WASHINGTON – Pennsylvania Avenue is pulsating with protests.
To the east, where New York Ave. stabs 15th Street from an oblique angle, police have cordoned off the intersection to automobile traffic, allowing demonstrators the freedom to fill the street from sidewalk to sidewalk. Their din mimics their behavior: chaotic and incoherent, like a crowded bar scene.
Luckily, I’m on foot as well and need go no further south. I make a right turn and the familiar, expansive plaza opens up to me. Ahead, a competing chorus of cacklers makes a more unified sound.
“O – BA – MA! THA LEE-DAH MAH-ST GO!”
Over and over and over again, this larger, more organized mob of heavily accented activists from French-speaking West African nations repeats its pejorative demand. The group’s ringleaders take turns exhorting their followers – in broken English and clumsy French – through a megaphone.
They have positioned themselves directly between Lafayette Square and the North Lawn of the White House. Their tone is clearly strident and focused, but their comportment is peaceful and dignified. They’re upset with America’s President for not doing enough to aid the not-quite-clear cause which has brought them here.
They are determined to let Barack Obama know they’re not happy with him and hope he has an appetite for their displeasure. The racket they generate is a minor nuisance to the steady stream tourists who’ve come to snap photos in front of the world’s most recognizable residence.
The sky is quickly fading into a deep, inky blue. A white, full moon hovers over the White House. Without warning, another glowing orb grows larger over the horizon.
Then I hear it.
Actually, I feel it first. It begins with a subconscious vibration, and then … wap-wap-wap-wap-wap-wap-wap-wap.
The syncopating sound soon crescendos, drowning out the shouting.
Momentarily stunned, my unsuspecting fellow onlookers and I gape at the serendipitous surprise.
Marine One is now in full view. The huge helicopter comes to a halt, pivots, and slowly disappears behind the White House as it descends to the South Lawn, its roaring rotor blades having heralded the arrival of the most powerful person on Earth.
The President of the United States is home for the night. A restful sleep might be hard to find, however.
* * *
It’s cold, by any standard, but particularly for Washingtonians. The air is invigoratingly clean and crisp, however – one of those nights where you only feel the frosty weather in your fingertips. It’s getting late, but with every breath, I feel more and more awake.
Seems like it wants to snow, but there’s not a cloud in sight. It would be great to see the District of Columbia decorated in an appropriate white for the holiday season, but there are indications – aside from the chill – that Christmastime is here, like the omnipresent lights, garland, and wreaths on the White House, its westerly next-door neighbor, the Eisenhower Federal Office Building, and other surrounding structures.
There’s one other dead giveaway, and I’m heading to find it.
As I make my way down 17th toward the South Lawn, I take a moment to thank Pierre L’Enfant for designing such a geometrically intricate, yet intuitively navigable metropolis.
Streets laid out in grid-and-wheel-spoke patterns give Washington its worldly grandeur, but also a comforting, familiar feel, making it accessible to anyone and everyone. The capital city’s major landmarks are a great help, too.
The Washington Monument, like a giant candle with its glowing red lights at the tip of the obelisk, commands your attention and beckons you toward it. From the proper vantage point, I see it and the Jefferson Memorial, further south, in the same frame.
A 90-degree clockwise turn and I make out the distinct figure of Abraham Lincoln, sitting pensively inside his marble memorial, at the far end of the Mall’s reflecting pool. Arlington, Virginia and our National Cemetery lie just beyond.
I do a 180, counterclockwise, facing the opposite direction of Constitution Avenue, where the Capitol Building resides.
I know what I’ve come for, though, and I save the best for last. One last quarter-turn of my head, looking north, I glimpse the postcard picture of the season.
This year’s White House Christmas tree is dominated by blue lights, with some reds and greens scattered about for good measure; its backdrop, the South Portico of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
All that is wrong with our world, all that is broken in our political systems, all the hostile shouting just one block away, all the turmoil we struggle with daily in our personal lives … vanishes for an instant at the sight of this quiet symbol of peace.