Tuesday, October 23, 2011. The Library of Congress. 9:38 am. After a night’s sleep that was as good as could be excpeted, considering I was on a hotel sofa bed just a partition away from four loud-mouthed, giggling, snorting, farting eighth-grade boys, I was definitely looking forward to the day’s first destination: The Library of Congress. Regular readers know I’m a library junkie, making at least a trip per week to one of my local branches just to nose around. So a visit to what is essentially the national library of the United States would be as close to a religious experience as it’s possible for me to have. The Library of Congress began because former president Thomas Jefferson was a spendthrift with a taste for pricey imported French wines, and, like most of the Virginia planter class, lived on credit. By 1815, creditors were breathing down his neck.
So he sold his entire book collection — 6,487 volumes, the largest private collection in the country at the time — to the fledgling U.S. government. From there, it’s grown to over 22 million books housed in the Thomas Jefferson Building (built 1890-97) just across from the U.S. Capitol, and in three other (massive) buildings nearby.
As I stared at the rotunda ceiling above the Main Reading Room, which is lavishly illustrated with murals and ringed with statues depicting literary giants, I heard an odd rasping sound behind me. I turned, and was treated to a view of about a half-dozen of our kids, slumped against each other on a priceless Beaux-Arts rococo bench. One of them was lightly snoring, but the most zonked-out was Beverly, who had been the #1 malingerer of the trip, always the last in line, always slowing everyone down with her shuffling and whining, and always absolutely 100% uninterested in anything that was passing in front of her dim, Kristen Stewart-ish dead-fish eyes, which betrayed not a spark of engagement. A swift kick was enough to get them somewhat re-energized, and we moved on to one of the most remarkable parts of the library tour.
Two-thirds of Jefferson’s original books were destroyed in an 1851 fire in the Library’s old storage area. But beginning in 2008, the Library of Congress began meticulously re-creating Jefferson’s Library. All original first-editions, donated and sold by collectors all over the world, the “new” Jefferson library occupies a dimmed, hushed gallery just off the Great Hall. Standing in the middle of it, I felt as though I was standing in my spiritual home, and thought that this is how Muslims must feel when the circle the Kaaba at Mecca, or how Jews must feel when they touch the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, or how Christians feel when they visit Branson, Missouri.
At the conclusion of the library tour, as we hovered around the main entrance regrouping and counting (“nineteen…nineteen…nineteen”), Mark decided it was time to unveil the shirt I had been wearing under my zipped track jacket. Having agreed to the deal the previous day, I had no choice but to unzip and allow the tiger to peek out, at least for long enough to pose for a photograph.
The Folger Shakespeare Library, 11:45 am. This independent research library, and home to the world’s largest collection of printed Shakespeare works, was just around the corner from the Library of Congress. Mark is a hardcore Shakespeare buff and insisted this stop be added to our itinerary. I count myself as something of an admirer of the Bard of Avon too, and was a little disappointed that the most interesting part of library, the actual research facility, was off-limits to the public. This disappointment was alleviated somewhat by some of the items on display in the exhibition hall, including a bible that dated from the late 1500s and belonged to Elizabeth I. The exhibition area itself was designed to look like a “Great Hall” in a Tudor-era manor house, with its dark oak paneling and vaulted ceiling.
The kids were put through their paces in the Elizabethan Theatre, learning about the stagecraft and costuming of the Shakespearean era, most of which they had already learned in Mark’s class (though that didn’t stop them from clamming up and sitting on their hands when asked questions by the presenters — all except Sandi, whose answers were invariably enthusiastic but wildly incorrect.)
As we walked from the Folger Library to our lunch destination, one of my favorite students, Adam, who may be the most genuinely nice and good-hearted human being I have ever met, but was always in something of a daze, seemed to be having problems with his pants. As we walked, he hopped from foot to foot, and would sometimes shake his leg as if he were doing a bizarre solo version of the hokey-pokey in the middle of Constitution Avenue. Finally, a wadded-up ball of fabric emerged from his pant leg. Inspection revealed it to be yesterday’s underwear, which he had not removed when he put on his jeans, and which rode as a passenger throughout the Library of Congress and the Folger Library. At least this was evidence that he changed his underwear, which is not always a sure thing with boys in his age group. As far as wearing yesterday’s pants, well, I was in that club myself, and jeans are designed for multiple-day use if you don’t spill anything on them.
