Estimated population of Washington, D.C.:
Estimated National Cherry Blossom Festival visitors:
I am running a gauntlet of tourists, baby strollers and the dogs they should have left with the neighbors back in Ohio. The cherry blossoms are peaking. Taxi drivers are begging customers to go anywhere BUT the Mall. Not yet 9:00 a.m., and the sidewalk is clogged with people in matching sweatshirts and eyes only for puffs of pink and white. A runner’s nightmare.
Many head for the Tidal Basin, just like me. I believe I can reach the water before them, jog the mile-long path around to the Jefferson Memorial and make it back to the Mall unscathed. I, like many locals, also still believe the District will soon secure full voting representation in Congress. This is akin to believing in Santa Claus anywhere else. Year over year, we host politicians empowered to vote for their communities, but we can’t get our own. Taxes? Sure. Representation in Congress? Maybe next year. We cheer each time it looks like we’re about to get the vote, regardless. So, yes, I’m an optimist. An optimist with a million visitors dying to see the flowers.
Within another minute, my optimism proves to be life threatening. Dodging the Tidal Basin-bound tourists, I don’t see the approaching girl who doesn’t see me.
She’s racing to photograph a plane overhead. Her purple sweater stretches tight in all the wrong places and her camera’s too big for her adolescent hands. She should be looking at cherry blossoms, or boys with braces whose parents are looking at cherry blossoms. Then she might see me, waving and shouting “Hey!” But her camera lens is trained on a plane descending fast toward Reagan National Airport. It’s as if she’s never seen a plane before. Perhaps she hasn’t. Perhaps she came to Washington on one of the many tour buses lined up nearby. I don’t have time to care. I have to choose: collision with girl, collision with baby stroller on her right, and likely collision with cars if I jump curb to the left.
The girl’s squinting at her camera. A blanket pink as the National Cherry Blossom Festival banners shields the baby from the morning sun. I have no choice. I jump. Off the curb, into traffic and, best of all, a puddle of goop backing up from a storm drain.
A minivan honks as it veers away from me. The girl sprints past, chasing planes with her camera, and the smell of bubble gum lingers. It cuts through the dank smell wafting up from my ankles.
Cherry blossom petals are falling around the cars and me. A few land on fresh asphalt, covering a pothole. In a burst of creative leadership, our city officials declared a Potholepalooza Month. They have patched every pothole reported and smoothed over Snowpocalypse’s ugly reminders. If I see the girl with the purple sweater and giant camera again, I’ll tell her to photograph these patched-up holes. This, I’ll tell her, is also Washington. For now, I head to the Mall.
Thousands of hands reach for the sky. They stretch backward toward the Washington Monument. A few people stumble. Most hold the pose, feet gripping their yoga mats or the still cool grass. Tourists stop and stare.
This mass of stretching bodies has gathered for an 11 a.m. yoga session led by an instructor who opens with a proverb about strangers and cherry blossoms. I can’t hold a tree pose for more than three seconds. Downward-facing-dog stretches make me cry. But, in a sea of tourists, the yogis look relaxed. With muddy ankles and bruises the shape of tourists’ cameras on my arms, I join them.
District residents slow down rarely. When we do, alcohol, not meditative poses, is often the relaxation aid of choice. Not today. This yoga session has been organized and hyped on Facebook. Over 4,200 have been invited. It’s a party in the sun and the locals have turned out to stretch alongside the out-of-towners.
Tourists take pictures of the Washington Monument. One angles his hands so it looks like he’s holding it up. Another freezes his foot as if kicking the monument’s base out from under itself. Two girls are arching their backs, craning their heads. They pucker their lips as if kissing the Blarney Stone. A funny shot for their photo albums. We shift into downward-facing-dog pose. One thousand butts lift into the air. Hoping no cameras capture this shot, I drop to my hands and feet.
We soon raise our hands in a side stretch, and the passersby think we’re waving. A few wave back and cluck their tongues when no one responds. One boy tries to high five the woman in front of me. She topples over and mutters, “Shitty tourists.” But she smiles all the same, more tired than angry. The mark of a real local.
