So there’s the City of Lights, the City by the Bay, the City on Seven Hills, the Windy City, the City that Never Sleeps, but returning from a couple days in Washington, I’m left wondering about a fitting nickname for this little mystery.
“City of Marble” quickly comes to mind—after all, you can’t go a block without seeing yet another building bedecked with columns and pillars and granite and statues harkening back to ancient Greece. Either it’s a zoning thing that everything must be built of hundreds of tons of stone, or the various federal departments have a severe case of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. In fact, a stroll down a landmark-studded avenue fetches so many chiseled behemoths to view that you may feel you’re on a giant treadmill: the IRS, the DOJ, the Archives—you can’t tell one from the other without stopping to study their inscriptions.
But then again, maybe they’re right—would anyone take any structure seriously if it would go up with such neoclassical stylings and we-couldn’t-possibly-find-anything-heavier building materials?
Maybe, though, “City of Blisters” is a better nickname. Looking at the map, my wife and I smiled at each other—everything’s so close, we said. We can walk it all. And it’s true, all the major monuments and attractions are located nearly on top of each other—looking at it from above. What we failed to realize, though, is that just because you can see Lincoln from the capitol, doesn’t mean he’s sitting any closer than a couple miles away. Or the White House, for example—it’s just a couple blocks off the National Mall, but those blocks are two of the fattest I’ve ever sweated through on a summer day. Yes, blisters, blisters, and blisters ensued from the City of Deceptive Distances. I should have let myself get roped into a cattle drive of segue-scooter tourists.
“City of Secrets,” perhaps, would work, though I’m skeptical of the conspiracy theories I’ve heard bounced around—the Freemasons worked Antichrist-themed messages and prophecies into the Washington Monument, the President is hiding secret knowledge of extra-terrestrial life and technology, the infamous sequestration was a bi-partisan cover-up to cut spending and leave neither party with full blame, and secret messages lie encoded in the Declaration about the demise of the Hostess Twinkie. And Masons, Masons, and more Masons are behind it all. To hear the talk, you’d imagine tiny leprechauns in tight breeches and powdered wigs poking their sharp noses out from every nook and crevice in the marbled facades, keeping tabs on an ignorant crowd of tourists just wanting some cold water at a reasonable price. Yes, Washington is abuzz with tales of intrigue.
What about “City of Absurd Parking Regulations”? Though I’m sure many candidates might vie for this title, few if any could reach the height of towing my friend’s legally parked car and slapping a triple-digit fine on him simply because rush-hour traffic would like a bit more room to maneuver. Or, even though the parking was paid by smartphone app, to not breathe a word of it to the owner—no, better to leave him and his visiting friend to wander the night blister-footed and dehydrated, clueless as to whether the car was stolen, towed, or merely misremembered in its parking spot.
“City of Fifty-six Law Enforcement Agencies” is also apropos, since none of the slew of uniformed guards, officials, police, and other vigilants have any idea what might have happened to a missing car. And none have any way of getting in touch with anyone who would. There are fifty-six enforcement agencies, I was told by one such guard, and they don’t share much of anything: resources, funding, jurisdiction, or helpful parking information.
Washington is also the city of a twenty-four hour service hotline, where a caller can receive up-to-the-minute recorded information on trash pick-up, but be completely left in the dark as to the whereabouts of a missing car.
Or now I’m thinking of “City of the Misguided Field Trip”—every state in the union is apparently required to book several dozen two-busload groups to visit DC every May. Ah, yes, the incomparable wisdom of the field trip: as a teacher, I assure you that youngsters are far more likely to be inspired by the venerable parchment and penmanship on the original Bill of Rights than they are to wade into drama about who is hanging out with who too much, more likely to get involved in civil affairs after listening in on a session of Congress than study how short of shorts so-and-so is wearing, more likely to contemplate the ultimate sacrifice of thousands and thousands of veterans than stress over tan lines obtained from so much sunny walking, and far more likely to be ethical, moral decision-makers from a visit to the Supreme Court than snap Instagram photos of each other.
Or there’s always the “City of the Sniper.” Just visit the White house and watch the roof. You’ll see.
Yet for all the dubious monikers, DC doesn’t disappoint. Yes, not dealing with a towed car would be nice. Yes, catching a bus may have been better than footing it. Yes, lines often fill to bursting with exuberant teenagers acting quite a lot like exuberant teenagers. Yes this, yes that, but a city devoted to preserving the ideas of a society centered not on any leader, not on any forced or fanatical loyalty, but on ideas of personal liberty and the worth of the individual—that is something worth visiting.
Even after all my blisters and all my whining, DC’s not about the marble or the Masons or the failures of humans to always live up to their own lofty ideas. It’s about the men and women who made such a nation possible, made such a nation succeed, and even made such noble ideas spill across the globe. It’s also about the men and women who can carry ideas such as these forward—within the borders of this or any other country.
And maybe that’s why no clever nicknames stick—none quite catches the dignity the city deserves.