The Hottest Mess on Pennsylvania Avenue

I am still reeling as I write this. The events of this day were so remarkable and so unexpected that I’m not sure I’ll ever feel completely normal again. It was, I think, the greatest day of my life. I will get into the details later, so let’s go.

At 7:30 in the morning (IN THE MORNING) I had a tour arranged at the White House. I have been enthused about this for awhile, and I woke up with far too much energy — must have been predictive adrenaline or something — so it wasn’t awful to get dressed and down into one of the trains that whisked me off to the White House. People say that the trains in DC are some of the best in the world, and I know I talk about it a lot, but have they ever been to Paris? My beloved hometown has the greatest underground system of the all! Anyway, I’m about 87% sure that I rode the elevator up to the street with Ron Paul. Looked just like him. Short.

It didn’t take but a few minutes to find the visitor entrance to the President’s residence, and by the time I arrived, there was already quite a number of people waiting. For some reason, I had the impression that the tours were a bit more intimate. There were easily sixty people along with me, which was not amusing. Because, reader, and I mean this with love, I think that this tour was the most American thing I’ve ever done.  You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever done touristy things away from home. Loud, vulgar, easily insulted, and somewhat dim-witted people gather in places like this. I enjoyed it tremendously, of course, because I love people watching. At heart, and because I think of myself as a writer, I’m an anthropologist. The group in front of me had several bags and were taking multiple pictures using a selfie stick. I smirked happily to myself and couldn’t wait to get to the gate. None of these things are allowed. You can’t really take anything at all in.

It was a brisk morning, and I was more than ready to get inside, but my heart was warmed as the security guards told the idiots in front of me that they couldn’t take any of these items inside, and that the Secret Service was not, and I quote, “going to babysit a selfie stick.” I choked with laughter as they waved me past.

There were several security checks, but finally we made it to the ground level and I was deeply unimpressed. The floors were composed of bricks that  had been covered with some glossy substance. It was horrible. I felt very much like I was in Disney’s version of the White House. It looked rather like their horrible American Experience pavilion at EPCOT, which I’ve never actually experienced. See what I did there? America is more than powdered wigs and flutes, after all. The peasants were very, very pushy in the lower rooms, which annoyed me, but when I finally saw what they were seeing, I wasn’t bothered too much. One first lady commented, and I missed who the quote was by, but she said that these rooms “were filled with hotel furniture.” It was absolutely the perfect description.

Blissfully, the upper levels were much more deserving of our nation’s first family. Now, the White House is no Versailles or Windsor Castle, but it has a certain charm all of its own. We weren’t allowed to take any photographs, so these are not my own:

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The East Room, where the president makes speeches and talks to the press is absolutely exquisite. The curtains are a bit meh, but I’ll forgive that. The moulding is rich and the mirrors are all covered in gold. Exactly the look I go for. It’s quite relaxing, but I’ve always been much more relaxed in formal settings than anywhere else. Hanging on one of the walls is the famous painting of George Washington that Dolly Madison allegedly saved when the British were attacking DC and burning the original place down. I doubt this story has much truth to it. The painting is bigger than me and I’m taller than most people, so I have doubt that Dolly Madison could run out of a burning building wielding such a thing. Still, it’s a nice story.

[I just did a bit of reading and discovered that most of the White House interior is fairly recent. It was heavily reconstructed in the last century, and the mouldings were all generic rather than the ornate originals. No wonder I was a bit unimpressed! I can smell quality and I wasn’t catching much of a whiff here.]

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Most of the formal rooms in the White House don’t actually have solid walls, which is something that I never knew. Instead of plaster or drywall or even wood, the walls are covered with silk that is stretched very tightly over a wooden frame. These frames are attached to the beams that form the building itself. Doing this allows the air to circulate and for the rooms to breathe. Quite remarkable, and very clever in a humid place like DC in the summer. The rooms went on and on for a while, and they were all quite proper and very nice. I enjoyed the tour very much and it was a treat to see so many of the places that I’ve seen in print or on television, especially the chandeliers that Jackie O had electroplated with gold. Bless her.

I presidentially walked down the hallway that leads to the East Room, like you see the president do before a press conference. Good fun, that. Then the tour was over. I lingered in the formal entrance for a while watching the tourists. They hurt me. I would never go into the White House (or anybody’s house, for that matter) wearing leggings or a stocking cap. I was dressed smartly in black pants, high quality shoes, and nicely fitted dress shirt. The modern world is so very disrespectful. It really bothers me.

