Howard Jacobson: What a civilised and courteous place Washington is – and how lifeless

This city is given over in spirit to the tedium of archiving and administration

Saturday 27 February 2010 01:00

Slowly and deliberately – because to do it well takes time and concentration – I am eating my way into Washington. I don't know how else to find it.

Closed down in the snow, the city looked rather beautiful; distance teasingly foreclosed, every tree a work of sculpture, remote figures moving in a Bruegelesque landscape. In the immediate aftermath of the blizzard, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was a blurred ribbon of heartbreak grey against the pristine whiteness of the snow. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, across the park, the Capitol glimmered as misty as a mirage. But then the snow melted and rather than recover its distinctness, Washington seemed not to be there at all.

Where are the people? Cars pour into the city at rush hour, but wherever they disgorge their passengers, it isn't here. It's not as though Washington's a non-walking city like Los Angeles. Broad pavements line wide boulevards, but there are few shoppers even when the sun shines, and part of the reason for that is that there are no shops. Don't be mercilessly literal with me: of course there are shops, but unless you drive out of the city to a mall, there's nothing that answers to Regent Street in London, or Market Street in Manchester, nowhere that feels like town. And when you do gratefully stumble upon some lone shop you can't tell if it's open. The windows are tinted, nobody is moving inside, there's no bustle, no clatter, no sound. Cafés and restaurants the same. Most of the seats are empty, the staff are immobile, the lights are dim. It's a sort of principled civic bashfulness.

I'm told that inner-city Washington never really recovered from the race riots of 1968, and now the recession has hit it again. But to my eye the problem is more fundamental. Call it the Milton Keyes or Canberra curse: the lifelessness of a city that's planned before it's had chance to grow. Washington has too much space to play with. People are not pressed up against the windows of coffee shops and restaurants the way they are in overcrowded Britain because there's room to build a small hotel between where they're sitting and the street.

The same spatial profligacy robs the boulevards of character; nothing is squeezed, nothing suddenly appears or disappears, nothing invites you with promises of change. The flat-fronted office buildings are uniform in size and colour. This is a city that's given over in spirit to the tedium of archiving and administration. They make it as heroic as they can. They erect statues, stick Roman pillars and porticos to oblong buildings, and occasionally throw on a dome, but in the end, admin is just admin.

Don't get me wrong. I'm enjoying the space and the civility that goes with it. No litter, no rudeness, no graffiti, no hatred. Only think about crossing the road and the traffic stops for you whether, in the end, you want to cross or not. The students I teach are uncannily courteous. Just as cars are not at war with pedestrians, so are the young not at war with the old, or the old with the young.

Everything that drives me to the edge of madness in Britain – the city filth, the relentless profanity, the psychopathic cyclists, the sneering tone of popular debate, the self-righteousness of those who comment on affairs, celebrity, drunkenness, the underlying menace – everything, in short, that makes us a shame and a scandal among the civilised nations of the world, is absent here. But no amount of absence will ever constitute a presence, and other than in a few suburbs such as Georgetown and Dupont Circle – the equivalents of Hampstead and Notting Hill - I can't find this town.

So I'm eating my way into the heart of it. Is this the real thing, I ask myself, when the waiter at the fill-your-face Cheese Cake Factory recommends a lentil and bacon soup, then adds "Please be aware of the flavour content". Rather than ask him what this means I order the soup. And the flavour content? Reader, I'm not aware of it. I'm similarly bemused when the table attendant at Morton's Steakhouse refuses to show me a menu. "I'm gonna do my presentation," he tells me, when I persist, "after I've got the drinks." Presentation? All I want is a steak. In fact he doesn't only present me with a tray containing every known cut of cow, he actually holds up an unpeeled potato to demonstrate what the French fries will be made of. I ask my wife if she's ever been shown an unpeeled potato before. Not in a restaurant, she assures me. I feel we're getting somewhere at last.

From the windows of the Hay-Adams hotel, where we brunch, you can see the White House. This propinquity, which part explains the hotel's cultivated old-fashionedness, is said to guarantee an authentic air of "Washington". Other than a middle-aged lady being Gertrude Stein in an overlarge hat which makes eating, or at least seeing what she's eating, difficult for her, there is no one here you wouldn't expect to see taking tea in the Dorchester. Only at the Dorchester they'd be more raucous. Is this what's meant by "Washington" – the hush?

At the other end, socially, is Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street, made famous to the outside world when Obama, in his glory days, popped in without warning for a Chili half-smoke. On the advice of an American couple in the queue, this is what I order – a half-smoked hot dog smothered in chilli sauce, accompanied by chips smothered in cheese. Wonderful. And the better for my having been shown where chips come from. But I wonder if the popularity which this all black-owned and black-staffed hot dog joint is enjoying among the admin men in limousines doesn't have some desperation about it. Everyone looking for an authenticity which won't stay still long enough for you to grab it.

They say the President sets the fashion for eating in this town. With Bush it was all barbecues. With Obama it's salads and chili sausages. You can understand the confusion.

Neither sentimentally staid nor sentimentally proletarian, Café Milano, in Georgetown, is Mayfair smart. You can imagine the Beckhams or Gail from Coronation Street dining here. When I tell Washingtonians that I've eaten at Café Milano they ask, excitedly, if I saw, perhaps, a Supreme Court judge.

How civilised is this! Not did I see Lady Gaga but did I see a Supreme Court judge. What I can't decide is whether it's the height of sophistication or the depths of naivety. Something else they're asking about Obama's administration.

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