Travel Journal: Washington, D.C., February 2017 — Selected Entries
THE SPIRIT AIR FLIGHT is smooth and painless. I wake only three times, and the five hours pass in a blur, the plane carrying me through space and time to the other side of the country.
On the bus-ride to the Amtrak station, I gaze out the window. Maryland looks not unlike Northern California in this light — browns, dark greens, gray skies. But something about the narrow road leading through the forest of dead trees, the thin branches like skeletal fingers, and also the general emptiness — the few cars, the long fields, the lack of large buildings — makes it clear I’m no longer in the west.
At the Amtrak Station, commuters gather on both sides of the platform, bound for either D.C. or Baltimore, with steaming mugs of coffee in their hands and in vaguely professional attire. It’s the modern version of the flannel suit, this look — slacks, a button down, a casual jacket, nice shoes. I clearly am not one of them: my shirt is too plain and my face without the beleaguered look of the nine-to-fiver.
From the train, the sunrise looks magical, a yellow glow on the horizon filtering through wisps of translucent clouds. We pass stations and parking lots filled with modern cars and lined with old-fashioned lamps and telephone poles that carry wires up and off into the distance. The ticket lady comes in to tear my ticket manually. She’s dressed in a blue hat and a MARC coat. It’s all delightfully old-fashioned, almost European, but with that particular charm of East Coast America.
Walking down diagonal Massachusetts Avenue, I recognize almost nothing even though I’d been to this city twice before and lived here for a whole summer back in 2010. There are new buildings, “luxury” apartments, boxy, multi-colored stucco with glass windows, like the cheaply made buildings rising all over Los Angeles. My hostel is in a large brick building overlooking a construction site, with a banner bearing the orange Hosteling International symbol. Only after I’ve dropped my things in a locker and am walking down Constitution Avenue do the memories float back — me dressed in a suit and my skinny purple tie walking with friends down this street in the night, towards some event at a bar or restaurant, striding with the blistering confidence of U.C. Berkeley students, the buildings around us all lit up with golden auras. I remember too sauntering these wide boulevards with A_________, looking about us with wonder, our spirits buoyed with wild dreams of moving here and “making it” in politics — such bourgeois dreams in retrospect, the kind harbored by political science majors who think politics is like The West Wing. Obama deluded us all with fantasies.
I note the Trump hotel across the street, a large phallic tower rising from some Renaissance-like chateau, as kitschy as expected, with a row of large American flags hanging down over the entrance. Later I learn that the building was actually the Old Post Office, built in 1899 in Romanesque Revival style. Trump began developing the property in 2013, and the hotel officially opened September 2016.
I’m a little surprised that there aren’t more signs of Trump everywhere. I half-expected his name to be emblazoned in gold on every beige government building. But this part of the city, a block from the National Mall, is the same as I remember it from six and a half years ago, the same dreary solemnity of American bureaucracy, the same men and women walking with a civil servant’s measured pace.
I reach the National Archives’ sandy stone and columns. Across from it, behind me, is the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building, 1960s-era brutalism, all angles and concrete, beige, gray, and rhomboid. Apparently it’s poorly designed and no longer an efficient or sustainable workspace, and so the FBI is seeking new offices. Soon the building will be torn down. Nearby, a statue of Winfield Scott Hancock looks on, similarly obsolete.
The National Gallery is as I remember it, a windowless block of white stone. I feel very different, though, older, wiser, more cynical, no longer the college student in love only with European art and certainly not the seventeen-year-old who wandered in here by accident with his friends during his summer “leadership” program in the city, not yet knowing the difference between the Baroque and the Romantic but nevertheless still entranced the beauty of all the colors.
Inside, I first go to the European Art — Italian saints from the Middle Ages, the familiar Ginerva of Da Vinci, a room of Raphaels, including his famous circular Madonna (I note the way the lines draw our gaze to the cross), and an exhibition on the colored Terra Cotta glazes of Della Robia, which included in its intro a quote from Walter Pater: “I suppose nothing brings the real air of a Tuscan town so vividly to mind as those pieces of pale blue and white earthenware . . . like fragments of the milky sky itself, fallen into the cool streets, and breaking into the darkened churches.”
