State of the Union

Linda Watanabe McFerrinA Book Passage by Rail: State of the Union
by Linda Watanabe McFerrin

The redcap pushing a cartload of luggage reminded me that I was actually in a rail station. The rest of it, the black and rouge marble floors, the Doric columns, the sweeping staircases in dark wood and wrought iron, suggested otherwise.

Several days into my month-long book tour and less than one month before the November 2000 presidential elections, on the morning of another Bush/Gore debate, I was lunching on Asian food—lumpia, gyoza, and a grilled lemongrass chicken salad—at the East Street Cafe in Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, sitting under ropes of oriental-style lanterns and lamps. Above me, the 96-foot vaulted ceiling arched—curved and coffered and fretted like lace. Colorful banners at the 90-foot level enlivened the twilit world of jewelers, galleries, restaurants, clothiers, and upscale boutiques. In a universe of trains and stations, of continuous movement and presidential debates, this rail and metro station in the nation's capitol somehow seemed a significant stop.

Washington knows how to go public. Since its conception in 1790 when George Washington received the official congressional blessing on plans to build a Federal City, to its articulation in 1791 by architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant, it has epitomized the grace and manner of a grand democracy, the 550-foot (that's the height of the Washington Monument and the highest you can build in the capitol city) apex of western civilization. These days the city plays host to more than 20 million tourists every year, many from all over the world. If Pericles, Aristotle, and Socrates were alive today, I'd drop them off in D.C. I think they'd feel right at home in the democratic capitol of this country.

They'd quickly discover that Union Station is the only way to Arrive in the capitol city, and they'd probably go nuts over the subway. That's how I got to my reading at Chapters that evening.

"Take the Metro," said Steve when I telephoned the bookstore on K Street. "Go downstairs. Hop on the Red Line toward Shady Grove. Get off at North Ferrugate. You'll be here in minutes."

Easy as pie. I found myself giving other tourists directions. Locals will tell you that the Washington Metro is modeled after San Francisco's BART. Well, maybe, but BART never looked so good. The Washington Metro has scale. It is modern and neutral, artistic and elegant—no tacky attempts to warm things up, and I'm grateful. I found I could even take the Metro to my hotel that night, the Hilton Washington. Situated on stylish Connecticut Avenue, near Dupont Circle, it's a great place to stay when visiting the capitol city, with plenty of things—small museums, restaurants, galleries, and boutiques—to visit nearby. But, honestly, with little time to spend in D.C. and a train to Philadelphia to catch, I was actually eager to get back to the station.

And why not? You can have anything you want at Union Station. You can be anywhere in the world. You can eat Greek food at the Acropolis, Japanese food at Kabuki Sushi, or Indian food at Indian Delight. You can have seafood at Georgetown Seafood & Grill, bagels at the Bagel Works, a burrito at Burrito Brothers, pasta at Pasta T'go go, and good old American dogs and draft at Frank & Stein. Then there's Calypso Kitchen, Ichiban Teriyaki and Tempura, Vaccaros, and the Cajun Grill. Or, how about a salad at Salad Works, soup at Soup Nutsy, or ice cream at Haägen Dazs? When you tire of noshing, you can shop till you drop. There are places to buy accessories, items for bath and body, books and records, specialties, men's and women's fashion, jewelry, and art. There's even a Thomas Kinkade Gallery (just in case you were wondering), and nine movie screens.

This time I go for a bite to eat at B. Smith's on the east side of the station, just beyond the East Hall shops. One of seven full-service restaurants at Union Station, B. Smith's decor is strictly federal. Shields, laurel branches, sconces, and luminous globes adorn the richly dressed walls. Colors are gold, tobacco, and money-green. Politicians and celebrities like to lunch at B. Smith's. A few feet away a couple of men are having a "West Wing" discussion. From the Main Hall come squeals and whistles and hoots. I'm told Whitney Houston is in the Station.

After lunch, I go on a quick shopping spree, dropping by Ann Taylor where I fall in love with a red silk top that looks vaguely Chinese. This Ann Taylor has the best selection I've seen in some time: black satin dresses, beaded sweaters, fuzzy animal prints, tweedy sportscoats, thin rayon tops. I'm on the mezzanine level, where I can get a great bird's eye view of the station. I look down through the graceful whorl of curved stairways, at hordes of bustling, crisply-tailored folk. From men in slacks, jackets, starched shirts and ties and from women in little black dresses and suits, voices in numerous languages rise up toward the high, high ceiling—the way birdsong and chatter ascends to the top of an aviary. It's a scene of affluence, of prosperity, and plenty.

At that moment, caught as I am in the midst of a cross-country journey, the scene at Union Station seems to reflect the state of the Union. These are good times for the U.S. Sometimes I forget how fortunate we are to live in such a peaceful and prosperous country. As I recollect recent headlines and trouble all over the world, I have to pause and appreciate what is represented by the ambience of this rail stop. Sure, we still have plenty of problems, but I'm certain old Socrates and Aristotle would recognize the signs of an experiment gone very, very right. I feel pretty corny, standing there on the station mezzanine. Corny and proud, and yep, optimistic. I'm ready to cast my vote.

Linda Watanabe McFerrin is a Bay Area poet, novelist, and travel writer. She is the author of Namako: Sea Cucumber, and a short story collection, Hand of Buddha, published by Coffee House. She is the editor of the Hot Flashes series and Best Places Northern California. She is also the founder of Left Coast Writers. To find out more about Linda, visit

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