On the Road to Normal
Tourism returns to Washington, slowly.
The Washington Post Magazine
October 28, 2001
The noonday sun shines brightly on the mostly empty green leather seats of the tour bus as it pulls away from Union Station and lumbers toward the Capitol. "Thank you for coming to Washington," the driver says into his microphone. He glances knowingly into the rearview mirror at his small brood of passengers and announces -- lest someone hadn't noticed -- "the tourist population is down a little bit."
The driver does not say the word "terrorism." Nor "war." But the war provoked by the terrorist attacks nonetheless provides the leitmotif to his tour of the city.
There's the Justice Department, he says. Heads turn right. "John Ashcroft is on TV about every 15 minutes." Heads face front again. No one speaks.
But Rebecca Santiago has something to say. Coming to Washington from North Dakota after September 11 was "intimidating," the twentysomething woman says from underneath a black Nike cap. "I was nervous about walking on the street."
Santiago overcame her fears. Others haven't. The bus pulls into a passenger stop near the Old Post Office. No one boards. Next stop, the Grand Hyatt on H Street. No one.
There is lingering tension about touring Washington, to be sure. Yet somewhere on the two-hour tour, familiar scenes appear. A child passenger yawns as the bus passes the White House. A woman exclaims "ooh" before she raises her camera to snap the Watergate. A pair of eyebrows rises at the words "assassination attempt" as the tour-mobile goes by the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue. Call the scenes a suggestion -- no, an affirmation -- that the simple pleasure of being a tourist is ever so slowly returning.
"Does anybody recognize this song?" the driver is asking as the bus makes its way to Woodley Park, crossing the Taft Bridge. As the music swells over the PA system, he points out the Duke Ellington Bridge to the right.
The familiar melody rouses a response from James McMahon, a laconic, stone-faced Englishman in his late fifties who is sitting on the bus with his wife, Susan.
"The A Train!" McMahon shouts excitedly. For a frozen moment, his face is aglow with happy, blissful recognition. For a moment, nothing else matters.