It was about twenty years ago when I went to Washington D.C., to stay at the InterContinental, renew my acquaintance with Duane Reed and interview the United States Coastguard.
I was supposed to go to the Coastguard H.Q. to interview them face-to-face, which is something not many people can say because they don’t let people in, but we were a very specialist company and people very, very rarely said no to us. Hence the five-star hotels and Business Class flights.
I needed a haircut, and the uniformed, top-hatted junior doorman recommended a place just across the street. I also needed not to have the humungous cold I’d realised I was incubating. Which is where my old buddy Duane Reed came in. I’d met him before on a job in New York. I should have remembered what happened next, but thanks to him I never remembered anything much.
He sold me some nasal swabs. Like ear buds, but with the bud part suspended in its icky micro-capsule of god-knows-what. Nowadays they sell something similar as Zicam, but back then all I knew was it stopped you feeling you had a cold in about ten minutes flat. Now ok, there were some slight downsides. You stopped being able to remember the end of your sentences too, as well as their beginnings half-way through. Balance was a tad problematic too, but you certainly didn’t feel as if you had a cold. Bargain.
I’d had one just before I went downstairs and asked the doorman where I could get a haircut. That was several light years away from the chintzy confines of the InterContinental. Everyone in the place was black, like people in a film. Not the dawg droopy-trousered type of black person you see in films, but an older, familial culture I found if anything, more disturbing. There was a deference, an eagerness to comply, and at the same time a distinct impression that I was in the wrong place. I said, clearly enough, I thought, in my newish Crombie overcoat (single-breasted, single vent, very dark grey, slant flap pockets, ticket pocket, three button. By Crombie, of course, not some Charles Tyrwhitt knock-off. And yes, it did take some finding, thank-you. Some money, too), that I was going to do an interview at Coastguard H.Q.. I thought later that they’d took that to mean I was having an interview at Coastguard H.Q..
Which was why they gave me a Number One crop.
There is nothing you can do. They can’t stick it back on. And it was freezing outside. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll know. It’s a special kind of freezing, like Amsterdam, or Manhatten or anywhere else surrounded by very cold water in the middle of a continental winter. And no hair. Luckily, I’d brought a fedora, but the stares it got made me think that Bogart style had left these shores some time before.
I was on my own on that trip, so I did some exploring. I walked everywhere. I went into the Metro once, and marvelled at the high ceilings, the cleanliness and the general feeling it was a set for a sci-fi film, but mainly I walked. I made some intriguing discoveries. Kramer Books was one of them, the most fabulous bookshop ever, where you can not just read the books before you buy them but have a glass of wine and something to eat at the same time. You could then, anyway. Monica Lewinsky had an account there. The FBI turned up one day, demanding to see what was on her book shopping history. Kramer’s told them to go away. Another less pleasant discovery was that eating out in D.C. was awful. I’ve been in Indian restaurants that smelled less strongly of damp and were tucked away up less inaccessible stairs in Wiltshire market towns forty years ago.
I had the weekend free, wedged between two sets of interviews. I think I remember a ludicrous power-walk through the streets at night, aiming deliberately for the biggest person in any group on any pavement in front of me, on the basis that the rest would back down or shoot me. Being in the USA it re-defined my calibration of ‘the largest person on the pavement.” Sorry, sidewalk. This is what happens when you meet some girl too much younger in Kramer’s and have to pretend you like her stupid music in a bar before you realise that notwithstanding the diminishing prospects of sleeping in her bed 10 miles our in the burbs you really have to go now, before your fillings fall out. And then realise you don’t really know where you are, apart from general directions.
Sunday morning was better. Alone, for a start. No stupid music. I walked up to a strange deserted plaza on a river, decked out in about 400 US flags. While I was getting a coffee I heard a cowboy assessing different brands of chewing tobacco. A cowboy. Non-midnight. With a non-ironic hat. In D.C.
I walked off again, past a little canal lock that made me stop, turn around and take a picture of it, because it was an English-scale canal lock of the kind you’d find in Manchester or Trowbridge or any leafy flatland meadow in England, and the kind you definitely don’t expect to see anywhere in the USA, let alone in D.C. I didn’t, anyway.
I was trying to find Georgetown. Because it was there. I found two things I really wanted to find, but both by accident. The first was a jewellers that had a Panerai watch just on the furthest reaches of what I could possibly afford if I spent everything in my bank account. So, no.
A while after that I found something cheaper at a boot sale, two embroidered pictures of the kind that girls – I think it was only girls – used to make before there was television or anything much else to do apart from embroider their initials, sometimes their names, sometimes a date on the pictures they made of their lives. One of the pictures showed a farmhouse, foursquare, with a wooden fence in front of it. The more upwardly mobile picture showed something else too – a carriage in front of their farmhouse, thank-you, not just the farm cart the other long-dead emroideress had to make do with.
I didn’t buy them. They were about $40 for the two but I couldn’t think of a way to get them home in a suitcase. They’d have to come out of their frames and even then I wasn’t sure they’d fit. Nobody else there had the slightest interest in them, even though they should have been in a folk-art museum.
I wish I’d taken a picture, at least. I wish I’d bought them. I wish I’d remembered the dates and the names of those long-dead girls, to remember the hours of nothing at all to do they must have had. To recall the pride of having a fancy carriage outside your farmhouse, so long ago.
I wished other things about Washington D.C. too. I wished I knew more about why whole blocks of buildings north of the White House had just one or two thin, long brick or wood houses when the rest of the block was now grass. I didn’t know then that in 1968 there were huge riots in D.C. Some black folks had gotten out of hand, according to some people I talked to in the InterContinental bar. Nobody actually recommended hanging them uppity negras, but it wasn’t far off.
Luckily it was only good ol’ boys never meaning no harm who invaded the White House with rifles yesterday. And there were all white boys, even the one who dressed -up like an over-excited Red Indian at his own sixth birthday party, so obviously they was just funnin’ and decent folks shouldn’t make no nevermind. President Trump said they were special yesterday, and condemned them today.
Funny people, some Americans. Funny place, Washington D.C.