Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Radical License Plates




Our last night in the nation’s capital was spent circumnambulating around the Capitol Building on a cold, crisp evening. From the Capitol steps, the multicolored Christmas tree was perfectly aligned with the Washington Monument in the distance, while in the night sky to the left, the crescent moon hung low with Venus its companion. Five-week old Zadie was snuggled close to my chest in blissful sleep and as we circled the building clockwise, I couldn’t help but offer some prayers of hope. Inside that building, the circus of power would awaken again in the New Year, wholly unmindful of the innocent little girl that I carried and millions like her. After seeing the line-up of clowns vying to be Ringmaster (with clips from the Daily Show), a circus ever more absurd and shameless and frankly, unbelievable, I worried for her future. Any one of the 8th graders at my school running for student council would be better qualified. And though one side seems, to my eyes, clearly more desperate and full of buffoonery masquerading as functioning adults, the big balloon of hope so many of us felt three years ago has had its air forced out by the self-referential game of politics so extraordinarily out of touch with simple common sense and common human decency.

Perhaps this has always been so. Perhaps not. Especially if one is to take to heart all the quotes engraved in stone in Washington’s monuments—the recent Martin Luther King Memorial, the FDR, the Jefferson, the Lincoln Memorial. Profound, inspiring, compassionate and hopeful quotes that lift us from our seats in the media circus and set us squarely on the ground, helping us to come back to our senses and remember that this country was built on a vision that needs to be constantly renewed each generation, each decade, each year, each day. In my role as the first Buddhist-Jewish-music-teacher-jazz-pianist-bagpipe-playing President (watch for me on the ticket!), I would march the Senate and House of Representatives down from the hill on a monthly field trip and have each one choose a quote and write an essay about, concluding with its relevance to the bill at hand. I’d also have them walk (dance?) around the Capitol Building at least once a month with a baby in their arms and renew their vows to offer that child a plausible future. Then switch babies to make sure that they weren’t lobbying just for their kind.

That Washington DC as a city is all about power has been noted by anyone who ever spent more than five minutes there. Social relationships are built entirely upon hierarchy. Who can I impress? Who is impressed by me? Nice to meet you, where are you on the scale? What can I get out of meeting you? Is this conversation helping me upgrade my status? I noticed it mostly being out with Zadie, who I believe in San Francisco would elicit many ooh’s and aah’s and smiles and people wondering whether to ask if I’m the Grandpa or Dad. But with some notable exceptions, most people didn’t seem the least bit interested. A little smile for a baby had nothing to offer in the climb to power.

The notable exceptions were the abundance of black folks in the Capitol Hill/ Eastern Market neighborhood where my daughter and husband live. Not only did they have time to comment on Zadie, but also took time to greet me and pass a few pleasantries even when I was Zadie-less. It was thrilling to see so many black people running the booths and stores at Eastern Market, a genuine community, warm, friendly, real. I wonder if any Senators shop there?

As for DC, I’m slowly getting to know it and it has many redeeming features. Like:

• Parking!! Every day as we went between the house we were staying and my daughter’s, there was street parking in front.

• Architecture. The charming, aesthetically-connected, well-cared-for row houses in so many neighborhoods, from low to middle to high income.

• Red lights that give you 60 to 70 seconds blinking to cross the street. When it’s in your favor, heaven for pedestrians. Hell for drivers—the lights are just too long!

• Intriguing lay-out of circles superimposed over grids, with timely parks. Aesthetically interesting, but driver-challenged, especially with one-way streets thrown into the mix.

• Eastern Market. Love it!

• Good Metro system.

• A few nice restaurants—Ted’s Bulletin, Old Ebbits. But pretty far behind San Francisco!

• Free museums and zoo!!! The waters of the Potomac and the cherry trees.

Most curious of all, here in the place of constant lobbying and jostling to keep the privileged groups in their havens of privilege, everyone who drives has a protest engraved on their license plate—“Taxation Without Representation.” Of course, nothing gets done about it, because most of the folks who commute to that big Capitol Building on the Hill don’t live in D.C.

Back in San Francisco, already sorely missing the weight of little Zadie in my arms, but ready to turn to the new year with renewed determination to help carve out a glorious future for her from my tiny little seat of power in my music room. 

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