A Writer Writes — “Our Tax Dollars at Work” by William Siegel (Ethiopia)
A Writer Writes
Our Tax Dollars At Work
by William Siegel (Ethiopia 1962-64)
I just moved from Boston to Washington DC. It feels like I walked on cobblestones most of the way, carrying my computer and a few hundred books. Otherwise, it’s fine. The weather’s good. I’m looking forward to less snow and more sunshine. There are many more city trees here than there. There are also many more bridges. In Boston, bridges tend to be utilitarian and future looking, with the exception of those crossing the Charles River, connecting to Cambridge, which still look like they were designed by Emerson. In Washington the bridges seem more stately and glide over parks and monuments adding to the mystery of the capital of the present day empire of the world.
Somehow my wife and I landed in an apartment in the middle of the city. I think it was mainly because of her family connection with the father of one of the subaltern managers of the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse. Seems to be how things work here in Washington, similar to Boston. In any case, it’s a bit smaller than our tidy little house in Boston’s Moss Hill neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. It is in fact, about half the size, but with big windows that look out on Calvert Street, directly across from the very large and sprawling Omni Shoreham Hotel, done up in prewar tan brick with graceful balconies, which dates back before Warren G. Harding, who it is rumored kept rooms in the hotel for his mistress, Altoona Peck, though these are only rumors that I make up as I gaze at its enormous girth, blinking identical windows with ghost-like curtains which provides ample sky, at only nine stories, but blocks a direct view of downtown and the capital. (I keep waiting for the hotel to vanish and for the vista to be cleared, but to no avail.) The hotel, where many inaugural balls have been held since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, seems like such a perfect place to make up rumors. I can see myself sitting idly in the large hotel lobby with a big cigar, wearing my disguise bow-tie and horn rims, watching the Washington folk and countless visitors coming and going, while I make up rumor after rumor after rumor.
In any case, it’s a bit of a mystery to live across from such an interesting hotel with a porous history and so many,many rooms, roomers and rumors. In fact, one of my early discoveries about the area is the siren parade that transverses Calvert Street most every day, in fact, twice most every day. When I go to the window it seems that the sirens must come from very far away and get closer very slowly. There can’t be that many fires here in North West Washington at such regular hours about 10 in the morning and then back the other way about 4, though the sirens persist. Once or twice, I caught sight of a passing motorcade with flashing lights. Then, once I was in the lobby of our building across from the Shoreham and overheard a uniformed police officer chatting with a desk attendant, as the parade went by. I thought I heard this public official say that she was checking buildings as the Vice President went to work traveling from his home on the grounds of the Naval Observatory. All this time I thought the vice president resided across the street from the White House in an old manse called Blair House, or something like that. Just proves how long ago I attended my last civics class. Oh, so this is the VP, himself, paying me a twice daily visit, with sirens and flashing lights, on his way to and from work. Even announcing his arrival. Nice gesture, don’t you think?
Now, I watch almost daily as I hear the far off sirens coming closer and look through the overhanging leafy trees, and sure enough, after a few moments of breathless anticipation, comes four or sometimes six motor cycle police, single file and then a police van with a flashing light and siren, and then one or two or sometimes four dark, government Chevy vans with dark windows, silent in their serious austerity, followed by what looks like a black square police bomb-squad truck, and an ambulance, and then, several more single file police motorcycles, followed by a final white police van with siren and lights. All passing my window in about 90 seconds. Lights gone, sirens gone, traffic back to normal.
The first few times I stood at attention, at my fifth floor window, holding a salute, when the parade passed, but I’ve since dropped the stance and just marvel instead.
William Siegel (Ethiopia 1962-64) has published short stories, plays, essays and television scripts. This January he published, With Kennedy in the Land of the Dead, a novel set in the Sixties. A former resident of many major American cities, he recently moved with his wife from Boston to Northwest Washington, D.C. He last lived in D.C. at Georgetown University in the summer of 1962 when he was in Peace Corps Training for Ethiopia.
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“silent in their serious austerity…”
a great phrase — as well as the whole story