icecream trucks of the National Mall
Sunday, April 17 2022
location: upper floor, Apartment [REDACTED], East Watergate Building, Washington, DC
This morning while we collaborated on the New York Times Spelling Bee before getting out of bed, Gretchen was also trying to arrange an excuse for avoiding brunch this morning. For some reason that made no sense to Gretchen, her father had arranged for a woman named Mara and her daughter to come over for brunch on our last full day in Washington, a social obligation Gretchen had no interest in participating in. She would've much rather used the time to spend another day with with her childhood friend Dina, not some diplomat her parents had known 30 years ago, back when her father was a Peace Corps doctor in Niger. But Dina had already made other arrangements, so instead Gretchen made plans to meet up with Dina's husband Gilad and the kids early this afternoon.
But we had to at least make an appearance at brunch. So we were there when Mara and her daughter (who was probably in her late 20s) arrived. The daughter was unusually outgoing and soon struck up a conversation with me about Los Angeles, where she's been living for the past ten years. She somehow then had us talking about music festivals, and when I mentioned Bonnaroo, Gretchen joined our disussion and soon she and the daughter were talking about how much they both love the Black Pumas. It turned out the daughter had worked in production on a number of low budget movies (some shot in Oklahoma) and hip hop music videos. She would end up dominating the brunch conversation with tales from her job, which the covid pandemic has greatly complicated. (She said most production companies now have a whole covid team specifically concerned with preventing the spread of the disease on set.) By the end there, Gretchen thought the daughter was amazing and wished we had more time to spend with her, but we had to leave to go meet Gilad.
It was considerably chillier today than it had been, causing Gretchen to run back into the Watergate to get a jacket while we waited for our Lyft.
The Lyft took us to the Botanic Garden just southwest of the Capitol (Gretchen hadn't remembered going there, but we had maybe ten or twelve years ago). We found Gilad in there with his two kids Lev and Mia, Dina's ever-shrinking mother Lisa, and Noah, one of Daniel's young kids from his second marriage. Lev and Noah immediately led Gretchen and me on a tour of the tropical rainforest room (whose climate provided a welcome contrast to the outdoor chill). Somewhere I pointed out a plant with simple leaves having a pattern of dark spots simulated a pinnately compound leaf, to which Noah said, "You're not supposed to touch the plants!" In addition to all the different rooms with different climates (one of which was populated entirely with large tropical non-flowering plants such as cycads and tree ferns), there was at least one interpretive room with displays demonstrating things like land usage types by surface area and how deep the roots of an alfalfa plant go (as measured, for some reason, in goats).
Next we walked over to the nearby Capitol, whose upper steps were all barricaded (though not actively guarded). I don't know if these barricades are a new response to the insurrection of January 6th, 2021 or if they're always there. All the people up there today were tourists, many of whom posed for photos with the Capitol as a backdrop, though I thought the view of the Washington Monument from that elevation was somewhat more dramatic.
The kids all wanted ice cream, so next we walked down to the first street crossing the mall, where a line of ice cream and other food-vending trucks awaited our business. On either end of this line, the trucks were blaring the ice cream truck music, which is (I think) "By the Rivers of Babylon," but include samples of police whistles, honked horns, and (for some reason) a woman's voice demanding "Hello?" These two vans were not synchronized, so the music from one end clashed with the music from the other as a sort of audio bad trip. By this point Gilad was feeling a bit faint and suffering from acid reflux. But he soldiered on, and the kids got icecream. I as tempted to get some fries, but I had a feeling I would be disappointed.
Eventually the Gilad and the others went their separate way and Gretchen and I started walking back to the Watergate. Initially we headed westward on the mall, with the music of the icecream trucks gradually fading behind us as another line of them would draw closer and we would hear the same stupid tune again. Hello?
We left the mall and made it around the backside of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. By this point I was experiencing my own feelings of low blood sugar, and we made plans to sit down at the first outdoor dining opportunity out of earshot of those incessant icecream trucks. That ended up being the Pete's Coffee near the Renwick Gallery. We both got drinks with oat milk (for which there was an upcharge) as well as a bag of premium nuts and a muffin that was actually vegan.
Back at the Watergate, Gretchen and I found ourselves in a series of social settings of different sizes that, for Gretchen, lasted past 1:00am. I was in most of these settings myself, beginning with one with Gretchen's father where he was discussing some work he did for Medicare. At some point in around 2010 he worked at an Indian reservation where he was astounded to find that all the people coming to a clinic were there to refill opiate prescriptions. And when he said something about this to one of the staff there, they pretty much stopped talking to him. He also told us about various frauds engineered by companies that do things such as make distribute kits to perform insulin tests. One such fraud is to continue shipping the kits long after a doctor stops prescribing them. Such frauds exist, Gretchen's father said, but they constitute a very small fraction of what Medicare spends. I wondered why more data science wasn't applied to these things (particularly the overprescription of opiates) and he said that any query of the data would take too long because of the millions of records. I was skeptical; the amount of data Google has amassed makes the amount generated by the Medicare system "look like my Rolodex," and they easily query it in seconds. Perhaps they just need to migrate it into a modern SQL or NoSQL database.
After some downtime, it was already time for dinner. The Arkansas branch of the family was off visiting friends, so it was just me, Gretchen, and her parents eating leftover seder food. Over dinner, Gretchen's father regaled us with stories of being the Peace Corps doctor in Niger. One one occasion, a Peace Corps volunteer who'd just ended his tour of duty (or whatever it's called) in Thailand showed up in Niger with a life-threatening case of Malaria and needed to be medevaced out. But then the question was: how to do it and who would pay? The sick gentleman was no longer a Peace Corps volunteer, so the government didn't want to pay. And to fly a military transport jet to Germany would cost $12,000/hr. In the end, a visiting general (the head of the United States' Army in Europe, it turned out) saw the sick man and decided to personally fly him to Europe in his own LearJet, and Gretchen's father accompanied them, along with a small staff (but not, Gretchen's father noted, any of the general's bodyguards, as there wasn't enough room).
Eventually, the contingent from Arkansas returned from wherever they'd been and joined us. Initially there was some discussion about whether Gretchen and our niece would walk to Georgetown to see a movie, but while Gretchen was in the bathroom, her (Gretchen's) mother made noises about how maybe it wouldn't be safe for two women to be out alone at night. [I later told this to Gretchen and she was dismayed, saying that back when when she (Gretchen) was fifteen, her mother (the same one objecting now) had no problem with Gretchen going out by herself at night, in a time (I reminded Gretchen) when there was actually much more crime. It seems the helicoptery behavior of the Arkansas family has back-infected their matriarch. Or perhaps this just reflects how older people are more anxious.] It was pretty late at that point and didn't end up going out, mostly because Gretchen didn't really want to because she was feeling lazy.
A 150 milligram dose of diphenhydramine I'd taken was in the process of kicking in and I was trying to find an opportunity to slip off to bed. But now the kids wanted to play Scattergories, which they'd just been playing at the other place they'd been. The thing about diphenhydramine is that it slows down brain function, so initially I struggled to think of things such as a lake that begins with "K." [Though I still can't think of one.] But another thing about diphenhydramine is that it's possible to rally against its chemical burden by sheer force of will, and I ended up being creative in my answers. For example, for something causing me to be late for a meeting that began with a "P," I said "piano that fell in front of my door."
Gretchen and the kids (from left: Lev and Noah) in the Rainforest area of the Botanical Garden.
The Washington Monument off in the distance behind Dina's mother Lisa, Gilad, and Gilad's daughter Mia.
The Capitol from as close as one can get to it from the west.
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