Thursday, August 7, 2014

Good Capital People

A few weeks ago on our way to visit family in Maryland, my sister Heather and I decided to stop in D.C. for a day trip to introduce my five-year-old nephew Asa and three-year-old niece Ava to their country's capital—specifically to the Lincoln Memorial. The kids had nicknamed the memorial "the White President" after watching Night at the Museum 2 in which the mammoth monument comes alive to advise Larry Daley in the war against the lispy Pharaoh Kahmunrah. It only seemed right to set the kids' pop culture perception straight with a visit to the actual memorial and the Smithsonian of American History.
Come to think of it, my own perception of the Capital was hardly comprehensive. I hadn't been to D.C. in years (though I figured the last three weeks of binge-watching five seasons of The West Wing had to count for something.) The scene from the beltway provided me with a panorama of the Washington's Monument and Jefferson Memorial, a preview of our whirlwind sight-seeing tour the next day. No doubt, D.C. was a magnificent sight.
But the white buildings and well-lit streets aside, I knew enough to know that a pristine city D.C. is not. With my limited knowledge of a city's reputation for crime and with a feeling of vulnerability left over from memories of 9/11, my senses stood alert. Tomorrow everyone would be a suspect.
At midnight we pulled up to our hotel about twenty minutes out of downtown D.C. "Keep the doors locked," Heather said before going to check in. She soon came back followed by the manager who pointed us to the employee of the month parking space close to the front door.
"Are you sure that's okay?" my sister asked.
"Oh yes, honey." The woman nodded emphatically. "You go right on ahead."
The closer space, we found, made it much easier to haul in my sleeping niece and nephew and all our bags. The woman's kindness struck me as out of place: perhaps because, too busy being suspicious, I wasn't expecting it.

The next morning we buckled the kids into strollers, hoisted a backpack filled with essentials, and boarded the Metro. Waiting with two small children for a speeding train by a track with no rails and doors that snapped shut with little notice had the effect of a weed wacker on my nerves. Then there were the signs all around the station with gimmicky cartoon pictures encouraging passengers to report suspicious bags and packages. We'd be lucky to get out of the city alive.

After grabbing a crepe from Union Station, we greeted the muggy D.C. morning and headed down to Capitol Hill. As we admired the chiseled pillars and dome, the loud test of the emergency system blared over speakers in front of the Capitol building, a droning voice assuring that this was just a drill but additional instruction would be given in the event of a real emergency. I didn't want to think about a real emergency, so I turned to survey the Washington's Monument, the Mall, the many grand structures housing history and future all visible from the hill. As a child of the conservative right wing, the city seemed like a political Gotham housing corruption and deceit, extravagance and imprudence. I would have stared longer, thinking myself into a depressed stupor, but Ava and Asa were adamant about moving on.

We pushed their strollers a mile and a half up to the Washington Monument, snapped pictures, and took our first potty break. On our way out of the bathroom, a woman enthusiastically held the door for our stroller troupe to exit. "That's funny," my sister said when we'd passed. "You just don't expect people to be that nice in D.C."

As we walked toward the Lincoln Memorial, the asphalt was heating up, aggravating Asa and Ava's impatience to "see the White President" and to get out of their strollers. The busy streets just feet away, throngs of people waiting to absorb my niece and nephew, and a suspicious dark van crawling up and down the streets kept me on edge, distracting me from enjoying little more than the fantasy of leaving.

Finally, we reached the base of the Lincoln Memorial—only a few dozen steps stood between us and the statue. "Go sit on the steps before we go up to see the White President," Heather coaxed the kids, preparing her camera.

