A Mid-Atlantic Road Trip
November Outs 2011
Ellen Jo Roberts
Despite having seen the '80s box office bomb DC Cab nearly 100 times, I’d only actually visited Washington DC once. The District of Columbia, a parcel of land snuggled along the mighty Potomac and comprised of parts of Maryland and Virginia, has been our nation's capitol since 1790.
Most of my feelings on our nation's capitol are generated from movies.
The myriad political espionage films. Aliens blowing up the White House. The bratty yuppies of St Elmo's. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson crashing weddings. Marches on Washington. Secrets hidden in faded ink on the back of the Constitution. Hippie Jenny running across the Reflection Pool to Forrest Gump. A silly 1983 comedy about cab drivers starring Mr T., Gary Busey, Max Gail, Paul Rodriguez, Adam Baldwin, Whitman Mayo, a pair of bodybuilding twins known as "The Barbarian Brothers", DC Cab also featured an early role by a young stand-up comedian named Bill Maher. It was a cult classic in my household.
Washington DC is a place we see non-fiction news of daily, almost always in a negative light.
It is our national underpinnings, holding everything in place, like a girdle about to burst at the seams. Though it remains one of our country's most popular tourist attractions, I'd somehow avoided it for 25 years.
This summer I went back, on a road trip with my Mom, and my globe-trotting Chihuahua, Floyd.
My Mom was born on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th, 1941. "A day that will live in infamy!," my brother and I've always joked, "the DAY that MOM was BORN!" And like World War II, she'll turn 70 this year. She's a Sagittarius, fiery and quick to laugh. She's a shutterbug, a writer and an opinionated rabble rouser. She’s impatient and excitable. My Mom sees the joy in the world and she runs with it. All of my best and worse parts are inherited directly from her.
A widow at age 35, she raised my brother and me with a great deal of energy and good humor, always encouraging my creative pursuits. We live almost 2000 miles apart, and I miss her every day. To supplement phone calls and yearly visits, we plan a lengthy road trip together every few years. This year’s trip was a bit ambitious. Chicago to Washington DC: A big loop through Pittsburgh down into the nation’s capitol and the return trip a low slung arc through Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky.
While I may be an avid road tripper living in the grand scale of the open west, thinking nothing of eight hours spent in a car, this kind of commitment to the road might could potentially cause my mom to go haywire. On a visit to Arizona she once said, "I can drive for two hours and be in Milwaukee. Out here, you can start in the middle of nowhere, drive two hours and STILL be in the middle of nowhere!" A year was spent planning this DC trip, reviewing routes, timelines and making arrangements, so she knew what we were getting in to, at least on paper.
In the end, we survived a 2,000 mile adventure, through typhoon rains, record-breaking heat, and a near miss of Hurricane Irene and a very rare 5.6 earthquake.
Our road trip began during record-breaking rains in the Midwest. Floyd and I barely squeaked into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in between 11 inches of rain, and so much lightning it felt like a bad 1950s Dracula movie. The three of us hit the road the next morning and made it to picturesque Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the night. There we drank Irons (Iron City Beer) and ate "Primanti sammiches". The famous sandwich was invented in Pittsburgh so that steel workers could eat a complete meal one-handed. The Primanti Brothers ambitiously stuffed a bun full of meat, cheese, sauerkraut and fries. More than 75 years later, the sandwich is a Pittsburgh institution, much like the historic Monongahela Incline.
We rode this small cable railcar to the top of historic Mt. Washington, named for the point where George Washington first surveyed the area bound by the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. From one Washington namesake to the next, by early afternoon we arrived in DC via Maryland, following a shady old canal chock full of weekend kayakers. We checked into the excellent Quincy Hotel at L and 19th Streets. A pet-friendly, chic boutique hotel born from a historic apartment building, the Quincy was within walking distance to both the National Mall, and Georgetown.
Its location was ideal for locking the car up in the adjoining parking garage, and touring the city by foot.
The Mid-Atlantic was experiencing a record-breaking summer heat wave during our visit. Arizona girl, acclimated to jogging in 100 degree desert temperatures, did not ace the oppressive humidity quite so easily. My jeans dyed my entire body blue with sweat. Yet we walked dozens of miles around town, braving the crowds, visiting all of the monuments. I got my National Parks Passport book stamped nearly 30 times! And everything is free! All of the monuments and museums are free.
New monuments since my last visit include the eerie and cinematic Korean War Memorial, and the Tom Hanks-endorsed World War II Memorial.
Right after our visit, an earthquake damaged the Washington Monument. The 555 foot tall obelisk, omnipresent in the city's skyline, was completed in 1885. The stone tower suffered cracks that are currently being assessed by engineers.
