I’m a firm believer in the “bad apple” theory. If one person in 100 is bitter, angry and selfish, everyone else is bound to be negatively affected simply by standing within their range. Consider that one jerk at the office. When he eats half your lunch from the fridge and then farts in front of your desk when returning to work, it’s natural to feel affected.
Life in Washington, DC can often resemble that gassy coworker. It’s hands-down the angriest, most divisive major city in the United States. For no singular origin, it’s easy to find yourself standing next to someone who doesn’t like you, doesn’t want to know anything about you, and if no one’s looking, might even lean over to step on your hand as you tie your shoe.
Fortunately for the average fan of cities, much of the anger amongst Washington’s citizens can’t be recreated anywhere else. For starters, DC is ground zero for that endless war between Democrats and Republicans. When averaged out, the metropolitan area is almost exactly a 50/50 red-blue split, with the standard deviation resting on what party is presently in power. And in case you’ve never seen a political ad, speech, or poster before, these two sides hate each other. Elections, and government in general, are almost exclusively reactionary, and political change is usually trailed by a constituency that is motivated enough to make their voices heard. Some famous person once said that “Change is the result of a bunch of angry idiots”. I think that’s how the quote goes.
The variance in ideologies also dictates the next major problem with a city that hinges on administration changes. Over 250,000 federal and government jobs are filled at any point in DC, but there is little job security because the new team in charge always wants to bring in their own people. This resonates throughout the city via massive turnover rates in almost every field. New lawyers at the Department of Justice, new economists at the Treasury Department, new Capitol Hill staffers and legislators. You see where this is going.
Critics of DC’s job environment will cite the influx of jobs being created every time a new administration takes office. Yes, there are still plenty of jobs to be had in DC, but this current recession aside, consider that most people in most cities expect their jobs to exist in four years. In DC, you’re rarely afforded that luxury.
This isn’t my house
When one feels a sense of disconnect, they’re less likely to react with the same regard for their environment. DC is a city of transplants. People come here from every corner of the country, but less than half of its residents are born in the district’s metropolitan area. If the average DC resident isn’t from here, it’s unreasonable to expect him or her to have a sizable connection to the area. It’s like a guest dropping a glass at a party. They may claim responsibility, even ask for a broom to sweep it up, but you know they’re not doing as thorough of a job, sweeping the corners, mopping the floor, as if it were their own house. “After all”, they might say to themselves, “There’s a bunch of other people here, and the host is going to have to clean up anyway”. Unfortunately, the host is from Texas, and didn’t have to put down a security deposit.
I’ve got a long drive ahead
The DC area is hard to clearly define, since people commute from humongous distances. According to Forbes magazine, DC area drivers spend about 60 hours a year stuck in traffic, and 15% of residents spend over an hour each day driving into work. Sure, other cities such as Los Angeles and New York experience traffic problems, but DC is a fraction of the size of New York and LA, so when you factor in another hour for the return commute, it’s easy to see why so many people have a frown on their face.
When I make inadvertent eye contact with strangers, I give them a nod, as if to say “I realize that we just made eye contact by accident, but I acknowledge your existence”. In the course of a day in a city, it’s easy to occasionally make inadvertent eye contact with strangers. And before I got to the DC area, I considered this gesture to be a good show of manners, especially because there was a 99.9% success chance that the same gesture would be returned.
But I urge you to walk around Washington, DC and test this gesture out. People will look at you with expressions ranging from “who is this person? what do they want? why did they nod at me?” to “I will absolutely try to murder you if you look in my direction again.”
It’s obvious that not everyone in Washington DC is a bad apple. There are thousands of people working in underpaid and stressful jobs for the single goal of helping others. But like a child who just found out the truth about Santa Claus, there are many jaded people who are marching to a downbeat.
One day, while waiting for a Metro train, I bent over to tie my shoe, just as a passing woman stuck the heel of her shoe into my hand. I looked up and asked why she just tried to punch a hole through my second favorite hand. She turned and looked up at me. “I didn’t see you down there” before continuing on. I boarded the train and pushed a man aside, as I made my way towards a seat. It’s hard to maintain a warm disposition when surrounded by frigid bodies.