All of these events occurred in my head. Some of them occurred in real life as well.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

washington dc: on carousels, top hats, and america’s capital

It was late into the evening on a cool, damp night in early autumn and the headlights of my sister’s car had provided a thin, periscopic view through which I was able to investigate the current state of our nation’s capital. Much to the chagrin of the oncoming traffic, she had passively elected to maintain the sinister luxury of her high beams but even with my augmented field of view my perspective was limited and constantly shifting with about as much dynamism as a two thousand and eight Toyota Prius can manage. The leaves had not yet begun to change colors but the specter of that beautiful metamorphosis lay heavy in the wet air.

We exited off of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and entered Capitol Hill from the northeast along Constitution Avenue and turned south onto Second Street. Before us was the sort of archetypal street that every tourist expects to find in Washington DC with the neoclassical stone structures of the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress on the right and a quintessential patchwork of row houses that defines so much of the East Coast on the left. As with all rows of row houses the row of row houses on second street had an existential obligation to feature both a beginning and an end and this particular row of row houses happened to begin with a tall and narrow three-storey, brick row house painted royal blue with cream accents. Sharing its southern wall was an equally tall, equally narrow, similarly constructed row house painted maroon with dark grey accents. And sharing its southern wall was a charming, if unremarkable, two-storey, brownstone row house with large, arched windows, steep, narrow stairs and five separate apartments, one of which, at the time of my arrival, contained a diminutive but incongruously clamorous Jack-Russell terrier with every inch of its short hair standing on end from its brown-spotted neck to its white tail.

I entered the second story apartment at the back of the building from the fire escape—that being my preferred means of entering an apartment that has been quite familiar to me for some time. It is familiar primarily due to the fact that my parents own it and it has accordingly provided me with an affordable sanctuary for my frequent, though decreasingly so, visits to Washington. My preference for entering by means of the fire escape has arisen, despite its relative inconvenience, as a response to the threat of encountering the perfectly kind and exceedingly generous old man who owns the three other interior apartments. The old man’s perfect kindness and exceeding generosity are rarely relevant to my choice of entrance because of the fact that I once managed to drop a queen-sized box spring onto the hood of his Lexus and my strict personal code of ethics dictates, out of gratitude as much as shame, that I must maintain a general aversion towards interaction with all people who have excused me for dropping a box springs onto the hood of their Lexuses.

My sister and her husband maintained a well apportioned and appropriately decorated one-bedroom loft apartment in part for their own satisfaction and in part so that the diminutive but incongruously clamorous Jack-Russell terrier, Nash, would never be want for comfort. Upon my entrance into this aforementioned well apportioned and appropriately decorated apartment, Nash began engaging himself with the apparent purpose of making it abundantly clear to me that avoiding Mr. Lexus would not be my only preoccupation during my visit.

Nash was well-trained but bipolar and prone to paroxysms of agitation that were infrequently motivated by genuine threat but frequently laden with racism and sexism and these characteristics made him a lackluster but often exciting companion for my many trips to the coffee shop. Nash never minded accompanying me because long before Nash decided I was worthy of his affection he decided that I was a perfectly serviceable personal attendant as long as I applied myself as thoroughly in the task of retrieving his poop as he applied himself in creating it.

It was on a long walk with Nash along the National Mall that we spotted the great, swirling anachronism that is the National Mall’s antique carousel. In exchange for three dollars and fifty cents you are awarded a seat on a time machine that transports you back to an era when moving up and down while slowly spinning clockwise was awe-inspiring and innovative. The carousel was empty and the attendant notified me that not only are dogs permitted, they ride for free. So, despite my initial mischievous impulse to set Nash spinning unattended, I presented the attendant with the requisite fare and, taking Nash up into my arms, boarded the device. I determined it appropriate that we sit in the bench seats that are bookended by obediently seated golden retrievers and made sure that Nash understood his relative lack of both physical size and decorum.

Much to the enjoyment of my canine companion I quickly became unnerved by the situation, believing that the carousel highlighted the fine line that distinguishes whimsical antiquity from antiquated whimsy. While the former is cute and nostalgic, the latter is a terrifying vaudeville clown with a red nose and daggers for teeth that lies in wait in your grandparents’ attic. My experience on the carousel with the dated carnival music and the tarnished brass handles landed decidedly on the side of the terrifying clown.

It wasn’t simply the age of the machine that bothered me but it was also the weightlessness of it all. The carousel is clearly an antique but is presented as a modern attraction; its age is all but ignored in the hopes that it can still pass for amusement in a modern day of three hundred foot roller coasters that travel at the speed of sound. It’s a shame because the charm and the uniqueness of Washington so often lie in the gravity instilled in our nation’s artifacts. We are clearly a young nation with a relatively brief history but even still our Capitol Building looms as a timeless, immobile edifice and the Washington Monument is captivating with all of its mystery and atavism. Washington is brilliant because it can take buildings and monuments and artifacts that are often immature in the broader scope of world history and make them stand apart, elevating them beyond their station. A two hundred-year-old building in Rome will draw yawns, and even a five hundred-year-old building is unremarkable in a sea of similarly aged buildings. Not so in Washington. In Washington the National Portrait Gallery shares a block with the Verizon Center and has an approximately equal square-footage but the younger and sleeker arena pales in comparison because even though the National Portrait Gallery building is only one hundred and forty years old it used to be the Patent Office Building where Walt Whitman worked and wrote Leaves of Grass and it once held the title for the largest government building and its significance does not come from its age but from the remarkable moments in history it has witnessed and the mundane moments in history it has made remarkable.

And so I left the carousel and deposited my canine charge safely back in his domestic kingdom and I proceeded on a hurried tour of the National Museum of American History and the new National Museum of the American Indian. It was on this tour that I received all of the gravitas of age that my carousel ride had failed to provide me. The American History Museum displays a simple top hat that is well under two hundred years old but as a historical relic it possesses every bit of the weight of the Acropolis because Abraham Lincoln wore it the night he was assassinated and so the hat rests in our nation’s foremost repository of culture, knowingly, portentously on its clear plastic stand.

The Museum of the American Indian contains many young artifacts as well but their weight comes less from the events they endured and more from the cultural history with which they are imbued. Theirs is a society that so truly respects tradition that everything old is new and everything new is old and they are both on equal footing as parts of a greater cultural narrative. It is a philosophy that stands in stark contrast to the western idea of history as a series of events in a closed book. The idea that history continues to write itself is something that I have yet to fully appreciate the way that the American Indians do but I recognize it as a perspective that stands to teach me a lot about myself and about my culture.

The week passed quickly but it still managed to bring Nash and me back near the carousel several times and I slowly began to discover the appreciation that had eluded me previously. I started to observe it in the same manner with which I could observe artifacts in the Museum of the American Indian, not as a souvenir from one moment in history but as a representation of a continuing narrative, one in which every American is invited to participate. With Nash again in my arms, we boarded the carousel no doubt in the same way that my grandparents might have boarded this exact same carousel half of a century ago, their mark on history coming pages earlier than mine but in the same book nonetheless.



  1. The National Museum of American History
  2. The National Portrait Gallery
hidden gems:
  1. The Song for the Horse Nation Exhibit at the Museum of the American Indian
  2. Sidamo Coffee and Tea

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