Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Washington, D.C., to visitors: Go away

If you're planning to visit Washington, D.C., as a tourist, here's a tip: Don't wear a belt.

If you wear a belt you'll be repeatedly taking it off and putting it back it on after passing through any one this city's omnipresent security checkpoints. It wouldn't hurt, of course, to get rid of that extra change you're carrying in your pockets and that submachine gun you commonly tuck in your waistband

Some of the security checkpoints, like at the Capitol or the National Archives, are quite understandable. But our family thought things had definitely gone too far when we faced a security checkpoint and an X-ray machine just to get into
I am not making this up a food court. 

Though throngs of tourists come to the nation's capital every year, Washington is not very friendly to its visitors and the security checkpoints are just one illustration of that.

Consider Union Station.  Thousands of people pass through this massive transportation hub every day, yet when we visited I could not find any information desk or other official person to ask where to catch the bus we were seeking. We tried asking other people but the guidance was so conflicting that we ending up painfully pulling our suitcases in 97-degree heat a couple blocks away before we found an appropriate bus stop.

And you'd think that a place like Union Station which features a HUGE food court would have plenty of well-marked bathrooms. Nope, they're pretty well hidden, and none of them are by the food court.

Then there's the Metro subway system. Metro has a fare structure that effectively charges out-of-towners an extra $1 a ticket. The best fares are reserved for those carrying a special farecard, but since the farecard itself costs $5 it's not worth it to buy one when you're just in town for a short time. So the one time we rode Metro we had to pay $3.10 per person rather than $2.10 a 47% surcharge.

Now consider the wonderful National Mall. Visitors from around the world come here to see the many attractions, including the Smithsonian museums, the Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial and the Washington Monument. You could say that this is the national gathering place.

Yet there's no easy way to get around the mall. It's a big area and only the most hardy would attempt to walk all around it (especially on those witheringly humid summer days). But there's no easy public transportation option to use here.

This would be an ideal place for a system of inexpensive shuttle buses that could circle the mall and pick up and drop off tourists as needed. Ironically, Washington has exactly this kind of system the $1-a-ride DC Circulator but those buses don't go anywhere near the mall. In fact, if you look at a route map, it appears as if the Circulator avoids the mall like it's radioactive.

At first, I thought this was just thoughtless planning. But then I recognized the real reason: There are commercial tour buses that charge $40 or so a person to cruise around DC tourist sites, and drop and pick people up along the way. A system like the DC Circulator that only charges $1 a ride would clearly be a threat. No doubt the Powers That Be have caved to the pressure, and deliberately keep the inexpensive system away from the Mall.

As we left the National Archives one day, a heavy rainstorm broke out. Unable to immediately find a cab, we retreated to an overhang at the exit of the National Archives, only to have a security guard scream at us that we couldn't stand there because we were blocking the exit. Except, even when we retreated to an alcove so we weren't blocking the exit, he kept screaming at us. Sigh.

Which brings us back to security. One day my family was hot, tired and hungry and ready for lunch so we headed to the Old Post Office Pavilion where there is a food court. At least I'm told there's a food court there, but we never saw it because there was big line caused by a security checkpoint, and we didn't feel like standing in the hot sun and waiting. Do we really need to be x-rayed to get a burger and fries?

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Monday, September 17, 2012

Book review: "The Soloist" by Steve Lopez

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez was just looking for something he could write about when he stopped on a downtown street corner to listen to a disheveled man playing the violin – and playing it well.

That encounter would lead to a relationship that would transform both men’s lives, and help to shine a light on the world of the mentally ill homeless.

In “The Soloist,” Lopez describes his long and often-turbulent relationship with Nathaniel Ayers, a musician once considered so talented that he trained at Julliard. As Lopez describes, Ayers’ great musical prospects evaporated when mental illness led him to behave so erratically that he lost the support of everyone close to him. Eventually, he ended up sleeping on a street in Los Angeles, and playing beat-up instruments at a noisy intersection.

With writing that is silky smooth, “The Soloist” is an enveloping read.  Lopez puts a lot of his emotions into the story, describing the frustrations of trying to get Ayers, gently, step by step, into social programs that would help him. No step went smoothly, as Ayers resisted even the slightest changes. His mood swings were sometimes explosive, and more than once, Lopez felt close to giving up.  Almost anyone else would have.

The book is more than a story about Ayers. Lopez uses this one person to look at how the homeless and the mentally ill are treated – or not treated – in this country.  While it’s sad to see how many lives are cast aside without anyone caring, it is inspiring to read Lopez’s description of a handful of people who are working against the odds to help this long neglected group.