The Other Washington
Then, freedom. Off I went, up the long, gravel paths of the Mall, dodging the Sunday crowds, feeling the breeze I couldn’t quite catch when I was walking.
The Other Washington is always full of tourists in the summertime, despite the tropical heat and humidity, which on this visit was blessedly below normal. Hot or not, I like being there with the tourists. My fellow tourists: I’m one too, even though I’ve visited many times over the years, since one of my closest friends lives in the Virginia suburbs.
What fascinates me is how my own D.C. tastes have changed. How much more of a cornball, capitol-loving kind of tourist I’ve become over time.
I was a college student when I first visited Washington, D.C., in the post-Watergate late seventies. Patriotism was unthinkable. The protest era was over, and what, we thought at that cynical time, had those marches achieved? The only government building I wanted to visit was the National Gallery.
Nearly four decades later, D.C. has changed and so have I.
On my first afternoon, I visited the Library of Congress, which I love for its over-the-top tile frescoes honoring muses, poets, philosophers and scholars; its gold-leaf proclamations that “Knowledge is Power.” But this time, I found a hidden gem: a tiny plain gallery down the hall from the basement shop, where a small but powerful selection of news photos of the 1963 March on Washington were on display.
When you see those pictures of a quarter million people filling the Mall, all eyes turned toward the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps—when fifty years have passed and the words of his “I Have a Dream” speech still resound—and then you step outside and take in the vast sweep from the Capitol building down to the distant monuments—then you see Washington D.C. a little differently.
One of the photos was taken from behind Lincoln’s massive stone shoulder, as if he was looking down on the crowds, blinking back a hundred years worth of tears.
Hard to believe his life ended in a little house on 10th Street, across from Ford’s Theatre where he was fatally shot. Inspired by the Library of Congress exhibition, I finally went to see it.
It was a long walk up Pennsylvania Avenue, past the statues outside the National Archives, with their solemn motto, “Past is Prologue.” Past the Department of Justice and the FBI. Across busy E Street to quiet Tenth.
A group of foreign students stood outside the Petersen House, where Lincoln died early in the morning of April 15, 1865. They studied the plaque. They quietly snapped photos on their phones. Clearly, these young people understood history better than I did at their age. They understood the notion of past as prologue.
A few days later, riding my big red rental bike around the Washington Monument, I saw many more groups of students, some of them strolling with their parents. I saw buses from all over the country. I saw veterans making their way towards memorials to the Vietnam War, the Korean War, World War Two.
So much emotion courses through our capitol on any given day, I thought as I pedaled. Some days—like the day of the March on Washington or the day Lincoln died—it’s a collective tsunami of emotion. But ordinary D.C. days are moving too. And I’m always happy to see where one takes me.
Save the date: Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.