28 Random Observations After Nine Years of Working in Washington, DC

1. You can tell a lot about the district or state of a Member of Congress by the artwork, photos, awards and knicknacks in their office. Lots of military stuff? They probably have a military base in their district and sit on related committees. Bowling pins and an autographed photo of Frankie Yankovic, the polka king? Dennis Kucinich from my blue collar, Eastern European immigrant home district.
2. Sames goes for freebies on front desk. Free peanuts? Georgia. Saltwater taffy? New England coastal district. I tried without success to get free wine in Lynn Woolsey's office. She represents California wine country.
3. Fax machines in Washington endlessly spew invitations to congressional campaign fundraisers. For $500 you can have breakfast with one candidate, join a downhome BBQ with another or try some luau themed mini golf with yet another. My personal favorite? A Republican dove hunting weekend in Texas.
4. Many House aides are really young and inexperienced, and they can be obnoxiously cocky. Their huge workload includes covering a bizarre mix of committees that they initially know nothing about, yet they can do a worrying amount of meddling in important bills. Senate aides, on the other hand, are usually much more experienced and have a much higher level of expertise.
5. Congressional offices vary tremendously in terms of how they're run. Some seem orderly from the minute you walk in the door. Others make you wonder who's in charge.
6. No one actually understands the Senate's rules of procedure.
7. Working in Washington means going to receptions where people read each others nametags to see who's worth talking to. For the same reason, one of the first things people ask in social situations is “where do you work?”
8. It's hard to plan events - even late ones - with members of Congress as special guests when votes are going on. They may come late or not at all. When they do, they can switch on and give a great speech and then work the crowd before running back to vote. (Another reason why Sarah Palin writing notes on her hand was ridiculous. She failed Politician 101 with that move.)
9. Because the House has 435 members, you can find a member who agrees with your political viewpoint, no matter how wacky it is.
10. It's no fun getting balled out by a member of Congress or their staff for something someone in your organization did (e.g. chapter had a protest in their local office), especially if you didn't know about it. It's just plain annoying when you're getting an earful for a mistake made by a member of the congressional staff, and the staffperson is trying to blame it on you.
10. Hill interns can often be spotted talking loudly on the Metro or in bars about their jobs, ones that they believe are going to impress you.
11. You can tell when a Washington formal event has Hollywood types attending since the clothes are stylish instead of dowdy.
12. Military bands seem to give concerts all the time. All over town. Especially if you don't care for this style of music.
13. You can rent out the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum for private events. Events are a big part of the local economy, so if you can think of a space, there's a good chance it has seen a ball or awards dinner.
14. Event planners often cater to Republicans or Democrats, depending on the connections of the principals. Each administration has an associated event style. The Clinton era was Hollywood and splashy. Bush Senior administration was low key. Reagan era had a lot of formal events.
15. There's an association for everything, including associations. Some favorites, just based on names?
American Meat Institute
National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association
American Industrial Hygiene Association
Steel Tank Institute
Pet Food Institute
Epsom Salt Industry Council
American Gas Association (Yes, I'm 12.)
Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (fun!)
To be fair, they have legitimate business, and some of the above do important work on health and safety issues, but still, I have passed many DC office doors and laughed out loud. Especially at the Leather Institute.
16. Washington is loaded with 20 somethings who spend countless hours networking at happy hours. The bars they go to often lean Dem or Repub.
17. The resumes of these ambitious young professionals, even the ones just out of college, are often amazing. They'll have packed more into their resume by age 23 than a lot of people do by 30 or 35.
18. Most DC professionals have at least a Master's or a law degree, often two of them. A mere Bachelors is an anomaly.
19. DC offices are loaded with TVs that run CNN, C-SPAN, etc., all day, even in lobbies. Only some of these TVs are actually watched.
20. DC has C-SPAN radio, which makes sense given the uncompelling visuals of the typical TV broadcast.
21. Spring = hordes of tourists for cherry blossom season, and the traffic makes those tourists very angry. So pretty flowers = much horn honking. Spring also means the city is invaded by hordes of 8th graders on field trips, sometimes in groups of 200 or more.
22. Nothing makes locals more cranky than tourists on Metro escalators who don't understand the unofficial stand to the right, walk on the left rule. Yet strangely few Washingtonians will ask people to move to the right. They just stand there and fume.
23. Pentagon contractors advertise on television and in the Metro. So a McDonald's ad can be followed by one for a missile system.
24. Mail to federal offices is still irradiated to kill biological agents like anthrax, and some of it shows up partially disintegrated and crumbly.
25. Washington revolves around the congressional schedule. August recess means the city feels half empty. Even people who don't do political work often follow the schedule, such as when Congress runs late in the holiday season, because it affects the number of customers in taxis, restaurants and stores.
26. There are more police departments in DC than I can even remember most days, so getting permits for marches or rallies means knowing which one you need to go to. You might be dealing with the DC police, National Park Service (you'd be surprised what's NPS land) or the Capitol Hill police, though I lost track once Homeland Security changed some of the federal departments. I've seen squad cars for about a dozen departments or agencies, plus some bomb squad trucks that had a strangely disco-y look to them.
27. The city's restaurants change depending on who's in the White House. Republicans mean more steak houses. Democrats mean more eclectic restaurants.
28. No matter how crazy or frustrating Washington, DC is, you can't say people don't work hard.