Others of note include Bellini’s Madonna, the bronze glow of the sky behind her, her mouth set with determined purpose as she gazes down at the baby Jesus, her skin glowing golden and red, green robes and hood hanging down around her; Lotto’s portraits of beautiful woman with gorgeous skin, including a St. Catherine with vivid red clothing; Luini’s room of frescoes and of graceful, elegant women; Tintoretto, who’s paintings seem to vibrate with movement, the white veil on the Madonna floating like a halo around her face; a Titian painting of a grey, ghostly cupid; a painting reminiscent of the Magnascos I saw in Los Angeles, of a group of women dancing in a circle, moving towards a distant castle through a stormy sky and world; a few actual Magnascos wth religious themes, less effective than the ghostly dances in the ruins at the Getty; and an early Renaissance painting of Jesus and Mary in pink, like a couple, with halos of golden hair, and an almost Islamic green to their billowing cloaks
The Hudson River Valley School speaks of the debt American Art owes to its European predecessors, but also how the Americans added a unique element: Bierstadt’s grand landscapes, for example, are reflective of Claude Lorraine, but wilder, more intense — the harmony of French classicism blown open a hundred years later by the endless landscapes of America. Why limit yourself with the order and boundaries of the classical world when the American frontier provides so many more possibilities?
Still, there are echoes of Lorraine impossible to ignore: the tiny figures, insubstantial against the mountains and the green fields. But whereas Lorraine worked to synthesize the figures with the surrounding landscape, the harmonious pastoral ideal, Bierstadt and the Hudson School make it clear whom they see as more powerful. It’s almost impossible to see the tiny figures, specks hiding in the shadowy grove, tinier even than the red flowers in the foreground, the white clouds overhead.
Also here, from the Corcoran Gallery (which closed in 2014 due to financial difficulties) are Thomas Cole’s The Departure and The Return, the tragic saga of the overeager knight, Romanticism dramatizing its own inevitable failure.
And then, of course, there’s Cole’s Voyage of Life — still remarkable, still moving, though now I feel more like Manhood than Youth. The vision of the palace in the sky does remain, though I now have doubts.
I stare up at the Capitol from a seat along the reflecting pool. It looks utterly ordinary, with construction happening at the front and tractors and lawnmowers doing landscaping work on the long sloping lawn, piles of dirt lying in mounds across the grass. A family trudges up the hill, the dad a fat, bald guy with a fanny pack and a Ned Flanders mustache, the mom and two children behind him.
“Ugh, this hill is so steep!” the son says.
“Well, son, it’s Capitol Hill!” the dad replies.
“I don’t care what it’s called, it’s still too steep!”
It’s stunning to think that a few hours ago, the Senate voted in this very building to confirm Betsy Devos as Secretary of Education. As I was walking from one museum to another, a few hundred yards away were the great Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Tim Kaine the mediocrity, ghoulish Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote, while Devos sat in her billionaire’s suit, looking smug, confident that the millions she gave in campaign contributions to Republican senators would now pay off.
It may be the end of public education as we know it — consigning the hallowed department to a Christian Supremacist and fanatical laissez-faire capitalist. But it didn’t feel historic, even here in this city. People went about their daily lives — tourists snapped photos, children played at the Native American museum, joggers ran along the dirt path of the Mall. Perhaps this is the true horror of Trump’s corporate fascism: we compare him often to the Nazis, but unlike them, he’ll have no parades, no red banners, no sea of cheering supporters. His crowds end up anemic, impotent — but still he has power. A quiet, subdued takeover by the conservatives, as it’s been since the 1970s.
But maybe historic moments are always like this. At George Washington’s inauguration, were there people at nearby taverns, drinking, smoking, falling asleep, not realizing what was happening a few yards way? In Germany in the 1940s, when the Holocaust was happening, were there German citizens gathering wood for their houses, wondering why that train to Auschwitz was moving so quickly?
