Six hours before my first summer internship in Washington was to begin, I was retching a couple of six-packs of Miller Genuine Draft into the toilet I was sharing with four roommates in a Georgetown apartment.
They would have been pissed off if they hadn’t already passed out.
In the morning, after the thick cadences of Bob Edwards shook me awake (I figured all Washingtonians had to listen to NPR’s Morning Edition), I walked slowly and painfully to Foggy Bottom. From there I took the Metro, disembarked at Union Station, and made my way to CNN, where I was to help produce The Capital Gang, a Saturday-night chat show.
All the while, I turned various worst-case scenarios over in my banging head. They were all along the lines of Bernard Shaw asking me for an update on the crisis in Turkmenistan, followed by my vomiting on his shoes.
I don’t remember exactly what happened when I got to work, but I do remember being sent for lunch soon after. I was to retrieve a BLT with no lettucea BT, that is. Plus a doughnut for dessert. My boss told me this between puffs of cigarettes (she never paid much attention to the no-smoking signs) and gulps of trademark “blond” coffee (half coffee, half powdered creamer).
I brought the bacon-and-tomato back with no glitches, and I became my boss’s pet. (We still have dinner occasionally.) I had also learned my first lesson of Washington internships: Forget Turkmenistan. Remember “No Lettuce.” You’ll get along fine.
Six years and four internships laterafter CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the White House, and the Washington Post, in that orderI have been disabused of all the old intern myths. I gather them here as a small public service:
1.) You can live on happy-hour food. Bullshit. Since everyone expects to save a few bucks by feeding at bar troughs, the pubs are always crammed with baseball-capped frat boys vacuuming chicken wings by the dozen. (And nursing one cheap beer for an hour.) Clip coupons from the Sunday Post and shop at the Social Safeway with everyone else. Hot tip: Increase your visibility by shopping, Euro-style, a few nights a week, not with the Saturday/Sunday hordes.
2.) Your job is not primarily clerical. I knew a fellow intern who had to tape his fingers every morning because they would literally bleed from constant filing. We worked at “the White House” (translation: a bland executive-branch office building up the street). Hot tip: Help your boss write somethinganythingso you’ll at least have a real document to show for your 12 weeks in D.C.
3.) Fred Grandy fired an intern (or a page, depending on who’s telling the story) who asked him in an elevator if he wanted to go to the Lido Deck. Grandy (“Gopher” from The Love Boat) was actually a master of arcane agriculture policy and, reportedly, a great boss. (He now works for Goodwill Industries, in fact.)
4.) The Fourth of July is fun. It will be scorching, and every redneck with plane fare and an American flag will arrive to get plastered on the Mall. Hot tip: Go north to Manhattan for the long weekend; the city will be pleasantly empty.
5.) Your free (or dirt-cheap) labor this summer will help you land a job later. No way. To your boss, you’re just another kid in a Michigan T-shirt at the summer softball gameor, at best, the one who sprained her ankle in the seventh inning and had to be taken to the GW emergency room, where you saw Trent Lott getting a boil lanced. Hot tip: Call the Post’s Reliable Source and tell them about the boil.
6.) A fresh-off-the-bus intern got splattered last summer by a car zooming through the chaotic streets in front of Union Station. It is, indeed, a dangerous thoroughfare. But police couldn’t remember a young woman ever being killed there. “It doesn’t ring a bell,” says Sgt. Dan Nichols, spokesman for the U.S. Capitol Police for the last decade.
7.) Other interns want to hear about your job. At the sweaty Saturday-night keggers, keep your mouth shut about Congressman Shithead and talk about the swelter like everyone else. Hot tip: When in doubt, drain your cup and say, “I’m gonna find the beer before it’s gone.”
8.) D.C. stops at the Capitol. Actually, for you, it might. But if you fall asleep on the bus and find yourself in Southeast, visit the Panorama Room at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a church at 1600 Morris Rd. It features the best view of the city outside an airplane. Hot tip: On your way home, eat at Imani Cafe, 1918 MLK Ave., and order the black-eyed peas.
9.) When you move to Washington to work as a legislative assistant, you’ll live in D.C. You’ll move to Bethesda from the Hill within six months, grumbling about crime. Hot tip: The best schools in the region are in Fairfax County. (That’s Virginia.)
10.) Intern college mixers are fun. Many of your colleges will have a point person here who’s networking with counterparts from Harvard and UCLA and Northwestern to gather everyone for a happy hour at the Tombs. DON’T GO. Only a handful of your classmates will, and you’ll be stuck talking to a fat Dartmouth poli-sci major interning at the Heritage Foundation. Hot tip: Meet a friend at the charming Albert Einstein memorial instead. It’s tucked into a green sanctuary at the corner of 22nd Street and Constitution Avenue NW.CP