When Being Green Turns Into Being Obnoxious

One of GOOD magazine's most discussed blog entries is How to Politely Refuse a Plastic Bag. The light, illustrated piece has practical information, but the comments section hit a nerve for me.

Most of the comments were fine, and a few reminded me that twenty years ago plastic was pushed as a better choice than paper. A handful, though, were anecdotes about setting cashiers straight. Apparently, "no, I've been to Africa" is a reasonable reply to "would you like a bag?" A cashier's puzzled look is then an invitation to talk about plastic bags littering the Kenyan landscape. And when buying a backpack, repeatedly answering the bag question with "I'm buying a bag" should not throw a cashier who bags thousands of items a day and is probably on autopilot for rote parts of the job.

Before working fulltime in nonprofits, I was a bookseller.* I found that asking "would you like a bag?" got one of three responses: "Yes," or an angry "of course I do!" or an ultra serious "it's bad for the environment, and I don't want to contribute to more non-biodegradable waste in landfills." The third one had many variations, including the unintentionally hilarious "save a tree!"

My coworkers and I, despite not liking plastic bags ourselves, found the environmental responses grating. The exception was customers with a sense of humor ("save a plastic tree!"). More frequently, however, responses felt like condescending lectures, where we were being "enlightened" by the smarter, more aware customers. We got to be enlightened repeatedly, throughout each day.

A simple "no, thanks" would do just fine. Cashiers, or any other service workers, are tasked with pleasing their customers. What makes one happy ticks off the next one, so it's a balancing act. Businesses also have standard procedures that employees are required to follow, especially at the register. In some stores, bags are required so it's clear that a customer isn't shoplifting.

We're all partners in making change, so enough with the self-righteousness. Lectures or admonitions about bags, or water use or public transportation, don't involve listening. They come from a position of "I'm right and you're wrong, and I'm going to tell you why."

What to do instead? Be strategic.

  • Actions speak louder than words. Bringing your own bag or simply turning down a plastic one helps shift the demand away from plastic.
  • Calling or emailing store management makes more sense than bugging the cashier who has no power to change store procedures. Ask why a business does what you think is unnecessary, since the need may be genuine even if the solution is not ideal. Understanding why things work the way they do makes us better able to suggest workable solutions.
  • Help change laws. Here in Washington, DC we have a new $.05 tax on plastic bags used in stores selling food. Not only are reusable bags becoming abundant, but the taxes that are collected go to cleaning up the Anacostia River.

As another person commented on the Good site: "Maybe not every single cashier gets it, but OH the snobby lectures and eyerolls I have gotten over my many years of working in retail.... and from people I actually agree with, no less."

Insulting supporters, let alone would-be supporters, is no way to build a movement for change.

* I managed independent bookstores, so I must add please support independent stores! Check out IndieBound and Powell's Books and skip Amazon and the big chains.