For a little more than two months I have worked inside the sausage factory of high government, trussed in neckties, sealed and hog-tied in that airtight vessel known as Washington, D.C.*
*With apologies to Michael Chabon & his army of paid attorneys.
I made my escape four days ago, in the manner of the East Germans. Still wrapped in a swaddling grey flannel suit, I exited the District as an infant awaiting birth, folded into the back bench of a cherry-red Mini Cooper, bent double between suitcases, bedding, a six-pack of Blue Moon, a plastic jug of windshield wiper fluid, and a box filled to overflowing with spice bottles and dozens of secondhand paperbacks.
Most of the contents of my George Washington University apartment had been thrown down chutes in black bags some hours earlier. The walls are white, recently repainted; the windows are suicide-proof and hermetic. The view stretches out over boulevards and beached tourists and heaps of white stone. In recent years, the roads have been bifucated by fences, guardhouse checkpoints and concrete barriers.
Outside, the Watergate complex is drooping in the heat like a melting wedding cake. Condi Rice keeps an apartment there. The Hon. Duke Cunningham enjoyed liquor and prostitutes there, courtesy of defense companies who bribed him millions (and bought him a yacht) to divert a river of arms contracts, new bases, and federal lucre their way. Four hundred years ago, it was maize fields grown by the Algonquin Pascataway.
Somewhere boiling on the horizon, near the Capitol, is the intersection of New Jersey and Louisiana that L'Enfant drew up in 1800, and maybe this unlikely collision of boardwalk saltwater taffy and jazzed-up catfish, of Creole and Newark, of Garden and wetlands, of spit-can Southern politicking and immigrant gangsters running the horse odds - maybe this corner is as good a place as any to try to illustrate the District by way of example.
It's just a few blocks away, through chain-link, snipers, Congressional parking and verdant undergrowth, from the Capitol building, which sits heavily over the skyline like an egg. On a particular day of the week, staff are encouraged to wear seersucker.
Interns, working for nothing, half of them the children of major campaign donors, answer phones from psychotic or terrified constituents who rave about the neighbor's sex habits, the Jewish banking conspiracy, or the failure of local hospitals. They are instructed to tell the constituent that they are writing down everything they are hearing. They are forbidden to talk policy or answer direct questions, even if they know the answer.
Outside, a cart full of bricks collected from border state offices truddles by.
In August, Congress is in recess, wilting from the choleric heat that seeps marshy under windows and, insidiously, into the omnipresent air conditioning. The offices are quiet. Interns and staff assistants make out in storage cages, concoct elaborate social vendettas, scheme as if in high school. There are cliques in the Longworth cafeteria. All involved pray for Happy Hour. Seven days a week, Hill bars offer the most competitive drink specials on the Eastern seaboard. By eight, people in suits or improbable heels are stumbling out into the midsummer sunlight, soused to the gills.Meanwhile, the business of government continues. Representatives hurl profanity and invective on the House floor while stenographers race to scrub the record for public consumption and, across the way, Senator-only elevators are being vigorously defended from interlopers. I found myself sharing a ride with John McCain, once. I was wearing a pink tie.
"Nice tie," he said to me. "A little faggy."