Notes on a Federal Culture

Urban character is easy—Chicago has architecture, New York has culture, Los Angeles has a six-hour flight to New York—but what about cities with zero personality? Let’s say, Washington?

After living in Washington for 10 months, I began to keep a list of the things I thought defined D.C.’s character. For most cities, defining their character is easy. Even people who have never been to, say, L.A., can guess what it’s like to live there. New York, Chicago, Miami—ditto. But what about Washington? Sure, it’s only about the size of Nashville, but it’s also the nation’s capital and home to both hundreds of thousands of smiling, young would-be politicians and hundreds of thousands of poor folks who could care less about who runs the House Ways and Means Committee. Washington as a city only makes it into the national arena as a backdrop to The West Wing or K Street. So what’s it like to call D.C. home? The list is by no means complete, but it’s a start.


Washington is probably the only place outside of a corporate-suburbs Appleby’s where office IDs aren’t just acceptable, but chic. It’s as easy as unclipping them and sticking them in your pocket/purse, but for some the thought never crosses their mind. Nor, perhaps, should it: Stetson’s, a bar down the block from my apartment, has drink specials for people who come in sporting their ID tags. The deal is repeated in bars across the city. Sure, when worn on a shirt they bear more than a passing resemblance to pocket protectors. And, sure, most people don’t want to be reminded of work once they’re out of it. But Washington-ites aren’t most people. Here, pickup lines like, ‘dump the assistant to the deputy undersecretary and get with the assistant deputy undersecretary,’ actually work. And how better to show off your bureaucratic bona fides than to sport an ID?

Government Procurement Advertising

Only in Washington can you get off the subway and come face to face with an ad reading, ‘Because fighting in the littorals is hard enough’ or ‘2 out of 3 Government IT Specialists Choose Us.’ New York, Chicago, San Francisco—in normal cities, billboards advertise movies or deodorant. Only in Washington do defense contractors bother with ads for the Littoral Combat Ship (which is, I gather, a boat that can get really close to shore and blow shit up) and only here do ads for ‘Government IT Solutions’ outnumber all ads by at least 2:1. And their abundance points to a darker truth as well: They work.

Slug Lines

Other cities may have slug lines, but in D.C. they’re an institution. ‘Slugs’ are commuters who, unwilling to drive or take the train, essentially hitch-hike their way into the District; single drivers pick them up in order to take advantage of the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. Over the years, informally agreed upon pick-up and drop-off points have emerged, and the people who wait at them form ‘slug lines.’ There’s even a book about the D.C. slug scene, Slugging: The Commuting Alternative for Washington D.C., in which the author, David LeBlanc, lays out a long list of slugging rules, including, ‘No ‘curbside’ service. There are certain understood destinations. Horner Road means the parking area at Horner Road, not the gas station just down Prince William Parkway.’ Got it?

Painful Social Ironies

Homelessness and drug abuse are not unique to Washington. On the other hand, Washington has the sad distinction of being home to both the federal government and one of the country’s highest AIDS infection rates. Ten percent of its residents are addicted to drugs or alcohol. One of the more popular places for the homeless to congregate is McPherson Square, just two blocks from the White House; in the winter, when the trees are bare, you can just glimpse the West Wing.

The Singles Scene, or Lack Thereof

I’ve yet to be single in D.C. myself, but from what I hear it’s a nightmare. Granted, it might be a nightmare in other cities, say Juneau or Rochester, but Washington is brimming with young, rootless people. So why do all my single friends have such a hard time meeting people? I don’t have an answer, but I can speculate: young people who move to New York are looking for a better, more exciting life. They want to try anything and everything. No one moves to Washington for excitement, and those who change cities for excitement’s sake would never consider Washington. No, the only people who move here do so for one reason: work. And work they do. Dating, if at all, comes later.


Every summer, the city is inundated with some 24,000 college-age workers, who are all convinced that somehow making coffee for a congressman’s press secretary is a secret door into the corridor of power. They speak emotively about wanting to do something that ‘matters,’ when in fact it’s just a way to pad their résumés. And, of course, they clog every cheap bar in town, holding up the line while the bouncer inspects their hastily-laminated fake IDs. Virtually everyone in the city started as an intern, but it doesn’t stop people from wanting to kill them. Or sleep with them.

Political Celebrities

Where else would people recognize Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith? Much less care that they recognize Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith? It’s like L.A., only nerdier. And like actors in L.A., there’s an odd sense of world-weariness that local white-collar types sport around political celebrities. ‘Hey, isn’t that House Speaker Dennis Hastert eating an entire half-chicken in the corner booth?’ ‘Oh yeah, that guy. I’ve seen him around. Eats like a pig. Want another round of wings?’


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Of course, there’s a lot more to Washington than overweight politicians and overeager interns. There are whole swaths of the city where most people would find these things unrecognizable—a city’s dominant culture isn’t its only culture, after all. And in that respect, Washington is just like any other city. On the other hand, Washington is likely the only place where assistant deputy undersecretaries have a fighting chance in the local bar scene.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen