Walking Past the White House: You Look So Good and You Talk So Fine

by Maniza Naqvi

WPTWFor the past eight years, when I walk past it in the early mornings on my way to work, I've imagined the elegant, refined, educated, decent family that currently lives in the White House. They look so good and they talk so fine. A made for TV family. Making most of us feel good and feel great. Making America look good. I always pause at dusk to gaze at their residence, on my way home and think how lovely it seems because of them inside it. Change is coming. They are leaving soon.

But beyond the poetry and photogenic poise they don't matter. And whoever comes in after they are gone from here, won't matter either. The change won't matter. The incoming scandals won't matter. No one who lives here ever does. Matter. Much. You live here as a servant. No, not of the people.

Change here, is just the change of the custodian. The change of the chief marketing officer. There are panhandlers in this town who'll tell you that much. They are at the Squares and Circles around the White House and elsewhere in this town of squaring circles. They'll tell you, in their rants, how you can't stop the machinery, no matter what the scandal might be.

This country's architecture and its boundaries are the rule of law. Laws are its borders. It's laws promise us our limitless expression and our potential. Yet where are we now? How have laws and accountability been subverted and circumvented for the relentless machinery of war? These society's losers in the Capital's outside spaces just stand there ranting on and rattle a few coins in coffee cups asking us to: ‘change, change, change.' They're probably the only ones who get it. Change. Small to meaningless change.

There's the guy I pass by every morning on K Street who stands in the same spot every day and in a calm steady tone delivers a monologue about the crimes that the United States Government committed domestically. He speaks in this calm monotone as though he were at a congressional hearing on the Hill, holding forth his testimony. He just stands there in the same spot every day—a Vietnam vet—talking up a litany of accusations against the government. I'm sure everyone thinks he's a whack job. Of course, most people ignore him as they go past him. But his demeanor, his cool, elegant rational voice, his precise elocution disturbs me and makes me look away, walk on a bit faster. I keep wondering how long he has been in this town and in which one of those chrome-and-concrete blocks of buildings he worked before he went nuts. I keep thinking he must've hurried to work once upon a time, every morning, just like we do now. I keep wondering if he used to be at some point, you know, one of us. You know? Are we doing now what he had probably done a long time ago? What exactly did he do and what did he find out or know? When did he decide, he'd tell other people about it? And when did he become a nut job? All at the same time?

And have you ever seen that other lost soul? She's this well-dressed woman, in her sixties, her hair tied up in a chignon, pearls at her throat. She can be seen rolling up or laying out her bedding depending on the time of the day, on the steps of the cathedral every day. The Catholic cathedral, you know, on M street, where Kennedy's body was laid for viewing after he was assassinated. Well, she's this homeless denizen of Washington, who is always dressed as though she had somewhere to go in Georgetown. She's the one I've heard people call the best-dressed woman in Washington with the dirtiest feet. Then there's another one I've wondered about, blond and younger—wearing jeans and a sailor sweater—the kind they wear on lobster boats up in Maine? She looks like an East Coast preppie, wears loafers and wanders around the streets around the George Washington University and K Street area. Who is she? Perhaps she's the estranged and deranged daughter of some director of some secret agency? Probably on meds, probably lost her mind when she stumbled upon Daddy's many truths? Probably still watched over by the kindly vigilante fathers of this town, who may have had a hand in destroying her mind. They look out for her and take care of her, but only from a distance. After all, she's one of their own. All of these homeless, insane-sane people. Who are these people? Insiders gone outside? Insiders thrown outside? Left in the cold, frozen out?

The homeless include war veterans disowned by the very people who had told them they were heroes when they had stepped up to the plate to go fight in foreign lands. Many are the mentally ill people out on the streets because Reagan's policies had decimated the social services. Insiders thrown out? And newer batches, who, in protest of benefits not provided, on cold winter days, lie in their sleeping bags outside the Department of War Veterans Affairs.

Who are these upset homeless people giving speeches to the legions of people walking to work in the morning? Are they people who had at one time been loyal staffers, but who had learned some truth and had been broken by it? People who had chosen to betray the system and were made examples of for all dutiful, industrious workers going into work in the Washington DC bureaucracy to look at every day in fear, as a warning and to disdain? Did they get the hatchet for breaking the Hatch Act? An Act that probably violates the First Amendment and enforces silence.

We hurry by these “whack jobs” during the weekday. And perhaps, while we seemingly ignore these street people as we walk by them, we can't get them off our minds either. We are learning an important lesson in this town from them: this could be me if I betray the system.

A quick look around at the bucolic suburbs of this here Capital town must fill most with aspirational longings. The palatial homes, in quiet, peaceful settings, might by association secure them anything one day—vineyards, the farm in the South of France or Wales, the pied-à-terre in Paris, a stud farm in Patagonia,an inner courtyard in Fez, Casablanca, or a townhouse in Georgetown, even a Foundation, to call their own, for doing good works, uplifting the downtrodden. And so on.

Most arrive here young. Fresh off the plane or off a train from around the country and abroad, plenty of college debt and a slim Bank account and just a suit case or two. But when they leave, if they ever do, then, if they've been very, very good here, polite, and articulate and quiet here, doing what's expected, and not anything more or less they zoom off into the sunset to reinvent themselves as philanthropic millionaires. But if they don't want any part of it, if they speak up, they might just end up on the benches penniless in the many parks trying to square circles.