My first visit to Washington DC, in 1986 with my church youth group, was during a completely different era. Marion Berry was the beloved (and later ingloriously discovered to be crack-smoking) mayor. Prostitutes lined 4th Avenue. At age 14, I spent a week assisting in soup kitchens throughout the seedy neighborhoods hidden behind the gleaming white marble façade of DC.
When our group visited the White House it was along with 1,000s of others lined up along Pennsylvania Avenue handing money to paid tour companies. Security was so lax back then I'm pretty sure I grabbed a handful of Ronnie Reagan’s Jelly Bellies® from his desk in the Oval Office. In 1986, Pennsylvania Avenue was open to regular automobile traffic like any other street. In the post 9/11 world, Washington DC is a much different place. Tightened and polished. Concrete bumpers block off entire streets to traffic. Snipers guard from the roof of the White House. The sex workers might not be truly gone, but they are no longer lining the tidy streets. Marion Barry, arrested and incarcerated on drug charges in 1990, returned to capitol politics not long after. Elected to city council and later re-elected mayor from 1995-1999 ("Mayor for Life" they've dubbed him), he remains a very popular figure there. Barry is currently a councilman for the city's Ward 8.
Seeing the Vietnam Wall again struck a deep chord in me. Designed by Maya Lin, a Chinese-American architecture student at Yale, and dedicated in 1982, the wall slices into a grassy knoll with sharp shock of gleaming black stone inscribed with over 58,000 names, listed in chronological order from the war’s start in 1958 to its finish in 1975. Though I knew no one directly who had died there, I know many veterans of that war, and have great respect for them. During this visit to the monument, I was on a mission to accomplish something I’d failed to do at age 14. Orrin Cassata was the only person I knew of who had died in the Vietnam War. He was the son of family friend Mrs. Bridget Cassata. She had his photo on her wall and a little shrine to him at her home in Chicago. I never met him, of course, because he was killed before I was born. Yet he was the only person I “knew” who died in Vietnam.
In 1986, while touring the National Mall with my church youth group, I tried to find Orrin Cassata’s name by reading the wall one name at a time! (Only a 14 year old thinks she could possibly stumble upon her goal by reading through all 58,000 names.) I wanted to get a "rubbing" of his name for Mrs. C. It wasn’t until we were leaving that I realized there was a directory, looking like a giant phone book, listing all of the names and their locations!
But we couldn’t wait. We had to leave. A quarter of a century later, here I am back at the Vietnam Wall.
I head directly for that big book, find his name and go right to it on the wall. Snapped a photo of it.
All of a sudden I was overcome with emotion and started crying. Maybe because I was not able to find his name until after Mrs. Cassata died. Maybe because I’d been dreaming of this moment for 25 years. Maybe because seeing his name was just a tiny piece of something much, much larger, and the visual display of how this war decimated an entire generation. How we seem to repeat these mistakes, and the list of names lost in wars to follow continues this ongoing tally.
Seeing the Lincoln Monument also got me choked up, as my Mom and I stood arm-in-arm reading aloud the Gettysburg Address, engraved on a wall in front of us 50 feet high. She’d had to memorize it in grade school and had never truly forgotten it. The more you read about political history, and the trials and tribulations of our nation, the more you realize any of the issues of the past easily translate to similar issues today.
We strolled Georgetown for breakfast one morning, ducking up and down side streets to take photos of interesting homes in this fancy and historic neighborhood of Washington DC. All the chi-chi shops and picturesque townhouses line the M Street corridor.
DC is not so surprisingly diverse in population, with myriad ethnicities, a strong African American population, high powered dignitaries, and a many foreign-born residents. The morning rush-hour crowd bustling on the streets all share one trait, however. They all stop to smile at a tiny Chihuahua walking past.
Our plan to tour the White House began months earlier. No longer can you simply show up like a herd of cattle. Back home, you must request a tour via your local congressperson, and your credentials must be cleared and approved well in advance. You must be on The List. We had a special connection directly with the Secret Service via our family in the Chicago Police Department, and they processed our request for a tour of the White House's East Wing.
You cannot bring anything into the White House today. No purse, no comb, no lipstick, no wallet, no phone, no camera. No dogs, no guns, no beverages. Though, inexplicably, you can bring a knife, as long as the blade is smaller than 3 inches! (?!) Our tour of the East Wing was scheduled for a Tuesday morning. My Mom had never been to the White House, and had been koo koo bananas excited about it for months. We were met at the 15th street side entrance by a handsome, square-jawed Secret Service agent. Our very own Secret Service agent! The guards checked our identification and made sure we were on The List. We passed through the security check points, and into the East Wing, the residential section of the White House.
