We get to the monument almost an hour before our ticketed time, figuring we’ll see if they can take us early or we can walk over to the WWII memorial. Hours earlier, the city was a ghost town. The sky was still gray and cool then, the streets and sidewalks near empty. Now the sun is out and kites litter the sky, with swarms of people on the ground below. Groups of young people take selfies, laughing at the impossible angle needed to include everyone (wouldn’t it be easier to ask a stranger “would you mind taking our picture?”), a very young girl steers a bicycle with training wheels through a thick crowd while her parents tag lackadaisically behind. The ding of her bell and, further ahead, the ding of two adults on bicycles, warning “here we come, out of the way tourists.”
Flags at half mast for Scalia, whose funeral is today – possibly happening at this very moment – though not affecting our trip in any way, thankfully. When my husband points out the very small ‘out of order’ sign near the entrance to the monument, I think it’s a mistake. Someone left it up or it’s not the correct entrance. A smiling government employee wearing, oddly, a hat with ear flaps in 60 degree weather, is explaining to a small crowd for probably the 150th time that the tickets they ordered online months ago are no good. The elevator is broken and the part won’t be in until Wednesday at the earliest. How long are you folks in town? He could recommend a million things more interesting than the view from the top of the monument and I wonder how that could possibly be.
I feel like we’ve arrived at Magic Kingdom to find that our favorite ride that we’ve never ridden before is closed. My husband says to our girls that he’s lived on the east coast for 21 years and still hasn’t been up in the monument and I say I’ve lived here 42 years and haven’t either, though this feels more like an admission of guilt than any consolation. We ask the girls if they’d rather go see Jefferson or Lincoln and of course they both pick a different one, but one is a birthday girl and that seems the fairest way to settle it.
The Jefferson Memorial is my favorite because you have to walk along the tidal basin to get there. We pass some kind of diving bird, who disappears so long we’re sure he’s drowned but then pops up again somewhere completely unexpected, far away from the trail of bubbles he left behind. We spot a thin guy in spectacles and a red and white striped shirt, holding a similarly striped knit cap with red pom-pom. I take a picture of him from behind and again from a far distance as he sits on the monument steps, but before he puts his beanie on. I wonder if it’s a game he plays, going to crowded public places and then searching social media later for the tags #whereswaldo and #foundhim.
Later we rest our aching bones in a brief cab ride to the White House and see the Monument taunting from the skyline and I think the windows look too small. We would all have been jockeying for a picture, fixated on the view through our phones instead of thinking “I’m inside a giant mother-fucking pencil right now.”
The next day we will see a baby panda napping in a tree, and we will see familiar animals we’ve never seen before, and that will seem like it should be the highlight of our trip. But instead the birthday daughter will say the walk along the tidal basin was her favorite part. The breeze and the way the sun was falling and the peace and calm at the memorial, in spite of all the people and Waldo and the wedding party that showed up to have their pictures taken. Who gets married in mid-February on the east coast expecting a beautiful spring day? May the couple know happiness but also a touch of disappointment and sadness so they appreciate it all that much more.