Magazine June 1, 2015, Issue

Breakfast of Bureaucrats

The man was tall, broad, and bald, with a prophet’s fierce spark in his eyes. He wore a long thick filthy coat that flapped as he strode up the sidewalk. “There’s gonna be a fiiiiiire,” he shouted. “There’s gonna be a big damn fiiiiiiiiire.” People ignored him. They looked at their phones. They walked with the usual big-city purpose. In the distance, a siren started to wail, and a grin split the man’s face. He knew it. He’d called it. Somewhere, there was a fiiiiire. A big damn fire.

I was back in D.C., remembering what I hadn’t missed: the theatrically ill. The dispossessed, the homeless, the shambling souls hunched over a cart liberated from a grocery store, pushing it around until dark came and they could find an alcove to hide in. When I used to live here, it seemed worse — my old neighborhood, Adams Morgan, had spare-changers spaced every twelve feet, as if by city ordinance. If you were inclined to give to the first, your heart was less permeable to their cries by the end of the block. By the end of a week, less so. By the end of the month, you stopped your ears. Welcome to D.C.! We’ll teach you not to care.

After being away for a long time, then returning twice in five months, I feel completely qualified to pass a few broad judgments, culminating in a breakfast-based metaphor for the entire Obama experience.

• Went to one of the new neighborhoods downtown; quite a change. The old motto for the area was “Mind the Urine-Flecked Broken Glass!” and now it’s cafés and condos and innumerable single people in their early 30s — the main diet for the D.C. machine, by the way; they’re still cheap and always replaceable, and can be worked to death if need be. On Sunday the men were dressed in hipster garb — T-shirts with obscure band logos, tattoos on their legs, shins thick as bowling pins from riding an old Schwinn with three gears, a jaunty trilby on the head, black glasses. The usual garb of the Eastern Urban Intellectual with rarefied tastes. Well.

Coming to D.C. to be a hipster is like going to Chicago to be a farmer. Perhaps they wear this stuff on weekends because Monday brings the yoke and the khakis.

None of them make anything, except perhaps posters for their banjo-and-fife revival band. The money comes from somewhere; meetings are held; initiatives are launched; consciousness is raised; the money empties out and is replenished by hidden springs. Repeat until you move from the Foundation for Water Cleanliness to the Organization for Clean Water, then do it all over again.

• For a city with such grand monuments, D.C. has some remarkably dull downtown architecture. The old small buildings that provided charm and variety were razed for innumerable dull blocks — brick-and-steel factories for extracting money and spinning it into influence and opinion. There are some notable exceptions, but for the most part surveying the streets makes you think that the architects delivered an interesting building but no one thought to take it out of the box it came in.

• I’m sure there’s a lunch counter around my hotel, but they’re a dying breed in most cities. You can’t walk in, take a stool, order up a couple of eggs — wreck ’em! — and toast and coffee. You must stand in line at Starbucks for coffee whose price suggests the beans were individually washed in the spittle of a rare peacock, then choose a Breakfast Brioche Panini or some such precious item that’s basically an Egg McMuffin after a semester at the Sorbonne.

I ended up at a deli whose window boasted “Breakfast Bar.” A buffet of the usual suspects. You load up a clamshell, they weigh it, and you sit at a wobbly table and try not to wince when the plastic knife squeaks against the Styrofoam. I tried to cut my pancake; the fork bent. Either the pancake was made of ceramic or the fork had no spine in its tines. I tried the fork on the eggs; it managed to pierce the surface if I stabbed them perpendicular. But not the pancake. The pancake would not yield. Perhaps the pancake was old and had been sitting there for a long time and its exterior had assumed an armadillo’s protective abilities, but the problem was most likely the fork.

You could snap the tines off an old plastic fork. They were stiff but frangible. That must have seemed like a problem to someone. Why, a person could choke on that busted piece. A miscreant could poke someone and draw blood. A fork that could go through a pancake like a mosquito’s proboscis into skin was a hazard. Who knows what liability you opened yourself up to? Better to go with the soft fork. Just to be safe.

To paraphrase the line about the appeal of militant Islam: When people see a strong fork and a weak fork they are naturally drawn to the strong fork.

I’m probably wrong, but one can’t help but suspect there was a law behind this. If not a law, then a campaign to raise concern. If not a campaign, then rumors of a class-action suit against the Breakfast Bar–Industrial Complex. Somewhere in a twelve-story box on a street with a letter for a name, someone set in motion the events that would make it impossible to use a plastic fork on a pancake, because that’s why you came to D.C. in the first place.

To make a difference.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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