My (Not Typical Tourist) Visit to the Capitol 

United States Capitol, East Front—public domain image courtesy of Library of Congress

            It was a kinder, gentler time, or at least I thought it was. I was unemployed and unhappy, and I wanted—no, needed—to go somewhere. My friend Joyce, who was about to move to Washington to seek her fortune, offered me a ride. Although Washington was not on my list of places to go for a fresh start, it was definitely somewhere. I started packing. 

            Joyce had already made arrangements to move in with a college roommate, so I got a room in McLean Gardens, a conglomeration of red-brick apartment houses and rooming houses with a Marriott Hot Shoppe on the grounds for those of us without cooking facilities. McLean Gardens was conveniently located on Wisconsin Avenue, just a bus ride away from downtown Washington, the White House, the National Gallery of Art, and the Capitol. 

            Before either of us started job hunting, Joyce and I spent a couple of days seeing the sights. We visited the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and JFK’s grave at Arlington Cemetery. And then we went to the Capitol; we walked up the front steps and through the front door, looked around briefly, and used the ladies’ room. On the third day, I decided to try my luck at the temporary typing agencies. 

            Joyce was looking for her dream job. I wasn’t so ambitious, but I could type 65 words a minute on a manual typewriter. At the first temporary agency I went to, they let me take the test on a manual and then offered me a two-week job at an insurance company. I would, however, have to use an electric typewriter, which I had never even seen up close and personal. “Bluff it, honey,” said the woman at the agency. 

            Imagine my surprise when Joyce showed up at my room a few days later to tell me she was giving up on Washington. Jobs were scarce, or at least the good ones were, and she was driving back to Massachusetts to reassemble her career plans. Once again she offered me a ride, but this time I said no, thank you. The people at the insurance company were friendly, a nice co-worker had already pointed out the switch that started the electric typewriter, and I wanted to see how this latest phase of my life was going to play out. Joyce left, and I was on my own.

            When the insurance job ended, I got lucky. I was one of several recent college graduates hired by the National Academy of Sciences to administer fellowship applications for the National Science Foundation. We were not scientists. Mostly we just opened envelopes and filed the contents in dossiers. But it was a congenial office, and I liked working there. This temporary job lasted all fall and winter, culminating with the arrival of the panels of senior scientists who would select the fellowship recipients. 

            Each weekend, after laundry and shopping, I took advantage of that Wisconsin Avenue bus—I think it might have been the 30-something—to visit one of Washington’s magnificent museums. A whole year of Sundays wouldn’t have been long enough to fully appreciate the treasures in the National Gallery of Art, and my last stop each visit was the room with Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings. I went to other museums as well, including the Folger Shakespeare Library, which shared a bus stop with the Capitol. That’s when I got into trouble. 

United States Capitol, West Front—public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

            You see, it had been a long bus ride, possibly longer than usual because of traffic or crowds, and I had to go to the ladies’ room. For some crazy reason, I thought the Folger Library, being a smaller museum, might not have a ladies’ room. Since I knew the restrooms at the Capitol were right near the front entrance, I thought: Why not pop into the Capitol, do what I have to do, and then head over to the Folger Library? 

            Here’s what I didn’t know: The Capitol has two fronts, the East Front and the West Front. I don’t know which front Joyce and I had entered through on that first week in Washington, but this time I was certainly at the other one. There was no ladies’ room at the entrance or even around the corner. I kept thinking I was remembering wrong and if I just took another turn, went a few steps farther, then there it would be in all its porcelain glory. No luck. After a few wrong turns, I was lost. I couldn’t even find my way back to the door. When I saw a line of people who seemed to know where they were heading, I joined them. Soon we were entering a large chamber, possibly the House of Representatives, and someone was taking tickets. I didn’t have one, so I quickly said excuse me and backed out into the hall. I wished I had brought a compass or at least a map. 

            After a few more anxious minutes, I found myself in a corridor that seemed to contain offices. There were names on the doors, but I didn’t recognize any of them. And then a distinguished-looking older man came out of one of the doors and asked me where I was going and whether he could help me. I didn’t want to tell him I was looking for the ladies’ room, so I said I was lost and couldn’t find my way out. He summoned a young man, probably a page and asked him to show me the way. The young man must have had nothing better to do that afternoon, because he gave me a leisurely tour of the parts of the Capitol that we walked through. I wish I could remember every detail, but what stands out most prominently in my memory is Statuary Hall with its gleaming marble and its sculptures. It was beautiful! 

            My temporary job ended, and I left Washington in March of 1968. Earlier I suggested that my Washington adventures happened in a kinder, gentler time, but I was wrong. On April 4 of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Washington responded with four days of rioting. In retrospect I think no one should have been surprised. Tensions had been building for a long time.

            Many years later, in another world—maybe kinder and gentler, but maybe not—I spent a few days in Washington with my husband. He was attending a conference, and I was mostly on my own during the daytime. I decided to visit the Capitol. This time it was not possible to walk through the front door, either East Front or West Front, and just start exploring. I had to let someone search my tote bag, and there probably was a metal detector as well. I took one of the tours and remember seeing the Crypt and the Old Senate Gallery. The best part of the tour was Statuary Hall, because this time everything was familiar and my long-ago tour guide’s words were still resonating in my memory. 

            Happy Fourth of July! And in case anyone is wondering, the Folger Shakespeare Library does have restrooms.