Pepper Smith

Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Federal Worker

Out of the Old Post Office and under Ben Franklin
I walk Pennsylvania Avenue every evening with the sunset behind,
the Washington Monument out front like a speedometer needle
and dodge bus lines, joggers, suitcases, backpacks, strollers,
the homeless men outside the Canadian Embassy
and have moments in the clear like a broken field runner
on the Grand Boulevard of the Republic
A view huge, unobstructed, framed by national buildings
Pennsylvania Ave NW directs us to the Capitol lit like a Roman skull for the evening
and I’ll stay with it until veering off at Constitution toward Union Station
and the MARC commuters with their monthlies.
Used to I’d straighten up as I approached the Capitol building
and I’d skim every state’s paper down the line outside the Newseum
or window shop the power dreams in suited steak eaters inside the Capitol Grille
—better not to court the king and live on lentils.
Better to check out the little seasonal dioramas left in an office window.
or negotiate a path through the skaters at the Meade memorial.
Did you know the capitol dome is made of iron and glows like hard-shell plastic?
See it once and you’ll always see it.
Back home I was a public high school student body president
and thought somehow I would end up significant.
It would just happen. That thought ended quickly but on Penn Avenue I can still feel it—
immediately I add I am grateful to be a GS-11 with Workman’s Comp therapy,
able to leave at 5:30, happy the sky is clear this evening.
The FBI looks like a waffle iron fortress.
General Winfield Scott Hancock sits on the horse in life he was too heavy for.
Looking right past I.M. Pei’s East Wing sharp edges
I glimpse the National Mall in patches run down by softball
and festivals with low budgets and orange holy fences
and then I cross the hot dog cart beside the DoL embankment.
On this clear cold night I can already see Mars and Venus
as I turn down Louisiana and pass the Masonic griffins outside Jones-Day.
Every time I pass I think of a story a friend there told me about a
man with a corner office who smoked behind a pile of foot-smashed stubs and never worked
–no one knew if he had something on someone or was just mascot crazy.
In my 20s I had a friend at C-SPAN.
Once we walked over to the south side of the Capitol to watch the sunset.
We ran back in the rain. I still think about that.
Here comes the President. It’s him because there’s a lot of weapons
and the black ambulance.
But tonight the moon is even larger than the Capitol
and it’s better to walk invisible down this wide alley of sky, sharp
edges and engraved quotations and it is beautiful to pay attention.

Pepper Smith was an Artist Communities and Presenting Specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2006 until his death in 2017, and a former US Peace Corps Volunteer. He lived in Ellicott City MD.