State of Play for Washington D.C. People

If my former city of two years, Washington D.C., were as it is portrayed in State of Play, it would be a helluva lot more of an exciting place to live. Although the movie disappoints in many regards, its greatest strength nonetheless is how authentically it captures the fair city, in contrast to the garden variety D.C. political thriller. Sure, we get plenty of overhead shots that are in every D.C. movie, but we also see places like the Southwest fish market and the Americana motel off Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington, that only D.C. residents and the most intrepid of tourists would recognize.

Gung ho Mt. Pleasanters will have yet another reason to boost their neighborhood seeing that Russell Crowe’s reporter character lives above Heller’s Bakery on Mt. Pleasant Street. Local politicians, U. Street denizens, and Bill Cosby will be thrilled to see Crowe have a reportorial epiphany that appropriately looks like heartburn as he is ordering a chili half smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl.  The filmmakers even give a shout to Ben’s famous list of people who eat free: “Bill Cosby. No one else.” Anyone who has worked or had a Graduate School or LSAT class near L’Enfant Plaza will discover that those lifeless prison-like grid buildings are good for something: a suspenseful sequence in a hospital where the unleashed killer strikes again.

And the film does a commendable job placing characters in their appropriate neighborhoods. Crowe lives in Mt. Pleasant. The young fun-loving female Congressional staffer is seen walking down 18th Street in Adams-Morgan to the Metro right before she is murdered. The merciless ex-military man with associations to a Blackwater-like defense contractor lives in a drab mauve apartment complex in Crystal City. The sleazoid PR guy (Jason Bateman) dines at the Daily Grill in Dupont Circle.

The film also captures a certain tenor of the city that goes beyond the White House and Congress. At the beginning, Russell Crowe, a metro beat reporter for a Washington Post-modeled paper, goes to a crime scene underneath the Whitehurst Freeway in Georgetown and perfunctorily spars with the city’s police chief to get the identity of the victims.

Rachel McAdams’s chirpy political gossip blogger is a pretty nice send-up of the crop of the young people who shape D.C. gossip from their keyboards. Her conflict with old school reporter Crowe, who actually leaves the newsroom to get his stories, is much appreciated by this journalism student as is the ode to newspapers credits sequence.

Bateman’s PR slimeball is perfect, in his striped shirt, slicked hair and showy car. The face-off between him and Crowe is deliciously symbolic: the slick but empty world of PR against the raggedy but penetrating reporter. Crowe indeed is at his disheveled best. As David Denby said, he looks like “a dumpling in a wig”.

It is a shame with all of these familiar scenes and characters that the movie is such a let down in the end. It is “overstuffed,” as one reviewer put it, makes promises that it does not deliver. Perhaps it is a fault of this viewer and others who hoped for an indictment of all of the subjects the film touched on: defense contractors, disingenuous Republican majority leaders (Jeff Daniels), the surface treatment of underreported news stories that today’s news models value, and the dissonance of Washingtonians daytime and after hours selves. Maybe because it is a lot to take on or because former residents like me want a movie about Washington to be an emperor-stripping tour de force or because of the mis-casting of Ben Affleck does this film fail in the end. But I’d like to blame it on the writers. State of Play is nonetheless a perfect love letter to D.C.

Ode to David Souter, my Supreme Court Justice Crush

The news of Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s retirement rekindled my longstanding love for this discreet, low-key man. The love began when I became obsessed for a brief period with the U.S. Supreme Court in the aftermath of the 2000 election as it became clear that the Bush v. Gore case as would essentially decide the fate of the presidency. Knowing almost nothing about the Court, I decided to read a book by former clerk Edward Lazarus called Closed Chambers. In it, he bursts the myth of the Court as a rarefied environment of collegial relationships between justices and clerks mainly concerned with interpreting the law with integrity. According to Lazarus, who clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun, a “liberal” Nixon appointee who authored Roe v. Wade, an ideological rivalry reigned instead, and it was most pronounced between the clerks: on one side were those who worked for “liberal” justices like Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall, and William Brennan; on the other were those who worked for “conservative” justices like Antonin Scalia, Byron White, and William Rehnquist.

