Mr. Pfaff Goes to Washington

by Raman Pfaff
Reprinted from V6N2, September 1992

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A life as a physicist is entertaining. One of the greatest benefits is that we get to travel all over the world to interesting places to engage in physics conferences. One may wonder why a person would want to go to a conference and have to leave their nice home and stay in a hotel on the wrong side of town and that answer is simple, the exploration of the foreign city becomes the primary goal. The latest city I got to visit was Washington D.C.

I had not been here since I was a 1 year old child and thus I did not remember much of it. The trip began here in good old East Lansing in front of the cyclotron with a minivan awaiting us. Six of us climbed into our twelve hour small hotel room and off we went. As usual, such long trips are generally run very smoothly and 20 minutes outside of town we took a bogus highway (they say it was due to the thick fog but you know how it is...). Our plan was to stop at the parents of one of our ship mates and get a bit of lunch. We made it there at a fairly good lunch time and we climbed out of the machine. The local (West Virginia) hounds came out to see us and we quickly made out way to the safe indoors. I wasn't feeling so great but you know how it is when you've been stuck in a van for 6 hours. The greatest food of all was waiting for us! Lasagna and garlic bread. It tasted terrific. I was slightly hungry after my first serving so I matched the king of food devouring in our party and had another piece. Little did I know dessert was about to be served. That was a delicious ice cream cake, so it went down the throat too. That was the beginning of the end for me. I was bloated and I was discovering through symptoms that I had the FLU! I was not a happy camper. I struggled through the next few hours while constantly thinking I would throw up, and then DC finally came into view and I could think of nothing other than the hotel room with a bed. We pulled in and called John J's room immediately. Up I went. People asked if I needed dinner; I asked my stomach and it mildly told me if I ate it could be an ugly scene. The bed called and in I was, sleeping with Johnny, and it felt great (the bed that is, I could have done without JJ.)

The day dawned brightly at 7 am. We had to go down and register for the meeting before 8 o'clock. My nose had started dripping and I was sneezing. I wanted back into the bed. For the first time though, I made it out into the city. The adventure had begun. However, at this time all we had to do was find the conference hotel. It was only about 5 blocks away. We just had to pass Domino's Pizza (an old PPSA delicacy), several rent-a-car places, the store called Souvenir City, and one of those murals on an entire building. Even this was different than E.L. John had a few pills with him (what's new) and it temporarily helped my flu. Several talks were worth going to so I listened to quite a few. Soon though, the city was calling. The first view of the town was lunch that day. Several blocks away was DC's Chinatown. The Big Wong was one of the most interesting sounding places and I wanted to go but several other people vetoed me. We just had lunch at some basic place. Not quite as exciting.

The thing I learned most about eating was the fact that getting a big group together was never a good idea. The absolute largest problem was that we would agree to meet at a certain time (after a day of long talks) and that is where we would spend our time ... waiting! It was nightmarish. Others would roll in a tad late and of course announce that they had asked someone else along. The waiting would continue. If we agreed to meet at 6 P.M. we would make it to the restaurant around 9:30. It was truly unbearable! That was the worst thing about the evening meal. The best was a doosie though. Every night several of us wanted to eat a different countries cuisine. Not everyone was like this though. One unnamed (John Kelley) member of our group had a Domino's pizza from across the street almost every night. Others seemed to eat certain things, like Chinese, every evening. Hey man, when your in a big city eat a bit of every strange thing you can find. It's the only way to go. And that's what we did...

A group of us walk to Chinatown for lunch.

The choice that evening was Mongolian. We got the recommendation from some mere hotel person. No one really remembered who. We had the approximate street address and we moseyed on over there (after waiting for all). The area seemed nice enough but we could not figure out where the place was. We saw a big square building which looked like a shed and seemed to have no entrance. It did have some strange curvy writing on the wall and luckily one of our group members understood this "Persian" handwriting well enough to figure out that this strange building was the place for us to be. Approaching the front door boggled us. There was no doorknob but there was a knocker. Don Sackett said it all, "Well, what the hell" and he put his hand on it and went tap-tap. I could barely hear this and I was two feet away. Anyway, someone inside had vastly better hearing than I did and the door opened. A man all wrapped in robes opened the door and we started trying to all move ahead. The strange man sort of paused us and he pointed to the ground towards our feet. We momentarily thought that we should take our shoes off but we realized as we reached for our shoes that he just meant to warn us of the 5 inch high hunk of wall we must cross to get in. We all made it.

