Once upon a time Kat and I raised a family. Most of our vacations involved tent camping, but we did make a Christmas season odyssey to a Holiday Inn on Franklin Square in D.C. I like to think that my writing has found its voice, yet every time I read something from 20 to 30 years ago, it strikes me that I had a better voice back then. And I had to type all this on an IBM Selectric: no word processor, spelling, or grammar checkers. This is an unedited example of what I used to do. (As 30-something Brick told his father in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof when asked why he broke a leg running high hurdles at 3:00 a.m., dead drunk … “Well Big Daddy, people like to prove they can do what they used to do.”) Here we go, with what I used to do.
When one returns from vacation the natural response is to share with friends all the fascinating mental minutiae gathered on the trip, and if possible to persuade them to watch that video of little Roger teaching that National Park grizzly to sit and beg for a tuna sandwich. My friends are long since burned out, so let me tell you a story.
Washington D.C. is an indescribably stimulating place to pass a few days. The massive monuments, the grand museums, the hurrying hordes of highly educated young men and women, its traffic skewed along the Acura/BMW/Lexus axis, and the town’s exalted sense of self-esteem combine to make it feel like some golden city designed for Texas then built on east coast swampland through political intrigue.
There is so much to do in D.C. we couldn’t do it all. We did see world-class paintings, the plane Lindberg flew to Paris and another that flew Neil Armstrong to the moon. We saw Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Archie Bunker’s recliner, the flag that inspired The Star Spangled Banner, dinosaur skeletons, and thousands of artifacts ranging in significance from the dance costume Marilyn Monroe wore in Some Like it Hot (looks like a size 3) to the original U.S. Constitution (looks fragile). And Senator J. Bennett Johnston’s office arranged for us a tour of the White House.
Bennett offices in the Hart Building, an eight-story structure built hollow, set around an open lobby reaching vertically to the roof. This atrium provides many offices that lack a window to the outside a view into the vast cavity within. Filling some of that space is an immense metal sculpture, 30 or 40 feet tall, not black but very dark, modern which is to say “non-representational” which in the art world means it is what one perceives it to be. But it doesn’t look like anything you can think of, so it catches the brain in a do-loop, making it run in a fast circle over and over. Most viewers say “What the hell is that?” and secretly write it off to cultural illiteracy. But not me. In time I understood that this massive piece of enameled steel, hard and cold yet well-intended, at once hopeful and threatening, futuristic and outdated, this kinetic shape which will again move when the building does, this befuddling sculpture is a metaphor for government itself. It is so appropriate in its setting: this could be the finest piece of art in Washington.
What it cost, I don’t know. But it belongs to 250 million Americans, so it’s likely that none of us spent more than a penny. All of D.C. seems to have been built that way. Everything is a monument to someone; dare we skimp on a memorial, a park, an art collection, or a museum? It is a glorious city.
You’re already paying the mortgage on it, so go see your D.C. properties. And make it soon – before Newt Gingrich decides to sell off our art.