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Postcard from the End of America: Washington D.C.

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For nearly four years, I lived just 20 miles from Washington, in Annandale, VA, and I worked in D.C. for 9 months. From my home in Philadelphia, I've also gone down to Washington at least a hundred times, so this metropolis should not be alien to me, and yet no American city is more off putting, more unwelcome, more impenetrable, and this, in spite of its obvious physical attractiveness, and here, I'm talking mostly about its Northwest quadrant, the only part visitors are familiar with, and where commuters from Virginia and Maryland arrive daily to work.

Even though it's the world's foremost generator of mayhem, Washington is supremely tranquil and orderly. With its wide streets, unusually wide sidewalks, many leafy squares and the vast, magnificent Mall, D.C. is the ultimate garden city. It's greener than Portland, Oregon. It's also a showcase for culture. All of its publicly owned museums don't charge admissions, a unique arrangement not just in the United States but likely worldwide, thus the unwashed masses can stream into the National Gallery to admire the only da Vinci in the Americas, 15 Rembrandts, 12 Titians, four Vermeers and two Albert Pinkham Ryders. A laid off factory worker or brain damaged war veteran can stuff his face with Bonnards, Degas, Canalettos and Morandis, then pick his crooked teeth with a Renoir or Cassatt. If still not sated, he can hobble over to the Hirshhorn, Freer or National Museum of American Arts for more artistic nourishment to heft up his mind and bevel down his rough edges.

Washington museums feature almost no local artists, however, for this is a profoundly uncultured place, paradoxically. Nothing germinates here but power. (The only D.C. artists I can think of are Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, two innocuous painters whose canvases are designed for corporate lobbies.) Unlike in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco or even Philadelphia, there are no first rate galleries of contemporary arts here. The politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, military types and spooks who dominate D.C. have loads of money, but they are all culturally conservative. Elites everywhere tend to be that way, sure, but D.C. is a magnet nonpareil for those who crave power and can think of nothing else. They are here to gain and barter influence, not to be distracted or pestered by arts that haven't been curated, many times over, to be palatable to the status quo. Even arts from many decades ago can threaten and disturb, and that's why the caustic social commentaries of Max Beckmann or Otto Dix, for example, are safely kept in storage and rarely dragged out for public contemplation. As this nation normalizes legal sadism, Leon Golub's images of torture will not be on display. Here, why don't you ogle these colorful blobs of nothing by some garbage painter!

Other capital cities have rich artistic heritages, but not Washington, for it was conceived only to be a center of power. Built up almost entirely from scratch, it's the ideal American city, literally, with just about every aspect of it carefully calibrated, and almost nothing that's organic or spontaneous. Its oldest section, Georgetown, was a major slave trading center, as was Alexandria, just across the Potomac. Providing quaintness, fine dining and shopping, Georgetown and Alexandria give tourists a much needed breather from the oppressive monumentalism of downtown D.C.

After its founding, Washington itself became a major slave trading center, and one must remember that Washington, the president, inherited ten slaves at age eleven, had 50 slaves before he married Martha, and owned 123 slaves when he died. (Martha and her children from another marriage had 195 more slaves.) Ben Franklin, by contrast, never owned more than a handful, so it was much less painful for him to release his two slaves, and he only did this at age 79, three years before his death. For much of his life, Franklin only objected to slavery because it was bad, well, for white people, for it made them arrogant and lazy, he claimed. Plus, it wasn't too wise an investment, and to bring resentful blacks into your household is a pretty stupid idea, Franklin pointed out, and here he was thinking of the domestic slaves common in the North, not the platoons of field hands that an oligarch like George Washington could whip into inhuman productivity in the South.

In 1987, I worked as a looseleaf filer in Washington. I had just quit college and was sleeping on my aunt's living room's floor in Annandale. My daily task was to file thousands of pages into binders in law libraries. With a coworker, I would walk from law firm to law firm, and sometimes take the Metro to go as far out as Bethesda, Maryland. Before this job, I didn't even know that many of these 13-story buildings in downtown were law offices. Since no building in Washington can be higher than the Capitol, the tallest all have 13 floors. Due to superstition, however, many elevators display a "14" button after "12." Washington Circle, Dupont Plaza, Logan Circle, Mount Vernon Square and the White House do make an inverted pentagram, but that evilness, if you believe in such things, was part of the original plan, and has long been enshrined by concrete, asphalt and tradition.

My job was very low paying yet exact, and we had to work at breakneck speed. Wearing rubber finger grips, we had to zero in on thousands of tiny numbers to make sure no page was inserted wrongly. Rushing, I ran into a glass partition once, but the secretaries, paralegals and lawyers near me did not laugh. For months, a law librarian kept calling me "Kim," and I never bothered to correct him. I had no time to lose. It didn't matter. We were just rushing in and out and not a part of any firm. Though at the very bottom of the legal hierarchy, looseleaf filers still had to look somewhat professional, and so I bought five polyester dress shirts and four pairs of old man's pants from Sym's, the discount clothing store.

Hard as I tried, though, mistakes were inevitable, for no man is a machine. After one screw up, my supervisor enunciated to me, "Here at Bartleby Temp, we don't tolerate mediocrity," and she said the last word so carefully, drawing out each syllable, one might think she had just learnt it herself. The name of the agency is made up, by the way, for I can no longer remember it. What I do recall, however, is a coworker's dazed face as he emerged from a book stack. Of course, I had to be equally stultified. Our eyes had to be equally glazed.