I'd seen it as soon as we walked up—a bag, a suspicious plastic bag with another bag inside it, wrapped with duct tape sitting in the middle of the first landing. I convinced my suspicion not to escalate into panic. But after several minutes, when no one claimed the bag, I headed toward the park ranger station, envisioning a deafening blast and searing shrapnel—or whatever bombs are made of—lodging in my back. It was such a beautiful day—didn't these things usually happen on beautiful days? And with all these people. . .
"I might seem paranoid," I told the park rangers, "but there's a suspicious looking bag down there." The man and woman shot a worried glance at each other.
"No. That's not paranoid at all." The man jumped up. "Show me."
I led him to the offending bag. After inspecting it, he shook his head. "I think it's a sandbag left over from a ceremony they had here earlier. Thank you for telling us though." His sincerity made me feel as relieved to not feel stupid as I was to find that it wasn't a bomb.

Suspicious bag aside, the Lincoln Memorial could hardly be considered a place conducive to remembering anyone or anything except the fastest path to an exit. Shoulder to shoulder, people milled about, attempting to snap pictures without getting someone else's head in the shot. Inside the memorial, colored people expressed their displeasure with the engraving of Lincoln's quotation, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that." Outside the memorial on one pillar a preacher called folks to repentance; on the other pillar stood a college student exercising his first amendment right to be a moron by yelling mindless information to drown out the preacher's message. On the steps in the middle, followers of Ra Gohar Shahi held banners with a picture of the prophet's face beside his profile on the moon.
"Good grief this is annoying," I commented, steering a stroller toward the concession stand. "I'm surprised they're allowed to do this here."
Heather shrugged. "Freedom of Speech."
"Oh, yeah." I blinked. "I forgot about that."

A lemonade and a bag of Fritos later, onward we pushed, down the dirt sidewalks, across potholed streets, weaving in between bikes and joggers, past the White House. For the next mile and a half, we stopped frequently to clean spilled lemonade, address tantrums, forbid the dragging of feet, and fix the stroller wheels. (These were the type of strollers that are like 'that cart' in Walmart with the gimpy wheel that turns itself around and asks to be kicked.)
Along the way, I saw an orange plastic fish lying atop a storm drain, dropped by some child most likely. It looked as desperate to plop through that drain and bob out to the Potomac as I was to get out of D.C.
At four o'clock, we pushed the kids through the Smithsonian doors and attempted to view the artifacts along with hundreds of other vacationers with strollers and children. The Smithsonian struck me as the kind of place where I could spend a very long time contemplating and gathering inspiration. But as it was, about a third of the Smithsonian was closed for renovations, Kermit had been put away in lieu of Miss Piggy, C-3PO and R2-D2 were stored, and Asa and Ava—who up to this point had been fidgety and thoroughly unappreciative of the collection of First Ladies' tableware— began loudly declaring their impatience and hunger. After the complicated process of finding a souvenir that the disagreeable kids would agree on, we toted them to the Metro, promising McDonalds Happy Meals as soon as we got back on the road.
As if getting back would be that simple.
With each escalator ride, I tensed. Of course the kids couldn't ride down or up in strollers; they had to jump out each time with my sister and I holding their hands and the strollers. Earlier Heather had hooked on Ava's monkey back pack which had a long tail for holding. A glorified kid leash. On one of the train rides, Asa, bored and ornery, wrapped Ava's tail around the stroller handle. At the next escalator, when Ava jumped out of the stroller and stepped on the escalator, the tail was still wrapped around the stroller I was holding. As she descended, the stroller yanked her back until she fell. Other passengers waiting to climb on the escalator gasped and cried out. We've all seen the Rescue 911 shows: the kid who falls on the escalator and gets choked to death when his coat or shirt gets caught in the mechanisms under the moving steps.
I did the only thing I knew to do: yank on the monkey's tail. Up Ava came to her feet out of the jaws of death. The other passengers sighed with relief. Ava cried, embarrassed and scraped from her fall on the metal steps. I shook from adrenaline while trying to calm Ava until we got to the bottom where I proceeded to set her down then accidentally whack her in the head with the stroller handle.
"I want Nana," she wailed, believing, I suppose, that her grandmother could take care of her better than the two nitwits who got her into this mess.
At the final Metro stop, our ticket pass wouldn't open the turnstile. An irritated Metro worker manually opened the gate and took our tickets, asking pointedly if we'd need them again. "No," we assured him.
At the car, Heather dug in the backpack for her keys. The kids pounded on the door, ready for McNuggets; I all but pranced with joy to finally be this close to air conditioning and this far away from D.C. But Heather began emptying the backpack. In the bottom, she found sticks of gum and hand sanitizer—but no wallet, which meant no keys or cellphone.

