Wednesday, April 22, 2009

raining on my parade

Great Jiminy Crickets. What a day. The gods conspired against me on Monday. What did I do to deserve this? Cold rain, long lines, running in circles. But it all ended well enough.

The Supreme Court meets October through April, in two week segments (I think) hearing two one-hour cases Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning. The public is free to watch the arguments, but lines form early in the plaza outside the courthouse. The last two weeks of this term are this and next week - there was nothing last week - so I have three short windows of time to get in and see them. Realizing there was a chance I wouldn't get in, I decided to go at the first opportunity. Getting up early, I Metro'd to the courthouse, eavesdropping on very boring, career-minded young men in suits, and being glad I wasn't like them. More on DC's demographic as witnessed by me later. It was raining. Rainingrainingraining. I almost never use an umbrella. The only two umbrellas I've owned in the last decade are one I found and one that was given to me. Approaching the courthouse sometime around 8:45, I spied a big long line. The decision I had to make was, stand outside in the rain and chance getting into the court, or skip the court and go see the Capitol? Thinking that the rain may keep some potential court-attendees away, I went for the former. I'm not sure if my guess about the number of people who showed up was correct, but I made the wrong decision.

The literature will tell you that the doors to the court open at 9:30. What isn't so clear is whether people who get in for the first argument have to leave after it's done, or if they can stay for the second argument. They can stay. Which means that if you don't get in for the first argument, but you're sort of near the front of the line, you are not necessarily guaranteed to get in for the second. It all depends on the number of people who leave. I don't know how many seats are available to the public, but people other than the ones standing in line are also going to be in the courthouse, so no one in the plaza outside, including the cops, know how many seats are available.

For some reason or other not known to me, they didn't open the doors to the court until almost 10am. It was still raining. And raining and raining. The line started moving, but not far enough. The 10am session was closed, and I was still cooling my heels outside on the plaza. At least there were some pleasant people in line to shoot the breeze with, either lawyers, law students, or government interns. I was the only oddball. After the 10am session is closed, the cops divide the line in two - those who want to hold out and try to get into the 11am argument, and those who want to just listen to the session for three to five minutes (I'm not sure how this is handled). I don't think listening for three to five minutes would be gratifying at all, so I stayed in the 11am line. Still raining. Trousers soaked. Growing cold. Socks wet. Even the people with umbrellas were soaked and cold, so I didn't feel bad about not having one. When I was packing to come here, I erred on the side of too little. Mostly it's been okay with layers, but there have been a couple of chilly days. A small scarf would have made a bit of a difference. I just finished knitting a nice one before I left, but left it at home because it's sort of lacey and I didn't want it to get wrecked. I was too obsessed with packing light, which wasn't necessary on this trip. Still, I was wearing four layers, including a thermal shirt, a jacket, and a waterproof splash jacket, and I was starting get chilly. At some point it stopped raining, and then started again. The line inched forward as a few people at a time were allowed in. And then around 11am one of the cops, for some reason wearing a big smile, told every that the 11am argument was full. I wanted to go buy a large hot chocolate and pour it over my feet, but then they would have been wet and sticky, so I just jaywalked to the Capitol.

The Court has pretty strict rules about what they allow inside, so I had left my day bag behind, and all I had on me was my wallet, lodging key, small notepad and pen. My hands were so cold and wet by the time I got to the entrance of the visitor center that I had some problems teasing them out of my pocket to pass through the x-ray machine. Once in, I breezed straight into a tour, almost without having to stop walking. The tour first shows a short film about what Congress is and stands for, and then everyone is divvied up to tour guides. My guide was a smooth talker with a good patter, but, eh, I'd give the official tour a pass. Armed with either a Capitol building specific guidebook, or prepared with solid research, you could probably give yourself just as good a tour. I don't think you need to be part of an official tour to walk around - during a short recon mission to the Capitol a few days ago, I managed to wander into the room where the tour ends, and no one stopped me or gave me a second look. I did learn that Senate was in session starting at 2pm, and that tickets to the gallery had to be obtained from one's senators. I looked up where Feinstein's and Boxer's offices were, and tromped over to the Hart Senate Building, just one building away from the site of my previous failure, the Supreme Court. Keep in mind that, while these buildings may all be within a couple blocks of each other, they are so huge that one block feels like two, longer if you need to walk around looking for a visitor entrance, and there's usually some expansive landscaped plaza with a fountain between them. Pretty, but time consuming. The Hart building is utilitarian and nothing fancy. But there is an enormous, commissioned Alexander Calder sculpture rising up through the middle of the floors, and, of course, senators' offices. Each office has Old Glory and their state flag outside, so I could see Feinstein's from down the hall. Inside were three staffers or interns, all in suits and on phones, sitting at desks that were kind of cute because they were mini versions of the big, power executive desks. As soon as one got off his phone call, he gave me a couple of Senate Gallery passes, and on was on my way again. The passes are good for the entire term, not any particular day.

