"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, May 2, 2010

D.C. Visit Part Two: City Birds, D.C. Cabs, and Boyish Pleasures

The Birdman of Dupont Circle
True Story: While volunteering at the Kennedy Center during high school, I once got a Washington D.C. bird to eat from my hand. He was a persistent little fellow, not content to wait for accidentally dropped crumbs. So I tore a piece off of my hot dog bun and held it out to him. He plucked it from my finger, gobbled it down, and promptly flew away. Like so many D.C. residents, he was eating on the go. The bird in the center here, similar in size and attitude, stayed close for my entire breakfast at Dupont Circle. He wouldn't eat out of my hand, but fearlessly hunted for crumbs near my size 13s, speaking his hunger with cocks of the head and extended eye contact. I love city birds. They always entertain.

Would that this Baroque City Could be Fixed

My second major goal on this trip, just behind fulfilling my duties as a professional actor, was making a circuit of the National Mall on foot. It's a round trip of about 5 miles. And like every previous trip I’ve made to D.C. since age 8, it began by trying to get my bearings. You may ask, how does one lose his bearings standing on the edge of a grassy rectangle with easily distinguished landmarks at either end? Simple!

Washington, D.C. boasts a web-like street layout with crisscrossing avenues superimposed diagonally on top of the conventional compass-oriented grid. The city, not unlike the Oval Office, is virtually designed to make visitors lose their bearings. Now any NPS Park Ranger, and several pompous tourists you didn't ask, will explain D.C.'s layout as an ingenious way to defend the 18th Century capital against an invading army of horses and buggies. But to a modern visitor it's an assault on one's sense of direction.

The city's complex layout takes its toll on cab drivers too. In New York City, a cabby will veer across three lanes of traffic to pick you up. In D.C., cab drivers avoid picking up customers because they have the audacity to expect speedy transit to specific addresses across town. Case in point--on the first day of our trip, the bellhop at the Hilton tried to hail us a cab. What takes two flicks of the wrist in the Big Apple requires frantic two-armed waving and a referee whistle in the District.

The first cabby to take an interest pulled up, took one look at me and my colleagues walking toward him, honked spitefully, and then drove off. I'm not joking. Now granted, it was a cramped hotel driveway, and we sorta crowded him in our eagerness to get a ride. But really? Honk and drive off?

A second cab did pick up our trio. We asked him to take us to our performance venue located at 1121 14th Street--a distance of about a mile. The cabby replied with a sheepish "Okay." Silently and with white knuckles, he proceeded to navigate through several 5-way intersections, one tunnel, three traffic circles, and past a pedestrian who violently slapped the cab's trunk when we failed to let him jay-walk. Fifteen minutes later, our cabby pulled to a merciful stop in front of 1421 11th Street. We applauded him for finding an address quite similar to the one we'd requested. The rest of the trip, we walked.

Why Love a Crowded, Noisy City? The Nooks!

Here I am passing the National Theatre, which sits in a pleasant nook on Pennsylvania Avenue about three blocks from the White House. The theatre's marquee faces a cozy public square embraced by neighboring federal buildings. Here I thrice saw Les Miz in my teens, along with Michael Crawford in concert. I got off the subway two stops shy of the Mall just so I could take an encore gander at this nook.

Humoring my Inner Boy

Regardless of your attitudes toward Congress or the President, the first time you step onto the National Mall you will feel patriotic. It is a grand and stately sight. I dedicated my second and final free afternoon in town to visiting the east half of the Mall. This allowed me to make a delightful return visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Every time I go, I watch an IMAX film. I also spend at least a full minute gazing with boyish fascination at the X-15 hanging from the ceiling.

The theme of this visit was the Hubble Space Telescope. Here is a photo of me standing next to a life-size replica. I also watched the incredibly awesome and remarkably affecting IMAX film Hubble 3D. Indeed, it was so affecting that I almost passed out trying to stand up after the film. Calling on my Boy Scout training, I treated my light-headedness with freeze-dried astronaut ice-cream and a sports drink. Given the brevity of my visit, stopping for a real meal seemed a nuisance.

Coming Soon: D.C. Visit Part Three--A Chance Reunion and D.C. at Night.
Or check out my post on visiting the National Cathedral.

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