Inside the wondrous Library of Congress, one can forget the outside world. A mosaic of tiles patterns the floor, circles, curves, dark yellow and red. Corinthian columns surround the central hall’s second story, holding up a beautiful vaulted ceiling decorated with dark blue and golden yellow allegorical paintings and lined with marble wreaths surrounding circular windows. The ceiling is carved with Latin inscriptions and strange symbols from the nineteenth century. Allegories of Romance and other genres are painted above the columns, all women with Greek clothing. The occasional quote graces the outer wall: “Nature is the art of God” and “There is no work of genius what has not been the delight of mankind” — the triumphant spirit of the nineteenth century, along with all its decadence. The colors remind me of Klimt or Paul Klee, though the style is more like Mucha or the symbolists. Maze-like patterns run along the ceiling, red paint on off-white marble.
It’s so beautiful that for a moment I forget that outside across the street, jowly men in expensive suits are destroying our country. “Too low they build who build beneath the stars” the quote above me reads.
In the adjacent room, Thomas Jefferson’s library, I find one of his quotes printed on the wall: “I cannot live without books.” Trump, meanwhile, brags that he doesn’t read.
In the rotunda of the main reading room, at the very top, are allegories of the major cultures that have influenced our country. Rome, the Middle Ages, Italy, Germany. Islam is among them, a brown man in a turban. I wonder if Trump has ever been in here.
One of the exhibition rooms has colored maps of Drake’s voyages drawn by Italian cartographer Baptista Boazio, vivid blue-green land, as if the land is the sea, filled with trees. They’re oriented east/west — a new perspective on familiar country.
I can’t shake this lingering feeling of sadness, of discomfort, of restlessness. I feel simultaneously tired and full of energy. I’ve walked everywhere today, from Union Station to my hostel, then down to the Mall, now back up here near my hostel. I’ve stopped at a cafe, which seems good and has cheap coffee — a dark, rich, Intelligentsia pour over for under three dollars. In LA it would be five dollars easily.
The coffee calms me down but I’m still sweaty — the jacket was too heavy and the weather warmed up considerably. My hair keeps coming undone in the wind, and my phone battery is down to fifteen percent — a metaphor, perhaps, for how I feel.
I overhear the baristas, who always seem to talk politics: “The Democrats said they were going to try to block the nominees.”
That night, I go out to get a drink alone somewhere. Walking down 14th from the Metro, though — past the Black Cat, which I remember walking into once with friends during that summer in 2010, and alongside the various bars that line both sides of the street— I feel isolated, disconnected. I realize I don’t want to go into any of them, to watch groups of laughing people talking amongst themselves about trivial things. I find the lights and the high-rises and the hotels and the cars all overwhelming — too much life for such a moment.
If I were here with K______ perhaps I’d feel differently. Someone to enjoy the loneliness with.
Sitting now at the hostel in the morning. The coffee is dark, thick, not great, but a slap in the face to wake you up. The common tables are designed to encourage conversation, but the people at my table mostly sit on their own. A Chinese couple sits across from me, eating quickly, looking at their phones, talking only occasionally. One table down a group of British girls stare dreamily at two attractive Australian guys who they must have just met. When one of the guys stands, the girls all look up at him, like one being.
Outside, there is sunlight streaming in through the glass. Cars and buses glide silently along the road, while inside a babble of accented voices speak several languages at once. For now, at least, this is a world even Trump can’t take away.
The National Archives: terrible music plays, on the first floor aggressively patriotic, on the second silly late-90s faux-jazz. There’s a bad exhibition that feels designed for children (though some adults in DC could use the education too — particularly the section on immigrants), and after that the rotunda with the nation’s key documents displayed in glass cases. On the left is the Declaration, so faded you can barely read the second half or the names that follow. In the center are the four pages of the Constitution. I notice the signatures — James Madison Jr, small, unassuming, the last name in the Virginia section; Alexander Hamilton, the first name under New York; B. Franklin, the biggest and the first under Pennsylvania (I’m surprised the old man could keep his quill up to sign). The Bill of Rights, meanwhile, is also faded and hard to read.
