Column: After East Coast visit, there's no place like home

My wife and I just returned home following a whirlwind vacation trip to New York City and Washington, D.C., where we lived before returning to Nevada almost five years ago. Now we remember why we left the East Coast. Two words come to mind: congestion and traffic.

Congestion means too many people and too many vehicles in too little space, with traffic jams as a logical extension of the vehicular congestion. I wouldn't want to be the terrified patient, or the expectant mother (an unlikely scenario, in my case), in the back of a New York City ambulance at rush hour, or almost any hour for that matter. For all their problems, however, both cities are great American metropolises with much to offer residents and tourists alike.

In Washington, our first stop, we revisited our old haunts along the Mall and in and around Old Town Alexandria, Va. These included the National Gallery of Art, the Jefferson Memorial and Mount Vernon, George Washington's gracious home south of Alexandria. These days, busloads of noisy tourists swarm through Mount Vernon, turning a once-peaceful country retreat into a beehive of activity.

At my former workplace, the U.S. Information Agency - now part of the sprawling State Department - there's no sign of USIA's legacy at State Annex 44, just another grim and gray federal building in southwest Washington. Frankly, I'm happy to be far away from that depressing scene.

Meanwhile, a new mayor is attempting to put municipal government back together after the disaster he inherited from former Mayor Marion Barry, who mismanaged the city into bankruptcy when he wasn't chasing women or smoking crack. The D.C. voters always forgave Barry, however, as long as he wore his African dashiki and created plenty of well-paying city jobs that didn't require any real work.

While we were in the capital, the Washington Post reported a $2.8 million public housing scandal in which Barry's administration spent federal funds to hire an army of "consultants" to help public housing residents get training and start businesses. According to the Post, "The lion's share of the money . . . went to consultants, several of whom failed to perform as promised or, when they did show up on the job, produced work of dubious quality." Then the Post asked a key question: "Why . . . would HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) shell out the money ... knowing they (the recipients) lacked the knowledge and technical skills to manage their grants?" Because that's what federal bureaucrats do with our tax money, that's why.

And then there's the $750,000 missing from the proceeds of the Millennium March on Washington, a gay and lesbian event held on the Mall late last month. "It is fair to infer at this point that someone simply walked off with the money," said the general counsel of the march. The FBI is investigating. So what else is new? These are everyday occurrences in our nation's capital.

On to New York, where we rode the rickety old subway and pounded the pavement from Central Park to Rockefeller Center to Wall Street. As the song says, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. The New Yorkers are jammed together in Manhattan like sardines in a can, cell phone-equipped businessmen (and women, of course) shoulder-to-shoulder with the homeless and assorted nut cases. Remarkably, many New Yorkers take it all in stride and actually try to help lost tourists. We even saw a few smiles in the Big Apple - not too many, but a few.

Perhaps these friendly and helpful New Yorkers are the result of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's courtesy campaign. He has encouraged his fellow citizens to be nice to visitors and each other, and has gone so far as to urge taxicab drivers to stop insulting their passengers. He even cleaned up Times Square, replacing porno shops with Disney and Warner Brothers stores featuring lots of cute stuffed animals.

But despite his success in cleaning up the city, making it more visitor-friendly and reducing crime, Mayor Rudy faces a couple of serious problems: prostate cancer and a dysfunctional marriage. As we arrived in New York, the mayor was announcing that he and his wife were separating because of his "very good friend" (translation: girlfriend) Judith Nathan, a 45-year-old divorcee whom he took to dinner very publicly last weekend while his wife celebrated Mother's Day in California.

"I feel under pressure," Giuliani told the press in a massive understatement before he decided on Friday to drop out of a U.S. Senate race against First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, no stranger herself to dysfunctional marriages. But hey, as another song says, "New York, New York, it's a wonderful town." There's no place quite like it, the original American melting pot, illustrated by the Russian-speaking desk clerks at our $150-per-night "budget" hotel and the Arabic-speaking cab driver who drove us to JFK Airport at 90 miles an hour without understanding a single word we said, like "Slow down!"

So after visiting Ellis Island, the Empire State Building and the New York Stock Exchange, and seeing "Cats" on Broadway, we've decided that New York is a great place to visit, but we wouldn't want to live there. We feel the same about Washington. By now, we prefer Nevada's clean air, desert landscapes and uncrowded highways. In a hectic world, there's something to be said for peace and quiet.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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