My first memorable visit to our nation's capital – commonly known as Washington, DC, "the District," or just "DC" – was some years ago with my mother. Mom and I stopped by on a road trip to Delaware, where my sister was going to college. At that time, my high school years were far ahead of me. But as we walked on the National Mall on a cloudless day, past a group of students reading at the base of the Washington Monument, I knew I wanted to live here.
I was fooled by the mirage.
Twelve years later, I've yet to read as much as a newspaper near the Washington Monument – too many tourists. I am proud to say that I have been to the top of the obelisk, once, when I sneaked in line with a tour group several springs before September 11.
Truth be told, my friends and I rarely visit the Washington that the rest of the world knows. We spend our weekends hiking around Rock Creek Park, sipping coffee in Dupont Circle, shopping in Georgetown, or drinking our cares away at bars in Adams-Morgan, on U Street, or on the "Hill." To me, Capitol Hill is not where a bill becomes a law, but where I can find one of the best jukeboxes in the city (Capitol Lounge), not to mention the best farmer's market (Eastern Market).
Living in DC certainly has some advantages. For instance, admission to any of the Smithsonian Museums is free. You can still smoke in bars (though I don't). And, tickets to non-Redskins-related sporting events are easy to get, as fans here are lukewarm and the teams have no heart.
The presidential motorcade is a very common sight and sound in Washington. The excited wail of sirens and amplified honking always precede the flash of black, tinted-window sedans. Three or four of these cars travel in a row in order to fool you, but it's okay to give the finger to all of them when they prevent you from making that light.
Traffic jams are notorious in DC, but it's hard to feel sorry for the suckers who are stuck on Connecticut Avenue or on the 14th Street Bridge when you're listening to the rush hour report on your way to the Metro. Neither as gritty nor as glamorized as New York City's subway system, the Metro is as bland as a Hill staffer's khakis and loafers, but it can usually get you where you want to go. And it doesn't hurt that the stations are air-conditioned – a must for the sweltering heat of DC summers.
The approximately 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia come from all over the country and the world, making this one of the most diverse small cities anywhere, especially when it comes to food. We have excellent Thai, Ethiopian, Pakistani, Lebanese, and French eateries. But, you can forget about getting a nice, cheap slice of pizza here. New Yorkers tell me that DC water is too hard to make good dough. I'd go down to Little Italy if I could, but it was bulldozed some years ago to make way for I-395. All that remains of that neighborhood are a wonderful, retro, red-sauce dive called "AV" and the handsome Holy Rosary Church. A bureau of the FBI is across from the latter.
Indeed, Philly has its cheese steak. Chicago, its dogs. But, if I were to ask you what DC's contribution to the nation's gullet is, you'd probably stare at me blankly. Senate Bean Soup is often cited as DC's "hometown" food, but I know of nowhere in the city – other than in the Senate cafeteria – where the stuff is on the menu.
Foreign languages can be heard almost everywhere you go in DC, from the local dry cleaner to the cab, at the bar and in line for the ATM. When the weather is warm enough for a jog, it's fun to pass down the side streets near Massachusetts Avenue and guess which nation's embassy lies behind which flag. Some of the smallest, most down-on-their-luck countries, such as Albania or Papua New Guinea, occupy some of the most prime real estate in the city. I often wonder if some countries' buildings are worth more than their GDP.
The embassy game can also be played using diplomatic license plates, which are marked by a "D" and then a random alphabetic code. For instance, "FY" is the country code for South Africa. Of course, this is a fun game as long as you are not looking for parking near Embassy Row.
Approximately 85% of DC's population works for the U.S. Government, an NGO, a nonprofit, or a lobbying agency. Many of my friends enjoy seemingly powerful jobs working for the senators of Massachusetts, California, or Missouri. Some have helped write the speeches that are delivered in prime time or on the Sunday morning talk shows. I even have a friend who once worked at the White House replying to children who had written to the president's pet. I kid you not – he used a paw print rubber stamp all day. But, ironically, those friends of mine who live within the DC city limits, who champion the cause of democracy each day, have no vote in Congress.
At 10%, DC has the highest tax rate in the nation, but somehow, our votes count for nothing. My friends who have relocated here from Boston are particularly perturbed by our "taxation without representation" status. On the one hand, we have free museums, good public transport, and the right to flash a juvenile gesture or two at the Commander-in-Chief's convoy. On the other, our residents have the same voting privileges as citizens of Puerto Rico or Guam – none. It wouldn't be that big of a deal if we also had perpetual sunshine, island breezes, and sugary beaches. I'd complain, if only I had a representative to call.
Besides a lack of voting rights, there is plenty wrong with Washington: potholes; a rat problem; an ineffective mayor/city council; under-performing schools; crime; a lack of fashion sense; an inane taxi fare system; steep rents; highly oppressive security; hoards of tourists; and never-ending construction.
So why live here? Or, more importantly, why visit?
Recently I returned from a trip south to visit my family, arriving by air to National Airport. As we began our approach below the clouds, the White House, the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, the mercurial Potomac River – that old mirage – came into view. At ground level, Washington may be quite maddening. But, from a distance, it shines like few other capitals can.