For a country so obsessed with the pomp and circumstance of our documents, very few of our citizens seem to know the central tenets, the open, liberal, Enlightenment spirit of these pages. Our country cares less about what the documents actually say and more about the physical fact of their existence. We’ve turned expressions of Enlightenment ideals into some kitschy twenty-first-century romantic nationalism. The vulgarity of the display is only heightened by the knowledge of who now inhibits the White House.
Sitting in La Colombe Coffee Roasters— a nice, hipster cafe located down an alleyway of brick, in an old warehouse space with brick walls and exposed pipe. They serve two kinds of espresso, one dark, one light, which confirms it’s a good place. Inside are mostly young people, my age, working on laptops or talking about classes. Also, there’s sparkling water on tap for free.
In contrast to the pleasant surroundings, on the way here I saw graffitied onto a brick wall in orange paint a little poem advocating sterilization of the poor:
For every lovely
on the dole
Mandatory birth control
Make America Smart Again
Before that, I’d passed Samuel Gompers Memorial Park, in the center a statue of the union leader, seated in a suit, looking proud, almost regal, flanked by symbolic men and women carrying tools and bundles of sticks. At the statue’s base, a homeless woman had made camp, sitting on a sleeping bag and surrounded by plastic bags filled with all her things.
I attend a half-day workshop put on by two small presses and targeted at writers of color, informally associated with the writers conference I came to D.C. to attend. It’s in a small room on the second floor of a bourgeois restaurant. Various writers come and give talks on craft and guide us through writing exercises. Most of them don’t lead to anything but disjointed ramblings, though I do end up writing the following poem about my man-bun:
Now that my hair is finally long enough to put up in a man-bun,
I can’t help but notice when I look in the mirror
How much I look like of those figures
in a Mughal miniature painting,
those men in long, knee-length shirts,
tiny against the towers of color around them.
One of them, in one painting,
is a young man my age
A courtier to Akbar in the 16th century.
For him, his hair is the same as everyone’s around him
And not some statement of self-expression
(or so at least I think).
I wonder, were I born then,
A courtier raised in Imperial splendor,
Minarets in the distance of every view,
Surrounded by people who looked just like me,
Rising each morning to the call of the azan,
Would I feel as concerned about things
as simple as how I wear my hair?
Would I be the way I am now,
Self-conscious, uncertain, aware always of
if I grew up in a court of conquerors?
I leave half-way through a travel writer’s talk by a woman who seems unhealthily obsessed with money. She didn’t seem to care too much about the places she traveled (through she mentioned that she had an Indian husband, so she must have at least liked India) and instead all her anecdotes were about people she knew who’d made tons of money through travel writing, “Six figures!” as she kept saying. The love of the world itself didn’t seem to matter at all to her, and it really depressed me, this vision of a life dominated by capital, by money.
The writers of color workshop earlier was much better — a roomful of people interested in their craft, in words themselves, in language. No matter how small or scattered, it was refreshing to see them gathered there in the small dark room with the 1960s painting print hanging at the front.
I go to a poetry reading at Sixth Engine — an old firehouse, DC’s oldest, from 1855, decommissioned in 1974, abandoned for forty years, now a bourgeois restaurant and cocktail bar with a mostly millennial crowd.
The reading is upstairs, put on by three literary magazines. Everyone is young, my age or younger. The readers stand at a mic at the front, in front of a painting on the brick wall of firemen racing to the left. A window looks out onto the street, and a table with free food is set up at the front entrance. Another table sells beer, wine, and cocktails.
The room is crowded and everyone seems to know each other. They almost all look the same, button-down plaid and checkered shirts, dark-rimmed glasses, almost everyone white. I feel a little out of place. There’s one other solitary guy not talking to anyone. He’s standing by the food table, surreptitiously eating more as the servers return with newly filled plates. I stuff myself with cold meats and chicken and small pickles and then leave halfway through the reading.