Souter ascended to the court in this environment, to replace the retiring William Brennan. Brennan was known as one of the greats of the Warren Court of the 1960′s, which had expanded individual rights with its broad interpretations of the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. In 1990, when George H.W. Bush nominated Souter, liberals and conservatives expected he would join the group on the court that wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade, though he had made no rulings about the case as a New Hampshire Supreme Court judge. Most of what was known about the quiet judge and former Rhodes Scholar from New Hampshire was that he was a law and order type who had never been married.

And then Souter joined the court and voted with the “liberals” who upheld the fundamental holding of Roe v. Wade when it was challenged by a case called Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. Clarence Thomas he was not.

Souter is by all accounts an individualistic fellow who is impatient with Washington culture and spends a lot of time in his native New England. According to Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine, which I plan to read this summer, Souter almost resigned from the court after Bush v. Gore, where his “conservative” colleagues abandoned their longstanding commitment to states rights and narrow interpretation of the equal protection clause. What kept Souter on the court, it seems, was the threat that Bush would appoint someone in his place. Now that Obama is president, Souter can flee.

My classmate just told me a great story about Souter that comes out of The Nine and illustrates why he seems awesome. Souter was at a gas station in New Hampshire and was spotted by a guy who recognized him as a Supreme Court Justice. “You’re Stephen Breyer, right?” the guy said. Souter responded in the affirmative, thinking, whatever. Then the guy asked Souter what his favorite part of being a Supreme Court Justice was, and Souter responded, “Working with David Souter.”

Anyway, cheers to David Souter, one of my many old man crushes. I’ll never be able to clerk for him, as was once my dream, so I hope he has many restful years at his house in New Hampshire.

Live blogging my visit to D.C.

I’m going to indulge myself and live blog because it’s spring break, and I am bugging out about how weird D.C. is, even though I lived here for two years.

10:30 am: I arrive by Amtrak (yes!) and board the Metro at Union Station. I love that people wait to let train passengers off before boarding.  I also love that there are ample seats and the aisle isn’t crowded.  And though the person who I sit next to is not small, I do not feel smashed against her because of seats that approximate the rear size of breadline-era Americans like in NYC.

11:00 am: D.C. feels like a small town, especially because the last time I was here, it was overrun by more than a million people.  The streets are so quiet that it is eerie but kind of nice too.  I am not used to having so much space to myself.

11:15 am: Mocha Hut closed!  Oh no!  I was supposed to meet someone here. The only other coffee shop nearby is Starubcks. Sad.

12:50 pm: Meeting is over. I take a cab to the next destination. Where is the TV in the back of the cab seat? I want to watch Regis and Kelly and see some puffy Broadway show feature clip.  Also, I can’t believe the fare starts at $3.00 and not $2.50.  And no credit card taken. Toto, I’m not in the big city.

Observation: People in this city are more polite and not as rushed but maybe a little more weirded out by fast-talking straight-forwardness.  Whenever I ask anyone for a receipt, the person gives me kind of a weird look.  I may have to ramp up my politeness to pre-NYC levels.

Photos from the Inauguration

Today, my cousin Matthew and I took the Metro into D.C., silver tickets in hand, to view the Inauguration.  We got off at Gallery Place-Chinatown on a train that might have hit a woman (I think she was okay, though).  We then walked under the Third Street Tunnel, emerging south of the mall near Independence Avenue.  The tunnel, which is normally a bridge for cars driving to 395, was closed to vehicles.  It was amazing to walk beneath the city in a place intended only for cars, among thousands of people who were all in D.C. for the same purpose.

When we got to the line for the silver section, we walked back and back and back, realizing the it stretched about a half mile, from the Mall entrance, around several government buildings to just under some Amtrak tracks.

Unfortunately, the line we were waiting in closed well before we got to the front.  We did not have to wait that long–about an hour–compared to other people, so I couldn’t be too upset.  We hurried to a bar in the Farragut area and watched the inauguration on a big screen TV with many other enthusiastic people like the group behind us who were in from Detroit.  I think I will never again in my lifetime see so many people and a city so swept up by one common purpose as I did yesterday in D.C.  Though our nation has a lot of difficult days ahead, and I am a little worried about some of Obama’s more economically “liberal” appointments, I am greatly relieved that he is President and George W. Bush is now gone.

perhaps the only person at the Inauguration to wear a McCain/Palin button

perhaps the only person at the Inauguration to wear a McCain/Palin button

A reporter asking souvenir vendor how business is. The vendor said it was not as good as it could be.

