Music: Random Jam-Band Muzak stuff, including Dave Matthews circa 2001
I’m sitting in a mostly empty dining room at the Union Street Public House, a charming, locally owned steak and fish place in Old Town Alexandria. It’s my last planned bit of touring today: eat, blog a bit, take some notes, and amble up King Street and that massive hill to my temporary home. Tomorrow I depart for New York City and a well-earned rendezvous with James and E! We likes to party; we likes to jam. I am assured we will do both.
Today has been both interesting and frustrating, certainly not as fun and exciting as yesterday. As I left off in the last post, yesterday morning I went to the Library of Congress to interview the head of archives at the American Folklife Center, as well as a friendly acquaintance and principle computer technician involved in their projects. The center is dedicated to collecting and archiving ephemera not intended to last (nor to reach beyond the confines of a family, community, or odd-ball archive from some obscure linguistics society) for future historians and researchers. The “Voices from the Days of Slavery” collection is what I am studying for my book project. I interviewed them for about two hours and we discussed everything from the politics of representation to Derrida’s conception of the archive in postmodernity to our favorite interviews in the collection. All three of us got pretty excited, and it was infectious to hear about these guys’ love of their job. They’re really passionate about what they do for a living; it was just a great experience to interview them and talk about life as an archivist. I got so much information from them in this interview, I probably could write a few chapters about it. I won’t blog much about what I discovered and what we discussed, though: you’ll just have to wait for the book!
After my interview I toured the capital grounds and walked the mall, where the cherry-blossoms are exploding. DC is crowded with tourists and more child strollers than you’d see every other week of the year at Disney world. I watched a father and his two children throw a Frisbee and people jogging for a long time while waiting for my lunch date, Kerry Nuss.
Kerry is one of my undergraduate advisors—my Interpersonal Communication advisor (my other was in philosophy; he’s now at Georgia State). I’ve not seen her in over six years, about three years after she had her first daughter; since that time she’s adopted a daughter from India and a daughter from China! She has a lovely brood! They went to the Native American Museum while we toured Union Station and had lunch together. Disgusted with things that happened at GWU (it’s complicated), Kerry left the academy but continued to do academic work. Her new book, Everyday Subversion: Revolting in the German Democratic Republic was just published by Michigan State Press in Marty’s series—and it’s marvelous so far (I’ve only read the first chapter, but it reads great). We quickly caught up and were almost immediately back in that same, friendly emotive space we forged during my undergraduate years. It was so good to see her.
Kerry and family then dropped me off in Foggy Bottom, where my alma mater is located. I toured the grounds and was surprised to see there hadn’t been as much growth as I anticipated since my last visit in 2002 (everything then seemed in construction).
Here’s where the pensive mood started to set-in: I went by the television studio/radio station where I used to work (housed in a gutted out church). The building was empty, and there was no sentry. When I worked there (over twelve years ago) sometimes I’d sit at the front desk: only folks buzzed in the door could get in the studio (mostly because we had lots of very expensive equipment inside). I noticed when I walked in the front desk was abandoned, the security box ripped from the wall, no television set, no decorative plants. It looked almost like an abandoned building. I went downstairs to where the editing suites used to be, and noticed some hastily printed signs that indicated the building had been claimed by a media group that does small editing projects for various student groups on campus (commercials, etc.). I finally found a guy in a windowless office. “What happened to Electronic Media/RTF?”
“Uh, dude, they’re long gone.”
“Huh. I used to work here. That was my office, there, in the archives [I pointed across the hallway]. It’s different now. No sentry.”
“This used to be a fully functioning studio for EM. What happened to the professors and engineers?”
“They got dissolved into the School of Media and Public Affairs around the corner.”
“Oh, you mean the new Communcations building?”
“Well, it’s old now. It used to be called the ‘new building.’ After Crossfire pulled out they started dissing on the building. It’s kinda old now.”
