"From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines, going where I list, my own master total and absolute, Listening to others, considering well what they say, Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me."
Walt Whitman (1819-92)
"When I look back now over my life and call to mind what I might have had simply for taking and did not take, my heart is like to break."
Akhenaton (d. c.1354 BC)
And now, the current weather, from some random person we pulled off the street:
Wednesday, March 17, 2004
Dropping the Ball Briefcase
neo-phyte Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Late Latin neophytus, from Greek neophytos, from neophytos newly planted, newly converted, from ne- + phyein to bring forth -- more at BE
1 : a new convert : PROSELYTE
2 : NOVICE
3 : TYRO, BEGINNER
4 : Me when I first went to DC
It was late June of 1980. I was about to stand on the heartbeat of the entire country, and had no idea how bumpy a ride it would be.
Heck, I didn't even have a stethescope.
I was in Washington, DC working for Congressman John Jenrette. I was "officially" the assistant press secretary, but was also working on putting together a bill for him to introduce that would have seriously limited the collusion that we suspected between major oil companies. We had examined their boards of directors, and the same few people were running all of the companies that were supposedly competing with each other. Prices had risen, and for no obvious reason, so the Congressman figured this might be a home run.
And he really badly needed a home run. He had just been indicted in the Abscam scandal. I'll write more on that another time.
I had settled into my apartment in Alexandria with two roommates that worked at the Pentagon as drones. Quickly I had discovered that driving to work was impossible in DC, so I had scouted out a Metro stop where I could park cheap, and took the Metro to work at the House of Representatives each day.
Perhaps one of the best ways to learn a town is by using its mass transit systems. You could see what the neighborhoods were like by watching who got on and off at the stops. For example, Foggy Bottom was where all the cute legal secretaries got off in the morning and on again in the evening. I used to try to make sure I had a vacant seat next to me every afternoon when we got to that stop, that way I could chat up one of the girls on the way home.
Never had any "results" though, but it wasn't from lack of effort.
Capitol South was where us tussled congressional aides slinked off. It was small potatoes compared to some of the other stations, but occasionally some real movers and shakers walked through there.
My first day to work, I was going up the escalator, dressed in my best suit, sharp as a tack and excited to be there. I was wired...this was THE big city! I mean, you can HAVE New York, all it has going for it is the size, but here, you could just tell you were right where all the power lines for the largest and most powerful country on Earth converged.
Since it was so crowded on the escalator, I held my briefcase off to the side. That gave more room, there were at least two people on every step.
All of a sudden my briefcase was pulled forcefully from my grip. Too late I saw that perpendicularly in the two foot space between the up and down escalator, there were plexiglass barriers. These were probably to prevent people sliding down. In my case one of them neatly captured my briefcase and sent it careening towards the bottom of the packed escalator as I rode helplessly upwards.
KaThud! KaThud! KaThud! Swishhhhhh. Bump. Now it rested against the bottom barrier. As I rode out into the sunshine I saw a fellow traveler grab hold of it and start upwards.
He got to the top and handed my briefcase to me. I smiled and thanked him, wondering feverishly how to somehow make it look like I did that on purpose. "Yes, we're conducting tests today on courtesy..." or "Actually, I had realized that I needed to reboard the metro and did not feel like carrying it back down..." or "Gosh, this briefcase sure is hard to throw away!"
Uh, no. None of that worked. So I settled for sheepishly standing there like it hadn't happened and waiting for everyone to walk off before I moved a muscle.
Hey, the last thing I needed was to have people whispering about me in the hallway. "You'll never believe what THAT guy did just outside..."
Yeah, like THEY had not ever thrown THEIR briefcase three stories down an escalator! Harrumph.
So I walked into the Canon House Office Building, one of several that housed the House of Representatives, and then had to submit to a guard search.
Of course, he opened my briefcase and went through it.
He didn't even snicker at the fresh dents on it.
First days at work are always intense experiences that are difficult to remember details about. I guess it has something to do with the fact that our first impressions are so often wrong, and we quickly replace them with the right ones, thus uprooting the base our first impression rested on. There, I said that in a circle.If you read it twice it makes sense.
Anyway, I only remember a few things about that day.
Number one, when I walked into the office, I discovered that the receptionist was one of the most charming and beautiful women I had ever seen in my life. She was a general's daughter and had a very wealthy (and older, I think) steady boyfriend. Leave it to me to find that out first thing.
Number two, Washington Congressional office staffers are very, very different from the ones in the regional and district offices. These are the pros, the ones that play for the big money. They are lifetime dedicated and hop from position to position as the political wind changes, but they are animals that thrive on the power charge in DC. They could survive nowhere else.
So, Warren, the Press Secretary that I will work with, takes me on the "tour." We start at the usual place.
That's downstairs, so we have to take an elevator. The elevators in the House buildings have elevator operators. No, they are not the old cage kind, they have regular buttons, but there is an operator on each one.
As we walked up, I found out why. A bell rang signalling that there was a vote in session on the House floor. As soon as that happens, the operators reserve elevators for House members use only. That way the congressman who was in his office instead of on the floor can run to the elevator, dart to the Capitol building, and vote without all the tedious waiting on elevator stuff that might make him miss it, not to mention the even more tedious listening-to-speeches stuff that would keep him out of his office.
We headed over to the Capitol building. In that area, DC is a warren of tunnels. Each important building is connected to every other one underground. We're talking huge tunnels too, large enough to drive in although no one does. We crossed over in no time from the office building to the Capitol, and headed up to the House floor observation deck.
Which is where I got a real education in American politics.
I expected a room full of congressmen. I had been watching C-Span in the Congresssman's office (which at that time was not available anywhere but in Washington) and they always showed packed seats. But when I stood in the observation gallery, what I saw were a few congressmen idly sitting in a small circle in the camera field of view while one congressman gave a speech which involved reading something from a piece of paper and no one was really listening at all.
What a let down. And as I watched, some congressmen had things "inserted" into the Federal Register. This means that they get their speech placed in the record of the proceedings of the day, but don't actually have to MAKE the speech. No one will ever know about it unless they read the register that day, but boy is it good for reelection stuff.
It would not be long until I was jaded, and in a bit of danger too, but that's a different post. In any event, I held onto my briefcase from then on.
Everybody knows if you are too careful you are so occupied in being careful that you are sure to stumble over something.
Gertrude Stein (1874 - 1946), Everybody's Autobiography, 1937