The U.S. Capitol Building, 2:25 pm. “That’s the Capitol building?” asked Beverly in wonderment when we approached it, as if noticing it for the first time. I confirmed that it was, indeed, the United States Capitol building and the seat of our national legislature (which we had been discussing in great depth in our Social Studies class for the past few weeks), and she pointed to the white marble obelisk that was the Washington Monument, just visible to the west. “I thought the sticky thing was the Capitol,” she said.
“What do you mean, sticky?” I asked.
“You know, it looks like a big stick.”
“Beverly, you are aware of what they do in the Capitol, right? One hundred Senators, four hundred and thirty-five Representatives?”
“That’s why I always thought it was so weird to have it in a stick.”
By the time we had finished our enlightening conversation, we had reached the U.S. Capitol’s Visitor’s Center, which was literally a hole in the ground. Guests visiting the Capitol did not march up the marble steps, but rather skulked in through a hobbit-style basement entrance that was many, many yards from the building itself. At the security checkpoint, Cade held the entire group up for several minutes as security personnel peered suspiciously at the can of Axe in his backpack. Finally convinced it was not some kind of detonator, Cade was allowed to personally place his frat-boy body spray in the trash and continue.
The Visitor’s Center in the lower levels of the Capitol is basically a repository for statues. Every state is allowed to contribute two statues to the Capitol’s collection. Some are on display in the main Rotunda, some in the former House of Representatives chamber now known as “Statuary Hall” …and some were dumped in the Visitor’s Center’s “Emancipation Hall,” including such luminaries as Idaho’s William Edgar Borah and Delaware’s John Middleton Clayton. (Hawaii’s King Kamehameha statue — pictured at left — was a little more interesting.) After about of a half-hour of milling around and lining up, we finally met up with our tour guide, Lily, who was probably around to see the Capitol being built. Lily spoke into a
microphone that sent her voice to our little tourist headsets, but it was clipped to her jacket so far from her mouth that it made the headphones more of an obstruction than an aid. The tour encompassed the Rotunda (sadly lacking a grandiose name like the Archives’ Rotunda), Statuary Hall, and the Crypt (the basement level, so named because the original intention was to plant George Washington’s remains there — but they didn’t bother to check Washington’s will, which stipulated that his body remain in the backyard of his house, like a family pet or Elvis). The actual House and Senate chambers were off-limits except for those with special passes, so those three areas were pretty much the sum total of the tour. Limited as it was, there would have been plenty to see and learn if not for the oppressive crush of people that littered every square foot, with tour guides’ voices overlapping as they moved their groups in an awkward ballet around each other.
Tour concluded, we entered the Capitol South Metro Station and emerged from the Farragut West Metro Station, with the intention of getting a look at the White House.
Lafayette Square, 5:02 pm. This is as close as we got. Like the House and
Senate chambers, a visit inside the White House requires a special pass (and, I’m told, a lengthy background check, which given my history with exotic animal smuggling, could be disastrous). So we gawked at it from Lafayette Square, the small park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the north side of the White House (home to political protestors and “the densest squirrel population known to science”), then we walked around the block and gawked at the south side from the Ellipse. I dared Tucker to fling himself repeartedly against the fence and yell “al Quaeda! al Quaeda!” I even got my cellphone stopwatch out to time the response, but for once he used his good judgement and demurred. Once we had our fill of staring at a building from a quarter-mile away (it didn’t take long, surprisingly), we had a decision to make. Our dinner reservations were for seven p.m. across the river in Alexandria, which means there was no time to go back to the hotel to rest, but too much time to continue staring at the White House. What to do?
Check out some monuments…
The Washington Monument, 5:36 pm. And we could start by simply turning around. Right behind us on the other side of the Ellipse was the 555-foot tall Washington Monument. The interior was closed after a small earthquake on August 23, so there wasn’t much more to do than to look at it from the outside (this was becoming a theme.)