After three more attempts at searching the backpack in some hope of the wallet's magical appearance, we wheeled the strollers back into the Metro station and stood formulating a plan that didn't involve spending the night huddled on a bench.
"Did you leave it at that concession stand?" I tried to jar her memory.
Heather shook her head. "No, because I used it to buy the stuff in the Smithsonian gift shop. Then I put it in the backpack."
Looking at the bag, hanging on the stroller, we were both thinking of the same thing: all the times in the Metro stops since the Smithsonian that the stroller had fallen back from the weight of the bags, and all the jerks and turns we'd taken, and all the sneaky hands in tight spaces watching for unwatched bags. But that was a scenario neither of us wanted to consider, so we went with the last place she'd had it for sure: the Smithsonian.
Heather used my phone to call the Smithsonian number that didn't provide a human contact but promised "if you leave a message, we'll return your call within 24 hours." The recording did, however, confirm our dread that the Smithsonian closed at 7:30. She called her husband Jon—a veritable Google search king—in South Carolina who began calling numbers.
Our desperate loitering caught the attention of a Metro worker coming on duty. "Do y'all need any help?"
We launched into our story which she punctuated with sympathetic noises. "Y'all need to get back into D.C." She reached into the ticket booth and returned, offering us two free Metro passes and wishes for success. I wanted to hug her.
On the platform upstairs, we squeezed aboard a train just loading for departure. "Is this even the right train?" Heather asked as we lurched out of the station.
It was 7:10, leaving us 20 minutes to get to the Smithsonian and find the wallet. Waiting for the train to depart, Heather called the D.C. police office which offered a similar 24 hour response message with the caveat of "if this is an emergency dial 911." If this wasn't an emergency, we didn't know what was. So Heather called 911. But even an emergency call can't survive in an underground Metro tunnel: the service cut out. Now our only hope was that Jon would get through to the Smithsonian security, that we would make it to the Smithsonian on time, that we were on the right train, that the wallet was indeed in the Smithsonian, that honest people existed. As we waited, I watched my draining battery, down 20% already since we first started calling people ten minutes earlier.
With each stop I forced down panic and frustration, trying to calm the hyper kids. We dragged them from elevator to escalator through ticket stations and into the Metro cars. On our last train, Jon's text came through: "Security at the museum has your stuff. Go back to the museum and go to the security office at the basement level."
"I don't think we're going to make it," Heather texted back.
"You have to run," He said simply. "One of you probably will need to run."
When we emerged at the Metro stop in front of the Smithsonian, Heather left the kids with me and ran.

Fifteen minutes later she came strolling back, wallet in hand. "They had already locked the doors. I had to pound to get someone's attention."
We steered the strollers toward the Metro and took our time getting down the escalators.
"Hey guys, Mommy got to go down in the Smithsonian basement," I told the kids. "Like Larry Daley."
Questions followed about the giant octopus, Jedediah, Dexter, and other movie characters confined in the basement, none of which Mommy had encountered on her visit.
As we passed through the last ticket stop, that kind Metro worker stepped out of the ticket booth. "Well?"
When my sister held up her wallet, the woman grinned as if our find had made it worth coming in for her shift.
We pushed through the turnstile and continued on our journey.

I've told this story a dozen times already. Earlier this week, I repeated it to my hair dresser as she snipped away. When I ended, she said, "They were some good people!"
"Yes, they were," I agreed.
The hotel manager, the people who held doors for us, the Metro lady, and that one honest person who turned in the wallet: I don't think I'll get tired of telling the story about their small kindnesses that surprised me out of my suspicion and ultimately inspired me into gratitude, hope, and a desire to do the same for others.

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