Inside was adventurous. Suddenly I felt I was in a different land. We stood in a small room with a tiny fountain in the middle and one wall with water running down it. Incense was dominating the atmosphere. With a wonderfully Moroccan accent he began telling the people near him what the deal was. We got the full seven courses for a mere $25. That wasn't too bad in this city. One of our members (Easwar Ramakrishnon) is a vegetarian and we asked if they had something for him and they assured us that it was no problem. OK. We went on in through a curtain on the non-waterish wall and observed the inside. Many couches everywhere. We got seated and it wasn't that bad. The evening progressed. Many courses were brought to us, and everything was a dog fight. One tray was placed between the eight of us and everyone went at it (well, not John K. who was just hanging out with us until he got his pizza and not Easwar who got his own food). As we were about done with our fifth course or so, the lights suddenly went out and all of a sudden a dancer jumped onto the table about 3 feet from John K's head and cranked up. At first I thought it was Goldie from Miami but I quickly realized it was just a very good belly dancer simulating the aura of the foreign dinner. All in all it was a fabulous time. It took us three hours for the whole dinner, but it was well worth it.

The trip was just full of adventures. One of them was where no man has gone before (at least of the ones I know). It was of course the Star Trek exhibition at the Air and Space Museum (which is part of Smithsonian--all free). We should have been there early in the morning to get tickets to get into the show but we had been at some talks and out buying drugs for my persistent flu. However, in my old days I was great at getting into a Dolphin game every week (with a bit of help) and was thus able to get two tickets while John J. was trying to figure out how we could get in. Off we went on our 1 hour mission. It was a rather impressive display and had reams of authentic items from the original show. Some of the most interesting were the clothing articles which were worn by many special characters on the show, especially the females. I can't believe that women would hang out (so to speak) in many of the things. Other highly interesting things were the "toys" from the years, such as phasers, tricorders, and things of this nature. They looked amazingly fake. It is a wonder that things look so real when they get on the tube. The show was definitely way ahead of its time and has certainly become something that will last in the memory of many of us for years. I really won't forget getting a chance to see all the stuff they had there for me to observe, but please don't touch.

Raman teaches schoolchildren at the Smithsonian how to use these weapons.

One thing that is always adventurous is walking home from dinner and such things in the nice dark evening hours in a large city that we don't know very well. Every night we got to walk past Souvenir City (and the burned down youth hostel) which was definitely the place to be for a bit of "fun." Generally there were several women of the evening standing near the pay phone on that corner, just in case they wanted to get word on some insider trading or a political undercover operation I suppose. They were really dressed for the nice warm evenings we had while in town--not. This was really a place we tried to stay on the other side of the street of every night (except Shigeru and I, I suppose--nothing like a city) and one night we saw the unbelievable business going on. Generally when one sees a U-Haul truck you think someone is in the process of going somewhere. Well this was really it. Two guys went to the back of the truck, opened it up, and believe it or not, about 6 ladies of the evening sat inside (this IS the truth). We really "trucked" right on by that night to avoid having an altercation with the neighborhood meat truck. What a city. My flu was seeming to diminish.

On John J's last day around, we did much sightseeing and we stopped in one of the larger malls to look for Georgetown sweatshirts (of course they had none). We were minding our own business in a small drugstore (I needed more drugs of course) and a strange event occurred. A stranger approached John and told John that he had an envelope with him that was full of government secrets (or something like that) and that he was now off to send it to someone in the Pentagon, we were of course in Pentagon Mall. Needless to say, the whole thing seemed strange enough to us but in DC I imagine it is not particularly unusual. Maybe this was just indicative of the fact that John is nearly a special agent for our government and he is probably on a physics acquisition unit as we speak. Who is to say?

The MSU gang in Washington, DC.

The next day I had vowed to do my own sightseeing since I wanted to avoid the waiting game. John had left and I was on my own. For the first time I would have to navigate the city on my own. I felt like a little kid in a big park. To me the most intriguing part of this park was the underground part. The mass transit of this city is fascinating when it is first seen. Most of DC is accessible by this system so of course I got to see it the first time with JJ. He had seen it before so knew more or less how to get through it. I was fascinated by its appearance and did notice where we were going. To me it appeared as the beehive of our society. It was several levels high at some points and one could just look straight down many tunnels that had that bee wax formation. It was great! Maybe I still have to much kid in me but... There were many things I wanted to see that day. About 4 museums, a few structures, and of course the famous Arlington cemetery. The day was perfectly sunny and about 90 degrees. Back in Michigan it was freezing of course. I laughed at the thought of it. That day I saw the White House, the Capitol, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Arlington, American History Museum, and a bunch of other things. Later, as I sat in bed soothing my horrendous sunburn, I looked at the map I had a figured I walked about 20 miles that day, but at least I saw everything there was to be seen--at least all I really had time to see. The next day was the day to leave, and believe it or not, I think the flu had run its course and petered out of my bloodstream.

Last Updated 04/14/95.© 1996 PPSA