There are many disadvantages to living in DC: No vote in the House or Senate; getting delayed in traffic due to official motorcades, getting to understand the truth behind the phrase "a city of northern hospitality and southern efficiency"-- to name just three. Sometimes it's enough to make you want to pull up stakes and decamp for the country. But then the Fourth of July rolls around, and you realize you get one of the best fireworks shows in the country, absolutely free. If, like me, you are a true pyrotechnophile (okay, I just made that word up, but it sounds pretty good, doesn't it?) you want to get yourself seated as close as possible to the fenced-off "fallout zone" where the burst shell fragments and ashes descend. (That's a bit to the west of the Washington Monument, by the way.) But at the same time, you want to avoid being close to any trees that might impede a full view of the sky. This isn't a difficult trick, so there's no need to get there super early, unless you happen to enjoy sitting out in sweltering heat, having frisbee-playing kids run right over you, while you listen to has-been rock bands playing tired old retreads of their 60s hits. I like to get there no earlier than 8:30 -- even 9pm is not too late -- and it's never been so crowded that I've had any trouble spreading out my decently-sized ground cloth. The show gets going as soon as its dark enough, typically around 9:15, and to me, it's always been well worth the hassle of the trip.
I have to acknowledge, however, that many of my friends, relatives, and neighbors do not share my degree of enthusiasm for this annual aerial display. I learn this anew every year as I try to gather a Mall-bound party, and hear, with some variations, these responses: "I wouldn't spend my 4th of July on the Mall if you paid me a million dollars!" And: "Why would anyone want to sit in a huge, horrible, sweaty crowd on what's always one of the steamiest days of the summer, where you get your hearing damaged by the noise, just to see 30 minutes of some patterns in the sky that are more or less the same every year. You've seen it once, you've seen `em all." And then the clincher: "Sure, the fireworks are fun, but it's just hell of getting home afterward. You're either stuck in traffic for 40 minutes trying to go 5 blocks in your car, or you're stuck in the Metro, watching jam-packed trains pass you by, until you finally manage to squirm your way into one and ride like a packed sardine all the way back to Cleveland Park. No, thanks!"
Yes, all of the above accurately describe some part of the 4th-on-the-Mall experience. I have no argument for people who see things in such a relentlessly negative light. I am just too entranced by the anticipation of the spectacle of the whole night sky dancing with brilliant colors and syncopated sparks. I wordlessly sweep aside all objections and make my plans. I generally manage to recruit at least one fellow fireworks enthusiast to join me in my annual trek...but I will go solo if I have to. I've done it before: It makes for a very well-timed arrival and an even more efficient departure. (I just run as fast as I can ahead of the crowds all the way to the Dupont Metro, and can usually manage to board the first or last car of the next Metro train to arrive in the station.)
I also have trio of good tricks I've learned over the years to deal with the traffic nightmare on the way back. I am willing to share these with you, my neighbors, in the hopes of persuading you to join the ranks of Mall-goers so that Cleveland Park is at least decently represented. Here they are:
1. Bike. This works only if all in your party are all swift and in shape and are intrepid, experienced city bikers. Use whatever route you like to arrive. Rock Creek Park bikeways make for a pleasant excursion on the way there. Leave your bike at the attended bike lot at 15th Street between Independence Avenue and Jefferson Drive (east of the Washington Monument). Find a place to park yourselves nearby. The minute the show is over, or better yet, as it's just ending, retrieve your bike, get your lights working, get your helmet on, and get going. You'll need to walk your bike through the crowds for at least the first 10 blocks or so, but as soon as you reach a point where car traffic is allowed, you can ride on the street, and will have no problem immediately putting a good distance between you and the gridlocked car traffic. Once you've accomplished this, you will find yourself riding up a practically deserted Connecticut Avenue straight back to Cleveland Park, and you will be home long before any drivers. Believe me, I've done this.
2. Take a car, but only if you can go with someone who has a permit to use a parking lot within a half-mile of the Virginia Avenue entrance to Rock Creek Park. Employees of GWU who drive to work perfectly fit the bill. Cultivate a close relationship with a professor if you can. If you do this in the spring semester, it will pay off handsomely on July 4! Now I caution that this is not a perfect solution, because you're still going to have to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic for 15 minutes just to inch your way down Virginia Avenue into the Parkway, but the minute you make that right turn into the Park, you're good to go, and now it's only 5 to 7 minutes before you're back in the heart of the neighborhood.
3. This is my real secret weapon: Take the Metro...but first, go the wrong way. Yes, that's right. Once the fireworks are done, walk as briskly as you can from the Mall to Farragut North. (This will take about 10 minutes.) Take the first train that comes by, in the direction of Glenmont. At each stop, see how crowded the platform is. You may be able to get off at Judiciary Square. Definitely by Union Station, the platform should be empty. Now get off and wait for the next train going in the direction of Cleveland Park. It will be empty, or near empty, and you can have your choice of seats. The train will, of course, reach Calcutta-levels of crowding by the time it's at Metro Center, and it may not even be able to take on another single rider by the time it reaches Farragut North. But that's okay, because you're already on it! Now your only problem is working your way toward the doors in time to get off at Cleveland Park!
If none of these strategies appeals to you, okay then: Stay home and watch the thing on TV. But I'm telling you, watching fireworks on TV is to the on-the-Mall experience as watching the tropical fish tank in your dentist's office is to scuba diving in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
However you observe it, wherever you are, have a great Fourth!
Happy birthday, America!
Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, July 2, 2010.