My life is about travel. I land at an airport, struggle off the plane with my heavy Willy Loman suitcase, and head for ground transportation. The airports look the same to me. Milling travelers. Bars. Billboards for hotels. Overpriced pretzel stands.
I face ground transportation with dread: What tiny hotel room awaits me? What scary people will be at the registration desk? How will this city unnerve me?
This is true even for LAX, airport of Los Angeles, the city that has been my primary home since 1976. It’s a hideous ride from LAX through decaying shopping areas, fast-food outlets, and jammed freeways toward my house. There is not one attractive sight until you get to the gardens of Beverly Hills, and that’s a good half hour from LAX.
It’s different when I arrive at DCA. (Please don’t even mention IAD—Dulles is the worst airport in the world.) When I get off the plane at Reagan National, I am home. I am back in the city where I was born one frosty morn. The people in the terminal at Reagan National look like solid citizens. The billboards are for subjects like treating the oil companies with some sanity. The guards at TSA screening look as if they are there to help, not torture. The man who drives me to my apartment at the Watergate always has some gossip about people I know. And at the Watergate, the same people have been working the doors and phones since my parents bought their apartment—now mine—in 1972.
Well, maybe not since 1972, but for a long time.
From my apartment I can see the Potomac River, see the kids sculling on the water in the day, see the moon over Virginia by night, see my parents’ furniture from the Depression, cook an egg in my parents’ frying pan, open up the mail—I am home. More home than in my home in Beverly Hills or my home in Malibu, just home, and out the door I go with my pal Russ and my pal Mike and my pal Aram, down to the Georgetown waterfront.
If it’s summer, I see the college kids and smile modestly as a few say, “That’s Ben Stein.” I can go to Bangkok Joe’s and eat tuna satay and watch the respectable-looking people stroll by. Because if there’s one thing about the people in Washington, it’s that they look respectable.
I know all of them aren’t. I know this because I look respectable and I’m not. But the men dress like men, with jackets and ties, and the women look normal and not like truck-stop prostitutes. I don’t know what they do after they’ve had a few drinks, but when I see them on the street, they look respectable.
And then when I get back to my apartment, I can lie on my bed and see the lights of Rosslyn again. Back in the 1950s, all that was there was pawnshops and fireworks stands. It has changed—now the office buildings light up the night sky. I go to sleep thinking I am home.
I have gotten ahead of myself. When the plane starts to land at DCA, I can see the government buildings that mark the capital of the world. Above all, the Capitol, the summit of man’s achievements in government, which symbolizes that we trust the people to govern themselves (with the help of an army of lobbyists). The Washington Monument, which tells us we had a leader who preferred to give the leadership back to the people. The Jefferson Memorial, to my mind the most beautiful building on Earth. The buildings along the Mall—the Hirshhorn, the Freer, the Department of Agriculture, the Smithsonian—where men and women toil not to become rich but to educate and enlighten and keep track.
I always bear down on my seatmate and say, “Look at that! That’s the most beautiful city in the world, and it’s not in France, not in Italy, but in America.”
On the ride in, you see the buildings underlined by the Potomac, a shimmering underscore for the permanence of our symbols of republican institutions. I always say to Bob, my driver, “Look at that. The city glows.”
I often think to myself: Why aren’t I living here in DC? Why am I so far away in Beverly Hills?
Oh, right. It’s the humidity and heat. But maybe next year.
Oh, Washington, I love your friendly sedan drivers from Senegal and Mauritania and Iran, who know their way to CNN and Fox through tunnels that I never even knew existed, under freeways and government buildings so I get to be on camera and talk as if I were shot out of a gun. I love your friendly clerks at the Watergate Safeway who tell the new boys and girls that I’ve been coming there longer than they have worked there—for 20, 30 years. I love the woman at the deli counter who finds me a nice big fried-chicken wing—“not some little pigeon wing,” as she says. I love your GW coeds, who have had the same look on their faces since I used to study at the GW library when I was in high school, a look that says they know they are only young once and they don’t know what to do about it.
I love the beautiful outlying towns of the Washington “metroplex.” The main shopping street of Middleburg, with its ice-cream parlor and the beautiful little Episcopal church with its family pews and kneelers with embroidery of sporting dogs. I love the fields between Middleburg and Upperville and the Mellon church with its Bretagne design. I love going over the Bay Bridge and landing on the Eastern Sho’ and making my way to the Tidewater Inn and to Oxford, where I had so many crab-cake meals with my parents, who are so keenly missed. I always thought I would own a farm on the Eastern Shore, but it’s too humid, too. Plus, even for a wild plunger like me, it’s gotten too expensive.
I still love Silver Spring, especially Sligo Creek Park, where I went on so many walks, thinking the long thoughts of youth, walking through the grass to find my way home by listening for the Army-McCarthy hearings coming from our TV set. I love Falls Church, the King David cemetery, where my parents lie and where my wife and I will someday lie near them. Leafy and green and with so many familiar names lying near them.
But I want to get back to this: People around Washington don’t look crazy. Humans look so amazingly crazy in Southern California. So off-the-map crazy. So desperate no matter how rich they are. But in DC, men and women look as if maybe they have enough.