An hour is a long time for tourists to respect the space of yogis. By the time the instructor calls for backbends, tourists are weaving between mats and shouting over our heads. No yogi, local or not, is smiling at this point. One more week, I think, and they’ll be gone.
I dig my fingertips and toes into the dirt. I press my body into an arc. I open my eyes. The sounds of tourists laughing and yogis cursing the tourists vanish.
I am staring at the Washington Monument, but blue sky fills my vision. Upside down, the sky dwarfs the obelisk and all of us, bending, posing and complaining in its shadow. I maintain pose until a mother orders her son to stop feeding the baby cherry blossom petals. You don’t see kids eating petals every day. I can watch upside-down sky on the Mall year-round.
At dusk, a hundred or so gather beside the Carousel on the Mall and try to remember how to insert cassettes into boomboxes. Remember cassettes? Some of this group doesn’t. They’ve probably lost the mixtapes they made too. But you can’t participate in Cherry Blossom Boombox Walk if you’re not playing the Boombox Walk compilation they’ve just handed us.
A girl walks by, waving a blue flag.
“What’s the flag for?” I ask.
She shrugs. “I didn’t have a boom box. So they gave me a flag.”
“Want to share mine?” I hold up my $19.99 boombox. A Vextra. No decals. No guts. My alarm clock’s speaker would kick Vextra’s ass if it had legs. It’s all I could find.
The girl smiles and keeps walking. I shove my boombox into my friend’s hands, as if it’s too heavy to carry.
“Everyone, are we ready?” the organizer calls out.
He holds no microphone. He thanks no sponsors. This is a decidedly casual Cherry Blossom Festival event. So casual that no one wearing matching sweatshirts, sporting other cities’ names, is present. It’s just us locals.
We’re told to hit the Play button on three. This confuses us.
“Three and?” a guy next to me asks his buddy. “Or exactly on three?”
“That’s so Lethal Weapon Danny Glover of you, dude.”
“This is so John Cusack Say Anything,” I think. I look for my friend, suddenly wanting to take back my boombox.
“On the count of three,” calls the organizer. “Three. Two. One. Play.”
And we’re off. With music playing on at least fifty different boomboxes and a violinist playing beside us, we walk down the Mall. Tourists stare. We pick up groupies by the 12th Street intersection. Before we reach the Washington Monument, the blue flag girl is chatting with a man carrying a flask of Jack Daniels. By the time we reach the World War II Memorial Plaza, communal love has set in.
The couple with the biggest boombox take turns carrying it. My friend stops asking if the volume on my boombox is broken. At least it’s lighter than the one John Cusack shouldered outside Ione Skye’s house and on movie posters forevermore. The girl beside us fakes an almost believable smile every time people stroke her Hello Kitty boombox. True, she’s biting her lip. It may be a bloody mess before we reach the Tidal Basin. But she’s accepted their need to love Hello Kitty all over again.
Across from the Tidal Basin, our mixtape runs out. We come to a halt. I consider the crowds walking the Tidal Basin perimeter and thank my lucky stars I’m here with a Vextra and the locals.
“What is this?” a nearby tourist asks.
A woman with a decal-covered boombox explains we’re on the Boombox Walk.
“That’s it?” he says, scrunching up his sunburned face.
The woman picks at a loose Girl Power decal. “Guess so.”
The tourist’s daughters shake cherry blossoms off a branch and his wife ignores him in her haste to stop them. Petals rain down. I want to tell their mom to relax. They’ll fall by morning, anyway. Cherry blossoms never last long.
“That’s it?” the tourist asks again, to no one in particular.
The Boombox Walk organizer climbs atop a transformer box to say a few words. We lean forward. The sunburned tourist’s wife takes his picture. Twice.
Boombox Walk may be “just” a walk. But, sometimes, that’s enough. This is a city where few accept “that’s it” in any pursuit they undertake, and tourists snap our pictures about as often as their politicians truly consider giving us representation. An hour communing with locals, listening to DC artists and enjoying our Mall? That’s everything.