Shortly after arriving at the motel in Washington, Andy, Alex and I had all independently been conned out of a dollar or so by a beggar masquerading as a stranded motorist. He was not the last example of homelessness we’d meet in this city. They were moving from customer to customer in the local McDonald’s, both inside and in the drive-thru queue, asking for change. Two things appeared to connect the beggars: firstly they were all old, or looked it, and secondly they were all black.
The next morning we walked to Capitol Hill via the sprawling Union Station and gazed up at the magnificent Capitol Building. Often confused in the public mind with the White House, the great domed building is actually home to the two houses of Congress: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Unfortunately, the rear is mostly blocked by a construction site; they are building a three-storey underground visitor centre, which according to our guide book should have been finished last year.
Walking around the building site, we were able to see the Supreme Court and the Congressional Library, both sited immediately behind the Capitol. All of the buildings in the area are built in the classical style out of white stone, yet the ages of the buildings vary widely. The Supreme Court was actually only built in 1935, while the Capitol Building is over a century older. In fact, until it got its own building the Supreme Court used to sit inside the Capitol Building.
We headed around the other side of the building and suddenly, catching us by quite some surprise, we turned our heads and saw the National Mall, sweeping for almost two miles towards the Lincoln Memorial at the far end. Standing proudly about halfway down is a simple but effective obelisk, the Washington Monument, standing at 169 metres high. The first third of its height is of a slightly different coloured stone to the remaining two thirds, a product of its construction period being interrupted by the Civil War and financial troubles, dragging it out for 36 years.
The Mall is mostly flanked by various branches of the Smithsonian Institution. It was founded in the 19th century after the US government was bequeathed around $10m (in today’s money) by British scientist, James Smithson. Smithson had never visited the USA, so it remains a mystery why his fortune was willed in this way. We visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, stepping inside beneath the Spirit of St Louis and the first privately-funded manned space plane, the SpaceShipOne. Everywhere we turned we ran into pieces of America’s space and flight history, including the splashdown module of Apollo 11 and the original Wright Brothers’ plane.
Beyond the Washington Monument were the national memorials to World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Completed in only 2004, the WWII memorial struck me as being over the top and keener to celebrate the power of the American military than to commemorate the lives lost in the war. In contrast to this, the Korean and Vietnam memorials were smaller and arguably more respectful. The Korean memorial is also fairly modern, serving as a reminder to visitors of the 36,000 US deaths in a war that is so often forgotten due to its historical proximity to World War II and Vietnam.
The Vietnam memorial is the simplest of the three, being a long marble wall with the names (in chronological order of death) of every one of the 58,000 US soldiers who lost their lives for essentially no purpose in a country far from their homes. Some of the names were accompanied by a photograph and profile to commemorate a particular anniversary. The striking thing was that only two of the seven profiles were of soldiers older than me, and none was older than 28 years old. I also couldn’t help trying to imagine the size of wall that the Vietnamese would have to build to commemorate the 5 million or so of their citizens that were killed by the war.
Majestically seated at the end of the Mall, Lincoln overlooks the war memorials and the grand reflecting pool of the Washington Monument. His memorial is, as Neil described it, more of temple. In Britain, it would look an extravagant deification, but here in America where every highway is named after some Senator or other, anything less than a temple for the President that fought against slavery and saved the Union could’ve looked insufficient (although he does have his face in the side of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, which must count for something). Engraved in one wall of the memorial is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (”Four score and seven years ago…”) and facing it is his re-election speech (made just weeks before he was assassinated in 1865).
Moving back along the mall towards the Capitol again, we took a left towards the White House. Unlike the Capitol, it is too far away (due to the big security fences) to feel dramatic and imposing. Instead, it just sits there, partly obscured by the surrounding gardens, looking a little embarrassed to be in such company. This is strange, given it is the seat of the most powerful person on the planet, and a little disappointing for a West Wing fan.
Unable to get any closer, we instead visited a tat shop down Pennsylvania Avenue in which politicos could purchase bumper stickers, badges, tee-shirts and pretty much anything else you can imagine, each emblazoned with either a fiercely liberal slogan or an equally fierce conservative one. We didn’t buy anything (although Neil insisted on being photographed in a baseball cap with the Presidential seal on; Leo followed this up by posing in a pink First Lady cap), but my favourite items were the range of sweets available on the counter. These included ‘Impeach-mints’ ‘Indict-mints’ and, best of all, ‘National Embarrass-mints’, each of them with a picture of the President on the front.
Exhausted after a day’s wandering, we headed back towards our motel, stopping for a drink at the McDonald’s on the corner. The same homeless people as the previous night were unashamedly doing the rounds, asking each customer in turn for change. I’m not sure whether we were targeted more frequently because we look like rich white boys (except Neil, who is unable to keep his tee-shirt or his face free of oil or dirt for more than five minutes at a time) or whether every customer got the same treatment.
A poster in the window did, however, go some way towards explaining the dreadful, slow service from the McDonald’s staff. The restaurant appeared to be a participant in a DC community service programme, leading us to assume that the staff may well not have been working there of their own free choice.
Still tired, Neil, Ed, Leo and I took to the monster truck after informing Alex and Andy that they had a choice of takeaway from McDonald’s, Wendy’s or Subway for their evening meal. We hadn’t actually seen the Subway, though we had passed a sign on the way back from downtown advertising it; Alex and Andy chose Subway, while the rest of us followed Ed’s recommendation of Wendy’s. Deciding to brave my first ever drive-thru (if you don’t count the unsuccessful on-foot one in Flint), I drove the car up to the little microphone and immediately the confusion began.
Washington is seen as the border between North and South, and consequently the accent is that little bit further away from British English, causing no end of confusion as I attempted to communicate with the girl at the other end of the crackly microphone. At one stage, she mistook “that’s everything thanks” for “I’d like some chicken nuggets, please”. When we moved to the window to collect our order, things didn’t improve hugely. Most people employed in the service sector in the US insist on following every “thanks” with “you’re welcome”, and indicate the end of a transaction with a “have a great day”, or similar. Not this girl; her response to everything was to make a confused expression and say “uh-huh”. Eventually, when I finally accepted that we weren’t going to be wished a pleasant evening, we drove off in search of Subway.
Following the sign, Neil said he remembered seeing a Subway nearby from his cab, and insisted on navigating us there using his failsafe method of turning left at every junction. After a few of these he decided that, since he was now in America, the rule should be adapted to right turns at every junction. We soon agreed that we neither knew where Subway was or, for that matter, where we were. This was probably the first time I’d taken the car out without our TomTom (we were only going down the road, after all) so we drove around, trying to find our way back to New York Avenue.
Eventually, we called Andy and Alex who used Google Maps to guide us back to the motel. Unfortunately, knowing left from right is not Al’s strong point and we ended up heading the wrong way along New York Avenue, towards Annapolis. Finally, we got back to the right area and returned to Wendy’s to get food for Andy and Alex, as well as some hot food to replace my chips that had gone cold over the course of the previous hour. This time, not wanting to brave the drive thru again, we went inside to order. In contrast to the McDonald’s across the road, there was not a single beggar harassing the customers. Strangely, there also seemed to be a race divide between the two fast food outlets: almost every McDonald’s customer was black, while over in Wendy’s almost every customer was white.