D.C. Journal

Union Station, Washington, D.C.


Lately, I have been talking about train stations, though not on purpose — they’ve simply come up. I mentioned a couple in a Paris Journal. That led to some comments on New York train stations. And I mentioned a Union Station in yesterday’s Kansas City Journal.

Well, here’s another Union Station: Washington, D.C.’s. It is a beauty, one of the glories of the city. (A city of many glories.) It’s maybe a little too shopping-mall for me. But we need grand and glorious shopping malls, as well as grand and glorious train stations.

Most of the time, when I’m in Union Station, I’m rushing through it. Sometimes at a literal sprint. It’s nice to mosey, when you have the time.

Every time I return to Washington (from Manhattan), I think, “The streets are so wide. The sky is so big. The buildings are so short.” Everything is open. Then, after an hour or so — half-hour — all is normal. What I mean is, you don’t think about the differences between the place where you are and the place where you were.

Here’s something new, to me: The cabbies are now taking credit cards. But a cabbie tells me, “There’s an extra charge of $2.50.” Is this true? I don’t know — I assume it is. On hearing about the charge, I opt for cash.

I attend an event at the Willard Hotel — a place I have never been inside. Strange. I’ve passed it a thousand times, but have never gone in.

The Willard, just to remind you, is the famous and historic hotel at 14th and Pennsylvania, next to the Treasury Department (which is next to the White House).

Quick, name an opera set in the Willard Hotel. Right you are: The Ballad of Baby Doe, composed by Douglas Moore. This opera is about Horace Tabor, the Colorado Silver King, who ditched his wife for a girl named Baby — Baby Doe. Tabor met a tragic end, and so did Baby. (“And down will come baby . . .”)

Anyway, the two married in the Willard Hotel, and the opera reflects that.

Incidental intelligence: Once, after I gave a lecture at the Salzburg Easter Festival, a distinguished American came up to me and said, “You reminded me of a class I had at Columbia with Douglas Moore. I loved that class.”

I’m sorry for the boast, but people may like to know that Moore taught at Columbia. (Lame excuse for a boast.)

Quick, what great American song was written in the Willard? Well, Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” there. (She wrote the words. The music already existed, as “John Brown’s Body.”)

Outside the Willard, there is a plaque commemorating Howe and her achievement. The following lines are quoted: “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea / With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.”

You won’t be singin’ that at high-school assembly . . .

If you buy something in the Willard’s gift shop, remember this: You won’t get a bag. You can pay for a bag. Five cents. I bought a few postcards, and asked for a bag. There was a charge, for this itty-bitty bag: five cents.

Does that seem right?

As I’m in a boasting mood: I’m from something rare, namely an old Washington family. Washington is a transient town, owing to the government. At least it has been. What with a semi-permanent governing class, maybe things are different now. Anyway, my people got here — Village of Georgetown — at the end of the Civil War. All four of my father’s grandparents were born within D.C. city limits. Etc., etc.

Anyway, a block from the Willard — at 13th and F — stood the shop owned by my great-grandfather. Walter Johnson, the Big Train, was a customer.

Okay, I think I’m done boasting . . .

Let me quote my grandmother: “If Washington were a European city, we would ooh and ah over it. But because it’s ours, we overlook its beauty, or take it for granted.” True. What a beautiful, beautiful city. If we had to travel over an ocean to get here — and if the people here spoke a foreign language — we would realize that more easily, I believe.

Is the above a boast? No — I didn’t have squat to do with Washington’s beauty, and neither did my family (to the best of my knowledge).

Every time I come here, the sites seem more and more off-limits. Security is beefier. I remember when Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House closed to traffic — to cars, that is. That was during Clinton’s first term. In the next campaign, Bob Dole pledged to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue.

I’m sure it was right to close that part of the street — a prudent measure. My kin remember the old days, though: You could simply go up to the White House and knock on the door.

There are of course trade-offs between liberty and security. President Obama once denied that. Indeed, he poured scorn on people who acknowledged the fact. Now he is an acknowledger.

But shouldn’t he kind of apologize to those he scorned?

I’m pleased to find that I can divorce the White House — as a building, as an institution, as a symbol — from its current occupant. It is still a thrill to see the White House.

Like you, I’m in favor of free speech. But am I in favor of amplified speech? I have always chafed at this, thinking it an infringement on others’ liberty, and peace.

I’m walking the grounds of the Capitol, and someone is hollering into a microphone. He is hollering for Obama’s impeachment. I’m all for hollering against Obama. But why can’t you talk at a reasonable volume to the 20 or so people around you? Why do you have to subject people for hundreds of yards, in all directions, to your hollering?

There was no way to visit the Capitol grounds — and those grounds are vast — without hearing this hollering. That’s not free speech. That’s a public nuisance.

I once knew a man who pronounced this word in three syllables: “NEW-ih-sance.”


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