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Saying hello and goodbye to Washington, D.C., is a cliché. Government drones do it in droves every two, four, and six years—and a larger-than-usual wave of them is expected to hit shore this November. Of course, on one mythical American level, Washington itself is a cliché, the repository of every citizen’s ideals and fantasies about how a democracy should work.
But let’s start simply with saying hello and goodbye, and leave it at that. I said hello to Washington in November 1977. I said goodbye to Washington in September 1994. I could have been content here for the next quarter-century, toiling for the Library of Congress and free-lancing on the side as a writer and secondhand bookseller, as I have done for the last several years, and then finally been buried near my military kinfolk in Arlington National Cemetery. But forces have conspired to show me the road out of town and, at age 41, I am embarking on a new adventure in the rolling hills of Connecticut.
Among the many hackneyed bits of wisdom that I heard during my 17 years here, one old chestnut needs to be re-examined. That is, the one about Washington being a transient city. So it is, as I stated at the outset, but that’s only a tiny part of the story. Indeed, this fine and public place is bewitched, bewildered, and bedeviled on even-numbered years by the comings and goings of those in power, those seeking to curry the favor of those in power, and those too young, impressionable, and/or dense to realize that real power—the kind that shapes or warps national policy—is never, ever shared with “the people.”
As with most longtime residents of Washington, my life was rarely touched by these waxing and waning tides of newcomers. This despite the fact that, for most of my time here, I worked across the street from the world’s most powerful legislative body and next door to what once, before being packed with unqualified ideologues, was its most venerable judicial body. The hordes of pilgrims attracted to these two centers of power—my erstwhile “neighbors”—were not the people I met, or befriended, or valued as kindred spirits.
I was reminded of this fact on an almost daily basis as I exited the Capitol South Metro station. At the top of the escalator—actually, at the corner of 1st and C Streets SE—the tides turned. The young, sleek, handsome men and women who staffed the legislative offices sauntered toward the House office buildings (Cannon, Longworth, Rayburn) while I—and my dumpier, less exuberant colleagues—slouched toward the buildings of the Library of Congress (Madison, Jefferson, Adams).
Often, I found myself pondering what decision I made at an earlier juncture—was it listening to the Doors’ first album instead of going to Boy Scout camp during the Summer of Love? Was it taking typing instead of shop in ninth grade? Studying Chaucer instead of economics in college?—had set me on the inexorable path to this crossroads. Here they were, headed to the halls of power where democracy is bought and sold to the highest bidder, and there I was entering the home of powerless tomes where knowledge and wisdom battle for the best minds of my generation, starving hysterical naked. (This is no elitist fantasy—I was envious!)
As I said, farewells to D.C. soon lapse into cliché.
To old-timers—that is, anyone who has lived here longer than five years—the cliché about Washington’s transience is ridiculous. The fact of the matter is that this is not a transient city, but a thriving, troubled, boisterous, bothered, happy, sad urban community, and as set in its ways as any WASP nest of ye olde New England. In short, it’s an interesting and invigorating place to put down roots. And part of me wishes I was doing just that—staying here in this city I’ve alternately loved and hated for nearly two decades.
Another part of me wants out, though. It longs to be transplanted in some new, less hostile soil. Rather than detail the psychological factors for this, I have made a list. Actually, two lists. One list is the Reasons I Am Sad to Leave D.C. The other is the Reasons I Am Glad to Leave D.C.
It’s a good way to sum up this city, because if nothing else can be said with certainty about it, Washington is a city of lists. J. Edgar’s List of Spies. Joe McCarthy’s List of Commies. Nixon’s Enemies List. Nixon’s Watergate Co-Conspirators List. Nixon’s List of People to Be Sent Free Copies of All Those Books He Wrote That Nobody in Their Right Mind Would Otherwise Purchase (Much Less Read), Nancy Reagan’s Enemies List, George Bush’s Thousand Points of Light, Friends of Bill List, Hillary Clinton’s Enemies List.
Maybe my lists will generate other lists from those in violent disagreement or from those who, on the verge of a new Marion Barry era, are contemplating leaving (or staying defiantly put, as the case may be). At any rate, I offer my own lists in a spirit of friendship to this city I once called home.
Reasons I Am Sad to Leave D.C.
The Library of Congress Despite a negative media blitz in recent years—due in part to a less than inclusive Reagan-era managerial style, a class-action suit that has been dragged out far too long by intractable forces on both sides, and a renovation of its centerpiece building that is about five years over schedule—it is still the greatest cultural treasure this nation has. And access to its collections is worth fighting for.
