Old Washington

Tony got tired of running. These days he props up the end counter of the diner, grateful for the breakfast and smile, the break from the street and the Christian shelter.

Tony used to run on the same American college circuit as our own Eamonn Coghlan in the Seventies but while Eamonn went on to become a world 5,000m champion Tony didn’t stay the course.

Tony walks me through his story over a half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington DC, the same Ben’s that Barack Obama visited a week before his inauguration.

He too had a half-smoke (half-beef, half-pork hot dog with chilli sauce in a bun).

Bono’s been here too, in fact he took up residence in a way: his picture is above our heads in a gallery of famous visitors.

Outside murals of inspirational figures from the civil rights movement cover the wall.
Ben’s is the heartbeat of U Street, or Black Broadway, as it was known, the one business allowed to stay open through the curfew in the days of rioting following the assassination of Martin Luther King in the Sixties.

Tony licks his lips and asks if I want anything on the jukebox. I choose Aretha Franklin, I Say A Little Prayer.

U Street which is draped in rainbow flags in advance of Gay Pride Week is a couple of kilometres’ walk from Pennsylvania Avenue and near my hotels for this week, the comfortable boutique-style Kimpton Carlyle on New Hampshire Avenue, and the sweeping Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue where Ronald Reagan was shot.

Both are close to R, T and U Streets. Washington must have been designed for postmen… it’s all letters.

The nation’s capital was Pierre L’Enfant’s piece de resistance, a new capital for the new Republic. It runs roughly on three themes, parallel lettering and numbered streets and intersecting State names.

Just stick to the alphabet and you’ll soon be walking through an A-Z of American history, except that there’s no Z (nobody knows why).

I head first for the Archives Museum on C Street and Pennysylvani Avenue, or ‘Pensylvania’ as its misspelt on the Declaration of Independence scroll which you can see along with the Constitution in the museum’s rotunda.

This is how history should be viewed. What’s more in the Land of the Free, it and the other Smithsonian Institute Museums are all free.

To pick the best is like being asked to select your favourite child.

There is the extensive media Newseum, a collection of the first draft of history including iconic photographs and headlines that should never have gone to press – my favourite is ‘Farmer Bill Dies In House’; poignantly for the Irish visitor, the artefacts include Veronica Guerin’s pen; the Air Museum takes you from the early days of flight with the Wright Brothers, Amelie Earhart and Charles Lindbergh right through the Space Age, and there are, of course, many, many grand art galleries.

The hottest ticket in town according to Washingtonians and on that needs to be booked ahead is the African-American Museum which should be taken along with a trip to Dr King’s statue on Independence Avenue and the immaculately preserved house of Civil War Emancipation campaigner Frederick Douglass, with the best view of Washington.

They all deserve your time, but the one I found myself returning to time and again was the American-Indian Museum.

Washington DC may well be a celebration of US history but that history has not always been a proud one, as Bill Clinton felt forced to concede when he addressed the Native Nations as President. He was right though to say that the feature can be.

For now we must do with the legacy of the likes of Pocahontas, one of only three historical figures to be referenced three times, in the rotunda of the Capitol (the other two are George Washington and Christopher Columbus).

The rotunda’s frieze is a time-saver if you’re on a schedule and your guide will walk you through it, the history of modern America since Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

Washington, naturally has pride of place in the city he was named for but not as an imposing statue surveying his city, as his one-time friend L’Enfant wanted. He envisioned him riding a chariot with 30 Revolutionary heroes around him.

Rather he is honoured by way of the 555ft Washington Monument, the world’s tallest obelisk. which dominates the DC skyline at the foot of the Mall.

That other colossus of early American history, Abraham Lincoln, died violently in this city. Ford’s Theatre on F Street was where he was assassinated while watching a play. But the saviour of the Union grew larger still in death and Abraham Lincoln is forever at ;peace now, sitting here serenely on his seat of power, gazing down along the reflecting pool to the Washington Monument.

One imagines the current Commander-in-Chief and resident of the nearby White House might fancy a similar memorial… for now his name is attached to Trump Hotel.

America, as you can see, likes to honour its presidents. You will see buildings named for Clinton, Reagan, the Roosevelts and the icon of our age, JFK.

He is immortalised on both a grand scale in the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts on the banks of the Potomac river and on a more poignant, smaller level with the fitting eternal flame in Arlington Cemetery across the river.

Kennedy would have been 100 this year had he lived, his son Patrick, who is buried next to him in the family plot would have been 54. Patrick lived for just two days before he was taken, and that was just two months before his father’s assassination.

Robert Kennedy’s simple grave is being tended to by gardener Jorge the day I visit. Jorge would have just come from Jack’s plot and would be making his way down to Edward’s further down the bank.

A few minutes earlier and I might have witnessed Jorge removing the coins strewn onto JFK’s headstone by the eternal flame.

The noble Jorge brings reverence to what is, for all its iconography, still the last resting place of a family. I leave with a heavy heart, sad to think that the modern way is to always want to leave our blunt mark on everything.

I have ventured out of Washington into Virginia by visiting Arlington and must recrossing the Potomac to get back to Washington.

I pass by the Watergate building, Nixon’s unwelcome legacy, and tarry by the fountain at the Watergate Shops and the Watergate CV shop.

I pass by many more reminders of past Presidents and Smithsonian museums and pop into a few to break up my long walk to the grand Union Station.

There I will buy a ticket and tomorrow ride a four-hour Peter Pan bus to see a bell… and an old one at that with a dirty great crack down it.



Aer Lingus http://www.aerlingus.com, Ireland’s only 4-Star airline operates a daily flight to Washington DC direct from Dublin.
Fares start from 265 euro each-way including taxes and charges.
Aer Lingus offers pre-clearance.

For sample dates August 11-14 with the Long Weekender Deal at the Washington Hilton www3hilton.com, 19l9 Connecticut Avenue, you get $132 a night, down from $159. You will enjoy a range of facilities and the staff are very accommodating.
The Kimpton Carlyle Hotel Dupont Circle, 1731 New Hampshire Avenue http://www.kimptonhotels.com/stay/the-carlyle-washington-dc) is in the heart of a bohemian district and is close to U Street. This month rates start at $149 (130 euro) a night. It has excellent facilities and friendly staff.

The Smithsonian museums are free but the more popular one should be booked ahead and there may be some queueing as there are security checks.
For things to, places to eat, etc. visit http://www.washington.org.N

This article was first published in the Irish Daily Mail in July 2017