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After work, I socialized with a couple of guys, but there was no place for us to go, really, not on our budget. Unlike in Philadelphia, there were no corner bars where regular joes in goofy T-shirts and worn baseball caps could whoop it up. In downtown D.C., the only taverns catered to the executive types, and the city has become even more exclusive since. With a more bloated federal government, Washington is even richer now, even as the rest of the country become destitute. Just about every expensive house, car, tie, loafer, call girl, gigolo and martini in D.C. is being paid for, one way or another, by joe sixpacks from across this nation. Elected officials come here to feast on illicit money, for you must be daft to assume American graft is limited to campaign contributions. They legalize some corruption to trick you into thinking that's all there is. In any case, the only other American oasis that's similarly thriving is Manhattan, for that's where our banksters and prestitutes dwell. Everybody else is going to hell.

As a looseleaf filer, I belonged to that servant class in D.C. that helped it to function without knowing hardly anything about it, and there was absolutely no hobnobbing with the higher ups, for with their conservative haircut, perfect teeth, gym finessed body and expensive, carefully coordinated outfits, not to mention a confident, upright bearing and honking voice, I'm not kidding, they knew exactly who they were and who they cared to associate with.

One of my coworkers was a tall, black guy who was having the time of his life, however. During lunch, I asked Bill what he did that weekend, and the mellow, soft spoken man closed his eyes and sighed, "I had sex. Lots of it. There are so many good looking guys here. They must be busing them in. I've never had so much sex in my life. I'm getting a little tired of it, actually." Hearing that, I felt anguished and embarrassed, for I had gotten nothing in months, but looking defeated is no way to hook up with any woman, and I had never felt worse in my life. I was socially displaced. Once, a female coworker, a native of Ethiopia, freaked out at a reception desk because she felt disrespected, but I was right there and saw nothing. I don't blame her, though, not at all, for it was all too easy to feel intimidated or paranoid. Like much of Northwest D.C., these swank law firms are designed to exude authority.

Earlier this month, I was in D.C. for a day and decided to check out Arlington, just across the Potomac from Georgetown. As a teenager, I had gone there to watch kung fu movies, and during my filing clerk days, I'd eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant near the courthouse. It was a rather seedy, five table affair at the back of a grocery store. Its wallpaper showed a snow-capped mountain and waterfall. Pointing to it, a middle-aged white guy shouted, "Don't drink the water!" He looked as if he was about to sob. The other eaters ignored him. Smiling, the waiter informed me in Vietnamese, "He comes here all the time. He fought."

Arlington used to have these rather grim apartment buildings, cheap motels and the businesses that catered to such residents, but now it is all spiffed up and gentrified. All the tacky shops on Wilson Boulevard are gone. Its funk purged away, Arlington has become as sterile as downtown D.C. The same process has been repeated all over the area. The smug bubble has enlarged itself. In downtown, there was Scholl's Colonial Cafeteria at 20th and K, and in the 80's I'd go there for its cheap prices and humble atmosphere. Once I even took Bill, the sex machine. At Scholl's, the emphasis was on comfort food, with meat loafs, breaded fish, overcooked spaghetti, soft green beans, soft carrots and mushy spinach, and an assortment of pies, that kind of stuff. With its many elderly diners, Scholl's had to be mindful of their false teeth and receding gums, not too mention their mournful and exhausted jaws. Anything too hard, such as fresh piece of celery, might just lay them out on the floor. Scholl's was so cheap, even the homeless ate there. At each table, there was a prayer card and on the walls, framed photos of the Pope. Most of the servers appeared to be immigrants from Central America. In the 40's, Scholl's was one of the first D.C. eateries to serve whites and blacks equally. Alas, Scholl's is no more, and it was finally put of business by the dip in tourism after September 11th of 2001. Even without that incident, I don't think it would survive to this day anyway.

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Seeing next to nothing in Arlington, I got on the Metro and headed to Southeast Washington. Crossing the Anacostia River, you enter another D.C. altogether. Almost everyone here is black, and Washington itself is still half black. Just a few decades ago, it was 70% black, however. Back then, Washington had the highest murder rate in the entire country, and its basketball team was called, appropriately enough, The Bullets. D.C. hoopsters have been rechristianed The Wizards, but a more appropriate name would be The Missiles or The Drones, methinks.

Frederick Douglass spent 18 years in Anacostia, and this was also where disgruntled WWI veterans and their families set up a shanty town as they demanded to be paid, early, their promised bonuses. This was during the height of the Depression and they were starving. Responding to their pitiful pleas, the federal government sent in General McArthur with troops, cops and six tanks to chase them all out and burn down their encampment. During various clashes around D.C., four protesters were killed and over a thousand wounded. On the government side, 69 cops were hurt.

One must remember that Washington itself was founded after the U.S. government had stiffed its own soldiers even before the War of Independence, its very first war, was over. In 1783, roughly 500 troops besieged Congress, then based in Philadelphia, to demand to be paid. A bunch of weasels even then, the Congressmen delegated youngish Alexander Hamilton to schmooze and jive with the angry soldiers. Just give us some time to hash this out, he begged them, but these Congressmen then tried to arrange for troops to come in to snuff out the mutiny. Had they succeeded, you would have American soldiers firing on American soldiers, which was exactly what happened later in D.C. Leery of more incidents like this, the weasels slithered South to erect their ideal city.

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Linh Dinh is tracking our deteriorating social scape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America . He is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, (more...)

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