Off again to Washington for another exciting, humid, bittersweet experience. Last year’s trip was the best, and I doubt I’ll top it. Then again, my wife got her purse stolen and her conference hotel had bedbugs, so I’m sure she wishes I top her last trip in all possible respects. I am now officially concerned about bedbugs, and angry there’s even such a thing. All I want are sheets that have been soaked in poison. IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK
Waiting to board right now. The TSA line was hideous - Wednesday 10:30 AM, a line snaking for miles, and two lanes open. They built this huge facility with ten lanes, and two are open. One TSA guy said they were short-staffed, and yes, that certainly seems to be the case, but why? Another manager said this was the shift-change time, and that was why they had to close down a lane. Oh, got it; I used to work in restaurants, and we would shut down the kitchen whenever there was a shift change, and the waitresses went out back for a smoke. Sometimes when there was a shift change we went out to the tables and took people's food away.
I like flying, but the TSA experience is horrid - unless you’re pre, I know, I know, but I don’t fly enough to make it worth it. Or so I think. I get it half the time anyway. Roll of the dice, and I figured this would be okay.
Narrator: it was not okay, and also, what am I narrating again? A documentary? Doesn’t seem to have any plot.
Anyway, here's the fun part: on the way to the airport I got a Twitter mention that said someone was looking forward to hearing me on the radio on 830 AM WCCO at 11:10, and oh crap I had no idea. I'd missed that text. Or email. Or phone call. I ended up doing the interview in the TSA line, to the amusement I'm sure of everyone.
They're calling my flight, so later. Actually, they're not, I'm early, but in the interests of making these seem like it has narrative momentum, I'll say that.
It was a lovely flight. First class! Never done that before. But the upgrade was cheap, and I thought: it’s a vacation, no? Splurge. So, a report.
Seat: soft andspacious. Meal: oh SO THAT’S what they’re keeping from us when we’re in steerage. Actual cutlery, glass dishes and cups, delicious food. Perks: we got hot towels scented with lemon. Also, the coffee came in proper cups. It was nice.
Landed, considered an Uber, but that would mean a double-sawbuck, and sitting in traffic. The Metro! Hurrah for the Metro! Right? Depends. The DC Metro is a conflicted subject, since it’s handy and people depend upon it, and it’s not as bad as New York’s hot, broken-down subway with its pervasive air of hate and electrified urine. But the concrete coffered roofs and burnt-orange octagonal tile and exposed materials have aged poorly, and you feel like you’re in a 70s sci-fi movie. I mean. These lamps.
It seems the windows of the train automatically give you a vintage gilter.
I overshot my stop because there’s nothing in the car that tells you where you are. The readout just has the name of the line. BLUE. Oh thanks. Nothing about which direction BLUE is going in, or which station BLUE is approaching. I overshot my station because I couldn't see the signage outside of the dirty window, and the conductor's annoucements are so utterly unintelligible you might as well be hearing someone flatulate into a kazoo on a drive-up fast-food speaker. Then I took an escalator that was screeching last year when I took it, but seems to be screeching about 34% less. Still: sending people down into a dark concrete pit with the sound of loud tortured mechanical screeching is just one of those things that reminded me of living here: this shouldn’t be, it is, no one cares, it endures.
Walked to the hotel, because I wanted to stretch my legs and see the town. The room is preposterously large.
Should I play Twister here or something? Stage a boxing match?
Then it’s time for walking. It's the great thrill of the first day. You are in a city, a dense place with old and new, vibrant streets, all those marvelous things the new urbanists want to rebuild and resurrect in places where it would just be an inorganic imposition. This is the real thing. You can’t drop this is in a suburb and have it generate the same culture. Now, you can argue about which model is preferable in the long run, but I still think so much urban design is based on the emotions of people who see the real deal and forget how long it took to bake this cake.
You see every trend of 20th century architecture here, for better or for worse. Better:
Charming, but the lack of a balcony and the old bones of the building might make it seem less attractive than a newer place. And there's noise.
But speaking of the Newer:
The curse of all cities: the blue mirrored box. It's not without its virtues - they look nice at sunset, and provide interesting reflections that make bad buildings look slightly more compelling. But they are bad citizens in a city that's mostly stone and brick.
Here's old DC from the Carter years:
Summary public execution for every architect involved in these things is an option, and you might be thinking: where would we find enough blank concrete walls to line them up against?
THAT'S EASY THEY PUT THEM EVERYWHERE
That's either a GW building or a utility company building; can't remember. I worked next to this one and it just drained my soul to walk past it.
This . . . is new DC.
It's the same thing as Mr. Blue Distortion Glass - a block of rentable space. But! It has a hat and a pointy mast that serves no purpose, unless we are beset by unrestrained zeppelin warfare, and that keeps the dirigibles from landing. It looks like it has fast internet and strange chairs that remind you of the 60s or maybe the 70s, whatever, there's a cafe on the ground floor that is disrupting salads.
The way the top glows at night is nice, though, and it gives the street a hint of urban romance.
"Hey, we have a tired old property that's still making money and it's too big to demolish. How do we make it marketable again?"
"New glass, and add some lines that carve up the facade at angles for no particular reason."
Old DC, the bleak vistas that still abound downtown:
Again, this is the scene that just made me feel tired. It's made for 50-year-old lobbyists with bum tickers and thick tie-knots and brown sport-coat jackets and wide sideburns. It's so unbelievably charmless you can't imagine anyone was proud of it, and considering the small-scale old buildings they had to demolish for these arid brutes, you wonder if the architects ever felt a tinge of guilt.
Sorry couldn't hear you, I was cashing this big fat check
Old DC: a Jewel Box - literally, at least nomenclaturally - surrounded by newer buildings that attempt to match the scale, but are part of larger surrounding structures.
Beats tearing them down every time. But if you swing to the left . . . well.
"I'm really excited to design for this location. It's a daunting task, really - anything I do will bring to mind famous structures that had the same triangular plot. The Flatiron. The Times Square building."
"Wow! What a challenge! I know you'll come up with something. Any ideas?"
"To tell the truth, I drew a blank."
"Well, you'll think of something."
"No, that's my design. I literally drew a blank."
Met some friends at the hotel bar outside, and there it was again: conversation in the warm spring night in DC, happy to be here.
Never thought that would happen when I left, but I think I’ve purged all the old memories. It’s a new place for me now.
Except when I turn a corner and remember something I haven't thought about for 20 years.
Before I go to bed I consider the room service menu for breakfast. Eh. I just hate paying 17 dollars for eggs and toast, you know? But there’s no place around here I can just pop in and get breakfast. There’s a Starbucks a few yards away - of course - and while I know I could get a muffin, I don’t want a muffin, and I don’t want a wrap. I want By-gott egg and sausages. But in addition to the $17 there’s $8 for a pot of coffee. Then there’s a 30% service charge. THIRTY. PERCENT. And then there’s a ten percent room tax and another charge I can’t remember. It ends up being $42.00 for breakfast. C’mon. But . . . everything else is free. So. Maybe.
NO I will walk to Krispy Kreme in the morning
No, I won’t. So I fill out the card and leave it on the door and go to sleep. At 4 AM my phone dings: the hotel has charged $108 to my bill.
What, did I order the French Toast, too?
No Below-the-Fold updates this week, because we're about to have a festival of museum stuff. I promise I'll try to make it interesting. Oh - and sorry about Friday. I had something ready to go, but had FTP issues. Don't worry. You'll see it some day.