Letters from Washington
by Stephen Chan
[ places - november 07 ]
I didn’t like Washington. Physically it was small but reasonably beautiful, especially Georgetown; and monuments mean less with time anyway. The two universities I visited were very grand, and the 30th floor view of the Potomac river from where I worked was as spectacular as claimed.
It was the enveloping atmosphere of ‘wannabe’ that cloaked the town like a mist. Everyone wants to be a player. People who are players size up other players, look down on those who are not, and fawn at the tables of the grandees.
It all felt a little desperate, especially as all and sundry know Washington is fucking up the world big time and, amazingly, the town of the world’s most conservative superpower is turning to Obama; and those who are not will welcome him anyway. Because he will be a relief, a new symbol, in a town where to be a symbol is even greater than being a player. With the barely black man will come light - and then those sidewalk cafés of Georgetown (and those I am told of nearby Alexandria) will really look closer to those of Europe; and there will be no more silly books in Barnes & Noble on the decline of Europe because it has fetishised law and abandoned power.
But, without power, how can there be players? Those who wannabe will ensure that the little town by the Potomac will remain much as it is. They will force those who have it to work to deny those who don’t. And this is the true secret the world needs to learn. Even in Washington, there is only so much to go around. Like the Metro that doesn’t go enough places, like the giant airport shuttles where you have to cram and wait to accomplish something simple like reaching your plane - and then it lurches off like a medieval beast - and all of life is to be within the beast and, to be fair to the doyens and wannabes, to turn it back towards Bethlehem.
Because, finally, there is still a curious tainted idealism in Washington. But tainted, my masters. And the idealism that wears tailored suits rather than designer labels, that buttons down its shirt collars and thinks eccentricity is a brightly-coloured umbrella, does not take its idealism beyond the road maps; does not jay-walk; does not walk arm-in-arm with difference. It is most generous to those who conform to it, are conformed by it - who are made protégés as an advance on being made clients. Who see power shimmer on the late summer nights in the Washington skies.
Who are seduced by it as a small city with, all the same, much in it - and this ‘much’ is more than anywhere else even though, within itself, it is rationed - not hoarded, but displayed within sight and out of reach.
So the gentlemen who come and go at the Cosmos Club near Dupont Circle become the brokers and arbiters of who may be with them - Obama may be with them - and this is a prelude to a disquisition as to who, in the entire wider world, is with them or resolutely not with them.
Very much in the world wishes there were no Washington to be with. Around the Capitol, crude barriers have been thrown up. The Senators and Congressmen intend to withstand a siege. The Persians and Canaanites are coming; the run-amok Babylonians are running towards them. So they make ugly their citadel and legislate their response, and silver hair is what does it. You must have silver hair to stand on a podium and thunder that you will withstand the siege. The beast cannot slouch towards Bethlehem if the Persian Immortals march towards Washington with possibly their single bomb. The Persians descend upon the Dupont 300 who have 30,000 bombs. It is very comical, this sense of threat - but that is something newly and satisfactorily added to Washington, and there is more than one person in his hired black limousine with smoked windows touring the sights at night who murmurs to the air that, damn you, you city of mock Ionian columns, at last you know what vulnerability means, what energy precautions take, how poorly pompousness and paranoia mix, and how glowingly they disfigure this city and its enclosures.
I didn’t like Washington. I hope Obama makes it. I hope he smiles upon the distant continent of his ancestors; I hope he smiles upon the Canaanites, understands the Babylonians, and recognises that even Xerxes, far from throwing his single bomb, might simply dissolve into laughter at the small city and its immense conceits and ironies.
Returning to the small city that is capitol to great power, on an airline that has seen better days, behind a seat that slants in at me like a wedge aimed at my left arm. I don’t know if it’s a seat past its sell-by date or the asymmetrical hulk who slouches mouth open against it. The hulk has found an angle and the angle has found me. I want to hit the seat. I should really hit the hulk, amputate his body from his head; leave the head sitting neatly on the seat he bought and jettison the bulbous torso into the deep-green Atlantic. Who needs the world’s misshapen monsters on a flight when you could only afford economy class? Next time demand more from your sponsors. Threaten a trail of massacres with evidence fished corroding from a polluted ocean. We’re all dying anyway and the sight of a nearly naked Keira Knightley on the tiny screen does nothing in its flat-breasted token of compensation. At least two of her would barely substitute Mr Lifetime-Overeat in front. Surely he feels shame when he undresses at night in front of his very small mirror. And she, does she appraise the tiny saddlebags on her skinny sapling thighs? We are all caught by our nightly interrogations of ourselves, and they shine harshly in the hired light of new hotels in even the most familiar cities.
En route back
New hotels, old White Houses - where our promised meeting was shunted aside as the commemorations of 9/11 took over Washington and General Petraeus testified in a clumsily-timed piece of theatre before the Senate that the Iraqi war showed progress while his commander-in-chief sought to conflate the war and the ruins of New York.
I walked the polite boulevards of Washington, the bizarre guest of an establishment that influences neither the president nor his general. Foundations pay my expenses and I, of course from habit and a desire to supersede the prescribed measures of comfort, exceed my expenses. At least no seat wedges into me as I traipse the boardrooms and the boulevards, sit at an open-air bar on Dupont Circle as the homeless prepared to bed down on the hub of Washington’s streets of influence. One looks like my tormentor on British Airways as his bench creaks beneath his hulk. He sings a song under the lamps of the park. At the other end of Connecticut Avenue, does the president in his White House hear it? Mentally I join the chorus and telepath it onwards. The air swells and many dead are singing. Six years after 9/11 they ask why the cause of their deaths is still misunderstood and daily the souls of young men trudge in from shrapnelled deserts to join them and also sing in the town of power in a land of confusion in a world of misgiving. I cannot raise my left arm, I cannot see Keira Knightley in my mind. I see shapes swirl in the late summer air. I hear mourning.