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I had breakfast at a café called Breadline, which I first read about in a terrible book called, In Search of the Perfect Loaf. The author was insufferable, but his recommendation was a good one. The baguette tasted like a €.95 baguette you can get in any bakery Paris. I order the baguette de tradition because they taste so much better for €1.10, but I’m not in Paris and it worked. I had a nice omelette, and then I was back off into the wind.

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The World War II memorial is rather hideous, but I was charmed to see Iowa’s pillar right beside California’s. I haven’t the foggiest notion as to why they were, but these are the two states in America where I feel at home.

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I walked past the drained reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial and wondered why there were so many television crews. Maybe it was the president, I thought. IT WAS NOT. Unbelievably, not ten minutes before, Prince Charles and Camilla had toured the site. TEN MINUTES, reader. I was appalled with myself for eating my omelette so decorously. Part of my soul died. I wasn’t even aware they were in the country, let alone just down the road. I kicked myself and didn’t enjoy the Lincoln Memorial quite as much as I might have.

In extreme agitation, I walked to the National Portrait Gallery. Along the way, I blew (literally — so much wind!) past the Washington Monument and found it so barren and unattractive.

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It tells nothing. It’s just a big obelisk. At least the obelisks in Egypt tell a story. You could look at the ones at Karnak that Hatshepsut dedicated for hours. I did! You could look at the Washington Monument for about a minute before your mind wanders.

The National Portrait Gallery was much more than I had originally anticipated. I’m a great admirer of the Royal Portrait Gallery in London and I was assuming that this would be similar. And, to a certain extent it is, but there is so much more than portraiture here. There are exhibits dedicated to American art and there is HORRIBLE modern art. I mean it reader, HORRIBLE.

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Andrew Jackson’s quiff game was strong. YASSSS.

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This painting depicts one of several interesting people I learned about on my trip to DC. This is Bayard Taylor who is famed as one of the first famous American travel writers. That’s what I want out of life, but in this modern world of Expedia and TripAdvisor, it’s not quite the same as it was.

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This unfinished painting of George Washington (though debated for its actual likeness to him) is the inspiration for the $1 American bill.

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I will hold my tongue about the MANY historical inaccuracies in “Lamentations Over the Death of the First Born of Egypt.” MANY.

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Katherine Hepburn’s Academy Awards!

 

I wandered and I wandered and then all of a sudden, I heard a sound that intrigued me. It was the sound of sirens, but it wasn’t the usual wail of a firetruck or a police on the hunt. This was a cacophony of wailing. I put two and two together and pulled out my iPhone. Prince Charles was giving a speech at the National Archives that afternoon. No time was given, but I didn’t need one. I hurried out of there and darted through the streets, happy to be on a mission. I love a good celebrity sighting.

Around the research entrance of the National Archives was a small crowd of probably a hundred people. I got to the front and we waited for a little while. They were kindly peasants, but they weren’t the brightest when it comes to the monarchy. The vast majority freely admitted that they didn’t even know what Prince Charles looked like. I shook my head in disgust.

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Just a few moments later, the doors opened and there he was, beaming at the crowd and looking almost handsome. The crowd lost their shit. “CHARLES! CHARLES! THIS WAY, CHUCK!”

I nearly choked when I heard the man next to me bellowing this and I just had to tell him the proper way to greet a member of the Royal Family. He and the other people around me where not in the slightest bit interested, but I’m sure that in some small way I made a difference. Then, the future king was off, and I was on cloud nine. I did it. I found him. I was so proud of myself.

Casually bumping into Prince Charles, heir to the British throne.

A post shared by Benjamin Phillips (@bdphillips) on

 

This had already been a momentous day, but my day was hardly beginning. That night, I was going to the National Theatre to see my beloved Dame Angela Lansbury perform in the Noel Coward play, Blithe Spirit. I’ve heard nothing but good things, so I was thrilled. Absolutely ecstatic!

Back in the apartment, I dressed for dinner: sequined dress shirt, spiked shoes, custom bespoke jacket, enough hair spray to produce another hole in the Ozone Layer, and I felt good. Everybody should own an ensemble that makes them feel powerful and gorgeous. It does remarkable things for your psyche. I power walked down Pennsylvania Avenue and stopped by a nice Italian restaurant, Noelia, for dinner. The food was good, but it was hardly remarkable. I enjoyed it nevertheless, even if the passionfruit sorbet tasted nothing like passionfruit. You know how important passionfruit is to me.

Still, it was worth going to hear the group beside me discuss Michael Bublé and repeatedly refer to him as Michael Bubble. I’m still laughing.

Now it was time to make it to the theater and in no time I was in my seat. It was a bit far to the left, but I couldn’t care less. I was squished between two old women who were drunk out of their minds and draped in furs. With my people, I could not have been more thrilled.

