author robert palmer author robert palmer

Around Washington

Washington is no place for adults.

A lawyer I respect a great deal told me that saying about Washington and adults. I'm reminded of it nearly every week. If you have never lived in or around Washington, you probably don't have a clear idea of what the place is like. Sure, you know the monuments and the National Mall, the Capitol Building and the White House. Everybody from Cape Town to Kamchatka recognizes those things. It's the people who live here who go largely unnoticed and misunderstood.

People in Washington are a smart and quirky mixture. They come from everywhere in the world, and nobody, it seems, got here on the same flight—or at least the same flight path. There's a guy who works as an attendant at a parking garage I use. He's from Ethiopia, and he's a master with the tricky clutch and the tight parking space. He's also one of the world's few experts on Qiné, Church-inspired poetry usually written in the old Ethiopian language of Geez. He sums it up—smart and quirky.

Movies and, yes, books cause a lot of the misunderstanding about Washington. Consider your typical fictional Washington bad guy. The phrase "nefarious villain" might come to mind. I've lived here for a long time, and I've never met one of those. And—full disclosure—I've known my fair share of people at the top of the ladder. Those high-flyers have the same sorts of flaws as everyone else—booze and drugs and greed. They also make the same silly mistakes—temper tantrums and petty lies and office love affairs. Power is the magnifying glass that turns those all-too-common flaws into tragedy.

For most people in Washington, the day-to-day power struggles pass largely unnoticed. For those with the power, or near it, they still go home at night, take off their shoes and put their feet up—and get into trouble on the internet.

It's this strange mix that has always intrigued me about Washington and kept me living here for as long as I have, even with the horrid traffic. Despite all the special electricity in the air, the crackle of money and power, people are very human here, in technicolor. Every day, the fear and anger and love and grief and even feelings of guilt boil up bigger than life. That's why I love Washington, and why I write about this place.