Going Back to Washington, Fifty Years Later

Washington.

I used to live there, or near there, in the years before the Metro was built. In my mind it was my town, although I had no feel for politics, or indeed any sense at all, being young. But one could get on a bus in those days and roam all over the city, taking in the passing scenery, observing the people on the street. The view was exciting. You can’t see anything worth looking at out of the window of a subway train.

keybridge1The family home at that time was in Arlington, a house my parents rented from some army colonel who had been posted to Panama for a year. (Every year we rented a different colonel’s house.) I would get on the bus and ride to work in the city, passing the most amazing and seductive things. A used car lot full of strange European cars: a pale gray Opel, a huge black Mercedes sedan whose thick passenger-side windows were pocked with bullet holes, a tiny blue-green Morris Minor that I coveted. If I ever got hold of some money and learned to drive, that Morris would be mine. Or the Mercedes. You had to admit it had cachet.

Just over the Key Bridge was a grain factory belonging to the Washington Milling Company. They had posted a sign just outside the factory: “The objectionable odors you may notice in this area do not originate in our plant.” Where, then, did the smell come from? I never knew. In fact I don’t remember it smelling all that bad, but I can’t forget the sign.

One morning I saw, standing on a corner, a tall man in a floor-length black cape, a broad-brimmed black hat, and a long red scarf. I was thrilled and intrigued. You must remember that this was the early sixties. People didn’t dress funny. Come to find out he was only the doorman at a night club, not the actual Shadow. What the nightclub was doing open at eight-thirty in the morning is another of the secret mysteries of D.C.

My job in those days was as a library clerk at the Washington Post. Politics were talked in the library by people much more knowledgeable than me. A friend made me read the Post’s  copy of the Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, in the hope that it would raise my consciousness. It sort of did. After a year at the Post I was fired for conspicuous lethargy.

Time went on and I married a newspaper man, my college sweetheart, to our subsequent chagrin and distress. When we left Washington we were still in love, I think. John Kennedy was president. The highest ambition of a number of people I knew was to be invited to dinner at the White House. I still didn’t understand politics.

The nature of politics is slowly becoming clear to me. The only reason I seem to have anymore for going back to Washington is to scream at the government, which one is better off doing in a large group of like-minded people. If you do it by yourself you attract unwelcome attention.

It’s not the same city. It’s full of cops and bollards now because of terrorism. Everyone rides the Metro. If you want to dine at Trump’s White House, I don’t want to know you.

We will go to D. C. next Saturday and scream at the government, if only to vent our frustration. I will breathe the air of a place where I was once young and silly. Maybe I’ll cry a little.

Meanwhile I’m going back and reading the Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens again.

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The Press Interview

NEWSPAPER_BDAlthough it’s becoming increasingly unlikely in the modern day, what with the folding of so many newspapers and the laying off of so many reporters from those that are left, it may be that in the course of your literary career you will be asked to give a press interview.

It will help you to know who you are dealing with when you deal with The Press.

Ideally, your interviewer will be a kindred spirit who likes your writing and wants to make you look good (while getting paid by the news outlet to write the story). These people are lovely to find, and you might even stay friends with them in later life. Less than ideally, your interviewer will have been assigned a story he or she is not keen about. At times like that it is helpful for you to have written the interview yourself, beforehand. (“You probably want to know how I got started in spear fishing. It was the summer of 1993…”)

Then there are reporters with an axe to grind.

In 1984, when my first book was published (Unbalanced Accounts, Little, Brown, now available on Kindle for $2.99), the publisher sent review copies around to all the newspapers. That’s how things were done then. The book received quite a bit of attention, most avidly at the entertainment desk of the newspaper where my ex-husband used to work. I got a phone call from a woman on that desk whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years, not since the break-up.

The break-up was one of those horribly unpleasant messes that used to happen to people in the early seventies, and that’s all I’m going to say about that, except to mention that when the dust settled my ex was married to Zoe, a big noise at the paper.  (Names have been changed so that I may speak freely.)  So I got a call from this woman who used to work with Zoe. Silly me, I thought the interview was all about me and my book. My very first newspaper interview. I had no clue.

We met at a Chinese restaurant near my place of employment. I had a good career going in software by this time, was married to the great love of my life, and had an adorable baby. I spotted Tillie (let’s call her) waiting at a booth inside. I was all set to brag about my new life and my new book.

“Katie!” she said. “What happened to your hair?”

“I got it cut,” I said. I’d had a few haircuts and re-stylings in the years since the ex and I used to sit around Tillie’s living room drinking  and watching the hipsters smoke dope. She didn’t exactly look the same, either.

“I just want you to know that we all hate Zoe too,” Tillie said.

“Er…”

“We call her Venom Lips.”

“I see. But about my book…”

The rest of the interview sort of went like that. She said she wanted to know all about my life from the time I was born, and then tried to pick out things to put in the paper that would embarrass my ex and his new wife. I did my best to stonewall her. As for talking about the book: “This character in your book who cheats on his taxes. That’s your ex, right? We all know he cheats on his taxes.”

“I certainly hope not,” I said. “I signed those forms for ten years.”

The paper sent a photographer to my house in Lambertville, luckily nobody I knew from the old days. He took an interesting and totally posed picture of me lolling on our porch in front of one of Harold’s Persian rugs. It was pleasingly androgynous. I was thinner then. They put the picture and Tillie’s story on the front page of the paper. It was continued on page three and ran on for many columns. There was something strange about the story. Everyone who read it said so. It wasn’t really about me or my book.

But no ink is bad ink, as they say, and sales of the book went quite well.  Still I drew a moral from the event. Know why you’re being interviewed. Be prepared to steer the conversation.