Soon.

A post shared by Benjamin Phillips (@bdphillips) on

 

The play soon began, and it felt very much like something Oscar Wilde would have written. The dialogue is brilliant and effortless. The acting is phenomenal. And then. She came out. DAME ANGELA LANSBURY. The crowd erupted with applause as she approached the edge of the stage, looking stunning in a red wig and so joyously alive. I’ve never seen such a young looking elderly person. In recent photographs, she looks quite wrinkled, but up there on the stage, with the lights all on her, you could tell that she was absolutely vivacious and vibrant and wonderfully content.

I was enraptured by the play, which is a comedy about a seance gone spectacularly wrong. Angela plays Madame Arcati, a batty psychic who reminded me so much of Lady M that I almost felt as if I were on a rooftop in Cairo again. Unknowingly, Madame Arcati brings the spirit of Mr. Cardomine’s first wife back from the other side. This results in a number of delightful scenes and Angela going into a trance. She does the most wonderfully eccentric Egyptian-esque dance across the stage. It was a flawless performance and I won’t give anything away, but Angela puts on a masterclass of acting.

During intermission, the group behind me put words to the sentiments I was thinking. “How marvelous for us all to be in the same room as her. She’s perfect! She’s magnificent! She’s an Olympian who has not lost her touch.” How right they were.

At the end, when she came on stage to do her bows, I don’t know if I can properly describe the moment. She was rapturously alive and filled with life and light and a kindness seems to emanate from her. There is just the most delightful twinkle in her eyes. I hope that when I’m her age, I’ll have found something that makes me as happy as the stage makes her. She was absolutely in her element, and I have rarely been so happy.

You see, and I failed to mention this earlier, Angela Lansbury has had a tremendous presence in my life. I don’t remember much of my childhood, and I don’t know why, but we aren’t getting into a psychological discussion here, but I vividly recall watching Bedknobs & Broomsticks again and again and again. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. It is an underrated treasure by Disney, and I don’t think I’ll ever fatigue of it. She was the first celebrity that I was really aware of. All my life, I’ve loved her, and I never really expected that I would ever get to see her. I planned this whole trip for the single purpose of witnessing her with my own eyes. And I was so satisfied. She was everything I wanted her to be.

Exiting the theater, I easily found the stage exit, and there was a group of twenty or so on either side of the door. I didn’t really expect Angela to come out. The other cast, yes, and they did. But, a man stepped out and said that she was going to make her way to her car and she would stop and say a few words. I was rather speechless since I was standing right beside the car that was set to whisk her away into the night.

It wasn’t a long wait, and I would have waited a lifetime to see her, until she walked down the hallway to the door and stepped out amongst us. The crowd cheered and she beamed with that same happiness that I had seen earlier. She is such a star. She’s an icon. Not only that but she is beyond charming and gracious and just so damn nice.

I'm a mess. I just talked to Angela Lansbury. She touched me. Like with her hand. And in my heart.

A post shared by Benjamin Phillips (@bdphillips) on

 

Finally she made it down to where I was, and I told her as quickly as I could how much meeting her meant to me. She thanked me with such sincerity and patted my arm. Sitting down in her car, she shook my hand and then waved. Then she was gone. I’ll never have that jacket cleaned again.

And I was a mess.

I don’t often express emotions, but I did then. I found an alcove by Wells Fargo bank, and I wept like an infant. I don’t rightly know why because I was not in the least bit sad. In fact, I don’t think I’ve really ever been happier in all my life. It was just such a moment. It was tremendous.

Finally finding some composure I walked back down Pennsylvania Avenue reflecting on my rather extraordinary life. It’s been wonderful so far. Really it has. I complain and I moan, but I have sincerely had the greatest time over the past twenty-five years. I’ve seen Angela and I’ve climbed through the Great Pyramid. I’ve become a pastry chef and cruised down the Nile. I’ve been to wonderful cities and explored ancient Grecian ruins. I’ve watched the Royal Family ride by in a parade, bumped into Prince Charles only hours ago and stayed at the Chateau Marmont. My life is absolutely marvelous. I don’t know how I got so lucky. I don’t mean that in a pompous way and I don’t mean to come off like a braggart, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And then, back in my comfortable apartment, with the biggest smile in the world, I thought again about Angela and Prince Charles and what an absolutely ridiculous day I’d just had. You can’t plan them. You can never expect them. You just have to put yourself in the position to allow your dreams to come true.

Then I passed out, because I was unbelievably exhausted.

Watch this, reader:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQ6IyCFo7i0&spfreload=10

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