I told the young man thanks and walked outside toward the new/old building. I was somewhat upset that the place I used to work and love had been allowed to deteriorate. The paint was peeling, the old church—it was dirty. I later learned the department of Theatre and Dance had turned the television studios into dance studios. The building had changed hands, and the new hands: they ain’t tidy.
I entered the new/old building flanked by a huge sign that read “School of Media and Public Affairs,” which is what journalism calls itself there now. The building has about three floors of television studios, and then the “school” (or department) is housed above them. It was Friday and I didn’t expect to catch anyone, and didn’t notice any familiar names on the room listings. I went to catch an elevator and—wow!—I ran into Glen! Glen was one of the three engineers that taught us everything I knew when I worked in the church. “Glen!” I said. He recognized me, but I am fatter and hairier, so I says, “it’s Josh Gunn, class of 96!” He then remembered, we hugged, and he asked me a ton of questions. He then said that Wendy (another engineer) also still worked there, and said I needed to see her. On our way he showed me the awesome set-up they had in the new building: smaller studio, but the equipment was amazing! An entire final-cut pro editing lab, even. (Now, I’m only NOW making it public that I used to run/teach media production—even did a bit of it in grad school—it’s a skill-set I kept secret because I didn’t want to teach it anymore [sorry Trish!] . . . and now I’m reasonably sure I have no clue how things are done, so I won’t be asked to teach it ever again!).
It was great to see Wendy, and we gabbed for what seemed like minutes but what turned out to extend way after her time to go home for the day. She and Glen explained what happened: there was a big blow-up between electronic media and journalism, the resolution was to, well, was to kill off electronic media/film studies/and so on. Part of the blow-up was a sexual harassment/tenure lawsuit thing filed by a former favorite professor of mine . . . (we were insulated as ugrads from such intrigue). The faculty were filtered into the new “school.” Many of my favorite faculty left. My awesome, spitfire boss, Joan Thiel, retired. My supervisor and friend, Emmit Smith, passed away two years ago from a heart condition.
That was hard to hear. I wished I had kept in touch with “Smitty”—he was so good to us, and such a good person. Dead? Fuck me!
The news of Smitty’s passing came as a tiny shock that only amplified after I said my goodbyes and exchanged business cards and started walking around some more. I got to thinking more about how long it had been since my last visit. I thought about the heart disease that runs in my own family. I thought about my age. My birthday came and went weeks ago, and I really didn’t think much about it, but coming to my undergraduate stomping grounds had me in “that place,” thinking about it and at some level mortality.
I trailed a student into my old GWU subsidized apartment (Milton Hall, which has been renamed Jackie-O Hall) and went up to my old floor. The place was a dump. I was surprised it had been let to deteriorate like the church studios. The students coming into and out of the building were young—I suppose my age when I was there . . . but, you know, I started to think about how that chapter is really closed and gone. Nothing was really familiar anymore. Things were dirtier . . . sort of runned-down. GW was so clean and anally retentive when I was there. It was a different vibe . . . like it was turning into American University (not a bad thing, just a tolerance of run-down-ing-ness).
It was about dusk and I decided to walk to Georgetown in hopes my favorite restaurant was still there (it wasn’t). I ended up at Old Glory, a “laid back” BBQ place near a diner we used to go late at night after drinking our weight in Sam Adams (my beer of choice back then, before Sam Adams was bought by a major company and became crap beer). The wait was 45 minutes, so I went to the patio bar and ordered a bourbon.
I was needing someone to talk to; the bartender was not interested, so I turned to two young women on my right, must’ve been, say, 23-24. I wanted to get a sense of what people thought about GWU today. “Hey, y’all go to G-Dub or Georgetown?”
The woman closest to me gave me a quick glance and then a look of polite disgust. “No,” she said in a somewhat indignant tone, “I work on Capitol Hill. My friend here is visiting from Maryland.” She looked away abruptly to the other side, and gave me a cold, blue cashmere shoulder.