With Washington checked off, why not Lincoln? The Lincoln Memorial was just a little ways off. Or so it appeared. The actual distance (I just checked) is eight-tenths of a mile, coverable by a healthy adult at strolling speed in about twenty minutes. But with nineteen exhausted middle-schoolers plodding grimly along, it took closer to forty. While waiting for stragglers to close up the end of the line, I took a few minutes to slip off by myself to get a look at the relatively new World War II Memorial which is located between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial (and, ironically, within view of the German-American Friendship Garden). A few minutes were all I had, because time had now become a serious factor.
The Lincoln Memorial, 6:12 pm. We attempted to rally the troops and cover the last dozen or so yards at a sprint. Some could not face the fifty-seven marble steps and collapsed in a nearby grove, while hardier souls mounted the edifice to come face-to-boot with the enormous seated statue of Honest Abe that looked out over the Reflecting Pool. Or rather, the Non-Reflecting Dirt Pile, as the pool was about a year into its 18-month long restoration project.
We were at this point seriously in danger of missing our dinner reservation. The nearest Metro station was Foggy Bottom, a distance of (drum roll) eight-tenths of a mile, straight up 23rd NW Street. And I mean up 23rd NW Street. As in uphill. And we had to move. There was a collective groan as strict instructions to move as fast as humanly possible were issued.
“Do you think they’ll all make it?” I asked Mark.
“Probably not, but there’s always a certain percentage of acceptable casualties in any successful operation.”
Bypassing the Vietnam Wall with a twinge of guilt for not so much as pausing, we proceeded to trot, out of breath and cramping, by the Old Naval Observatory and the U.S. State Department Headquarters. I called out in my best Clark Griswold voice “Look kids! State Department! Observatory!” No one thought it was funny.
The Fish Market, 105 King St., Old Town Alexandria, 7:01 pm. We actually made it. The Metro, to the free-of-charge Old Town Alexandria Trolley, to the front door of the Fish Market Restaurant took exactly the amount of time we had. As we patted ourselves on the back for walking up to the hostess station at exactly 7:01 pm, the hostess seemed less than congratulatory. In fact, she seemed genuinely puzzled by our very presence. As it turns out, the restaurant had no reservation on file for our group of twenty-two. Since there was literally no chance that Our Remarkably Efficient and Somewhat Tightly-Wound Principal had made an error in making the reservation, the error clearly rested on the shoulders of the restaurant, and their evidently loosey-goosey policy toward recording reservations. More often than not on this trip, we spent our time viewing national treasures. As the restaurant promised to rectify our situation, we had to make do with doing what we did second-most often on this trip: milling around aimlessly while the bureaucracy got their shit together. Once we sat down at about a quarter to eight, the dinner was excellent (try the crab cakes!), and we proceeded on to Pop’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream for dessert.
As the hour approached ten o’clock, we boarded the Old Town Trolley full of good cheer. Although Sandi was vocally regretting not using the bathroom at the ice cream parlor, we were all in a pretty smug and contended mood. We had seen everything we were officially scheduled to see that day, plus more. We were on time for our dinner reservation, had a delicious seafood meal and a scrumptious dessert. How much better could it get? As the Trolley pulled up to the Metro station, it all went to hell in twenty seconds.
Tucker announced he had left his backpack with all of his money back at the ice cream parlor, which was now closed.
Sandi burst into tears because she was about to “pee her pants.”
Elizabeth stepped off the Trolley and ejected a geyser of vomit into the gutter.
As Our Prinicpal led the painfully crouching Sandi off to the Metro station in hopes of finding somewhere for her to relieve herself, and Elizabeth crumpled next to a Keep Old Town Alexandria Clean garbage can, Mark prepared to re-board the Trolley to pound on the door of the closed ice cream parlor. Before he did, he turned and handed me a wadded-up plastic bag. It was my shirt for tomorrow.
Wednesday, October 25, 2011. Spring Hill Suites, Alexandria, VA. 7:22 am. Tucker’s backpack was successfully recovered, and Sandi’s tears convinced a surly Metro booth attendant into unlocking the staff bathroom, but Elizabeth was down for the count. According to later reports from the girls’ hotel room, Elizabeth was the noisiest puker anyone had ever encountered. (This combined with Britney’s tendency to sleepwalk and enthusiastically rifle through the other girls’ luggage while mumbling paranoid threats made my night with the boys seem downright placid.) As I wandered down the hall to breakfast, the pile of foul-smelling garbage bags outside the girls’ room indicated Elizabeth was not exactly on the road to recovery. We were scheduled to depart by train to the Big Apple in just a couple of hours. Something needed to be done.