The Aesthetics of the City There is no denying the physical beauty of a city without skyscrapers or belching industrial presence. Adding to Pierre L’Enfant’s grand 1791 design for the nation’s capital (“a plan wholly new”) is its location along a tree-lined river basin and a woodland-covered creek bed, and the subsequent landscaping expertise of those good folks who brought us cherry blossoms. Despite attempts by Oliver Carr and his co-dependents-in-architectural-crime to turn downtown into a chrome-mirrored edifice to corporate greed (typified by the Rhodes Tavern fiasco), the city is graced by world-class structures—bridges, museums, parks, churches, and monuments. Few American cities can rival the views of Key Bridge from the George Washington Memorial Parkway or Taft Bridge soaring above Rock Creek Park.
Walking About Like Manhattan (in only this way), Washington is a great city in which to walk. For the most part, the terrain is flat, the sidewalks aren’t covered in urine or wine puke, the walls aren’t tagged with graffiti, and the lack of skyscrapers allows for some commanding vistas—enough of them, in fact, to make one forget temporarily how easily it is to be mugged, murdered, or hit by a bicycle messenger here. And more verdant strolls are always available at the National Arboretum, Glover-Archbold Park, Battery-Kemble Park, the C&O Canal, and Roosevelt Island.
Subwaying About It’s a perfectly fine, ifoverpriced, Metro system, and someday soon, when the world runs out of fossil fuels, the planners of this subway will betouted as geniuses.
Driving About What other world capitals can beat the drives along George Washington Memorial Parkway, Rock Creek Parkway, Clara Barton Parkway, and Pennsylvania Avenue? (This is not a trick question.)
Flying About Though maligned, Washington National Airport is the most convenient airport in the U.S., and few approaches to a city compare with the one required to land here, over the Potomac River within a barf bag’s toss of the monuments.
Biking About You don’t have to be an Earth First!er or a Jantzen-covered, whistle-blowing, thick-calved kamikaze to enjoy bicycling around the nation’s capital (but it helps).
Free Concerts In the summer, this city is one big outdoor stage, and the price of admission is a Metro fare-card. As misanthropic as I’ve become of late, some of my best times were had in the crush of humanity at Fourth of July celebrations on the Mall, trying to catch a glimpse of the Beach Boys, Rostropovich, or Mr. T. (In the winter, several institutions offered me more sedate musical freebies, too.)
Good Eats Name your palate’s ethnic persuasion and you can find it here or in the outlying ‘burbs. Your choices elsewhere are as limited as the imaginations of the human meat patties who devise the fare at the fast-fooderies that have taken over the world.
Good Reads You can always judge a city by its bookshops, and in that regard D.C. is on the nation’s top shelf, in both new- and used-book outlets. Additionally, for nerdy bibliophiles like me, the area is host to excellent book sales (annual ones like the Vassar, Goodwill, and State Department, and semiannual ones by the area’s many library systems), as well as good yard-sale and thrift-shop pickings, and two fine annual antiquarian book fairs (in Rosslyn and in Silver Spring).
Eastern Market For nearly two decades, petty territorial bickering has threatened the fate of the city’s oldest open-air market, and yet somehow Eastern Market chugs along, more popular than ever. Word has it that a compromise has been reached (more likely, an under-the-table deal struck) about the lovable red-brick monster, but as with most things that involve the city’s government, it’s strictly don’t-hold-your-breath. I also bid a fond adieu to D.C.’s other old-time flea markets, most notably the Georgetown flea market, Bethesda’s market, the wonderfully odiferous fish market on Maine Avenue (another venerable venue the city government is sending on the road to ruin), and the several farmers’ markets that dot the outlying areas, little reminders of nature’s rhythms amid the soulless, climate-controlled sprawl that passes for the brave new world in the “edge cities.”
The Smithsonian This octopus of museums has, like the LC, come under media fire of late, but it’s still the world’s unrivaled national museum system, costing not a dime to visit and donated to these unworthy shores by a Scotsman who never set foot here. Especially rewarding are the less-traversed exhibits (the Arts and Industries Building is a riot), and a visit to Washington is not complete without a pilgrimage to James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly in the National Museum of American Art.
Other Cultural Institutions For starters, the National Archives will forever enshrine Elvis, displaying his cuff-links to a dazed Richard Nixon. And then there’s the Corcoran Gallery and School of Art, Arena Stage, the billion other local theater companies, the Kennedy Center, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Phillips Collection, the Freer Gallery, the Hirshhorn, Wolf Trap, the 9:30 Club, Birchmere, Bayou, Tune Inn, Irish Times, One Step Down, Biograph and Key Theaters, American Film Institute’s screening room, the Mary Pickford Theater, FilmFest DC, the local universities as concert/lecture venues, and street corner and subway musicians.