They only start letting people into the Senate gallery one-half hour before the session starts, so I decided to get lunch. There's a cafeteria on the top floor of the Madison LOC building. I recommend it if you are in the area and need food. It's not too expensive, they have a lot of options, and it's a cafeteria, so you don't need to stand on manners. You can bolt your food (bowl of turkey chili and mac'n'cheese) and run, just make sure you don't get in the line that's reserved for LOC employees. Then you get booted out to the other line. From what I could tell, most people up there were workers, not a lot of tourists. Plus, if you sit by the windows, you get a bit of a view. Fueled up and slightly drier by this point, I went back the Capitol, once again through security, this time having to take my belt off, and into the line to get into the gallery. No electronics are allowed, except ones that are keeping a human alive. When I got to one checkpoint, the staffer didn't seem to believe I had neither a cell phone nor a camera. Not that it got me in any faster. Back in line. In an elevator. Back in line, which snaked around corner after corner. At least it was moving, unlike the Supreme Court line. Finally into the Senate Gallery.

With the exception of AP American History, I recall government lessons in school being snoozers. I don't know if it was the subject matter or the teachers, but I have no memory of actually being interested. The Senate action I saw only confirmed that. In a sea of empty desks, there were about two senators. There were more people/officials facing the room, and if I had paid more attention in school, maybe I could tell you who they were. One guy was addressing them as I walked in, and then the Senator from Vermont (I think Patrick Leahy) took the floor. Not a clue what he was holding forth on. The gallery is constantly being interrupted by people leaving and new ones filtering through the narrow seating to take their place, and it's can be hard to hear. There was no fiery oration. There was a steady droning sound, some business with swapping one glass of water for another glass of water, a big chart was pulled out, and I was ready to leave. A small girl had dozed off, and her parents were told to wake her up by the staffer. The recorder was fun to watch - he had some sort of contraption, I'm guessing the same thing as a court stenographer uses, but it was around his neck, and he would wander a bit, maybe to better hear what was being said. I don't remember him ever looking at his hands.

I was done with official, working government for the day. What I didn't get to see and then what I saw was a letdown. If I had more time to spend in DC I would have called it a day, but I don't, so I walked over the the Smithsonian US Postal Museum. At each museum I've gone to, I've looked in vain for interesting postcards. I don't get it. The collections are full of weird and beautiful things, and there's barely a postcard to be had. The situation at the museum shop wasn't much better, but they do have nifty postcard machines where you plug in a name and address, and it spits out a printed card for you. The different machines have different images, and by chance I chose the machine with a card of Owney, a stray dog who became the mascot of Railway Mail Service. Owney, one and the same, in all his muttly glory, with his custom-made jacket and collection of baggage tags and trinkets from his years of travel, is on display at this museum. Since there was barely anyone else there, I had all the time I wanted at the machine, and printed out a stack of cards. For the most part, this museum was too much minutiae for me to handle at this point on this particular day. I wandered around for a bit, but didn't take in too much. There is a funny bit of info in the exhibit on the Rural Free Delivery, about how the delivery guys were on occasion asked to do other things than just deliver the mail; including one note from someone who had "gone visiting", and needed the postman to feed and water the livestock, and "if the bees have swarmed, move them to a new hive." If the bees were swarming on my route, I'd just stop delivering the post.