I return to my hotel but feel restless, so I take a walk, down 11th to the Mall and then right to the White House. I pass a few people walking and some men in suits loitering outside Old Ebbitt Grill, across from the Treasury Building, which seems to have too many columns, a dizzying row down the side. At the front of the building is the stately, frock-coated sculpture of Hamilton. A police officer with an automatic weapon patrols behind the metal bars.
The White House has a fence around it, surrounding the temporary stands still left from the inauguration. “No Trespassing” signs sit at periodic intervals, and orange detour signs guide pedestrians up through Lafayette Park. Police cars sit parked around the fence, and police officers lean against them, watching the passing pedestrians. Behind them, the White House glows eerily, the American flag fluttering overhead. Out in the park, I pass by the statue of Jackson, rearing on his horse, silhouetted against the distant lights.
All conference panels, no matter what the content, are drearily alike — ugly carpet, beige “meeting room” walls, an artificially cavernous space, the awkward hum of fans, jaundiced lighting, exit signs prominently displayed above large wooden doors, taunting us. The panelists seem totally unwilling to be honest — they all have the same false earnestness, that Hillary-Clinton-style uptalk. They nod in unison, slowly, as each panelist “ums” and “uhhs” their way through another question before a roomful of desperate writers listening intently.
The audience, meanwhile, is a mix of young and old, lanyards drooping about their necks, slouching shoulders. Many are on their phones, but all the ones who stare up at the front frown with the same drooping mustache-like mouth.
The moderator has an NPR-like cadence to her questions — talking fast, laughing too much, a strained smile as they listen and nod. How can I break free of all this? How can I transcend? The literature I want to write goes beyond these petty discussions of emotions, happy vs. sad, beyond this New-York-cadenced style, this limited bubble, the art of liberalism. It’s the same limited view that gave us Clinton unironically, that’s led us to world of Trump, and I really hope that literature can move beyond this…
Late-morning brunch at Kramer’s bookstore and cafe with D__. I order a crab cake sandwich tender and warm, and skinny fries on the side seasoned with salt, garlic and oregano. With coffee, it comes to thirty dollars.
After, we metro to the American History Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. First we find twentieth century American art in a separate, decontextualized gallery — an Edward Hopper of a woman leaning out a window and staring at a field, an idyllic house in a sunny landscape, a mural of workers and industry that looks like it belongs in a grand building. D__ tells me about the murals in government departments he’s worked at, these wonderful works of art hidden behind unassuming exteriors.
The modern exhibits we pass through quickly, and eventually we reach the Portraits. First, a history of America through its major figures — the civil war generals, stern, bearded or mutton-chopped, in deep blue uniforms. Later, as we move backwards in time, the facial hair disappears, replaced at first by side burns and then by nothing, while the uniforms become cravats and frock-coats and eventually wigs. I recognize several of the portraits from my previous trips here: Pocahontas in European dress, now hanging on my wall in postcard form back in LA, Margaret Fuller with her hands humbly folded, the wild blue of her dress the only symbol of her spirit. I note how the other feminists all look dour and old, and I wonder why the gallery didn’t chose to hang their younger portraits.
A small daguerreotype of Harriet Tubman is particularly haunting, in ghostly grey.
On the upper level, we see more American Art — landscapes of the Hudson River school, Edwin Church and Bierstadt’s romantic landscapes, the sun emerging over idyllic valleys, a storm breaking out over choppy ocean waves, the famous Bierstadt canvas of the Sierra Nevadas, more fantasy than reality with its Himalayan snow-capped peaks. I find the room of Dewing that I remember so fondly, the familiar women dancing in orange and green mists, the Turner-like swirls and insubstantiality, America’s version of impressionism. One allegory titled Music shows two women, one seated, one standing, color swirling over them, with a piano in a corner. Outside the room is the familiar gloomy statue, the hooded figure of Henry Adam’s wife, who killed herself by drinking chemicals used to develop photographs, and next to it the painting by Abbot Henderson Thayer of his family, his wife and two children standing regall but dissolving into a swirl of jagged color down at the bottom. In another room, I see again Sargent’s portrait of the woman in black, which I know best from the Penguin cover of The Portrait of a Lady.