A reporter asking souvenir vendor how business is. The vendor said it was not as good as it could be.

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the Third Street Tunnel

the Third Street Tunnel

walking to the line with hundreds of other people

walking to the line with hundreds of other people

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watching at the bar

watching at the bar

President Barack Obama gave a speech that subtly but firmly rebuked the ethic of the Bush years.

President Barack Obama gave a speech that subtly but firmly rebuked the ethic of the Bush years.

The best Obama souvenir

Someone had the clever idea to memorialize how Barack loves his woman.  Barry White CD not included.img_4952

Photos from the Inauguration Concert

I had never seen so many people in one place before as I did on Sunday, January 18 at the Inauguration concert (broadcast exclusively by HBO!)…until Tuesday, that is.  Even more awesome was all of the RIDICULOUS  Obama merchandise that people were selling.  I mean, how do people come up with some of this stuff?

"That'll cost you a dollar," this man said as I took his photo.

"That'll cost you a dollar," this man said as I took his photo.

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A little bit of irony.

A little bit of irony ("FDIC: A History of Confidence and Stability").

in front of the Corcoran Gallery

in front of the Corcoran Gallery

The crowd stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.

The crowd stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.

Jack Black gave a stirring speech about Theodore Roosevelt's achievements in land conservation.  But it sounded like he was telling a joke.

Jack Black gave a stirring speech about Theodore Roosevelt's achievements in land conservation. But it sounded like he was telling a joke.

The Lincoln Memorial before the concert.

The Lincoln Memorial before the concert.

No caption needed.

No caption needed.

Funny D.C. quote

Recently, I was thinking to myself whether I will ever be around when someone makes what I am sure is a quoteworthy remark and somehow manage to get into circulation in those Quote of the Day publications. Well, today that opportunity fell into my lap. Sitting in the George Washington University Starbucks before a doctor’s appointment, a 70-something looking man approached to ask if he could sit down at the four-person table. I shied at first from talking to him, though he looked like someone who might start a conversation, and he did not disappoint. After seeing that I was reading the New Yorker, he asked me whether I was one, and I explained that I was not but am moving there soon. We fell into a converstion about our respective home cities, and he asked whether I had liked living in D.C. After giving my confused stock answer that is underlined by the fact that I am not crazy about the city–too hot in the summer, small, more geared toward older people–with the acknowledgement that I made some great friendships and really enjoyed myself while here, I asked him whether he liked it.

“Well,” he began “what I say is, New York is a great place to live when you’re young, and D.C. is a great place to live when you’re dead.”

That is right up there with Kennedy’s famous “Southern efficiency, Northern charm” quote, in my opinion.

Opportunities from the increased public transit demand

According to the Washington Post, public transportation use in the D.C. Metro area has significantly increased, as a result of high gas prices. This has the potential to put the D.C. Metro over capacity, unless…

If riders spread out their rush-hour trips, instead of crowding into the “peak of the peak,” Metro could accommodate an additional 140,000 trips on the subway, Metro’s Bottigheimer said.

I think now is the time for workplaces who have not done so to phase in work-at-home and flexible schedule policies. Not only will it prevent concentrated demand on public transportation, but it will give many parents opportunities to spend more time with their kids and save money on day care and baby sitters.

Is shopping at Costco really slumming it?

My always news-savvy friend Jon pointed me to an article in The New York Times which suggests that today’s D.C. elite are a more humble breed because they shop at Costco (“Tightening the Beltway, the Elite Shop Costco”):

As a recent article in Vanity Fair lamented, the days of glamorous Washington dinner parties are long gone. Indeed, some hostesses today aren’t above serving Costco salmon, nicely dressed up with a dollop of crème fraîche.

For one, it does not really note whether Costco shoppers, the likes of Sally Quinn (yuck), Richard Perle (ugh), and Ann Jordan, wife of Vernon (indifferent), are replacing shopping at places like Dean & DeLuca and Whole Foods with Costco or just making additional purchases there. Also, Costco does have a barrier for entry that might attract elite in that unlike other comparable bulk shopping sources like Walmart and Target, patrons must pay a membership fee of 50 dollars to shop there.

