Don’t Drive An Unmarked Van Near The White House. Seriously, Don’t.
I work in a nondescript office building about two blocks west of the White House. Over the past 18 months or so that I’ve been here, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of unique aspects to working this close to our nation’s capital. For example, I’ve learned that a sidewalk isn’t really complete unless it’s accompanied by a large, grey concrete traffic barrier known as a Jersey Barrier. These concrete blocks, which look like they weigh upwards of a ton apiece, are designed to stop everything from a speeding truck carrying explosives to bothersome pedestrians who want to get too close to President Bush. Unfortunately, they’re not exactly designed with aesthetics in mind. The concrete is often jagged, discolored, and pitted, with rusted pieces of rebar sticking out the sides. The overall effect brings to mind walking along a barbed wire fence in World War I.
Other pleasant aspects of working in an occupied military zone include the constant presence of police officers – of various kinds, including Secret Service, Park Police, and D.C. cops – all of whom feel it is their duty to watch your every move as you stroll along the sidewalk for lunch. Actually, I don’t mind the police so much. It’s just that they’re getting so young now. Seriously, I’ve seen Secret Service guys on bicycles, wearing sunglasses, rugby shirts, and shorts – who look as if they couldn’t be a day over 23 – slinging automatic weapons over their shoulders. Definitely makes me feel my age.
I have a friend who lived in Jerusalem when he was a teenager, and he told me stories about young kids barely older than he was walking around in flak jackets and sporting Uzis. I laughed it off then, but I think I’ve got a better idea of what he may have felt like.
But the people who get hassled the worst near the White House – bar none – are van drivers. I’m not kidding. If you drive a van within a four-block radius around the White House, you can count on being stopped by a police officer within a matter of minutes. This is true for any van; even Fedex and UPS guys aren’t immune. But if you are driving an unmarked van, and you have, say, expired tags, and you’re double parked across the street from the White House, you can count on a world of hurt coming down on you almost immediately.
I’ve even done a quasi-empirical survey. My favorite Italian place for lunch looks right across Lafayette Square, and I get a good view of police activity in the area while I eat. One day, just for fun, I watched each unmarked van that was driving through the area to see if it would make it through. In an hour and a half – OK, so I took a long lunch – eight unmarked vans drove into the Secret Service security net. None made it out unstopped. In fact, every single van was stopped within one minute of entering the security zone.
Most of the time a single police car would stop the van, check the driver’s license and registration, and do a physical inspection of the inside of the vehicle. On two occasions, though, some kind of red flag must have come up, because five or six squad cars appeared out of nowhere to surround the van and cuff the driver while the search was going on. Although both drivers were eventually let go, it didn’t seem to me like my idea of a fun time.
So my advice to anyone driving a van in Washington, D.C. is this. Stay away from the White House. Seriously.