Growing up in Tinsel Town, a gal gets jaded. Look, it can’t be helped. From before I could say “actors’ equity,” we lived directly beneath the glowing Hollywood sign. My folks were in “the industry” and hobnobbed with rock stars, deejays, and TV personalities. And by hobnobbed, of course, I mean got high and listened to album-oriented rock.
When you’ve watched soap-opera dreamboats flubbing their lines take after take, seen pop divas climbing into the makeup chair naked-faced and scowling, and heard Billboard chart-busters stinking up a sound check that should have ended hours ago — well, there’s little room left in your life for magic. (I once saw Dick Clark in his underwear, and it wasn’t even New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.)
All this to say that I grew up nearly incapable of reverence. Numb-ish to wonderment. And altogether apathetic toward the things that, as Americans, we’re supposed to venerate. Things like Thanksgiving, Walt Disney, the game of baseball, apple pie, railroad museums, and “our nation’s capital.”
Feh. Like Michigan, Alabama, and South Dakota, the District of Columbia isn’t somewhere I’d ever considered visiting. In fact, until this very month, I sort of believed “our nation’s capital” wasn’t a geographic reality so much as a vague mythical ideal like “nirvana” or “kingdom come” — you know, a literary conceit that helps establish tone and timbre when you’re waxin’ flashy in a tale about politics. Or House of Cards.
But my husband has family in Virginia, so we visited the area. And it turns out Californians aren’t allowed to touch down in the Mother of Presidents without making a pilgrimage to D.C.
Now, I’d like to tell you that this world-weary, TV-town brat was moved by Washington’s grandiose monuments and bombastic architecture. But the fact is I wasn’t moved.
I was positively wobbly with awe.
From the moment you roll off Memorial Avenue Bridge onto the lush landscape where our country’s leaders plot (and, okay, plod), it’s clear this ain’t Anytown, U.S.A. This is Rome-on-the-Potomac, my friends. And shizz just got real.
In embarrassing contrast to the geometric hodgepodge of a Hollywood skyline — all Grauman’s-Chinese-Cinerama-Dome-Capitol-Records craggy — D.C. is an artful labyrinth of imposing neoclassical edifices that, I won’t lie, made me and my SoCal sensibilities feel like a Ninny in King Barack’s Court.
Everything feels so important there. This is not the White House of The West Wing; it’s the West Wing of the White House, by George!
In my hometown, a stroll down the Walk of Fame sends you gliding over sparkly pink stars bearing the names and trades of entertainment luminaries. In Washington — on foot, in lung-smothering heat and humidity — I took a Walk of Gravity: from the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol building where John Quincy Adams argued the Amistad case; along the National Mall to the sacred spot — at the foot of avuncular, colossal Abe in the Lincoln Memorial — where Dr. King announced he had a dream; around to the immense, inspiring Jefferson Memorial, inscribed with Tom’s warning that laws must change as the human mind becomes “more developed, more enlightened” (I’m looking at you, Second Amendment); then over to the National Archives, where my drugstore readers and I pored over (“Ma’am, do not lean on the glass”) the original, faded, hand-scrawled, dreadfully punctuated Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. The actual ones! All in the same room, people!
Countless curbside memorials to statesmen and soldiers hum with the magnitude of heroes, and of death — real heroes and real death, not the Oscar-nominated kind. And of principles. Nation-building principles with global reach and daily impact. And I got chills at every street corner.
So you could say my visit had a Hollywood ending: The Tinsel-Town tourist revels in her own reverence, confessing that our nation’s capital is more dazzling than the Sunset Strip. And more surprising than Dick Clark in his underwear.
Happy birthday, America.