For those of you who’ve kept your sparklers sizzling waiting for The Sultanette’s debriefing on her Fourth of July mission to Washington (see previous post) your patience is rewarded with excellent news. Cast away those images of ruddy-jowled senators drawling on C-Span, hordes of wailing children at the Smithsonian, and crowds in corny T-shirts massing around the Capitol. Washington, DC is sexy!
For starters, its most prominent monument is The Big Penis. I was struck by its gargantuan presence from my first cab ride after arriving at curvaceous Union Station, a far cry from New York’s dissolute Penn. Upon boarding the Acela Express there, I had asked an Amtrak employee which was the Quite Car. Sizing me up, she nodded behind her and said, “It’s right here but you don’t look very quiet.”
It takes more than that to cow yours truly so I found a seat and pulled out the list of restaurant and cultural tips supplied by Deep Throat, the intriguing stranger with a whiff of espionage I’d recently met at a foreign policy lecture, who had captivated me with his views on counterterrorism.
Just past Philadelphia an email pinged informing me to my relief that the “staff” of the lodging I’d reserved, affiliated with the obsessively eccentric arts club I belong to in Manhattan, was awaiting my arrival.
I was even more relieved that someone actually showed up when I rang the bell, a courteous man from the kitchen crew who carried my bag up two flights of stairs to my room and instructed me on the operation of a remote control ceiling fan circa 1980, and an AC unit tethered to the window by two giant umbilical cords. Amenities included an assortment of crocheted hangars in the closet which also served as storage for the bravely aging mansion’s bric-a-brac.
But I had fluffy towels, a four-poster bed, grand windows, a key to come and go (I scarcely saw anyone there again) and the sensation of living in a Washington home – no less the former residence of the fifth president of the United States of America, James Monroe. Time for lunch … but first a caveat.
If you’re expecting the Sexploits of The Sultanette, save it for scandals brought to you by our raunchy members of congress. Have I not made it clear that The Male Harem is not about getting laid? Surely we can all get that anytime with the slightest lowering of those high-minded standards we so courageously cling to.
No, the Washington I experienced was on the make with a mix of hustle, intelligence, frankness, sophistication, and flirtation. The height of engagement without an agenda. Stimulation without the downer of obligation. If that’s sacrilegious to the Bible of Committed Relationships let me be eaten by locusts. I’ve had forever and it didn’t last. Now I’m gambling on the immutable present.
I headed for Kramerbooks in nearby Logan Circle. Googled under “Quirky Washington” it lived up to its SEO – a sixties throwback indie bookstore and café featuring quinoa salads and a career waitress who called me “sweetie” and upon carefully arranging my utensils with paper napkin, explained, “I don’t want to upset Emily Post.”
Sipping on my cappuccino (“That’s the best I could do, I kind of failed foam.”) I considered my folly: A loner weekend on a major family-fun holiday in a city I barely knew. Would I feel lost among the millions assembled for fireworks on the mall? Abandon my mojo dining alone at restaurants packed with Independence Day revelers? I glanced up from my guide book and took in the café crowd. At the table next to me a couple was lost in their iPhones. Another couple, silently and persistently, looked everywhere but at each other. With my brilliant insider’s guide and a desire to discover, I had all I needed to succumb to Washington’s seductions.
I could leave you yearning for a taste of the chicken liver crostini with figs and fresh thyme at The Red Hen, the bacalao crudo jalapeño at Estadio, and a pizza so decadently doughy at 2Amys my mouth still waters over it. Between courses, there was Louise Nevelson’s waterfall at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Venus bathed in a rainbow of light at the Corcoran. But while Washington gave good museums, menus, and monuments, what it gave best was people.
At The Red Hen, two guys on a man date, Sweet and Sour, promptly surrendered to a ménage à conversation over dinner at the bar. There was the prohibitively good-looking Italian at Estadio who knew how to devour women with his bedroom eyes and delighted in hearing about The Male Harem. And the trannie in short-shorts bumping and grinding for the crowd at the Kenya concert on the Mall.
The women I met, drawn to the city’s power and worldly charisma were another treat. Twenty-something Minnesota (nom de guerre) was freshly fired from her teaching job and defiant about making a life here. We bonded over chicken pot pie at Founding Farmers on the Fourth of July, and she lead us to the ideal vantage point on the mall to watch the explosions.
My lodgemate, the fetching and fearless Natasha, a mix of crusader and operator, was in Washington from London to wangle support for her African foundation. The residue of an Eastern European accent gave everything she said, whether concerning her chaotic love affairs or where we should meet for brunch, the weight of a fatalistic pronouncement.
If you’re still along for the ride, come with The Sultanette to the city’s famous Eastern Market for the final reveal of Washington unplugged. Underwhelmed by the generic objets on sale, I was heading back to the subway when a handwritten sign on a corner caught my eye: BOOKS.
I followed its arrow down a side street to a dog-eared building posing as a store front where a guy sat at an outside table littered with CDs, playing Chicago blues. At the top of a rickety stoop, Capitol Hill Books proved loyal to its signage. Books were piled everywhere, stacked in precariously leaning towers (a history of Russia fell on my head) and stuffed into shelves that were practically an afterthought.
For the next two hours, I became lost in its labyrinthine aisles and inscrutable organization – “Foreign Language” books (including Colloquial Arabic that I succumbed to) stacked next to mops in the bathroom, “Literary Criticism” under an electric range hood with no stove in sight, “Gardening” in a downstairs cave that also hid “Journalism” (featuring the optimistic title The Deal from Hell). The “Love, Relationships, Marriage” section was indicated by an arrow pointing south and “Feminist Theory” shared space with “Harry Potter + Tolkien.” All of the above was recorded on signs hastily inscribed with black magic marker.
The proprietor sat slouched at a desk at the door. When I asked him how much time he spent organizing everything, he said, “Too much.” Yet down a book-choked passage just past “Death + Dying” (another arrow pointing south) I found the ultimate Washington message laced with allure, politics, and promise: “for DREAMS please see side board to your LEFT. Thank you.” In DC, all your desires are just within reach.