I spent 25 hours in Washington DC, during which I packed in two talks and mostly got a handle on my email backlog. I spent exactly zero hours on tourism, although I did notice lots of Obama posters up around the mostly African-American neighborhood that I visited. This District of Columbia is an economic backwater in many ways (their license plate logo reads “taxation without representation”), a whole different place than the international center of power. One of the posters was a shot of the first family with a caption along the lines of “Our new first family: Anything is possible.” I also saw a bunch of “DC Statehood Now” posters. Good luck with that.
A funny thing about Washington is that the ads at downtown transit stations are nearly all political, and often an organization will just saturate the area (in the same way that a certain cola seems to be doing in most of the other transit environments I’ve visited lately). One of these was a cooperative venture of some sort, in which a half-dozen environmental groups put together a joint ad campaign to encourage green technologies as the core of the economic stimulus package. It was a good idea, because if they had all done their own posters I wouldn’t have even noticed them amidst the noise; I certainly wouldn’t be blogging about them. Unfortunately for them, I can’t remember the individual groups or the tag line, so I can’t post a link to it.
I stayed a few miles away from where I spoke last night, but on the way downtown this morning I was about 2/3 of the way up the escalator to the Metro when I made eye contact with someone who had attended the talk the night before and had been riding alongside me all along. Small town.
Today’s talk was a bit nerve-racking. I had an audience that was only about 15 people, which is roughly the average for my events so far. However, that average number included a very non-average number of top leaders from several of our national cooperative organizations (yes, we have top leaders; the movement is more representative democracy than it is non-hierarchical). This was some of the most dense co-op experience I’ve ever encountered in one room, and they were assembled to listen to little ol’ me for a couple of hours in the middle of a workday? For the inaugural (not to be confused with Inaugural) fundraising luncheon? Egad.
Once I started thinking about it I got a bit spooked at having this sort of attention and got all self-conscious about my song and dance. Maybe I should have had a PowerPoint show with animations or something. Maybe some magic tricks to warm up the crowd…or juggling. I’ve gotten pretty used to public speaking over the past two weeks, but this put me right back in this sort of country-boy goggle-eyed wonder that I remember feeling the other time I presented in DC – at the National Museum of the American Indian on the subject of artisan co-ops, with the US Capitol building staring at me through the window as I tried to be a helpful White Man explaining how a European business model might help Native Americans lessen the negative impacts of other European business models. That was one of my first big presentations and now I’ve been doing it for years, so I was a bit surprised by how unsteady I felt this morning.
Of course, last night I was also a bit out of my groove and that was a more “normal” crowd in a church auditorium. Something about this town is just a bit off-putting for me. Maybe part of it is the rich history of silver-tongued devils who have walked these streets selling snake oil and national salvation. Maybe it is the sheer concentration of uncooperative imperial power here that has me feeling like I do not have the home field advantage at all. Maybe it was my ambivalence with the whole idea of having big national bodies with corporate power structures. Maybe it was the knowledge that I was two blocks from the White House. Maybe it was the coffee, which was dispensed by one of the weirdest machines I’ve ever encountered. In any case, I was edgy.
Fortunately I managed to relax once I launched into it and got some pretty good feedback afterward. Then, to continue my surreal jaunt across the country, I hopped on another train for New York (featuring a lot of messed-up old abandoned housing around Baltimore and a stunning sunset over Philly). I arrived in Penn station to find a better-than average duet of buskers creating a really magical moment in which a couple of dozen people stood around listening to them but generally not facing them. It seemed to me like the passers-by had been walking through in various directions and then were drawn to a halt by a strange and unknown force that was not quite strong enough to rotate their bodies once they stopped. Perhaps this is a New York thing, where it’s rude to look at strangers even if they are performing. I applauded, and apparently that’s also against the rules unless you just spent $80 on the ticket because nobody joined me even though I know they wanted to; otherwise they wouldn’t have been standing there pretending to look at various random objects.
I had a rough time with the subways, which are not exactly designed to make sense to outsiders under the best of circumstances. But they seemed to be doing major work on every line I tried to ride, which is probably related to the advanced age of the whole system, which must take an incredible amount of work just to maintain on a basic level. In any case all the stations were plastered with notices about stuff like the E line is going to be running express below 42nd from Jan 6 to Feb 27, except for between 4 and 8:15pm on the second and third Thursdays of the month and any days that are divisible by eight (when it will be at the other platform up and down a bunch of stairs), so it is better to take the A line and then the C line unless your mother’s maiden name starts with a vowel, in which case you should just call a cab. This is all to keep the system running smoothly, you see.
I’m exaggerating, but there really were about five or ten different complicated and overlapping construction/disruption notices scenarios that meant nothing to me. And of course there are no escalators anywhere, so I had to haul Rollo up and down about a dozen flights of stairs as I tried to make sense of it all. Luckily my book supplies are running low so Rollo wasn’t too heavy tonight. Hopefully Boston transit will go more smoothly since I have another 50 copies waiting for me there.
I’m spending the next two nights with Radical Living, an intentional community in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. It is located blocks from the projects where hiphop star Jay-Z grew up and apparently gained his street cred. This neighborhood has some very…textured…sidewalks, which kept things interesting for Rollo. I am assured that things are “relaxed” in Bed-Stuy these days, but it is still a long way from crossing the street in sight of the Inaugural viewing stands as I left my lunch event. In a single afternoon I’ve crossed the entirety of urban America.
By the way, I wrote this yesterday but just now found some wireless to post it. Stay tuned for today’s adventures tomorrow…