The Baltimore Orioles This is blasphemous, I know, but I’ll still miss the O’s. When I moved here, I acquired the requisite knee-jerk hatred of ex-Senator owners Clark Griffith and Bob Short, though their separate franchises had moved by the time I arrived. Eschewing the equally requisite nose-thumbing at Baltimore, however, I started going to O’s games in 1978, mostly to sample the charms of Memorial Stadium. Before then, I’d always harbored a hatred of the Orioles. I soon realized why: They play flawless, fundamental baseball that emphasizes great pitching, stingy defense, and timely hitting (often yielding more runs than hits). Every O’s game was tense, masterful, often decided by an Earl Weaver strategy. After years of rooting for bumblers like the Braves, Phillies, and Indians, I was hooked. I was also lucky enough to see the flowering of careers by Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr., Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, Tippy Martinez, Rich Dauer, Doug DeCinces, Benny Ayala, Len Sakata, and T-Bone Shelby (OK, so the last few weren’t greats, but their overachieving epitomized why I once loved baseball). The greatest sports pleasure I ever had was the 1982 season-ending series at Memorial Stadium against the Brewers, all four games of which I attended. If the O’s swept, they tied for first; they won the first three, but Palmer, on two days’ rest, couldn’t hold the line. Camden Yards, for all its studied attempts to re-create the sport’s best days, is still at its heart a corporate palace built with taxpayers’ money for the further enrichment of tax-sheltered billionaires. But those years at Memorial Stadium are the ones I’ll take to my grave. This is true for many more Washingtonians than will admit it.
College and High-School Basketball As insufferable as he can be, John Thompson is a man of principle, and that is a rare thing indeed in college hoops, something worth missing. But then so is the upcoming excitement at UMd.’s Cole Field House and GW’s Smith Center. And here I am leaving just when some great crosstown rivalries are heating up!
Finally, I would like to wave a tearful hankie at the following: Jim Vance, Gordon Peterson, the late Glenn Brenner, the latePetey Greene, the late Root Boy Slim, the late Danny Gatton, the late ‘Bama, Tom Sherwood, Del Walters, Mary McGrory, Morgan Wootten, Jon Miller, Mel Procter, Wes Unseld, the Nighthawks, WHFS-FM, Derek McGinty, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and the melancholy statue of Albert Einstein on Constitution Avenue.
Reasons I Am Glad to Leave D.C.
Diplomatic Immunity The quaint and rarefied air of the city’s scenery-hogging embassies is belied by all the arse-kissing and intrigue that goes on inside them, not to mention the arrogant disregard for others that “immunity” status breeds. (Shouldn’t we at least consider caning as a punishment for diplomats who break the laws here?)
The Capital’s Upper Crust I speak here of those shakers and movers who reside behind electrified fences, walls, gates, and moats in Georgetown and up Foxhall Road NW and presume to possess the immunity that diplomats are accorded. Oh yes, let’s not forget the human mosquitoes who feed off their self-infatuated lifestyles: tuxedoed concierges, valets, chauffeurs, bootlicking yes-men, spokespersons, image consultants, poodle groomers, gourmet caterers, tax consultants, tan consultants, lawyers, shrinks, expert witnesses, and personal trainers. This category also includes the undiluted smugness of the polo set, who always seemed to be running me and my buddies off the Mall when we were playing softball—not personally, of course, but through hired lackeys, while they sat at a distance atop their steeds, affecting Bonnie Prince Charlie poses in their silly little helmets and stretch pants.
Political Power Mongers Especially wearisome are those politicians who disguise themselves in crusader capes (to get the angry backlash vote), only to unveil their true colors within weeks of being elected. I realize this is the pathology of politicians everywhere, but at least I won’t have my nose so close to their still-smoldering skidmarks, as it were.
Urban Blight Denial As much as crime and racial tension bother me, neither make me glad to leave D.C. What does bother me—and hastens my departure—is the intellectual climate that precludes honest discussion of either or both. Citizens of D.C. are put on tenterhooks entirely too often by the “race card.” And no, let’s not have a protracted debate as to whose fault that might be—there’s fault enough for several earthquakes. In the meantime, crime is out of control, the cops are on the take, the incompetent mayor is being replaced by a corrupt one. What’s all the discussion about? Do something!
