Saturday, November 30, 2013

The End of Autumn: Return to DC

Strom Thurmond, when he was Senate president pro tem in 1998, was known to start every morning that the Senate was in session by calling the Senate to order and introducing the morning prayer with an assertive knock of the gavel.

Whether the gallery was filled with DC tourists as they watched the proceedings of the day or simply called to order in a vacant room (as it rarely was that session), the orders of the day would not commence without that ritual. In 1998, he was still the oldest Senator to have ever served his country. And it would be another five years before he would retire.

What is less commonly thought of as a Senate morning ritual was when Senator Thurmond entered the Senate chamber each morning and looked over the sleepy-eyed but eager group of navy-suited high schoolers and called out gamely in his cadenced Southern accent, “howallthePagesdoin'thismornin'?” To which we murmured our response: “very well,sir.”

I know this because when I was sixteen, I was one of 26 students from around the US that served as a Senate page in 1998. That was the session of Clinton’s impeachment trial, the Starr report, John Glenn’s departure for space. The Page position (which is offered three times each year) is often a stopover on the way to government service and the role itself is an institution almost as old as the Senate. When I was sixteen, I imagined myself as a future ambassador or diplomat almost as much as I imagined myself a poet or karaoke star. But in all my imagining of a future self, I don't think I ever imagined myself getting older at all.

But age and personal evolution are a relentless thing. And nearly 15 years later I returned

to DC in order to visit my company’s East coast office.

Instead of staying at a hotel, I dropped onto the couch of another former page who did, indeed, find his way back to DC. He picked me up in his petite, sporty black car from the airport, looking well-groomed and Senatorial in his grey work suit with a fashionably thin pink tie. At 10 p.m. when he picked me up, he had just gotten off work and didn’t appear disgruntled or perturbed. We went straight out for alcoholic milkshakes at a place called Ted’s Bulletin.

Ted’s Bulletin is a hipster oasis in an landscape of Talbot’s suits. The menus have been made to look like old fashioned news bulletins, the waiters wear straw hats, the walls are brick, and a film from the 40s is projected silently onto an open wall. Homemade blueberry cheesecake pop tarts are on the dessert menu.

But I suppose what is most interesting about Ted’s Bulletin is its location. In Page school, they began each term with a basic self defense course for everyone (probably geared more for hick students like me who grew up in towns that could list their population on a sign and could count the number of traffic lights downtown). The instructors (most likely students from one of the DC universities) stood front-and-center in the sallow-lit common room and terrified us:

“Remember that you should not fight when someone attacks you, you should just run!”

“An easy weapon if you have to fight: simply carry your keys in a ball in your fist and use them as brass knuckles.”

They also sketched maps of the DC areas that we night want to avoid (particularly after dark). Southeast DC certainly had a large, comprehensive X through it. A veritable elephant graveyard on our radar. And now I was drinking milkshakes that were made to taste like girl scout cookies in a falsely nostalgic bar in that very neighborhood. I would also be sleeping in that neighborhood, walking to the Metro from there. Things seem to have changed since I've been gone...

“It’s been fifteen years,” J reminds me as we walk past the old page dorm later that
weekend, wondering if we should go in.

“Can you imagine?” he asks for what is maybe the third time since I've arrived, “if someone came into the dorm when we were staying there as pages? That means that they would have been pages in 1983.”

He's right, of course. It seems absurd. I imagine the hair styles paired with their blue suits, the music that they must have played in their hallways, the foiled and clumsy romances. When they were serving in their nation's capital, I was barely one year old and they were imagining their lives yet to come.

That is the way of places that I've lived in before. I go to the Kennedy Center with its red-bannered hallways that are the size of boulevards for the first time and I watch a ballet, I help my co-workers finish a dangerous pitcher of Magaritas and a gourmet Mexican restaurant. I look out at Dupon Circle from our new office and think about the coming year for our business, but the thing that arouses a sincere and almost cumbersome feeling
within me are the memories that surface when I see something no grander than the Capitol Hill corner store that I used to shop in for hot pockets, or the apartment complex where I first watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer when I was a teenager, or the steps of congress (now blocked off to the public) where my Page friend took what is still my favorite picture of me.

The ritual of life seems slow: going to the same office and possibly the same set of problems every day makes you forget that life is passing and generating staggering statistics in your own life. This year I will consume more than a ton of food, 630 pounds of milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream alone (and let’s be honest, possibly more than that), I will spend more than $1000 going out to lunch, 52 days watching TV, and I will never notice how much of that is just cycling away into an anonymous history.

It’s things like this that make me think change is not only necessary for the sake of
progress, but so that you have a place to return to in order to be reminded of the pace of your own life. And, honestly, with a daily motorcycle ride, a company that is growing at an exponential rate and a languishing publishing career, I need a reminder of the pace my life is moving at.

In the book The Age of Insight they describe the mood of Austria in 1902 based on reports from Berta Zuckerkandl who wrote of Rodin’s and Klimt’s meeting a momentous salon. Ostensibly,

“Rodin leaned over to Klimt and said ‘I have never before experienced such an atmosphere – your tragic and magnificent Beethoven fresco; your unforgettable, temple-like exhibition; and now this garden, these women, this music… and round it all this gay, childlike happiness… What is the reason for it all? And Klimt slowly nodded his beautiful head and answered only one word: ‘Austria.’”

I have that same bewildered wonder as I look around at my life and the path that's led me onward. I don't understand how age has brought me to this place sometimes. The way I am almost always trying to negotiate what it is like to go home again and see the people that I love. I might sit across from the table from my father this Christmas and say “I have never experienced such an atmosphere – this busy
and remarkable trip to our nation’s capital, this unforgettable array of people whose names populate my address book, and now this moment: the return home, the return to work, my cat, my lover, my bed – and surrounding all this a bewildered sense of wonder that seems totally out of time. What is the reason for it all?”

And my father, I imagine turning slowly to me with a wry grin on his face at his own glibness as he responds with just two words “your 30s.”

My friend J and I talk about how we miss travel: how the scope of our once-mobile worlds seem somewhat constricted and how it often makes us a little sad... But we also smile at each other over the wreckage of our milkshakes and speak with such gladness that we can return to the people and places that have given us such rare and luminous moments: ballet, cheap take-out, laughter, and a sense of how every part of the journey is a gift that I wish
we were aware of every day. 

On the day that my favorite picture was taken of me, I was wearing my boxy navy blue suit that my mother had purchased for me from JC Penny’s. J and I had detoured on the way back from some Senate errand and we went to go take in the mid-November view from the steps of Congress down to the Washington monument. J – always with his trusty camera in-hand started snapping photos the moment we stepped outside and just as his photo session his a fever pitch, the snow began to fall in earnest. I walked slowly down the steps towards my friend (someone I couldn’t know would still be in my life fifteen years later) and realized how remarkable the moment I was living in was. Maybe not in the context of history, but within my own life: the snow slowing wilting my hair, the comprehensive view across the city, the freedom of a life without parents, and I started grinning the way you do when you catch yourself in your own life. And that was when J took the picture.  

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