Washington seems to breed its own type of solitude. It’s not quite akin to the bustling alone-in-a-crowd alienation of New York or the flâneur-esque melancholy of walking the Seine in Paris. The feeling of being alone here creeps up on you, a byproduct of residing in the shadow of so much history and power. You feel it as you ride Metro late at night over the Potomac, past the illuminated silhouette of Jefferson in his domed memorial, or as you walk block after block of the behemoth office buildings lined up like Brutalist honeycombs in the center of the city.
Yet there are less ponderous and more pleasurable aspects to being alone, too, should you have the fortitude to go out and savor them: sitting by yourself enjoying an evening cocktail in one of our great speakeasies, taking an early-morning run in one of the lush parks, wandering the halls of an important museum with the leisure of a citizen spoiled by access.
Here, at the intersection of global power, economic titans, and immutable ideals, it’s easy to feel small and alone . . . or, like our founders, to stand tall and embrace independence. To us, the choice is easy.
Jessie K. Liu
US Attorney for the District of Columbia
“During the day, the best alone time I have is going to and from lunch meetings or meetings at other agencies. I like to walk because it gives me a little more time on my own just to think—or not think at all. I like sitting and watching people, and often on my way back I’ll look for a place to grab an ice-cream cone. I don’t listen to music. I like being open to the sounds of the city and all the people around me.”
Head of horticulture and education at the National Arboretum
“I grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and my family is in the timber industry, so I really miss conifers. I love the Gotelli Conifer Collection at the National Arboretum. It’s a place I can go to reconnect with those textures and smells. It sounds odd, but crushing some of the foliage of a pine and smelling it is a reassuring thing for me. I like the way the collection is laid out, too, because it isn’t a linear experience. You can kind of just wander around. I can always find something new there, and in any season I think it’s lovely.”
“One time early on at Channel 4—this was 30 years ago—it was late, we were in a microwave truck, and we had to file some video. We were in Southeast and needed to get to a high place to send it in because the technology is line-of-sight. My crew knew to go to the Frederick Douglass home, the museum. It’s one of the highest points in the city. Douglass looked down upon Washington like a king. I’d never been there, and I was awed. As they were fussing with the video, I was in the darkness, 11 o’clock at night, just standing there looking out over the lights of the city, thinking about this commanding figure with his commanding view of the city. I thought, ‘Wow, his greatness truly knew no bounds.’ I kept waiting for some guard to tell us, ‘You can’t do this,’ but no one bothered us. We just kind of slipped in in the darkness and slipped out.”
Director of the National Portrait Gallery
“If I have a couple of hours, I’ll often go sit with Barnett Newman’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ in the National Gallery of Art. I find it fascinating, this Jewish artist doing these 14 stations of the cross. Not a lot of people come in—quite often you’ll find you’re the only person there with the guards—and there’s a bench where you can sit. The canvases are these abstract impressions with black and white lines painted directly onto raw canvas, and it’s only the last one that actually has a bit of color. The series is intended as a form of pilgrimage. Newman is reminding us to take time to be alone and embrace the metaphysical aspects of life.”
Librarian of Congress
“Even though I spend most of my waking hours surrounded by books, the thing I like to do the most while alone is reading. Commuting on the MARC train from Baltimore is when I have that time. The train is like a cocoon. What I read depends on the day, and that’s why it’s nice. Sometimes it’s a report for work, and I can just concentrate on the material. I get to catch up on the things I’m asked about as a librarian, like bestsellers. I love to read and look at the pictures in Architectural Digest. It’s just one of the most beautiful magazines you can look at.”
Mariann Edgar Budde
Episcopal Bishop of Washington
“There’s this amazing part of Rock Creek Park, above where Beach Drive and Broad Branch connect, where the roads are virtually isolated. So often, my husband or I, in the midst of rush hour, can be on our bikes for an hour and just ride up and down the hills. Other cyclists have figured this out, too, so we’re not completely alone, but there’s that sense of being separate. Every time I’m there, I think: ‘I can’t believe I’m looking down on people stuck in traffic and I’m able to ride my bike through this extraordinary beauty.’ ”
Charles Philippe Jean-Pierre
Artist and adjunct instructor of fine arts at American University
“I spend tons of time alone in my DC studio at 52 O Street. I need solitude for clarity and to keep the creative juices flowing. I play music while listening to audiobooks with the TV on mute. There’s probably a few magazines flipped open or a book or two thumbed through. An outsider may see it as hectic, but it gives me inspiration.”
This article appears in the November 2018 issue of Washingtonian.