Jazz Spangled Banner
December 6, 2001
Washington, DC.

Washington, DC. is one of my favorite cities. Walking through it you feel like someone dropped a circus freak show right into the middle of a conference of business executives. Lots of suits. Lots of street performers, some intentional, others just crazy. Either way there is a great deal of entertainment. I listened to a guy who could create a deep whistling sound by blowing into his cupped hands playing a medley of 1970’s era TV theme songs. I looked around for the telltale change bucket or basket set out in front of him on the sidewalk. He didn’t have one. This is what he does to pass time.

There are a frightful number of women between the ages of 25-45 who wear power suits with noticeably short skirts. They are all tan and beautiful and have long, big hair. The hair toss is an Olympic sport here. They look like flight attendants playing dress up.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Serious men wearing serious suits with serious ties and serious briefcases display serious monograms on their shirt cuffs and breast pockets. They look seriously pale and desperately unhealthy but such are the halls of power.

Older, well-coiffed men walk elegantly down hallways and sidewalks, cufflinks and tie clips flashing in the sunlight while sweaty, wrinkled, and slightly haggard younger assistants scurry along side practicing the fine art of bag carrying.

And even the homeless have cell phones.

In our nation’s capitol you go places in a hurry. Everyone pounds up and down the sidewalks, through crosswalks, weaves in and out of traffic, with the funny stiff-gaited, hip-popping gate of the athletes who compete for medals in walking. Here in DC they manage to do this in dress shoes and high heels. Talk about your athleticism.

I strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue past the massive concrete barricades that block off street traffic, past the cops stationed about every 100 feet, and went on down to the White House. Tourists were repeatedly bowled over by policy wonks screaming down the sidewalks.

Across the street from the White House, the freaks are out in force. Conception has been maintaining a 24 hour a day vigil for peace on the sidewalk…since 1981. She has a partner she tag-teams with. She speaks in a high shrill screech that could potentially cause sterilization. Encounter her warily. She seems to be really jacked up about support for Israel and the power of the military industrial complex. She is also pretty pissed off about how the various administrations treat the squirrels that run rampant all over town.
Really.

The squirrels don’t seem to mind. They are fearless, insistent. They are little furry thugs that run right up to you and indignantly demand handouts. Welfare run amok.

A few feet away, another guy is maintaining a mostly 24 hour vigil to stop nuclear proliferation. A few feet from him a Buddhist monk slowly pounds a prayer drum and chants…a one monk protest against…well, it’s hard to say. Between his signs and what he said, let’s just say if it’s bad he’s protesting it. While he chants peacefully a young woman with an impressive mane of jet black hair barks directions to some subordinate via her cell phone.

Did I mention I love this place.

I make my way through the crowded sidewalks down toward the Smithsonian Mall. At every federal building I pass…and down here they are all federal buildings…every vehicle is stopped and inspected, the security guards walking slowly around each one with a mirror device at the end of a curved metal pole. This affords them a view of the under-carriage of each car and truck seeking to gain admittance to a parking area.

In this, one of the most enjoyable cities in the world, the finest place is the Smithsonian Mall. It is long, open, with large rectangular sections of grass surrounded by dirt and gravel walkways. I sit down in the middle of the Mall…dead center. From here, as I sit facing the National History Museum I can turn to my left and see at the end of the Mall the Washington Monument. I turn to my right, and at the other end of the Mall stands the Capitol Building. I lie back on the grass and enjoy the early December sunlight and surprisingly warm temperatures. It is 72 degrees.

While I lie on the grass a father leads his three children across the grass. The kids are somewhere between 10 to 15 years old. They stop and take a picture. They are on their way to the History Museum. The father is excited to see the American President exhibit. His enthusiasm is contagious. The kids are hopping up and down with excitement and want him to hurry up and take the picture so they can get to the exhibit.

As they walk off he asks them which President is their favorite. One says Washington. Another says Lincoln. The last one says Polk…must be the middle kid. You know how they are.

I sit looking at the Capitol Building, in the hallowed halls of which is carried out the People’s business. Echoing off the concrete walls of all the various Smithsonian buildings that line the Mall I hear a flute playing “Yankee Doodle”.

A flute?

I get up and try to locate the source of the music. The player segues into “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. Where’s the drum, I wonder. In the distance I see a lonely figure dancing and swaying. I can make out no details of the figure so far away but it is as good a guess as any.

As I draw near the flute becomes clearer and I can see the flautist dancing while he plays.

J.D. is out on the Mall at least five days a week playing his flute. He likes this time of year because he gets to play Christmas Carols. Since the attacks he has played very little other that patriotic songs. That seems to get the best response. He tells me people look determined when they drop money into his box during a patriotic song. They look happy when they do so while he plays a Christmas Carol. It is a nice mix.

