“There are 817 Miles Between Tampa and Ronald Reagan International Airport” by Alora Peters
The first thing you will notice is that the air itself is different. This is not the air of southern suburbia, where the air is humid and wet. This air is not thick, burdened with water and the scents of fresh, green vegetation. When you step off that plane, when you step out into the biting winter wind of Washington D.C., you can tell you are stepping into an unfamiliar place with every icy intake. The air is thin, bitter, cold, and sharp. And it smells like fast food, stale sweat, and fumy, congested streets.
The sidewalks are not wide, paved ones, pale concrete gray, bordered by closely-cut grass and neatly-trimmed flowerbeds. These are narrow, uneven sidewalks, where you need to watch carefully for bits of shattered glass—there is quite a lot of this—or for chewed-up gum or even for sporadic, cracked potholes filled with dirt, patiently waiting to be filled in again with concrete. Beside the sidewalks— the grimy modern ones—are massive roads. They are quite frightening. One-way roads squeeze down narrow alleyways that lead into eight-lane monstrosities, where a car can turn in six different directions over ten different crosswalks, where vertical lines intersect horizontal lines, and slanted lines smother them all to create a complex basket weave of lanes.
Make sure to take a moment and assess exactly where you are going before trying to walk across these streets, or you will lose yourself in a sea of asphalt painted with thick, white bars. Pedestrians must cross the road hurriedly, in packs, in order to be noticed and, thus, escape the danger of drivers—either the confused, desperate drivers who have never attempted to navigate a city like this before, or the frustrated drivers that call D.C. home and simply want to shoulder through the mob of vehicles to make it to their next engagements on time. Crossing from one side of the street to another is a hurried, nervous affair. Actually, walking anywhere is a hurried affair—nobody slows down after you reach the sidewalk again.
You have less than a minute to get on or off the metro. Double-check or triple-check the directional signposts, but do not hesitate after this. You must make a bolt for the nearest opening door—you should have already properly positioned yourself long before the metro clanks to a halt. If you are boarding, rush inside and grab the nearest available seat, or, more often, the nearest inch of cold, shiny railing to clutch onto before the vehicle smoothly jerks into motion. Watch as lights stream by the windows, like electrical blurs illuminating the dark emptiness of the tunnels. The metro will duck in and out of the tunnels, poking its head out to see the angular maze of buildings that fortify the city.
On the metro, off the metro, on the sidewalk, in the street—people are moving in every which direction in the city. They will be bundled up in winter coats, hats, gloves, and scarves, the natives will be skipping smoothly on and off the metro, or shouldering a way along the sidewalk around sharp corners, and they will be ducking in and out of doors that are open for business. There will be people riding bicycles along the wider stretches of sidewalk, and all of them will be traveling in disciplined herds back and forth across the crosswalk, mechanically obeying the flashing white or red symbols. There will be people stamping up and down the left sides of escalators. Always remember that you must be moving very quickly, ever forward, if you wish to be on the left side of the escalator. If you are, by this point, growing rather tired and sluggish, you will need to stand on the right side, or you will make the impatient natives even more irritated.
The people are noisy in the city, but they do not necessarily talk. There is not much cause for conversation when you are pulling your hat further down or your scarf further up, marching across the street when the light orders you to do so. But the people have built an array of other noises. The sidewalks will listen to the constant, dull tramp of a million booted feet. The tunnels will listen to the passing whistle of the metro. After you bundle up under warm sheets in your hotel in a room on the fourth floor, you can try to sleep. You will still hear the rumble of cars continuing to pass by, long after the sun has disappeared. The sirens will cry out during the latest hours of the night and you will remember why it is so crucial that you should never walk alone after dark.
Why would anyone want to live in a city? What would anyone find to enjoy in such a place? The people in this hive move in a constant rush, there is no natural taste to the air, and the lack of silence is draining. The city is exhausting and dirty.
When you arrive in Washington D.C., you will see, in some parts, that the sidewalks are cobbled. Wheel your suitcase behind you, and you will hear it click and clack with satisfaction as you meander down these cobbled streets. You can hear your suitcase on these streets—it is no longer muffled by screaming tires and swearing drivers. Examine the oyster white homes, closely packed together, stacked with long windows and small rooms, topped with narrowly pitched roofs. The staircases lead down to the front porch, the warm brass doorknob, the brave flag waving red, white, and blue over its beloved citizens. The flag waves over the long, grassy green field that stands between the marble obelisk piercing the sky and the ivory palace that regally presides opposite it. It blazes cobalt over the impartial figures of Justice and Authority, it bleeds scarlet over the perfect rows of bleached stone markers just beyond the river, it shines pure and immaculate on the neatly penned letters that instituted that grand experiment centuries ago.
Here in Washington D.C., these old houses and monuments will lean towards you, warm red and brown bricks, granite castle spires, tranquil white columns. They will kindly and knowingly watch your wonder and amazement. You cannot take it all in at once. You must stop in the midst of the movement and chaos, and watch for the stillness. Listen and breathe deeply. This is the air that innumerable souls have breathed before you. This is a road walked by generations before you. Pause and reflect. Realize that it is in places like this that history and the present intersect, providing a roadmap for the future. Watch the millions of souls that have, from all corners of the nation, converged upon this Capitol—for the magic and adventure of the city begins here.