My daughter Maggie wants to see the tough parts of D.C. I drive the Prius down toward the Navy Yard. In front of us, a young black man enters the crosswalk. We lock our doors. He plucks a crushed plastic bottle from the pavement, tosses the trash in a can and a glance our way. He has smart eyes and an oval face. You could imagine him as the President of the United States. Locking the doors seems silly.
The lawns in Anacostia are tidy, windows neither broken nor barred. There is no trash along Minnesota Avenue. The poor sections of the District look good, much better than I remember. Tensions may underlie the well-tended surface, but there’s a clear sense these neighborhoods are rescuing themselves.
Somebody replaced the broken panes. People got to know their neighbors and took the metal mesh off their storm doors. I’m not seeing a bunch of new community centers or big plywood signs at construction sites trumpeting the latest model city project. The streets are just as pock marked as any American city, really a bit more. This is not a transformation bloated into being by Federal funds. These are local folks doing what needs to be done.
“These would be mansions in Nicaragua,” my daughter says.
Just returned from a church service trip, her frame alternates between “God bless America” and “welcome to America” (the latter delivered in rueful tones at evidence of U.S. excess). My daughter will say she received as much as she offered on the service trip. This is hard for me to believe, she is both so earnest and lovely. In the orphanage, in the Managua dump, “they are so full of joy,” Maggie says. Her tethers to the consumer world have loosened. She’s less certain now that joy is for sale.
We have been staying in the ritzy part of Washington. It has been looking kind of rough. Georgetown storefronts sport “going out of business” signs. Those shops that are open display a dearth of high-buck customers. Notes taped to their glass doors by bored clerks promise to “be back in 10”.
We’re out-of-towners from the Middle West, yet we have no problem being seated in the cheekiest of restaurants. The fierce competition is on the street for spots to beg. The homeless homestead every lamppost along M Street. On Wisconsin Avenue a recessed doorway serves as a single-family home.
Back in the Prius, I turn west on East Capitol, not having found poverty where I expected it. The dome suddenly fills the windshield, bright as a setting sun. It is hot and getting hotter. It is July, just before the Fourth. The air conditioner strains. I’d like to roll down the windows. I don’t. The neighborhood gentrifies. The avenue becomes ceremonial. We come to The Hill.
The Capitol complex is ringed in security. Streets are closed. Big metal scoops tip back up after mirror-windowed SUVs leave the parking ramps. It used to be that only the villain in a James Bond movie took such precautions. Planters barricade doors. Uniformed people scowl at us officiously.
“Where’s the IRS?” asks Maggie as we drive down Constitution. She’s just graduated from college with honors in accounting.
“You really want to see it?” I ask.
“Yeah, I kind of do.” Maggie is passionate about accounting. This mystifies even her. She likes the way things add up and balance. I like that she feels passion. I find a parking spot and plug the meter. Heat blasts from the white sidewalk.
The National Mall is blocked-off by chain link fences. For turf maintenance, say the signs. Expansive parcels of grass lay empty. I’m a little pissed that we, the people are not allowed to walk on our own front lawn. Reams of tourists funnel through the authorized pedestrian channels toward this national treasure, or that war monument. I remember when it once was open. You could run at full gallop from the reflecting pool to the West Portico of the Capitol. Of course you wouldn’t do that today anyway, in this heat.
We come to the grand pile of the IRS, a building built with 1930s-brand government confidence. Maggie steps across the hedge. The boxwood’s spicy smell hangs in the heavy air. It makes me think of Mount Vernon and the founding fathers, their genius and their flaws. After I take her picture in front of the IRS sign, we walk up the blond steps toward the entrance. We enter the first arched portal. The doors have shinny brass push bars. They are locked. A note with an arrow reads, all visitors this way. The one at the very end is open. Maggie and I step into the vestibule. The locked glass doors stretch back like the mirror room at Versailles. It is quiet. No one is here.
A guard comes out. He has trim gray hair and dark skin. He smiles, “Can I help you?”
“We’re here to see the exhibits,” I say.
“Hey Mom, we don’t have to…” Maggie says.
“I can’t let you in if you don’t have an appointment,” says the guard.
“Don’t you have any public exhibits?” I can see a glass case just beyond the receptionist.
“We really don’t,” the guard says.
“My daughter is passionate about accounting. She’s really interested in the IRS,” I tell the guard. The man looks at Maggie. She is petite, with long brown hair and a warm smile. His face opens as he looks at her. They chuckle together. “She’ll be back,” I say.
“Good. That’s good. We’ll be waiting for her,” calls the guard as we leave the cool stone hall and step back into the heat.
“Funny thing,” says Maggie as we cross Pennsylvania Avenue toward our car. “At the orphanage in Nicaragua everyone was so joyful. They didn’t need me to bring them happiness. But wow, the IRS. How wild would it be to be a joyful person at the IRS?”
“Pretty radical,” I say.
Back at our Foggy Bottom hotel, I flip through a Washington magazine filled with gown-clad women in philanthropic poses. A tome of power and glitz, it is hardbound, a suitable keepsake for the fiscally well endowed. There are names I know, Senators, TV Stars and a Rockefeller or two, but most people in the photos are obscurely fabulous.
A picture of a couple with their dog catches my eye. It’s a black-tie benefit for an animal shelter. I study the dog’s long hair, beautifully groomed, silky. I have dropped fifty bucks on a shampoo for my pooch. I’m not judging the cost of their doggie’s hairdo. I don’t assume extravagance robs good works. It’s just that striving for status seems a little sad, pointless, and so yesterday.
They don’t take pictures of the people that pick up the trash on the street. Formal wear would be awkward if you were climbing a ladder to clean the eaves of your infirm neighbor’s roof. There’s a reason I didn’t see beggars in Anacostia. Panhandling requires guilty consciences and over-stuffed pocket book. Only a very few can still afford such illusions. There’s something topsy-turvy in our Nation’s Capitol, a fairytale turning sci-fi.
We are tired of waiting for good things to trickle down from the seat of power. I keep picturing the canines of the elite peeing on a beggar’s lamppost. It’s a crude image. These are crude times.
They are part of the same system beggars and socialites, exchanging prestige for a clear conscience and cash handouts. The most effective good work does not happen within the hierarchy of privilege and poverty. Real help flows horizontally. If you’re following the call to change the world, who could say if it might not draw you, after all, to the IRS.