13th and change

I took a little walk down 13th street.

I woke up at Cathy’s around ten, and then around eleven, and then around noon I think it finally stuck. I wanted to go visit her friend Andrew at his midcentury store in Georgetown, but I also needed that new coat, which is where the Macy’s at Metro Center came into play. To get there, I needed to stroll down 13th; not so bad. The weather was brisk and bracing, but ultimately forgiving. As I walked down N, I spent my time dreaming of all the details of my new coat: a bold houndstooth, heavy and warm, nipped in at the waist, soft and enduring enough to comfort me for the next cold lifetime. When that was done, however, and I took a right onto 13th, I was fully in the city, and I started thinking about the nature of my presence.

DC is an old city; it’s seen a type of constant reinvention that is no less pervasive for its subtlety. But I was struck, as I walked, by the way that it is both achingly old and incredibly quick to change its skin ahead of a new beginning.

It is whimsical and playful, tongue in cheek and sly (check out the way the language of advertising is used in that first ad, the one that prompted me to take out my camera and shoot! The black and white, the father and his two young girls - I did a double take. Far more subtle than the new Pepsi ads, the choice of black and white photography alone means that this ad could have spawned an essay by itself). And there is an incredible feeling in the air. I am superlatively well informed - I’d have to be, given that the amount of time I spend on the International Herald Tribune website vs. working is about 1:1 on any given day. I read about policy, philosophy, history, economy.

But as I walked down the street, I realized I hadn’t thought about Barack Obama, his policies, his controversies, his appointments or even his White House decorations (Apartment Therapy DC, I’m looking at you) since I arrived in the city. This is his moment, but in many ways my time here has absolutely nothing to do with Barack at all. I am not one to go in for rhetoric, largely because I was well served by the people who taught me to look behind the seemings of things to understand what was being said in the shadows, where words are true.

This is an unusual time where something I took for false has risen up from the ashes and is shining. All through the campaign, Obama’s mantra was that the naysayers never understood that his election “wasn’t about me – it’s about you.” Insert cheers, spontaneous chants of “Yes we can!,” campaign donations, etc. But whether or not he believed it at the time, in his hopeful but fundamentally political heart, it has taken on a meaning and a life of its own.

My friend Lauren sent me a Wall Street Journal article about how to enjoy the inauguration that invites us to suspend our disbelief, something I realized I did without trying, inhaling the freshness of that city street.

What is required for full enjoyment of an inauguration, from opening prayers to speeches to marching bands is, in the great 19th-century phrase, the willing suspension of disbelief. If you don't put your skepticism aside, you will not fully absorb and experience the drama. You must allow it to be real for you. Those two young people on the stage did not really take poison and die, but Romeo and fair Juliet did, and that is the reason the audience, which knows the actors still live, says, with genuine feeling, "Oh, no!"

To believe, suspend disbelief. We have been through this before, the flags and fine speeches, the brass donkey paperweight, the glass elephant, the rise and fall of administrations, the coming and going of figures great and small. It's good to put that aside for a few days, to remove yourself from politics, partisanship and faction, to suspend your disbelief, to be grateful that the signs and symbols endure, as does the republic, and raise a toast: "To the president of the United States."

The article is beautiful, and it is true – but perhaps it doesn’t go quite far enough. This toast is to the presidency, to the dignity of the office and the possibility for good when that mantle is wielded by capable hands.

But it’s just as much a toast to the police officers on the corner directing traffic, and to the seller of ridiculously overpriced chemical handwarmers who gave me directions when I left Dupont Circle already lost. It’s a toast to the Metro conductors, and to the bus driver on the G2 who told me that if I didn’t have the right change, it was okay that I couldn’t pay my fare.

It’s a toast to Karima, my fabulously tipsy Macy’s makeup lady who got me an extra discount on that houndstooth coat I found, tipping the price from $500 all the way down to $144 and sending me out the door with the admonition “You see that? Just remember that in DC, it’s not what you know – it’s who you know!”

And it’s a toast to me, tripping across bridges like the littlest billygoat Gruff and finding not trolls but treasure, glowing new friendships, a breathless sense of life in a city so sleepy it’s been given up for moribund and dead for eight long years.

Look closely at those photographs up there: you will see me. We see ourselves, reflected in the looking glass of the promise of our nation's capital, the bosom of our country, its promised home. DC is inhaling. DC has been kissed, not only by its newest and most famous of residents, but by its visitors and denizens in their millions. DC is stirring. DC is waking up.

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