Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


"On the Corner"
John Bedell

I've spent the past three weeks doing a little project at the corner of 17th and E streets in Washington, a block from the White House. It's a very interesting place to watch the world go by. 

The setting is lovely, and the last week was the height of cherry blossom season.  The Mall and the Washington Monument are to the south, to the north if the Old Executive Office Building, to the east is the south lawn of the White House, and across the street to the west is the Corcoran Museum.  The Corcoran has an unimpressive art collection but a truly wonderful building, covered with griffins, acanthus leaves, and other ionic details, with two fine bronze lions by the front door.  Across the top of the facade is one of those carved lists of great men they loved so in the 19th century.  It goes something like this:  Phydias, Giotto, Da Vinci, Titian, El Greco, Reynolds, Allston.  Allston?  Who the heck is Allston?  Beats me.  Which calls to mind another one of these groupings, the statues of great intellectuals in the Library of Congress:  Moses, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Bacon, Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton, Kent.

Meanwhile, back at 17th and E, the traffic is horrendous all day long .  We witnessed three accidents, numerous close calls, and one magnificent shouting match.  Traffic heading west on E street has to turn right on 17th, and lost people who didn't realize this always hesitate, leading taxi drivers to honk at them--there is honking probably 2 out of every 3 times the E Street light turns green.  I went around one day shooting the background slides I'll use when I give a talk on the site, but it occurred to me that what I really needed to convey the feeling of the place was an audio recording, so that I would be interrupted by honking every couple of minutes.  We got asked for directions about four times an hour, mostly to the White House but also to the Capitol, the Smithsonian, the Hard Rock Cafe and, twice, the 5500 block of 16th Street.  No, I have no idea what is on the 5500 block of 16th Street. 

We've seen a number of interesting vehicles, from a black Mercedes with a license plate reading ISUE4U to a convoy of 7 or 8 new VW beetles, all painted black and white with fins on top and SHAMU lettered on the side. 

The Secret Service blocks off the intersection about twice a day for motorcades or helicopter flights.  But we had guns pointed at us only once, when we tried to get better look at Marine One as it landed.  (We didn't realize we were inside the blocked off area, and our sudden motions were not taken lightly.)  One woman asked us if the concrete jersey barriers by the sidewalk were the ones Clinton (pronounced with a sneer) put up that Mr. Bush  was going to take down.  I said, well, Clinton put them up (after the Oklahoma City bombing) but I wouldn't count on Bush taking them down. 

But the highlight was the briefcase switch.  A big black Suburban (a typical Secret Service vehicle) stopped at the light on E street.  A man in a suit hopped out and set a black briefcase by the jersey barrier, stepped back, and stood about 10 feet away from it.  A second man in a suit got out of a black Chrysler (another typical Secret Service vehicle) stopped about four cars behind the Suburban.  Without looking at the first man, he picked up the briefcase and got back in the Chrysler.  The first man returned to the Suburban, and when the light changed they drove off. 

April 6, 2001

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From the 
Commonplace Book

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death.... Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions,
and comfortable habit.  Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid.  Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

--Bertrand Russell


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