The High Cost of Living I’ve never figured out how the cost of living can be so high in a city where millions of people spend their entire vacation budgets every year. Let’s not even talk about the property taxes, or the gargantuan proceeds from parking tickets, or the dough confiscated from crackheads and dealers, or the…(where does it all go?). All I know is I can buy a nice house anywhere else in America for about half of what one costs here. And with my leftover funds, I can buy land to set aside for conservation—or as a training ground for that survivalist cult I’ve always wanted to organize.
D.C. Bureau of Traffic Adjudication Not even in Kafka is there a more forlorn experience than trying to contest an unwarranted parking ticket in this town. And for Sartre fans, there’s D.C. Superior Court (as I overheard a visitor once say, “Superior to what?!”).
Nitpicking Ideologues The constant in-your-face clash of ideologies more often than not mistakes the battle for the war, with the result that no problems are ever really solved, just Scotch-taped back into working order in time for the next election.
Jack Kent Cooke and Abe Pollin Did Abe really threaten to move the team if we didn’t root for them? This after we’ve been fleeced of six bucks just to park at his Capital Center, er, USAir Arena? (Any second thoughts about that name change, Abe? “Chapter 11 Arena” just doesn’t sound right….)
Ticket-Scalping Agencies Now let me get this straight. It’s a crime if you end up with an extra ducat to a ballgame and try to unload it in the parking lot on the way in from your car. But it’s legal to hire people to stand in line when tickets to an event go on sale, buy up all the seats, jack the price up to five times face value, then peddle them from an air-conditioned office in the suburbs or through the classifieds in the newspaper? That’s what made this country great.
Institutional Lying From the Pentagon to Langley and back to the big white dome on the Hill and the little White House on the prairie, it not only never stops; it perpetuates itself. Was it Herr Hitler who said the bigger the lie the more believable it is? Or was it Spinal Tap?
The Intelligence Community (Isn’t that an oxymoron?) CIA, NSA, whatever alphabet soup of acronyms disguises each of the armed services’ in-house Gestapos, Tom Clancy, Tom Clancy wanna-bes, and all those silly-ass spy novels wherein good flabby white guys save the world from evil flabby dark guys. On this note, one of the things that always haunted me here was an uneasy feeling that behind every gray edifice of every federal agency devoted to “national security,” an Oliver North clone was operating unmonitored activities in my name. We aren’t naive enough to believe that Aldrich Ames is more an enemy of the state than the festering tumor of a disease. Are we?
Congressional Staffers I saw them swagger into work each morning and stagger home, post-happy hour, each night, and I couldn’t help but ponder that vast void of triviality and spin control that existed in between. Our federal government at work.
Cabbies It’s after midnight and my options are few. I stick out my arm and hail a cab. Yes, sure, no problem. I’ll be more than glad to pay the gloomy, tight-lipped hack 15 bucks for what in effect is a three-mile drive from the train station to my apartment. And there’s no extra charge for the high-speed tire-screeching U-turn or the cricketlike regularity of the beeping horn. Yes, sure, no problem.
The Beltway No other stretch of interstate in America provides the thrills, chills, and hazardous cargo spills that our beloved Beltway does. Disney would have been welcome with open arms in Virginia if it had designed a more death-threatening ride.
The Haze of Summer Dog Days This annual reminder of the city’s swampy origins, now supplemented by ozone and particulate matter, is also a harbinger of eco-disaster if the internal combustion engine is given precedent over human lungs. General Motors/the tobacco lobby. Is there really any difference?
And finally, I would like to send a farewell Bronx cheer to the following folks who, though not necessarily D.C. residents, have made their presences felt here entirely too often: Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Pope, Martin Peretz, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski (why are both of these disastrous Secretaries of State now considered foreign policy pundits?), Alan Greenspan (hey, isn’t anyone else in America qualified to be consulted on financial matters? My wife, for instance?), Mortimer Zuckerman, Sam Huff, John Ray, Diane Rehm, Barbara Walters, the NRA, the AMA, the National Association of Realtors, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the whole Haft family, Jack Limpert, Mickey Mouse, Socks, Ling-Ling (or Wing-Wing or Ding-a-Ling or whatever the hell the name of that panda is), the two George Allens, Charlton Heston, Jack Valenti, the Gipper, Al Haig, Machiavelli, Caesar, Napoleon, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, Marilyn Quayle, Ross Perot, Chairman Mao, Hill & Knowlton, Limbaugh & Stern, Hardin & Weaver, Mary & Jim, Ben & Sally, Ben & Jerry, the House & Senate, Sodom & Gomorrah, Weasel….
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Peter Hayes.