Reflections: sic transit

Someone is always there. Whether it is 7 a.m. on a commuting morning or in the depths of Sunday afternoon, a policeman stands outside the Turkish Embassy on Q Street, right where it feeds into Sheridan Circle. I think the post is for protection against vengeful Armenians. The last time I walked by there were three -- tough men in D.C. police uniforms, splayed out across the front steps like Conestogas circled against the Sioux. The thick wooden doors swung open. Was the ambassador to dash for a limousine? Was I to see some courier emerge, clutching a valise full of dire secrets?

No. A fat yellow cat, tiger striped, strolled out and blinked almond eyes at passing pedestrians. The policeman relaxed.

It may have been a military attache in a clever disguise.Then again, it may just have been a very safe cat.

I kept walking, up towards S Street. It was a fine, late winter day, with no sun but one of those southern winds so fresh it snaps when you taste it, like a new-picked string bean. Sheridan stared fixedly from his pedestal, thinking bronze thoughts about Appomattox. Limousines, stuffed with the movers and shakers of Washington, swirled around him. Sheridan Circle is the heart of Embassy Row, thick with Beaux Arts chanceries, chinaberry bushes, and cobbled drives: a neighborhood where even the garbage is elegant.

I have not lived in Washington for a very long time. Then again, apparently, neither has anyone else. The city's population seems to consist mainly of law school graduates and Cadillac Fleetwoods, each long enough to be a traffic jam all by itself. For everyone of ambition, work consists of a mad scamper to find out instantly what everyone of importance is up to. The business of American government seems an endless series of perilous events, each one (I am told by people wiser than I) threatening Democracy As We Know It. Disaster is always averted at luncheons to which I am never invited.

However, I believe I can claim a pedestrian's acquaintance with the city that few senators can match. I turned up S Street, away from Massachusetts Avenue, and walked towards Mitchell Playground, where it is possible to hear children playing in eight different languages. On the way I passed the Embassy of the People's Republic of Laos, a pack of tourists ("Marge! How can anybody from Laos afford a car like that?m "), the Woodrow Wilson House (a Property of The National Trust for Historic Preservation) and The Textile Museum (Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00-5:00).

There were no children in Mitchell Playground. It started to rain. I had once bought a prayer mat at the Textile Museum shop and made a mental note to return, so I went inside as the rain stiffened and a sudden chill swept down the street on its way towards Virginia. Most of all, that day, I wanted to be in a place where people were not jockeying for position, where it was not a parlor game to see who emerged from the cloakroom with whom and not necessary to barter bits of gossip like chips. I wandered through the shawls, downstairs, for a while; eavesdropping on embassy couples and waiting out the weather. Then the hallway bloomed into a double height room hung with runners, long slashes of red and orange knotted in the Atlas mountains of Morocco. A little boy in boots reached out a free arm: "Look," he said, "look. The colors are moving."

And in a second floor niche I saw ghost rugs. They were from Cairo, both Mamluks, knotted in the 15th century in those distinctive Egyptian shades of red , green and blue that shimmer when you pass.The sheen of the wool and the color's tonality were matched by some ancient Cairene to produce a stunning optical effect, as if the rug were translucent, a ghost, a thing you could reach your hand through to touch the wall.

Afterwards I walked home along Normanstone Drive. It is a freakish road, almost rural in the way it drops down off Kalorama and runs through a ravine sheltered from any traffic or sense of the city. All you can see are the cantilevered backs of million dollar homes.

About halfway up I noticed an old sidewalk, crumpled and thrown on its side like a length of giant concrete Ry-Krisp. It was the only remnant of some failed developer's dream. And I thought not of the ghost rugs but about a modern hanging -- a Tazenackht, from southern Morocco --whose design featured a fleet of merry, stylized little automobiles.

So modern times are absorbed by history and rendered into their proper place. At the top of the ravine I passed a house. Out front was a car with a license plate that read "US Senate 1. Tennessee." The owner is a man of some importance. Behind his house, a stream carries bits of old sidewalk out towards the Potomac. And, as rumor says, the Potomac carries its secrets out to the Chesapeake Bay, and thence, with time, to the sea.

I found this a cheerful thought to weigh against the deadly intensity of daily Washington.The road wound up a hill while the stream flowed into a concrete culvert -- and I went home to a chair, a book, and dinn er.

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