Australian readers will know that Canberra is not really Australia. It is a politically created city carved out of several thousand perfectly good square kilometres of prime sheep grazing country to stop the good people of Melbourne and the equally fair citizens of Sydney from clawing out each other’s eyes when a new capital city was needed. But if Australians on the road overseas ask other travellers, “What is the capital of Australia?” the answer is usually, “Sydney, isn’t it? The place with the big beach and the opera house?”
My nephew currently lives and works in Canberra and says that nothing happens there. While this may be true on a political level, I recall many visits to the nation’s capital not so many years ago where friends would lead me to illegal casinos just over the border (“Knock three times and say that Joe sent you”), where we enjoyed staggeringly overpriced and over-eaten dinners with a hostess who stole restaurant tableware and confounded security personnel trying to stop her on departure, asking her what she had down her blouse. “Oh this, you mean?” she cried, pulling a rather crumpled bread roll from her bra while the stolen knives and forks and pepper and salt shakers rattled in her handbag. There is also the infamous Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of the world’s only underground Houses of Parliament. Nothing happens in Canberra? It never stops! Ask highly-esteemed Prime Minister Tony Abbott or former Prime Minister Julia Gillard who lost a sensibly low-heeled shoe in a hasty retreat from demonstrators, although the shoe was later courteously returned to her by the Aboriginal protesters …
Only in Australia? Nope.
Washington DC is a similarly artificial creation, and even the grounds of what is possible the world’s second-most famous house, the White House, have seen similarly silly incidents. Despite scores of television surveillance cameras, snipers on the roof of the building, electronic devices in the shrubbery, and shaven-skulled Secret Service men bristling with earpieces and bulging armpits, a child recently merrily clambered through the bars of the White House fence and started playing on the lawns.
I do not believe it is true that the guards screamed at the child, “Step away from that teddy bear NOW! Put your lollipop on the ground NOW!” … but it might have happened. I hope so …
I have visited New York a few times, but Washington DC just the once – and then only for a very brief visit. I wish on reflection I had made it a more leisurely visit.
Two types of residences
The President was at home when I was there – and while his modest dwelling is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, my even more modest dwelling was the President Inn at 1600 New York Avenue … in the wilds and wilderness of Washington’s underprivileged Northeast quarter, where life and architecture reflect quite a different story. I had selected the hotel on the basis of price and location – easy to get downtown to major sights and not likely to break the bank. My notes from 3 October, the day I checked-in say, “… rooms are a bit tired, the carpet is greasy and threadbare and the location is terrible.” I have since found that The Washington Post said a few days later, on 16 October:
A DC Superior Court judge shut down a Northeast Washington hotel yesterday amid complaints about stained mattresses, bug-infested bed linens and defective smoke detectors and toilets. Judge Susan Winfield said the operators of the President Inn were running a business that was dangerous to the health of most of its occupants. She ordered the hotel closed until a follow-up hearing and ordered operators to evict guests from the 147-room hotel at 1600 New York Avenue. The city filed suit after inspections flagged numerous problems. The unsanitary conditions are thought to have infected one customer with scabies, they said.
The Four Seasons it wasn’t!
Most scabied visitors and residents of the far-flung bug-infested northeastern suburbs climb onto the D4 bus that scurries rodent-like along NY Avenue and through Ivy City (perhaps it was poison ivy that made me so itchy? Surely not scabies?) and to the railway station where they can then scratch themselves, shake off a flea or three, and hop onto the subway to go to their next destination.
On the other hand, for the President to travel the very short distance from the Capitol back to his pied à terre, huge areas of Pennsylvania Avenue were closed to traffic, pedestrians corralled behind barricades, and numerous police cars, motor bikes, black Subarus, sundry bomb trucks and assorted other fast-moving, light-flashing vehicles zoomed down the avenue while a cluster of helicopters buzzed along importantly overhead. I waved at assorted anonymous vehicles, but no one waved back – or if they did, it was from behind black-tinted bulletproof windows – so the effect was rather spoiled. I wonder what happens when the President needs to zip out to the nearest 7-Eleven when he runs out of milk?
The public buildings of Washington are quite splendid. The White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the grand Union Railway Station are worth more than a few minutes’ attention, and the silent dignity of the Veterans’ Memorial is worth quite a few minutes more as it tells the sorry tale of the 58,000 young US men and women lost in that most pointless of wars – one that Americans and Australians call the Vietnam War – but that the Vietnamese call the American War or the War Against America. Umm.
The memorial is quite close to the huge and impressive Lincoln Memorial. The grandeur and stateliness and self-importance of the memorial is a far cry from the humble little house over the road from Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot. (“Yes, but apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the play?”) The theatre was closed for restoration when I visited, and an unlikely production – Babes in the Wood – was scheduled for a December opening. Perhaps a revival of Our American Cousin would have been more appropriate.