Finally, we reach the Presidents’ portraits — as expected, they are very presidential, though the later ones get weird. Wilson’s is an incomplete portrait, his giant face looking out from a slice of reality on a background of murky color. I realize that Grover Cleveland is just as fat as Taft, and that Harding does not have the face of the sexually exuberant man his love letters depict. FDR has a strange portrait too, of him seated at a desk, below him studies of his hands folded in various ways. Clinton’s is an odd patchwork of color and vaguely creepy. W has no tie and seems so benign. There’s no Obama or Trump.
Later, we have another coffee at La Colombe before we walk up to Shaw and U Street. We discuss contemporary architecture, gentrification, and modernization before having craft beers at a hipster bar.
I meet G_____ outside the Smithsonian National Museum, and we walk to Lincoln Memorial, talking about monuments and history as we pass the phallic obelisk of the Washington Monument and the celebratory kitsch of the WWII memorial. Lincoln looms in the distance, and red light from the sunset shrouds the Mall in an evening light.
At the memorial, we read the Gettysburg Address in silence and then sit on the ground and stare up at the monument and talk about whether or not we think Lincoln was humble.
Eventually, she leaves to catch her flight. I eat dinner at a vegan place and then have a drink alone at the City Tap House. An angry looking guy sits next to me, trying to order a burger. The Grammys on TV. A woman drinks wine and stares down at her phone. Beside me, two guys are talking about Trump. “My daughter was here when it happened,” one of them says, morosely. “Here in DC.”
I watch I Am Not Your Negro in a theater adjacent to the street with Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot. On the way, I pass windows filled with kitschy memorabilia. Even one hundred and fifty years later, it feels too soon.
The next day, I sit in Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria — a restaurant from the 1700s, supposedly where the founding fathers would gather to eat. It’s quite nice for historic kitsch, and actually feels authentic (as far as I can tell): black and white maps and lithographs are framed on the walls, the tables and chairs are of a dark, chipped wood that genuinely looks centuries old, and the walls are painted a pale blue that looks appropriately antiquated (modern buildings would never have such a cheery pastel). I’m the only one in the restaurant, and with the empty tables all set up with folded napkins and tableware, it feels like I’m eating lunch in a museum. The room has a fireplace framed with two wall-lanterns, and hanging over it a black and white drawing of a ship.
The waiter is dressed in period garb and has a foreign accent. I order braised beef (forsaking vegetarianism to be period appropriate) and a tavern ale, supposedly Jefferson’s own recipe — it tastes very good, sweet, pleasant, not too hoppy. It’s part of a series called “Ales of the Revolution,” though the brewery, from Philadelphia, was only established in 1994.
In general, Alexandria has its charms, even though from the outside it looks like any currently posh and formerly historic town, the kind of place bourgeois people would describe as “nice,” like Walnut Creek or Livermore but with older buildings.
I go to the Sackler Gallery to see the “Art of the Qur’an” exhibition. The manuscripts are incredible: gold-leafed pages, mesmerizing Kufic script, the graceful flow of Arabic across centuries, too beautiful for me to put into words. Does Trump know these are here, I wonder?
I return to the National Gallery one more time — this time, to see the Dutch Art of the seventeenth century. Of these, Rembrandt of course stands out, technically Baroque but in my mind a style and category of his own, the light and shadow doing more than just evoking simple religious emotion. While his countrymen were painting delightful yet unserious scenes of peasants enjoying life and various views of cities and ships on the water, and his Italian contemporaries to the south were still painting mostly Mary and Jesus, he was looking into the depths of the human soul with his insightful, expressive faces. They are the center of each of his paintings, these human faces, emanating light, while the bodies disappear into the murky darkness around them. Of this period, only Caravaggio really compares.