Walking out of the Smithsonian Metro station, right outside the Department of Agriculture, an unappreciated building on the sidelines of the famous National Mall, out into the brisk wind and clear, star-filled night, there's an energy in the air that is indescribable. Not the feeling of walking up the escalator at Penn Station, seeing the towering buildings and hearing the bustle of a city constantly awake—something less tangible, something more ethereal, an energy that pulses and compels, not to move and shake and bustle but to stroll, bask, and generally stop everything but the sublime reverence of the things around you.
A couple of quick steps and the outrageously tall Washington Monument welcomes you to a place that is indulgent in its history and meaning, shameless and having no reason to feel shamed, magnificent in a scope respected and unintruded upon by presumptuous skyscrapers and tight one-way grids of pavement and activity. The W. Monument is unabashedly glowing, the bright fog lamps at its base billowing light onto the unevenly off-white obelisk.
However, it isn't until later, having taken ten minutes worth of steps, that I truly understand the grand and majestic scope of D.C. Lit gracefully and reverently are the WWII Memorial and, farther along, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, somehow distant and mysterious, regal and filled with gravitas, and my head is spinning at the sight. My friend casually tells me to turn around, and there, a mile and hefty change away, looms the US Capitol Building, just as impressive and foreboding as the much-nearer shrines to America's immortal leaders. I feel like collapsing into an irrelevant heap on the grass and humble sidewalks of the Mall.
The enormity of D.C.'s famous and well-tread wonder is pervasive, both in the district proper and parts of Arlington, VA, just across the Potomac River, a stone's throw away from the tidal basin that leads to the abundance of standing water and available fountain-space. The district has fountains like Colorado has mountains, each more extravagant and billowing as the next, and the designers of this sacred American space left no monument un-watered.
Furthermore, there is a feeling of true American spirit all around. Not like the spread-out open plains of so-called Americana that dominates the Midwest, the corn-stalking can-do attitude of rugged individualism by-way-of working the land and getting one's hands dirty. This is the feeling of what being American means, the unadulterated spirit of America as best country in the world, the unironic edifices of American prosperity and determination, the carving out a place in history in a time that most dynastic cultures of the world often consider a footnote.
Americans feel like true Americans in D.C. There is a feeling that we're all in this together, and obvious foreigners feel that much more out-of-place, the sound of foreign languages spoken almost intrusive in the American cultural and political center of gravity. On the other hand, Americans seem to have a hand-in-hand familiarity and empathy for one another here. The district reeks of nationalistic brotherhood, a “we're all in this together” sympathy and collective consciousness. Even the Metro system, clean and pleasant but almost fascist in sensibility, is friendly and conversational, the spiritual opposite of New York's dark and dingy Subway system, where eye contact and anything more than whisper are grounds for dirty looks and distrust.
Washington invites me, the somewhat distrustful and intentionally unintrusive traveler, to act like a tourist. Rarely do I hide my camera or the gawking looks at the towering buildings, unlike Manhattan, where my eyes almost never travel above their natural horizon and my camera remains carefully hidden at all times. Washington encourages the appreciation of its spectacle, wraps its arms around you and says “it's okay” the moment a sense of self-conscious worry sets in.
All of this lends to the sharing of moments that are more personal despite their being shared. I make many comparisons to New York here because New York is the only other example I have of a major city that embodies a certain American-ness, so bear with me here. In New York, a street performance or random street-level spectacle is expected as part of the experience, and a certain distance is maintained from such events—it is simply “how New York is,” I suppose, and little thought is given to the uniqueness of the experience.
In Washington, every serendipitous and unique experience feels much more like it is serendipitous and truly unique. My friend James and I were waiting for other people who had missed the crowded and nigh-impossible to board Red Line train when we ran into a man playing buckets with table legs in spectacular fashion, a percussive tour-de-force for pocket change and errant dollar bills. The drummer, a haphazardly dressed black man in his late 40s, was personable and inviting, and at various times my friends and I got to play along with him. James even sat down and played the whole thing on his own for a spell. We all got a good laugh when I was handed one stick, and moments later a Persian gentleman with a similar lack of musical acumen found himself holding the other. We slapped out a sloppy and cacophonous mess of thumps and rattles, laughing unembarrassedly at the lousiness of it, the rest of the spectators laughing along in shared sympathy and appreciation of our dreadful performance.
This would never happen in New York, where street-level performance has a business-like feel, where performers attempt to capture the attention (and a sliver of the wallets) of a bevy of busy people, tiredly waiting for the next 6 train uptown for some reason or another. There is no “play-along” element to it, whereas in the district every performer seemed more than happy to stop for ten minutes and have a conversation with anyone willing or interested.
Then there are the moments that are strictly American, things that foreigners can really never understand, that drove me to tears of pseudo-patriotic reverence and joy. I say “pseudo-patriotic” because I am not interested in these things as symbols of “my country,” but rather part of the shared culture that makes me different from a Canadian or Briton—I may not always like “my county,” but I am distinctly American, and our culture is often just as moving and powerful as the Pyramids or Notre Dame.
One of these was the changing of the guard at the Tomb of Unknown Soldiers, a demonstration of discipline, grace, reverence, honor, dignity, and sense of meaning unlike anything I have ever seen. The 21-second increments of the guard's routine, smooth and impossible to disrupt, broken in half-hour intervals by a routine so well-choreographed and executed that we watched it twice just to see if there were any perceivable differences from one changing to the next. There were not.
On the first changing, the wreath that decorates the tomb was changed. The wreath to be placed was dedicated by a middle school in Minnesota, escorted up to the stand and placed by two young children, who (contrary to what I even thought possible) behaved with a hushed reverence and understanding and moved with a slow, measured, humble sincerity. The whole ceremony had me misty-eyed and sniffling, but the Marine playing taps after the placement of the wreath caused the big, meaty tears that had pooled atop my eyelids to let fly. For the first time in years, I proudly and honestly held my hand over my heart and felt proud to be American. Other nations have their rituals and ceremonies that elicit the same sort of pride in their cultural heritage, of course, but there is no way a non-American could feel the same feeling at this event.
Arlington National Cemetery offers this beautiful and unnaturally quiet ceremony, and just the layout and magnitude of the place tends to make one inclined to shut up and show some respect. There's one in every bunch, though, and the crowd around the JFK gravesite managed to be infuriatingly loud and boisterous from time to time. Rarely have I felt the need to hit someone based on their lack of respect for something others consider sacred (being a proud user of the word “cunt” and a member of an irreverent and often sacrilegious theatre company, myself) but this was definitely a place where general sense of decorum and decency was not forced and obligatory but simply the way of things—one does not horseplay and make “down and to the right” jokes while overlooking the great granite slab covering the resting place of one of America's most celebrated leaders.
Some people, I have really cemented after years and years of resolute suspicion, simply do not get it.
There are many more things to be said about my weekend in the District of Columbia but I simply do not have the energy to tread over them yet. The memories are all still too fresh in my mind, and the burden to document them is still overwhelmed by the urge to relive them over and over again in my mind, appreciating them constantly before their vivid color and shape become more abstract. I will get to them, I am sure, in bits and pieces over time, woven into the narrative of other musings, popping up as relevant, by then just nostalgic recollections more than pivotal memories that shape the course of my life. They will, regardless, be both—a sort of epic mark on my consciousness that will, nonetheless, begin to blend in with everything else, not unlike the scar on my belly from a surgery long-since-irrelevant but eternally present in the mirror and in photographs.