It’s cold today in the nation’s capitol. Bone-chilling cold.
The morning rush-hour crowds are bundled up. Hats and scarves of every imaginable fabric, fur, and yarn serve as cuddly bulwarks against the arctic blast. Fortified again with another double shot white mocha, I head out. After my experience in the South Capitol Metro station yesterday, I thought better of chancing a repeat security sweep and decided to exit at Union Station on the north side of Capitol Hill.
As I walk toward the Senate offices, the cement barricades guarding the historic federal government buildings are disconcerting. Haven’t we been stuck at Alert Level Orange, or “Ernie” in the Sesame Street Terror Matrix, for a couple of years already? The president’s “smoke ’em out” anti-terrorist rhetoric rings hollow when nearly every intersection is lined with capitol police and newly-installed fences ring the tourist sites in anticipation of an expected crowd of 100,000 people for tomorrow’s anti-Iraq war protests on The Mall.
I tried to enter the Hart Office Building on Constitution Avenue where Sen. Ken Salazar’s office is located but the doors are not open to the public until 10 a.m. Evidentially, evil-doers are early morning people and this would surely thwart their efforts. So I doubled back and walked into the Dirksen Building next door where there are connections between the two buildings on each floor and a tram system in the basement.
Unlike their House colleagues’ offices, the modern Hart Building digs are light and airy and professional in the extreme. Even the interns get offices with windows looking down on the nine-storey atrium. A humungous Alexander Calder mobile-sculpture “Mountain and Clouds” stands in the center of the building like a steely centurion.
Just before I arrived, an alarm was set off in one of the elevators so the twinned shafts on each side of the sculpture were turned off until they could be inspected. Naturally, Sen. Salazar’s office is located on the seventh floor and now only accessible by stairs. I huffed, puffed and wheezed my way up and wandered the corridors.
His office is next door to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s suite which boasts an old fashioned popcorn cart in the reception area. Freshly popped corn doesn’t do much for me this early in the morning but I can imagine it’s a popular destination when the mid-afternoon munchies hit the interns. I decide it’s probably inappropriate to suggest to Sen. Salazar’s staff that keeping a big bowl of floss at the front desk might surely help his fundraising prospects with the American Dental Association PAC and his popularity with the older crown-and-bridge set in the building.
It must be a familial trait because his staff, like his brother John’s, were all quite serious and completely engaged in their work when I arrived. We exchanged some pleasantries and I was off to find his senatorial counterpart.
Traces of the new Senate democratic majority were very evident in the Dirksen Building where Sen. Wayne Allard is headquartered. Random furniture and homeless chairs litter the hallways. Sad little castaways from the now ranking members’ former home bases who’ve moved up to fancier and more prominent rooms.
Sen. Allard’s staff were very polite and offered me a chair in an expansive but decidedly bargain-basement furnished office. His reputation for personal frugality is quite apparent in the simple, traditional decor. It kinda screams dull.
I headed out and walked in loopy circles for awhile until I finally happened upon Independence Avenue. Down the street a few blocks, Rep. Tom Tancredo’s office is in a not-so-chi-chi section of the Longworth Building. The adjoining rooms themselves are loose, relaxed, oppressive, and dark – kind of like the Congressman himself. No wonder he goes home every weekend.
Rep. Diana DeGette’s office just moved into the nearby Rayburn Building, a perk of being in the new House majority. She’s just down the hall from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. I resisted the urge to poke my head in the door and shout “You rock!”.
A bobblehead figure of Bill Clinton sporting a devilish grin and giving a thumbs up greets guests of Rep. DeGette in a small reception area off a cluster of cubicles and an as-yet-unfurnished conference room. If DeGette’s bobbly sense of humor doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of her staid democratic colleagues as she whips them into voting submission, I don’t know what will.
Stranger in a Strange Land: My First Day in D.C. is the first in a series of travelogues on visiting the nation’s capitol.