The biggest change since the attacks, he says, is that there are a whole lot fewer people out on the Mall and the ones that are there are mostly local. He does better with tourists, he says, because the locals have gotten used to him.

I ask him what it was like there immediately following the attacks. “It was hard,” he says, “because for a few days everything was clamped down.” He couldn’t get out to play anywhere. Finally, he got back to the Mall… “Always good for a few dollars out here, man.”

He tells me that on that first day back it was pretty unproductive from a money standpoint. “Everyone was walking around…half were like zombies, man. The others were mad or scared or maybe both”. After a couple of hours, a short day for him, he packed up.

“Man, I was thinking…I don’t know…these people got to wake up, you know? I thought I got to play something for them. Scared and sleepwalking and angry. Man, there wasn’t no pride. You know? Everyone was all messed up. So you know what I played.”

The last was a statement, not a question.

I told him I had no idea.

“Come one, man. You know. Think. You know what I had to play.”

J.D. does not usually play the National Anthem. He says it’s out of respect. You are supposed to play it at big events and stuff. That day, with his box put away and him ready to leave, he took his flute out of its case and began to play.

“I was burnin’, man,” he tells me, “I laid into it hard and played it as loud as I could. Put as much feeling into it as I could, you know?”

I ask him how people reacted.

He laughs and smiles and practically shouts, “Man, they were burnin’, too. I mean, as far as I could see people stopped. Just stopped cold and all looked at me and some were singing and others joined in and people up close to me got their hands on their hearts and their eyes are tearing up and mine were too. It was cool, man.”

I ask him if anything like that had ever happened before. “Not hardly. And not since.”

I tell him that doesn’t surprise me. I tell him that it seems to be wearing off…that we were all concerned and involved and now we’re not so scared and it seems to be fading. He doesn’t agree with me. He thinks that it’s just not as prominent but that those feelings, that pride as he calls it, is still there. I think of all the inspired and inspiring folks I’ve met along the road and want to believe that. Then I think of the larger number that I’ve met that are so self-involved that I just can’t buy it. I tell J.D. that.

He shakes his head and says, “Man, it ain’t happened since ‘cause I ain’t played it since. Watch this.”

The traffic on the Mall is relatively sparse, but there are still plenty of people milling about. One hundred feet away a large group jostles about trying to get on a tour shuttle. Joggers plod past. Small groups of two or three people, some tourists, some locals stroll along the Mall looking at the museums.

J.D. holds his flute to his lips and lays into it hard. Out comes a sound…sad and sweet but strong and clear…and it’s just one note that he holds for an extraordinarily long time.

And then he slides down and around to the second note of the Star Spangled Banner. He peppers it with little riffs, but only in choice spots, neither over playing nor under playing. It’s the Star Spangled Banner with a little jazz, a little groove, a little soul thrown in.

It is stunning. It is moving. It is unlike any version of it I have ever heard. I stand and listen, totally transfixed by the sound of his flute. I am aware of a group of skate punk looking kids to my left that were slouching down the Mall when JD started, all dyed hair and piercings and jeans that don’t fit. They have stopped. One of them has put his hand over his heart. He looks over at his two friends and urges them to do the same. They do.

Down at the tour bus the crowd has stopped dead and turned to face JD. People have taken off their baseball caps and hold them to their chests. The shuttle driver is hanging out of her doorway watching.

A young power suit clad woman holding a phone to her head and the younger disheveled woman carrying her briefcase slow down. The younger one stops and puts the bags down. Behind JD the flags of the Museum flap in the breeze. She puts her hand over her heart. The alpha female holds her phone down at her side for a moment. She is mouthing the words.

“And the rocket’s red glare…”

The skate punk kids are also softly mouthing the words, barely audible even though they are only five feet away from me. But they are singing, nonetheless. The young bag carrying woman joins in, flat as can be and with a tonal quality that is grating but she sings out, braver than the rest of us.

“Gave proof through the night…”

She sounds beautiful.

JD plays for all he’s worth. Others start singing a bit louder. Folks crowd in closer. He smiles while he plays and bends himself with the music.

We are all singing and above it, around it, and through it, the lonely, penetrating sound of the flute. Everyone sings out loud on “Land of the free” while JD holds the last note of the line. He takes a deep breath and we all jump in for “Home of the brave”.

Except he doesn’t play that line. He holds his flute down and sings it out with the rest of us. After the last note dies out none of us know what to do. It’s like we just woke up next to a one night stand and can’t figure out how we’re supposed to act. A few people clap. The crowd at the bus slowly turns back as folks begin pushing their way on to the shuttle. The skate punks look embarrassed, as do the rest of us.

JD is looking at me, smiling.

“It ain’t gone, man.”

Not hardly.

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