I think I’m going to preface this latest episode of my Washingtonian experience by saying that I’m actually writing this from a New Orleans-themed café in a neighborhood called Kalorama. The ceiling is a deep maroon tile; masks hang above the army of glasses attached to the walls. Old jazz floats through the small space, the smell of hot sugar weighs heavy in the air. This is not the clean-cut, panicked Washington I’ve come to know in the past few weeks. I am tucked away from the tourists who, as of late, instead of saying “cheese” in pictures have been yelling “sequester!”
I have heard enough about the sequester to last a lifetime. This past week, Washington has not been a joyous place to be.
Earlier on this nondescript Sunday morning, my friends and I hopped in a cab and made our way to the NBC studios to witness a live recording of Meet the Press. David Gregory took his seat; the screens illuminated a countdown to when the program went live. Complete silence surrounded the set. Interns stood anxiously in the wings, and before I knew it La. Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick had arrived on set and were preparing to talk sequester, elections and bipartisanship. Dialogue verged on heated political rhetoric — these could be the contenders for the American presidency in just a few years time.
It’s hard to explain exactly what it felt like having governors, columnists and broadcasting experts casually gather next to me, sauntering on set to present their views to thousands. As if I weren’t starstruck enough, I looked to the side to see Maria Bartiromo sifting through her notes. The face of the Closing Bell segment on CNBC, I remember having her on television in the background for so many years of my life. I respect her because she knows and understands what she’s talking about in a field where not many women are hailed for their expertise. Now she was standing right next to me, in the capital of the United States. There I was, I thought, originally of Indian and Persian origin, hailing from London, staring in awe at a New Yorker in a Washington studio. Disney had it right: It’s a small world after all.
We loitered around the studio for a while afterward; I don’t believe any of us have been so fixated on people eating brunch at a table in our lives. My inner-political junkie was out of control. Before long, David Gregory shook my hand, his hair shining under the blazing studio lights. He smiled at me and said it was nice to meet all of us.
Thinking back on this height of broadcast glamour, my mind returns to this small New Orleans café. I write this column as I stare pensively into the replica Nighthawks painting by Edward Hopper that hangs at a slight tilt on the opposite wall. As I sip coffee, a middle-aged man came toward our table. He asked our names, where we were from, what had brought students originally from Tennessee, Maine and London to a hidden gem in the District of Columbia. Low and behold, we ultimately learned that this man’s daughter goes to Boston University. After that, he insisted on giving us free beignet while he told us how he came to America from Tehran in 1974 — a student who lost his luggage upon arrival and walked into school with nothing but the clothes on his back. Today, both his children are intelligent, educated citizens of America with the world at their feet.
When I first arrived in Washington, D.C., I’d become swept up with the professionalism of it all and ordered 250 business cards. I gave out my very first one to this generous man in his beautiful café. Because it’s stories like these where you can sit and realize that some people are not compassionate towards you only because they want acknowledgement, but for the genuine reason that they appreciate students coming to the capital to do something they love. In my conversation with the old man, there was no taint of skepticism; there was no passivity. Sadly, this is usually hard to come by in the world we live in. Politicians in Washington, D.C. have less than a week to deal with the impending sequester, and in an arena where all we see is parties backing into their respective corners on the issue, ready to duke it out with others, I appreciate a refreshing extent of trust and human compassion.
As I shut my laptop and we prepared to leave, our new friend clasped his palms together and refused to allow us to pay for what we ate and drank.
“If I told my daughter I had BU students in my café, she would ask me why I didn’t treat them!”
I don’t know if it was exhaustion kicking in from our long day or a taint of homesickness for my own family, but a surge of sentimentality inevitably washed over me. As we walked down the street littered with vintage stores, graffiti and restaurants, it became clearer and clearer: Washington is giving me perspective. It is a city that provided anecdotes of both disappointment and perseverance in equal measure. It’s also burrowing its own special place in my heart, as I realize it also provides some anecdotes of human kindness and love.
Sofiya Mahdi is weekly columnist for the Daily Free Press, and a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences studying abroad in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.