Sunday, May 10, 2009

Boaz Goes to Washington

After seeing it on TV for my entire life, it's pretty wild to see the House and Senate floors in person. But I'm getting ahead of myself...


I got into DC's Union Station on Wednesday afternoon a little late, but I still made my meeting with Karina from the Amtrak Media Relations Department. After riding their trains quite a bit over the past few weeks, I had a lot of questions. Like why don't they go faster? And why are trains nicer on the east coast? Any why do all the coach passengers have to share three power outlets on some trains? Karina knows close to all there is to know about Amtrak and she shed a lot of light on these issues. The tracks were built quickly and have some very sharp curves that keep speeds down in some areas. The trains on the west coast are used a lot less and have the older cars, but they're getting a facelift soon. And she had no idea about the power outlet situation. She guessed that it was a problem on the old Superliner trains from the 80s that were built before anyone carried around cell phones or laptops.

After the meeting I met up with my friend Sam Blum, who was hosting me for the night and showed me around town a bit. Although I've been to DC before, I was just here to visit people last time, so this is my first serious visit to the city.

The next day I put on my bow tie. Quick sidenote: Tucker Carlson actually taught me how to put one on when I interviewed him for my old TV show a few years back:

So I put on the bowtie and headed over to Congressman Earl Blumenauer's office. He's a fellow bowtie wearer, so I figured I'd try to fit in.


I chatted with the Congressman about biking, the Portland streetcar, and his vision of sustainable transportation. He bikes all over Washington- he's even biked to White House meetings before. A few years back he started the Congressional Bike Caucus to rally support for his favorite transport. He gave me a green bike pin and invited me to be a member of the caucus too.

I was also invited to go on a tour of the Capitol with another couple from Oregon. One of the Congressmen's interns led the tour- taking us into the huge dome and walking us through the old Senate and House chambers, and even the temporary home of the Supreme Court (from 1810 - 1860), before letting us actually watch the House in session. It was the end of the day and they were only a few members in there sorting out their schedule for next week. "How about Tuesday?" "Can we bring that up Wednesday morning?" And so on.

Then I was off to meet up with Ari Shapiro, NPR justice reporter, and long-time family friend. I've been to more Shapiro Hannukah parties than I can remember, and it was fun to see Ari again after close to ten years.


Then I headed over to the Willard Hotel, who generously invited me to stay for the night. I think there were some important dignitaries there for the night because I've never seen so many secret service agents in my life. The Willard's hosted Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and every other important person who's passed through Washington. They have a great little museum that highlights some of the cool guests and events that happened there in it's hundred-plus history.

I got up early this morning to meet up with Oregon's Senator Jeff Merkley (and Mike, his friendly press secretary), at the Takoma Metro stop. Mike and the Senator invited me to join him on his daily car-free commute. Previous to this morning, I only knew Senator Merkley from his campaign ads in which he seemed capable and hard-working, though in-person he's warm, thoughtful, and fun to spend time with. He recalled his days as an intern, working for Senator Mark Hatfield, when he used to bike to the office with his suit in a garment bag on his back. He'd like to make every car go at least forty miles on an electric battery to cut down on emissions. Most people don't even drive that much every day, so that could make a huge difference.


We got off the Metro at Union Station and started towards the Capitol. We stopped by the Senator's office so he could change into a suit before we headed into the Capitol Building. I followed him downstairs to the secret Senate Subway. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures, but I do have some video that I'll post soon. It almost looks like a row of open-air golf carts on a track. We took the few minute trip and soon were walking through the basement of the Capitol, which really looks like any other basement. Although as soon as you go upstairs, all the similarities end. Going on the public tour yesterday, and following the Senator Merkley through the building were totally different experiences. This time we were walking right by all the signs that said "Senators Only." Before I knew it we were walking by a half-dozen security people onto the floor of the Senate. I couldn't take any photos or video in there, but I don't think I'll ever forget this. Senator Merkley showed me his desk, and opened up the drawer where all the previous Senators who have occupied it signed their names. The first person to use Senator Merkley's current desk was someone named "Dawes" who may be this guy. Mark Hatfield, (who the Senator previously interned for was also a previous occupant). The Senator also showed off a few interesting features of the Senate Floor- the mismatching desks, the spittoons, the old ink wells, and even the Senate candy drawer (currently stocked with mints, chocolate, and mini Butterfingers).

I took the Senate Subway back to Senator Merkley's office before we said our goodbyes, and I set out once again into the muggy DC air. I was headed to Reconnecting America to meet up with Sam Zimbabwe. As their website says:

Reconnecting America is a national non-profit organization that is working to integrate transportation systems and the communities they serve, with the goal of generating lasting public and private returns, improving economic and environmental efficiency, and giving consumers more housing and mobility choices.

Sam is traveling a lot these days; talking to cities nationwide about how they can develop their own transit systems. Some cities seem to think their citizens are too car-centric, but statistic have shown that if mass transit is built, people will ride.

Then I was off to the Tidal Basin to for some paddle-boating with Rachel, Heather, and their mom, Karen.


I went to high school with Rachel and Heather, and now Rachel's writing for the Washington Post out here. The sisters took the first paddling shift, as Karen and I enjoyed the views of the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument.


Then it was our turn to paddle, and we really sped along- as long as we weren't facing the wind. We were pretty tired after an hour on the water, so we sorely paddled back before walking back to The Willard Hotel together. We sat around for the lobby for awhile, watching unidentifiable foreign dignitaries and CNN's Wolf Blitzer walk by, along with a bunch of secret service agents.

And it's hard to believe I'm already leaving DC. There's so much to do here, and I've barely scraped the surface. Though I did make a quick visit to some of the Smithsonian museums. I got a chance to see their transportation exhibit entitled America on the Move. The exhibit was sponsored by General Motors, and it seemed a little car-centric. The section on streetcars was especially vague when it came to the demise of that mode of transportation. They seemed to skip the bit about the car companies buying up all the tracks and paving over them. Whoops.

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