Four Puzzles

By January 1, 1970Blog

Washington, where I have been living for the past six months, is an intriguing city in at least two meanings of the word. Let’s take care of the more sinister meaning first.

You can’t step into a Washington elevator without hearing a conversation suddenly die. You move to the rear, smile, and stare straight ahead as the two intriguers look at one another with frozen faces. There is silence as the doors shut. Then their conversation resumes, only this time it is cryptic and convoluted:

“As I was saying, the situation has become unbearable. The party I was mentioning is certain he can bring about that particular change in personnel, but he needs the backing of certain other people in the office, if you know what I mean?”

“Well, I’ve been taking exactly that position all along, as I think I told you last February. ”

How often can you hear a conversation like that? Twice a day in any government building in Washington.

But the city is intriguing in other, more positive ways. It is different from every other city in the country, if only because Americans who come here seem to feel that it belongs to them just a little; and as a consequence they make use of it. The mall, for example, is the most public property you’ll ever see. With the Capitol at one end and the Washington monument at the other it is a strip of green grass flanked for most of the way by national museums.

On the 4th of July it looked like
Coney Island or Miami Beach. You couldn’t find a square foot to stand on much less a place to sit down. People were squatting or lying on blankets listening to radios and pawing one another.

Every two or three months two tents will appear on the mall, one nearer the Capitol, the other in the shadow of the Washington Monument. The one near the Capitol is pitched by a bunch of Arabs who seem to hate everybody. They belong to some group that is being oppressed by both the Ayatollah and by the Israelis.

I suppose they get permission to park there, and they probably have to pay. But I can’t believe it’s worth their drachmas or their trouble. If five people go into their tent during a given day I would be quite surprised. But they are taking advantage of some kind of extraordinary courtesy that we extend to foreigners in this country. It’s typical of our foolish generosity that we would let this grubby little band trash up our mall, but perhaps the other tent explains why we do it.

For near the monument is this gospel tent, at least it’s there every two or three months. On the side of the tent you can see the name Jesus Christ, and behind the tent is parked a trailer, where the evangelist and his family seem to live.

But in the evening they are standing on the little platform under the canopy, singing, clapping their hands, praying, and preaching. You can hear their music up and down the mall, and on a mild summer evening you’d think they’d pack the crowds in, if only by appealing to curiosity. But as many times as I have walked by, I have
yet to see more than ten or fifteen people sitting on the wooden benches, and usually there are four or five.

I can’t help but worry about the country when nobody in its capital city wants to hear the Word of God. I mean nobody. It’s depressing. You may have lain awake at night and heard the distant moan of a train whistle. You may have heard the cry of a sick child penetrating your deepest sleep. But you have never heard a more heart-rending sound than an old-fashioned, hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher shouting his message to five stony-faced beggars sitting on the back row.

On a hot summer day I stood fifty feet away (I’d already heard the Word of God) and watched in sadness. Then I started across the grass in the direction of the White House and saw something even stranger than the sullen Arabs and the frustrated preacher.

It was 95 degrees in the shade and probably 120 in the sun, where a black man sat, peering at what appeared to be a magazine. As I drew nearer I realized to my horror that he was not wearing one, not two, but three sweaters, a jacket, and a wool cap pulled down around his ears.

Curious, I walked as near as I could and glanced over his shoulder. What he was reading was not a magazine but a child’s game book, the sort of thing a parent would bring home to cheer up a shut-in. Stopping I peered at the title and finally made it out: PROBLEM IN LOGIC.

As I say, it’s in an intriguing city.

Thomas Landess

Thomas H. Landess (1931-2012) was an author, essayist, and political commentator who taught literature and creative writing for 24 years.

Leave a Reply