Thursday, 7 March 2013

USA diary day 3 - post-Sequestration Washington

Another early start - more due to my body clock than anything else. I headed into town breakfasting at Pret - one of the few reverse-trade invasions I've seen in the US. While MaccyDees, Gap, and just about every major US brand seem to have made it on to the UK's high streets, it's rare to see the phenomenon happening the other way round. But, at leas in DC and NYC, Pret a Manger seems to definitely be a growing brand.

On the stroke of 9am I was admitted into the National Archives - my first visit to this Pennsylvania Avenue monolith - though I was nearly mown down in the crush as a cottage industry of archive researchers scuttled for prime position in the reading room. The reading room's not all that bit, but was very busy - and on just the second day of post-sequestration DC, that was causing a problem.

I had just one box of materials to interrogate. I had very limited time, and had pinned down my search through pre-contact with the fabulous Ron Ross to the Congressional Records I really needed to see. I thought I was losing time going through the bureaucracy of getting a researcher's card and then having to meet up with a Congressional Records archivist to relay my request. However, by the time I was allowed into the reading room (after a false start when I was ejected for the sin of carrying a small camera case) my box of papers was ready - much to the evident surprise of the desk staff.

I'd somehow bypassed the file pulling system and was able to settle down and work my way through the record of the 85th Congress' Senate sub committee on astronautics and space. To be honest, I found the most useful materials in the first 30 minutes - but ploughed on for a further three hours.

More and more researchers arrived, and the desk spaces were soon full. I'm not sure why they weren't allowed to work in the adjacent rooms, but suspect it came down to supervisory staffing. While sequestration won't kick in at the National Archive for another six weeks, posts had been held unfilled in anticipation of the Capitol Hill stand-off. Coupled with a number of illnesses, there were just too few staff on the floor to cope with the voracious demand for files. Researchers are generally quite sanguine folk, but there were raised voices and exasperated sighs and files remained unpulled, and the queue to return materials stretched to the door.

It was quite a noisy room and I didn't find it conducive to good research - and was quite glad to leave before lunch. By 3pm I was on an Amtrak heading north east. Four and a half hours later, after passing through Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, I was met from my train at Stamford, Connecticut and whisked to my concretely-functional hotel. I spent yesterday earning my keep to pay or this trip by delivering comms training at Diageo - a long day, but also very good fun.

My best memory of the last couple of days is an odd one. The train failed just before arriving at Stamford, leaving us in the dark without power. The driver came on the PA and said: "I don't really know what's wrong, but I'm going to turn everything off and on again and try and reboot the engine." It worked: it nearly always does...IT, trains...who knows what else.      

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