This rebuff gave me time to reflect and observe. She thought I was hitting on her—which I would not do at over ten years her senior. Nor would I hit on someone who spent that much attention to styling her hair—certainly not to someone who wore pearls with a sweater. I was really seeking information, idle chat, but I think my facial hair classes me. I’m aware my appearance is not “normal,” I don’t have that A&F appeal . . . I’m just some guy in a monochromatic wardrobe, alone, must’ve appeared lonely. I thought again about my age, looked around the bar, and discerned I was indeed the grandpa at 35. I sipped my drink. Eventually a barback leaned against the wall waiting for work. So I asked, “M’am, you go to GW or G-Town?”
“Nah, I got to [community college I didn’t recognize].”
“Oh, well, can I bother you a minute with some questions?”
“Well, I went to GW in the 90s. It’s changed a lot since I’ve been here.”
“What’s your impression of GW students today?”
“Rich kids, snobs. Everyone knows that’s where the rich people go to school.”
“No, that’s where the smart people go.”
I don’t think I captured the conversation verbatim (I had a bourbon in me, ok?), but this was the gist. Apparently GWU is $50,000 a year now, which is twice what it was when I went there. I just assumed the be-pearled sweater-wearing snob sitting next to me was a GWU grad but wanted to underscore she was a big girl on Capitol Hill now.
At that moment I remembered vividly why I decided not to pursue law school: it was the class thing, stupid! I was brought up in a lower-middle-class/working class family. I will never be the kind of person to quip, “I work on Capitol Hill.” Such a phrase, of course, is only uttered by young people on their way up—many of whom started just like I did.
I came home that night thinking about how a number of my friends left GWU and went into law school. The basic, mid-level firm hires at about $150,000 starting salary today. My line of work hires new assistants at anywhere from $55-70 at private, college, and research extensive places. There’s a big gap, there, of course.
I went to bed last night thinking about entitlement and youth snobbery. Did I ever feel entitled to a career? I don’t think so, but maybe I did. Did I ever scoff at people in their 30s? Maybe I did, but I don’t remember doing that. Ugh. I guess what I’m saying is that I found Georgetown/GWU annoyingly elitist and snobby. I don’t remember it that way when I was in school here.
I had a good night’s rest. Today I planned to tour the House of the Temple, headquarters of the Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction. It was something of a hike. The website said the temple would be closed for the week, but open today. I arrived, however, to see the place covered with semi-trucks and people wheeling crap out the front door. I took lots of photos of the outside, but when I went inside was greeted by a very unfriendly, grey-bearded man in a blue blazer. The temple was “closed.” I said that the website reported that it was open. “The website is wrong,” he reported. I learned that he was in charge of a Universal Studios picture shoot that had just wrapped up at the temple. Apparently the shoot went a day long, and they were closing the temple for “insurance reasons.” He wasn’t interested in my story about how I planned the trip here, and so on. In fact, he was an asshole. I decided to ask him a ton of questions to try his patience, since he basically was standing between me and my day’s highlight. I learned that Universal was shooting a picture about “political intrigue” called “Day of the Plague” or something like that. It is not about Masons, nor does Masonry play a role. They were shooting in the temple “because of the architecture.” After I annoyed this asshole to the point that I think he was going to throw me out, I left. I circled the building and took more photos. I really dislike how cozy the Scottish Rite is becoming with Disney, Universal, and other movie studios . . . publicity has its price. That price is not only my planned visit, but the fraternal order itself . . . about which more in a journal near you.
I then decided to make my way back to the Washington Masonic Memorial for their tour, but after waiting in the Metro for an hour realized that the crowds here for the cherry-blossoms would make me late. Instead, I went to a shopping mall and bought some shoes for feet that didn’t realize cowboy boots were not made for walking more than ten miles in two days.
I ended my day by visiting Old Town Alexandria, browsing through a record shop and a bookshop. Then eating at the Union Street Public House. If you’re ever here, friends, don’t order the steak. I just sent mine back. Here are some galleries of yesterday’s and today’s tourism.