I debated what to do after the Postal Museum. I thought about trying to look at the stamps again, but my brain was having none of it. It was past 4pm. The National Archives are open until 7pm, and every time I've gone by there's been a line out the door and down the block. I decided to give it a try. It's about 7/8 of a mile from the Postal Museum to the Archives, or a Metro ride that requires one line transfer. I decided to walk. The line was out the door and down the block. I thought maybe if I came back later the line wouldn't be there, and backtracked to the East Wing of the National Gallery, entering through the West Wing, and walking through the underground concourse. There's a plaza with a fountain (see?) between the two, and the glass bottom of the fountain is the roof of part of the concourse, and is directly over their cafe. I might have thought it was more interesting if I hadn't spend over two hours standing in falling water earlier in the day. I thought it was open until 5:30, but it was only open until 5pm, which I only realized after I was in the Manuscript Illuminations exhibit. So I saw about six minutes of that before I was out on the street again. The only thing left to do at that point was the Archives, so back in line for the third time.

After about ten minutes, a guard came out and explained that both the x-ray machines were down, so they were hand-searching bags, and everything was taking longer. I pointed out that I didn't have a bag, hoping it would get me in faster, but that didn't work. Fortunately the rain had stopped. The line was out to Constitution Avenue, which evidently doesn't allow curbside parking after 5pm. and we were able to pass the time watching a guy get into a yelling match with a tow truck diver and parking enforcement officer because his car was on the verge of being towed. They were there the entire time I was in line, and not far from the door the cops showed up on the scene. Suddenly everyone didn't want to get into the Archives, so they could see the resolution of chubby angry guy vs. mustachioed tow truck driver vs. DC Metro Police. He ended up being let go, which was disappointing since he was being a jerk. There was a very pleasant family from Boston right behind me, and the parents explained that they had just been to the Newseum, where the kids had learned that capturing the news depends on being in the thick of the action, so they were very interested in keeping tabs on each new development, and reporting it back.

The Archives displays the three docs that upon which American ideology built - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The Declaration is so faded it's almost illegible, including most of the signatures. The three words that still stand out are "free and independent", since they were written essentially in bold, in heavy blackletter. I found one line near the end of Article One in the Constitution where the word "the" was omitted, then neatly careted in. Inevitable when copying by hand. Each page of these docs enjoys life in their own solid titanium frame plated in gold, resting upon a perforated aluminum bed, humidified with argon gas, monitored by sensors embedded in the base of the frame, under no more than two footcandle light. Before proceeding into the Rotunda to see these, you can look at a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta, one of only four copies. There's much more to the Archives exhibitions, but after seeing those I figured my time in line had paid off. I wandered around a bit looking at some interactive displays, but it was really time to head home, and the Archives were closing up anyways. After picking up my journal and laptop, I walked over to the Adams Morgan neighborhood with the intention of spending the rest of the evening with a beverage in a cafe, and arrived on 18th Street to see four fire trucks, assorted other emergency vehicles, everyone standing on the street, and no fire in sight. Turns out the fire was in the cafe I was headed to, so they were temporarily closed. The girl who told me this didn't seem to concerned, since she was singing to herself and calmly puttering about taking care of small business. I didn't want to wait for them to reopen, and decided I deserved another falafel from Amsterdam Falafel. I cruised by another cafe on 14th Street, but it was too crowded, so I just went home for a cup of tea. About an hour later, an oversensitive or malfunctioning fire alarm vacated the building. Me and Antonia joined everyone else in the lobby to wait for someone to figure out how to shut it off. Antonia took Gatsby's cage, and a number of other people had their cats in nice cat carriers. Cat carriers have evolved since I last had a cat. They sort of look like gym bags. I remember the cardboard boxes with holes. The fire department in this town stays on their toes. I've seen at least one fire engine, en route with sirens on, each day I've been here.

So it was kind of a rough day. I got wet and cold, didn't get to see exciting government action for my troubles, and stood in three long lines. I lost track of how many metal detectors I passed through. My feet hurt. I wish a couple of wombats would massage them with their large, soft noses. I don't really know if a wombat has a soft nose, but it looks like it does. But I made lots of temporary friends standing in lines, scored a pile of free postcards, saw the Charters of Freedom, and had a double scoop of fire alarm excitement randomness. It could have been a lot worse.

I haven't written about Sunday yet, since Monday was begging to be chronicled. It's coming soon...

1 comment:

Cybele said...

wombat foot massage, what an awesome idea!

thank you for telling how the charters of freedom are stored. gives me ideas for how to slow my own aging. unfortunately, tucson is like a million footcandles at most times so i'm going to need a lot of argon gas.