On outer Cape Cod where I live there is the summer tourist season, when every business has more than they can handle, the fall “tour-bus” season, which some businesses stay open to accommodate, and the off-season when any discussion of where to go starts with, “What’s open?”
I’ve grown used to the limitations that go with living year round in a summer vacation destination, but I didn’t expect to find the same problem on a recent visit to Washington DC which happened to coincide with the first day of the government shutdown.
All the places I’d hoped to visit—the National Gallery, the World War II Memorial, the Holocaust Museum, the National Arboretum—were closed, so I said to myself, I need to do what I do all winter—direct my attention to what’s open.
Ironically, the obstacles and barriers to accessing places had become a gateway to a different kind of enrichment—real conversations with local people.
The National Mall was eerily quiet without its usual throng of foreign visitors, protesters, joggers, bikers, tourists lounging on the grass to rest their tired feet. Passing the silent carousel, the boarded-up refreshment stand, the barriers blocking access to the Capitol building, I felt sad and solemn, a bit as if I were attending a wake. The city, normally so vibrant and full of life, was flat and empty and I felt a loss because I’d come there to absorb its energy, to recharge my batteries with learning, art and new experiences. I was surrounded by all those places where I’d planned to “plug in” but was not allowed to enter them!
Yet a city is more than its museums and memorials. It is made up of the people who live and work there and the possibility of making real connections with them is often heightened by unusual circumstances.
At the Newseum, which was unaffected by the shutdown, I told the guard who scanned my ticket I was glad we’d been able to get in since they appeared to be the only game in town. He told me that the World War II Veterans who had been barred from the memorial honoring them had just left and then he shared his opinion on the current state of affairs. When I came back the next day (my ticket was good for two), he was there at his post and remembered me from the day before. Our brief banter made me feel as if I were more than just another inconvenienced tourist.
Later, as I rested on a bench in the Ripley Memorial garden, flipping through the pages of a guidebook to try to figure out what to do next, a middle-aged man wearing a lanyard with an SEC security pass approached me. Again I had an unexpected opportunity for an interesting discussion. We talked about the shutdown and he told me about the Corcoran Gallery and the Phillips Collection, a couple of private museums I might enjoy.
On my last night, too tired to venture far, I decided to have dinner in the Eastern Market area where I was staying. It was Friday night and the restaurants were overflowing, all except Pain Quotidien, which is known in the neighborhood more as breakfast and lunch place.
I took a table outdoors on the patio and became my waitress’ only customer. By the time she delivered my check we were on a first-name basis. Samantha was a pre-med student at Howard University from Bedford, Indiana, just the kind of committed, energetic young person that makes you hopeful for the future no matter what political shenanigans are going on.
Ironically, the obstacles and barriers to accessing places had become a gateway to a different kind of enrichment—real conversations with local people. An unexpected change in my travel plans provided the opportunity for satisfying interpersonal encounters after I made the choice to see and hear what was there instead of bemoaning what was missing.