Remember the 1983 film “Vacation,” in which the Griswold family travels cross-country only to find that its beloved Walley World theme park is closed?
Imagine planning a trip to Washington, D.C., and when you get there it is, well, closed.
That’s what happened to me at the end of March. I was in the capital for a business trip when a nor’easter hammered the East Coast and shut down federal offices, blighting my plans to visit government sites on my free time.
I had hoped to visit the White House, a tour that would be facilitated through the office of my local representative, Peter King of Seaford, but I hadn’t signed up in time. Fortunately, King’s office graciously provided me with an alternative, a tour of the Capitol building on the last day of my trip.
Being familiar with rush-hour traffic, I gave myself about an hour and 15 minutes for the 30-minute ride (according to my GPS) into Washington from Maryland. Inching my way south, I arrived in front of the Capitol at 10:45 a.m., but had no idea where to park or where to go.
There’s an old joke about phone booths being ubiquitous until you need one. The same could be said of parking near Capitol Hill. With the clock ticking, I drove around and then shoved my minivan into the only spot I could find and stuck my credit card into a meter. Next to me, a cop was giving another vehicle a parking ticket. I crossed my fingers that I would not only find where I was supposed to go, but get back to my minivan before I was slapped with a hefty fine.
The Capitol dome popped into view within a few blocks. It had to be more than a half-mile away. With the temperature in the high 40s, I lifted my collar and plunged forward, but then I remembered that my contact mentioned an address: 339 Cannon, King’s suite in the House office building across from the Capitol.
Unfortunately, my GPS developed vertigo when I punched in that address. I needed to be there in less than five minutes. With luck, my eyes spotted the word “Cannon” on a building across the street from the Capitol.
I crossed the street and entered. Inside, it was dark and solemn, and I was immediately greeted by security.
“Is this 339 Cannon?” I asked a bit sheepishly.
“Well, you’re in Cannon,” the guard said with a smile. “You must be looking for Room 339.”
He put me through airport-type security and directed me to the stairs and the elevator. I looked at the time. I was late.
I climbed to the third floor and found myself in a grand and official-looking hallway. This can’t be right, I thought, but kept walking, checking room numbers — 335, 336, 337 — until I saw a gold placard designating the office of Congressman Peter King.
Two minutes late, I took a breath, opened the door and burst inside, spotting a young man dressed in business casual at a desk. His name was Ryan, and he was a graduate student working as an intern in King’s office.
“Hi, I’m sorry I’m late,” I huffed, out of breath. “I’m here for the tour.”
“Great,” Ryan said.
I looked around the quiet office. There was no one else there.
“Is it just me?” I asked.
And for the next hour, I was treated to a lovely and educational tour, beginning with King’s tchotchke-filled office (the congressman was on the premises). Photos and paraphernalia colored in white, blue and orange demonstrated his allegiance to the New York Mets, but what really caught my eye were the dozens of photos on the walls — photos of King with celebrities, dignitaries, and politicians from both sides of the aisle, including New York City Mayor Ed Koch, and Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. There was a warmth to the space that I hadn’t expected for a government office, and on the corner of the desk was an FDNY hat that King received from a firefighter after 9/11.
Outside, a terrace offered an incredible view of the Capitol — the kind of view you’d expect a veteran member of Congress to have.
“Does Congressman King come out here much?” I asked, thinking that if I were him, I would probably move my desk outside and spend my entire working day out there.
“No, not really,” Ryan said, “but look down there.”
My eye followed his finger toward an area with a couch. “Congressman John Lewis’s office is that way. He’s out here all the time.”
He asked whether I was ready to go on to the Capitol, and the mom in me asked why he wasn’t putting on a coat.
“Oh, we’re not going outside,” he said.
Instead, we walked through the underground series of tunnels through which members of Congress have traveled between buildings — hidden from the public and nor’easters — for more than a century.
I felt quite special, but actually I wasn’t.
“Anyone in the congressional district can do this?” I asked my guide. “Schedule a tour with your office?”
“Yes,” Ryan said. “That’s my job, meeting and talking with constituents and providing tours.”
We chatted the whole time — about life back in the early days of the republic, about life now, and I learned a lot about American history. It was refreshing to hear about our country’s beginnings away from the current political divisiveness of social media, and yet I was also reminded that it was through political squabbling that we grew as a nation. A hopeful sign.
And perhaps the best part? I didn’t get a parking ticket.
Reader Dina Santorelli lives in Massapequa Park.