Letter from Washington, Part 2

Fed watching is a specifically peculiar pastime.  Specifically as in: if you take a specific interest in them, they will become specifically interested in you.  But it’s all good if you love the government.  And I do, as long as the government doesn’t try to love me too hard in return. Today, I became acutely aware that drifting by the J. Edgar Hoover Building one too many times might very well result in some hard federal lovin’.

It began, as all tragedies must, in ennui and idleness.  The Department of Justice wasn’t giving tours.  Their tourist entrance was dusty, dark, and shamefully unrenovated.  It looked like they hadn’t given a tour since 1980.  So I did what every good American tourist does when told, “no.”  I wandered around and took pictures of everything, looking completely lost and probably pathetic in my rumpled plaid shirt.

The truth is in there--in your file.
The truth is in there–in your file.

So I drifted.  I wandered.  I looked at monuments and listened to cathedral bells.  I observed the proper civic reverence at the Lincoln Memorial.  I wrote introspective things in my journal beside the reflecting pool.  I listened to a free lecture being given by a George Mason history professor outside the Smithsonian Information Center, the title of which might have been, “The Real Housewives of Colonial Washington.” (Tell me, sir, do you have tenure?)

I even went looking for a “spy museum” advertised on a blue sign with an arrow pointing off in the general area of the Washington Monument.  True to form, the spy museum could not be found (I should have consulted Google: “50 Years of Bond Villains” and I missed it).  But I discovered a way to enjoy myself nonetheless.  And, this being D.C., I also learned something.  In fact, I learned a lot.  I observed the domestic federal agent in his natural habitat.  And it was beautiful.

Tired and overheated, I’d made my way back downtown after standing with about 50 Japanese tourists in matching green T-shirts in the Lincoln Memorial.  We read the text of the Gettysburg Address aloud together from the wall and then we all clapped.  The middle-aged man standing next to me shook my hand.  We’d accomplished something together.  I felt proud and ashamed.  They did an excellent job reading the text, all things considered.  Could I do the same with the Sengo-Kenpo?  I think not.

The FBI Police have all their own gear and a concrete fortress. Do NOT underestimate them.

In any case, I subsequently found myself back at the intersection where the DOJ kitty-corners the J. Edgar.  I arrived just in time to see a lanky southerner of clear conscience but dubious judgment get questioned and patted down by the FBI security police.  Apparently, he’d been standing there taking photos of the J. Edgar for some time.  What no one knew—or maybe no one cared as I am generally rumpled and clearly non-threatening—was that I had also taken one too many shots of the architecture.  Actually, I took more than just one too many.  You might say I took a veritable shitload of pictures.  And I have no doubt that the intelligence Death Star was taking pictures of me taking pictures since there was a little dome camera every 4 feet.  But still, Jethro got the hard love and I got a coffee—across the street.

Jethro, pat-down imminent.
Jethro, pat-down imminent.

I sat down and started to draft what wouldn’t become this post when I looked up at them coming right towards me—not the FBI leg breaker foot soldiers in white shirtsleeves and body armor, but an honest-to-goodness double Mulder.  At first, I thought of Jethro and that maybe he’d gotten off easy, maybe my hard lovin’ would be twice as intimate.  But they just sat at the table beside me, oblivious.  They looked extremely clean in their unwrinkled blue suits and good haircuts.  They looked, in fact, cinematic, unreal, pressed out of some Fed-mint calibrated to make them look more like movie FBI agents and less like humans with nose hair and occasional gas.

I looked down at my netbook (Kindle app: The Importance of Being Earnest, really) and jotted down their conversation as accurately as my writerly eavesdropping gifts would permit:

Fed 1 (white, male, blue eyes, about 35 years old, tan, crow’s feet): “I don’t know.  I think it’s real, but she has a dry sense of humor.”

Fed 2 (African American, brown eyes, about 30 years old, goatee): (shakes head) “You know what I think.”

Fed 1: “Yeah.  You’re wrong.”

Fed 2: “Sure, I am.  You know what a ‘dry sense of humor’ is.”

Fed 1: “Red flag?”

Fed 2: “Right.  I don’t even have to wonder about that one.”

And then a long silence.  I wanted to give them both a big hug for being humans after all—for the nose hair that the Department of Justice must require them to clip, for obviously farting in secret and, in spite of their immaculate suits (which nevertheless looked a bit like Macy’s $150 off-the-rack specials), for being worried about heartbreak.

Lots of love in the J. Edgar Hoover Building.  It's obvious, no?
Lots of love in the J. Edgar Hoover Building. It’s obvious, no?

I walked away feeling sorry not for them but for Jethro, who will nod off on the plane back to Arkansas, wondering at the faceless tyranny of our federal government, at its omniscience and surveillance.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s more to this machine.  It’s built out of people.  And, as much as it can be a terrifying monster, it can fall in love just like you.  Just let it be the gentle kind.

I’m hitting that spy museum tomorrow, Moneypenny.  Damn it if I’m not.

Letter from Washington, Part 1

“In a very few hours I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt. I had no difficulty in finding the Company’s offices. It was the biggest thing in the town, and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade.” – Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Standing outside the White House, one feels a strange energy, a sense of outward composure over ruthless analysis and scheming. It’s not the dead weight on the air when you enter an old cathedral in Prague or the sinking  medieval depth of a back street in Oxford.  Neither does the White House radiate the architectural pretensions of our older universities trying to be more significant and stately than they actually are.  Instead, it gives the impression of a violent river that, through some trick of light and gravity, has acquired a façade of perfect serenity.  The White House is more of a movement than a structure; it’s dynamic; it’s a verb.  It’s the soul of the United States evolving in some obscure, perhaps fated, direction.  There is a powerful mystery here.

White House
Party Central

Simply walking around downtown D.C. is a history lesson—but maybe not the sort of history we’d like to believe, rather an emotional experience, a certain dissonance, a national identity crisis in full bloom.  It’s easy to feel a brutal undercurrent to the capitol, echoes of neoclassical idealism tempered by an absolute faith in institutional power.  In every edifice, one feels the constant tension between accepted history and the hard reality of a 300-year-old political experiment still trying not to fail.  300 years seems like a long time to an American, but it’s nothing to Europe.  Yet Washington D. C. seems to have distilled the same civic narcissism of any European capitol city.

Albert Gallatin
Petit Albert

The irony of standing in front of the Department of the Treasury with a Swiss tour group was not lost on me.  “Look, Albert Gallatin.” the 12-year-old boy in electric blue Nike sweats tugged on his father’s camera bag, but dad was frowning, texting with both thumbs.  It was indeed Albert Gallatin, fourth Secretary of the Treasury, US financial bodhisattva immured forever in bronze by the north entrance, a detached expression on his face.  A few minutes later, the worn-out mother took a picture of the boy holding up a $10 bill with Albert in the background.

Executive Office Building – certainly not haunted .

Walking from the Executive Office Building to the Washington Monument, the message is clear: people built all this—but such people no longer exist and possibly never will again.  Still, you are very small and they, even dead, are enormous.  One thinks of the Valley of the Kings when standing at the foot of the Capitol Building.  One thinks of the Tower of Babel and the Twin Towers and how the same gravity that rules the field mouse in a farm outside Hays, Kansas rules all this stone.  And then one thinks of Ozymandias and goes home.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’