'Quintessentially Washington'

by Bob Fagin

Life in Washington, DC is about the intersection of the mundane of everyday life with the realities of the world. Until a few years ago I was a lifelong resident of Washington, and this is a true story.

I was working at the US Department of Commerce at 15th and Constitution Ave. in 1994. My car was a Cadillac of a dark color at the time, the relevance of which will become evident shortly.

It was a warm spring day, and a colleague and I decided to go out of the building for lunch. We got in my car and turned left out of the lot heading South on 15th St. There was a Metropolitan Police car at the corner with Independence Ave. Having grown up in the District, I was all too familiar with the potential for some dignitary or some parade or some protest to intervene in my minor plans from time to time, so I thought nothing of pulling in behind the police car and waiting for whatever it was going to be to pass. It never took too long, and it was a lovely day.

Before too much longer another police car pulled up behind me. Still nothing too out of the ordinary, for this is Washington, the center of the universe! Behind that car was a van and behind it was another van with a camera man sticking his head out of the sunroof. Now, I was getting a bit anxious, for this is not ordinary. What was a car or two waiting for some event to pass was rapidly becoming its own event on the streets of Washington. My lunch companion and I were quickly being transformed from the observers of the Washington condition to part of the event itself!

This was clearly some dignitary on his/her way to someplace else. I figured it was going to Andrews Air Force Base to let somebody important return to their point of origin. I fully expected the first police car to put on its lights to stop traffic on Independence Ave. and go on its way. I would quietly and sheepishly turn West on Independence in search of a quiet bistro for a quiet meal and to relieve my growing anxiety about being in the wrong place at the right time.

Indeed the cruiser started the tree of lights atop the car, but to my amazement it turned West on Independence. I didn't have any right of way to go straight or turn left, so I followed. I was hoping the procession behind us was now clear to go on its way.

But to my great shock and growing angst, the vehicles behind followed us on the new course. Now, panic begins to set in. For this is now "ordinary parade down the avenue." This is someone serious. About this time the thought pops into my head that this might be the President of the United States on his way to handle some crisis in the world by going to the Pentagon for a briefing or worse!! And to add to my misery, it also occurs to me that at about this time the Secret Service detail in the van behind me has awakened to the fact that my Cadillac (dark) was not part of their detail but an interloper.

Images of SWAT officers jumping from the vehicle and surrounding me and my companion began to fill my head. I could see an international incident playing out on the evening news. I was used to local news being national news in Washington, but not with me in it!

The procession continued for what seemed an eternity to me, but in reality it lasted only until we reached the entrance to the parking lot on the Washington Monument grounds at mid-block. The police cruiser turned left into the lot. I went straight on my way, and the rest of the vehicles in tow left me to be a normal citizen once again. One also suspects that the Secret Service came to the realization that something was amiss, but to acknowledge it or do something about it would have taken much too much paperwork and explanation. In Washington, we like to let sleeping dogs lie -- especially when they are traveling in darkly colored Cadillac's!

The next morning, I awoke to read in "The Washington Post" that the President Clinton had taken a break from his schedule to jog on the grounds of the Washington Monument. For that few minutes I was at the intersection of the mundane with the sublimely and quintessentially Washington reality. For me and my companion, this event will always crystallize what it is to live in our Nation's Capitol.

By washingtonpost.com editors  |  January 26, 2009; 9:00 AM ET  | Category:  Reader Submission
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