Moving further down in the article, and out of nowhere, the writer draws this ridiculous conclusion:

Against the backdrop of an unpopular war, rising oil prices and a subprime mortgage crisis, a certain thriftiness seems to have crept into the city’s dining rooms.

I find it hard to believe that D.C. elites are touched by this.  Really, how many of them have been forced to default on their subprime loan? Even those who have been impacted by the troubles in the stock market are certainly investing for the long term, and furthermore, I bet all of the people profiled in this silly article were shopping at Costco before the dawn of this purported new age of thriftiness.

Another stupid assumption that this article makes is that the change in menus from standard upper crust fare of the 1960s means that the dinner parties are somehow less elite:

“I don’t think anyone would dare serve caviar as a first course today, and instead of filet mignon, there are a lot of other beef dishes,” said Letitia Baldrige, the etiquette writer who was Jacqueline Kennedy’s social secretary. “Embassies don’t have the pocketbooks they used to. And to have these opulent menus for these parties here, it looks bad.”

Maybe the caviar apostasy signifies a broadening of dinner party menus, which might suggest that more time is devoted to thinking up menus for these affairs, and in turn, that the elite activity of throwing fancy dinner parties is even more fetishized today. (Full disclosure: I’m not against and have even been to my share of dinner parties).

Even the facts in this article vindicate that Costco is actually a middle and upper-middle class destination and does not signal that one is slumming it by going on a bulk paper towel and sheet cake shopping spree:

To its benefit, Costco has carefully fashioned an upscale-downscale image, and their stores do better in high-end locations, said the company’s chief financial officer, Richard Galanti.

In these uncertain, spartan times, there’s nothing thriftier to do than get a good deal on shiitake mushrooms:

Mr. Perle knows no such shame. “The book section, the cheese section, the seafood, I almost always get some fresh produce there,” he said, rattling off his favorite Costco haunts. “I just bought chanterelles there the other day, and they often have fresh shiitake mushrooms.”

Itinerant Lawyers

I didn’t quite comprehend how much D.C. is a lawyer’s town until I got here and started meeting lawyers and aspiring lawyers everywhere. The government agency for which I work is staffed primarily by lawyers, same with the Department of Justice and Congress, and then there are all of the big, private law firms that are recognizable by the first one or two last names in the title.

The Washington City Paper has a good feature about temporary lawyers (“Attorney at Blah”), lawyers who are hired by big firms to perform document review, often during the document-heavy discovery period of a case, and then released once the documents have all been reviewed. These lawyers basically sit behind a computer screen or stacks of documents and judge which documents are relevant to the case (most are not). This task has become more formidable, and thus requiring of more hands and eyes, with the advent of e-mail communication, which requires a lot of sifting through multiple copies of the same e-mail because of that cursed formation, the e-mail chain (speaking from experience).

As the author Arin Greenwood says, most satisfying in this arduous process is when you unearth an e-mail with a “spark of humanity” in it, something that alludes to the writer’s personal life, his dislike of a boss, or his penchant for dirty jokes. Such is the de-humanizing nature of office work that such communications become the exception and not the norm.

While I do not envy temp attorneys and use this article as reaffirmation of why not to go to law school if my heart’s not in it, I do find it interesting that some of the attorneys with whom Greenwood spoke did not seem to mind their job so much. As one says,

I’ve been remarkably happy [...] I’m making more money at this than at any other job I interviewed for and just about any other year in private practice. The work itself is mindless, which has its pluses and minuses. If I screw up, I don’t have to worry about my guy going to jail. In private practice, you never stop thinking about the case. With this, when you walk out of the door, it’s gone.

There is less culpability and less demands on time, in contrast to regular private or even government practice. I can certainly understand the “not having to take your work home with you” appeal, which was a luxury I began to appreciate after being for so long accustomed to school work.

One other thought: I could see it being very beneficial for temp attorneys to unionize, as right now they don’t get benefits and their salaries have been stagnant or decreasing for the last couple of years.

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