have a chance to ask. “On the left,” the driver is saying, “is the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court.”
Another day, another Trolley Tour: Our “conductor,” Jurgen, is discussing the District’s recent woes. “As of next week, the mayor and the city council will be really immaterial here,” he says. “Something called the control board will run everything. On your right, you’ll see the Embassy of Canada. Its fountain is designed to look like Niagara Falls.” Neither Jurgen nor his passengers takes much note of the end of home rule, though Jurgen giggles later that the mayor “can’t even decide the size of his bathroom” in the renovated Wilson Building.
The District’s sad state is underlined near the end of our trip: It’s 5:45 p.m. on a recent Friday, and the tours are winding down for the day. We pass the “presidential McDonald’s,” just up from the White House, and Jurgen notes that 16th Street is the longest in Washington4.9 miles. But as we turn onto K Street, something goes wrongwe stall.
Hostile Friday-afternoon drivers honk like mad behind us. A dad from Scarsdale whispers to his wife, “Mark said there were some scummy people in this part of town. I hope we’re not stuck.” We are.
“Folks,” Jurgen says over the loudspeaker, “I think I’m out of gas.”
He steps from the bus and places triangular hunter-orange hazard signs behind the trolley. More honking. We also get the finger from a carload of Virginians.
But in the safe world of the Trolley, safety is just 20 minutes away. Four British tourists hop into a cab, but the rest of useven the Scarsdale folkswait for the next bus. “Welcome aboard,” she says. And it all starts again.CP