Our official escort was assigned to Michelle Obama’s detail, and previous to that, had been assigned to Laura Bush. “Laura Bush was far more anonymous,” he told us, “She could go about her business most of the time, and people often didn’t recognize or notice her. But Michelle Obama, she’s 5’11’’ and very much a star. People recognize her everywhere.” We passed through the Green Room, Red Room, Blue Room, Yellow Room, along with a steady stream of fellow visitors, all who had to jump through similar hoops to get their feet in the door. Fresh flowers decorate every room because the White House has its own in-house florist. A staff of permanent butlers, chefs, housekeepers, electricians, ushers, curators, beekeepers and many more keep this historic building (c.1800) in ship shape.
A plastic path protects the floor, and velvet ropes keep visitors from touching any of the art and artifacts. Docents well-versed in the portrait collection share details of the artists, years, and bits of historical trivia.
The official portrait of Bill Clinton captures his casual roguishness, leaning against a mantel in a come-hither pose. Suddenly a handsome curly-haired black and white dog trots down the steps in front of us, with a handler holding a clipboard and a cup of coffee.
“There’s Bo,” says our Secret Service Agent. “Bo?” we ask, nonchalantly.
Suddenly it hits us, “BO! OBAMA! You mean, The First Dog, Bo?” I restrain myself from hysterics and calmly ask the handler, who’s stopped to share brief morning chit-chat with our Secret Service Agent, if we can pet the dog.
“Yes, but make it quick,” he says taking a swift sip of his coffee and glancing around the hallway for signs of sudden mobbing. My mom and I both pet The First Dog, a handsome Portuguese Waterdog who probably sleeps in the bedroom of the First Daughters! Never was there a softer, sweeter-smelling dog!
Eager to get outdoors, his interest in our adoration was limited, and off he scampered, leaving me holding my hand aloft in disbelief. “I am not gonna wash this hand until Floyd gets a chance to smell it!” When we got back to the hotel, after a breakfast at the DC classic Old Ebbitt Grill, I let Floyd sniff my hand and he seemed completely unimpressed (though he did seem to know I’d had Eggs Benedict for breakfast.)
Checking out of the fabulous and friendly Quincy, we loaded back into the car and headed across the Potomac into Arlington, Virginia, location of Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial. Since my last visit, the Kennedy family plot has added two new graves: Teddy and Jackie now lay in eternal rest at Arlington.
We spent a night with my cousin and her family near Richmond, VA, and the next night with Aunt Joyce, my Mom's sister, and Uncle Fred in Charlotte, NC prior to making the long journey back west.
Through the Appalachian hills along the French Broad River, we made a pit stop in Marshall, NC, in honor of friend and long time Noise contributor Natasha Shealy who has split her life between small towns in Arizona's Verde Valley and Marshall. A handsome one-road town nestled along the river, Marshall seems like a movie. We arrived in Louisville after dark, checking into a creepy bed and breakfast in the historic "Old Louisville" neighborhood.
The area was just seedy enough to keep my Mom on alert, but I spent the next morning wandering the blocks of handsome brawny brick homes. Local weirdos smoking cigarettes on street corners. A wild-haired dude walked up to me and asked me if I had a light. "I'm sorry, I don't smoke," I say, and he walks with me, back towards his porch. He mumbles something about Floyd, and says, "Dog…Chihuahua."
"Yep, he's a Chihuahua. He's mean. Aren't Chihuahuas always mean?” I say, cautionary because the fellow seems like a bit of a loose cannon.
The weirdo pondered this a moment and said, "He's got a BIIIIIIG HEART.....but NO ASSSSSSS."
(Later I tell my brother this story. "That's all you, Ellen," he says, "You are a weirdo magnet").
After a brief midday stop in Seymour, Indiana, home town of Johnny Cougar Mellencamp, my Mom and I made it back to Chicagoland just ahead of rush hour on a Friday afternoon. Welcoming us back are my Mom's husband, and my brother with his wife and young son. We have just a couple of days together before Floyd and I board the airplane back to Arizona, and we make the best of it.
I’d encourage all American citizens to tour Washington DC at least once in their lives, to soak up the great archive of information, and stroll the streets of our nation’s history. It’s not just about what you see in movies and on TV. Rolls of spent film and a book filled with Polaroid photos are my treasures of the trip, along with the many new stamps in my National Park Passport Book. But the biggest treasure of all is the time spent on the road with my Mom.
Ellen Jo Roberts will be happy to watch "DC Cab" with you any time.
She lives in Clarkdale with Chad, Floyd, Ivan and Ned.
Read more about it at ellenjo.com