After I started working in restaurants, I would have really vivid server dreams during which our reservations would be overbooked, we’d be understaffed, and my feet would be glued to the floor. I’d be forced to stand there and watch everyone else run around, stress out, hit their adrenaline highs and make all the money. I’d want so badly to help, to join in and get my share of tables and thrills and tips, but I’d be completely useless.
That is the best metaphor I can use to explain what trying to enjoy early Sunday morning coffee on an enchanting shady patio at a French cafe in Capitol Hill felt like in late September. In an election year. During a pandemic. Days after one of the most prolific Supreme Court justices in American history had passed away.
It was the perfect spot to have some leisurely alone time with my thoughts and the rising sun and the massive planters with creeping vines and sprays of red flowers. The cobalt blue bistro sets matched the blue and white striped awnings, which matched the color of the cloudless sky and the sign over the door, reading “Le Bon Cafe.” I was still rubbing my eyes free of the remnants of a mediocre night’s sleep, fractured by a too-rich dinner and a too-much amount of white wine and a couch with no blankets. I was definitely ready for a little luxurious savoring after extracting my slightly hungover self from the fitted sheet I had been cocooned in all night.
I’m pretty sure it was Audrey Hepburn who said “Paris is always a good idea” in a movie. The words that should follow are “But if you can’t get to Paris, find the nearest coffee shop that sells baked goods and decorates with flowers instead.” Le Bon Cafe was a quarter of a mile down the road and fit the description perfectly, and after spending most of the 18 last hours helping my sister unpack, I felt ready to treat myself.
So I pulled on my best savoring sweater, threw my hair up in a luxurious bun and tip-toed out of my sister’s new apartment. I wound through the narrow hallways and staircases indicative of the building’s endearing old age, smiled through my mask at another tenant and her small chipper dog, and burst through the front door into the frostily invigorating air with Julie Andrews energy.
Except the back side of the United States Capitol building looked down on me with mood-sobering intimidation from across the street. Women in pantsuits with briefcases charged down the sidewalk. Runners with headphones and laser-focused expressions sprinted in front of traffic, which was already beginning to stack up. Capitol police stood rigid outside entrances to parking lots, which were more heavily attended than one might expect for a Sunday morning.
I realized quickly that I was one of the only people in Washington D.C who planned on doing any luxurious savoring this Sunday morning. Everyone else was a little too busy trying to save the country from imploding on itself.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death left behind a quiet and unnerving sentiment of urgency that was easily felt from one end of the National Mall to the other. Her memorial drew the masked masses, squeezing together with barely six inches of breathing space, let alone six feet. But the crowd had been buzzing, active, uneasy when we visited the day before. People came in on bikes, dropped flowers, stood in silence for 15 seconds, then hopped back on and sped away. Pedestrians only stood still long enough to pay their respects and take a few pictures. Everyone seemed to be “stopping by” before heading off to their next important commitment.
But it was almost appropriate that everyone had other important places to be, and Madame Justice was probably smiling down on the crowd. There was a lot of work to be done.
I’ve always loved visiting Washington D.C for this very reason. Unlike other weekend getaways that leave vacationers aching for decades-early retirement, D.C lights fires under butts and inspires hard work and achievement sometimes even before Monday rolls around again. Someone is always working overtime in their office when they probably shouldn’t be. Someone always has commitments to high-priority agenda items that can’t wait another day to get reviewed. In a town that lives and dies with term limits, every waking second of those two, four, six or (hopefully not) eight years counts.
It also means that if you’re looking for somewhere to find peace and restoration after a tumultuous couple of weeks, not only will Washington D.C not provide those things, but it might leave you feeling a little dramatic for wanting those things in the first place. I’ve heard New York City described in similar ways. But in New York, everyone seems to be hustling for themselves and their interests, or the interests of the industries that employ them. In Washington, people hustle for a larger unifying purposes like democracy, social justice, preservation of values and dismantling of corruption. And if you’re the type that needs to take an hour to sit out at a cafe patio and soak yourself in the leisure of early fall and pastry aromas, then listen to Audrey; Paris is probably a better fit for you.
At least, that’s how I felt when even the other “leisurely” patio dwellers were deep in conversation solving the problems of the Western Hemisphere over cafe au laits and croissants. They made me think of all the extremely important conversations that have happened in spaces that would otherwise be spaces of leisure and momentary relaxation in other towns. Bars, restaurants, parks and their many benches, hair salons, gas station pumps, churches, checkout lines at grocery stores…elsewhere, they host conversations about weather, news, personal life. In Washington D.C, they could host the exchange of state secrets and policy negotiations. The federal government lives and breathes right under the noses of every single Washington D.C resident.
After I sat out on that patio of red and green and cobalt blue for 40 minutes and reflected, I realized that this just meant Washington D.C had the power to make the ordinary a little more exciting. And while it isn’t exactly the place to savor and be luxurious, it is absolutely the place that makes you want to unglue your feet from the restaurant floor and join in for the dinner rush. There is a lot of work to be done.