Away from the showcase structures and the glories of romantic Georgetown, Washington presents a number of remarkably different faces. George W may have said, “Father, I cannot tell a lie.” I am not so sure that George W Bush could ever have said the same thing, as the hugely different standard of living just thirty minutes on Bus #D4 from the Union Station came as a surprise – but a welcome call back to the reality of modern USA. Here there were no Prada or Dunhill stores, and Louis Vuitton and Renato Balestra could just have been more illegal immigrants. But to balance this and to look at a real world, and despite the bug-infested bed-linens at my hotel, there were scores of tidy little houses and lawns, with people sitting on their front porches at sundown, chatting to each other or to neighbours, while the candles in the early Hallowe’en pumpkins flickered and the Stars and Stripes fluttered overhead.
The bohemian life in the suburbs reminds me that while in Washington I just missed a performance of La Bohème, conducted by Plácido Domingo, General Manager of the Washington Opera. I always seem to be in places where a favourite opera has just finished – or is about to open two days after I leave! However, I had seen Domingo in action a few days earlier at the NY Met’s rather uneven production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Domingo and the orchestra were excellent – as were Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna in the title roles – but the supporting cast was not quite up to it. Several of us cheered quietly, and ever-so-politely, when Tybalt (Marc Heller) was shish-kebabbed by Romeo.
I popped over to Georgetown one day for lunch – no shish kebabs.
Georgetown is on Washington’s NW side, a different story from the NE side, and just a bit further out from the Foggy Bottom neighbourhood. I kid you not. Monty Python could have invented it if it did not already exist:
- Where do you live?
- Oh – Foggy Bottom.
- There is no need to be abusive or personal! All I asked was …
After having trawled the many bookshops in this lovely leafy and quiet part of the capitol, I sat in a small French restaurant with a view over the footpaths and the passing populace, including a cluster (a bunch? a grappling?) of Secret Service men who may have been guarding an elderly grey-haired man who may have been Japan’s ex-Prime Minister. There were five tall, burly (etc etc – see above for White House staff) men and one woman. They worked a box-pattern around the man who may have been Japan’s ex-Prime Minister as he strolled down the street, crossed to my side of the road and disappeared into the next-door restaurant.
I left my wine-poached salmon with black truffles for a moment (the truffles were a bit over-cooked, I felt, and not quite as crisp at the French Fries …) and popped outside to speak to one of the tall, burly (see above) chappies.
- Who is the grey-haired man you are looking after?
- I beg your pardon?
- Who is …
- I’m not looking after anyone.
- But …
Obviously I was wrong, and these were just simply five identically dressed men and one woman on an afternoon stroll through Georgetown, and who just happened to get themselves stuck with some elderly Japanese noodle maker who happened to have looked like someone who may have been Japan’s etc etc…
I really should have learned my lesson. Years ago on my first visit to NY I was lost, but was not at all worried because I saw a cheery-looking and helpful policeman standing on a traffic island in the middle of Fifth Avenue. I dodged between the hooting traffic (why do they drive on the wrong side of the road?), came up to the officer and tapped him on the shoulder to ask for directions to the nearest subway station.
If you are reading this story please take note: Do not ever cross a road and tap a NY police officer on the shoulder. Wild Bill Hickok, Jackie Chan and Eddy Murphy could have learned a thing or two from this no-longer cheery-looking policeman about turning and drawing and aiming at inter-galactic speed. I can’t recall if he ever did tell me where to go … but I suspect he did so … unequivocally.
Another bus happened to take me past the National Gallery of Art, where I spotted a huge banner reading “Edward Hopper”. I ran downstairs and spoke to the driver – who seemed more interested in mopping up the juices from his lamb souvlaki than listening to me – and persuaded him to open the doors to let me off at an unscheduled stop. I dashed into the East Wing of the gallery not knowing that it was due to close in fifteen minutes’ time.
Oh joy! Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! The Hopper exhibition, drawn from galleries and private collections around the world, was sensational. Until that day, I had loved Hopper’s works but had seen them only in books or as reproductions – but to see them even ever so briefly in the flesh was wonderful. Hopper’s self portrait is at left. I had used Hotel Room as the inspiration for a poster years ago for a Hobart Rep production of Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Evening Wind was the inspiration for a poster for another Arthur Miller play, Sweet Bird of Youth, that I directed at another time. Hotel Room is huge – about two metres by two metres – and all the more impressive because of its size: the woman on the bed is virtually life-sized. The Hopper exhibition was extensive and to have had to rush through it in a quarter of an hour was a great pity … but gallery attendants started calling, “Gallery is now closed. Please leave!” and so I had to drag myself away …
I would have liked to have had an opportunity to visit the gallery again for a more leisurely inspection, but it was not possible as I was due to leave the following day for Albuquerque and its hot air balloon festival – and the lovely and hospitable and naked Yvonne in the pool at Mi Casa, her naturist B&B.
But that is another story.
And the scabies have just about healed now, thank you.
- Date of journey: October 2007
- Text © Christopher Hall 2014
- All photographs downloaded from the Internet. My time in Washington was part of a two-month journey … and an electronic gremlin ate all my photographs taken during the whole eight weeks. Please contact me if any photograph breaches copyright rules and it will be removed from this blog
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