Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Commuting To DC

Today those crowds on the Mall brought it all back. Throughout the 1990s I commuted to my job, just a couple of blocks from where the Inauguration took place. I ate many a lunch on the Mall benches as the tourists in their fanny packs and pastel knits and the fitness-conscious bureaucrats in running shoes passed in front of me.

My metro stop was L'Enfant Plaza, named after the French architect who designed the harmonious plan of downtown DC. But there was nothing harmonious about the metro station, either in feeling or design. It was a cavernous place full of stressed-out people.

I was surprised today to hear visitors to DC say what a friendly, smiling city it is. That is certainly not how I experienced it. The metro, though clean and modern, carried sullen crowds, and the sullenness, I am sorry to say, had a racial component. Although I saw no overt incidents, there was nonetheless an unmistakable chill. Unfortunately, the feeling carried into my office, where the support staff was 100% African American, and the professional staff 90% white.

Maybe it was a failure of leadership. Maybe, despite the frequent baby showers and Christmas parties and bowling events, the professional staff was clumsy in its outreach efforts. Maybe we were naïve. But we never achieved a sense of ease or fellowship with the members of the support staff.

As I watched today's inauguration I wondered how much difference it will make in the way people interact on the metro platforms, on the escalators, in the offices. Will Obama's serenity and aplomb spill over into the country as a whole, making everyone feel more confident, more gracious in requesting and in answering those requests?

I know that this first Black president will make a difference in the way the US is perceived in the rest of the world. I know that he will make a difference in our foreign policy. He may make a difference in the economy. And I hope he will make a difference in the way people interact on the streets of DC, in the metro, and in the labyrinths of the bureaucracy.

6 comments :

  1. I was on the Mall for the 4th of July Bicentennial. And for assorted Marches on Washington. But I think the crowds weren't anything like those seen yesterday. I'm thinking the "smiling, friendly people" were all out-of-towners, or else were locals temporarily buoyed by good feelings. Today they'll go to work and wade through piles of post-celebration garbage, they'll grumble over the stock market, they'll fight over trivialities, and D.C. will be back to normal.

    I am such an optimist, aren't I?

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  2. I think yesterday's crowds were supposed to be the biggest ever.

    Did you hear about Joshua Bell playing the Bach Chaconne incognito in L'Enfant Plaza station during rush hour? Very few people paid attention, but someone did throw him a $20 bill!

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  3. of course it will make a difference. it just won't make an immediate, sweeping difference.

    but change.... change is inevitable.

    and lali, the josh bell story is one of the best i've ever read. i sent it to everyone i knew, and then when it won the pulitzer prize i sent it around again.

    if you haven't read it in its entirety, you must. the writing was so intelligent. it's gene weingarten.

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  4. I did read the whole story, which was terrific. But I didn't know about the Pulitzer. I've always wondered, if I'd been going up that escalator and heard him at the top, would I have paid attention? Would I have noticed? It was "my" metro station that he played in. And I remember so well going up the escalator in the mornings and hearing mostly horrible music coming from the top.

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  5. I love subways. I loved the DC subway. And maybe people were sullen, but mostly, I think we were just tired. Tired and anonymous. Still, I kind of loved it.

    This isn't to say there wasn't a racial component. I'm not naive enough to think there wasn't. But I felt it more in offices, with the staff/support staff split. That split could also appear in terms of class, not just race. They are intertwined, but not necessarily the same thing, as you know.

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  6. Yeah, it was worse in the office. I didn't say much about that--it's such a difficult subject. It's probably too much to ask that one man make it all better....

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