Mark was already in the hotel dining room sipping coffee when I arrived. He commented admiringly on my shirt (fronted by an eye-wateringly bright pattern of neon 80’s-style louvered sunglasses) and said that Our Principal would remain behind with Elizabeth and take a later train to NYC, and if necessary cart her to Aunt Veronica’s for some old-school chicken soup nursing. The student number was cut to eighteen, and the chaperone number cut to two. I was being bumped from my cushy Number Three in Authority spot to a more uncomfortable and responsible Number Two. “Shit just got real, son,” is how Mark put it. By the time everyone was fed and organized, there were two remaining shuttles from the hotel to the train station, and the twenty of us piled ourselves and our luggage into them. Each van looked like a phone booth stuffed full of bodies for a frat-house prank, and I spent the ride to Union Station with someone’s hipbone jammed painfully into my thigh.
Union Station, Washington, D.C. 9:40 am. As soon as we arrived at the station, Mark hit the gift-shop bookstore in search of New York City guidebook, frankly admitting he knew next to nothing about the massive metropolis he was about to lead us through in a few short hours. Our Amtrak pulled out of the station right on time, carrying a quarter-full load of commuting businessmen and field-tripping students (most of whom went right to sleep.)
I found myself a nice window seat in an empty row, plugged in my earbuds, and prepared to watch the backsides of suburban New Carrolton, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Trenton, and Newark streak by as I updated my journal. My reverie was interrupted in Baltimore when Johnny Aftershave plunked his hefty, three-piece-suited carcass down right next to me and began yammering into his phone about a “deal” he was trying to “drill down,” despite a multitude of empty seats in our vicinity. I decided it was time for coffee, so Mark and I wandered down to the dining car, adjusting our movements to the rocking of the train. Right out of an old movie. Train travel is awesome. When I returned, I chose a different seat.
Pennsylvania Station, New York City, NY. 1:28 pm. Just a brief glimpse of New York City as we walked one block from Penn Station (directly under Madison Square Garden) to the 34th Street subway station, from which we would travel to the Times Square station, and then on to our hotel (this all seems perfectly simple to me now after I’ve spent a few days there, but at the moment it seemed an unfathomable labyrinth.) The Washington Metro was kiddie cars compared to the Daytona 500 of the New York subway system, so we spent the block that we walked reminding the kids to move fast, fast, fast and keep an eye on their belongings. Remember, we’re carrying all of our luggage at this point — except me, of course.
“What’s our key phrase for New York City?” I asked the happily-dazed Adam.
“Situational awareness,” he said proudly, repeating the concept I had gone over with him on the train. In a poor example of the key phrase, Cade almost had a like-father-like-son moment as he left his suitcase on the 34th St. platform. Mark snaked an arm out and snagged it just before the doors hissed shut. We transferred from the Red Line to the Purple Line and headed for the outer boroughs.
Holiday Inn, 114th St., Corona, Queens. Our hotel was on the nicer edge of what could be described as “Little Puerto Rico,” and within site of Citi Field. If we were there during spring or summer, by simply opening our windows we could hear the Mets lose. Wonder of wonders, I now had a separate room! With an adjoining door, yes, but I planned on keeping it firmly closed and I didn’t care if they were cooking a batch of meth in there as long as they were quiet.
The one item on our agenda for that afternoon was a visit to the Musuem of Modern Art on West 53rd Street, so after taking a moment to deposit our stuff at the hotel, we headed back to the subway. As the doors opened and we filed onto the cars, myself and four of the students got onto a separate car from the rest of the group. I wasn’t too concerned. The whole train was going to the same place, right? And on the way into Queens from Manhattan, I had memorized the number of stops (situational awareness, don’t you know.) What I hadn’t counted on was the return trip into Manhattan from Queens had a slightly different number of stops. We had ridden in on the Express, and were riding back on the Local. Rookie mistake. So as our train pulled out of what I thought to be a stop or so ahead of where we were supposed to get off, I observed Mark and everyone else standing on the platform of the Jackson Heights station, ready to make the correct transfer, while myself and the four unfortunates in my charge tore off down the line to God-knows-where…