The Common Good
March 2010

An Urgent Visit to the White House

by Ed Spivey Jr. | March 2010

It was a very special day, and I chose my necktie accordingly, a selection made easier by the fact that I only have two.

It was a very special day, and I chose my necktie accordingly, a selection made easier by the fact that I only have two. One is covered with a photograph of brightly-colored fruit, a design that expressed my bold fashion sense during the roughly five minutes that photographic ties were in style. But these are more somber times than the summer of 1981, so I instead chose the beige tie with small blue medallions, a full decade newer, and the perfect understatement for meeting the president of the United States.

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Not that he was expected in the room when I visited a former colleague in the White House, but it was not out of the question. President Obama, I have been told, is fond of “popping in” on meetings, shaking hands, displaying his trillion dollar smile—depending on the latest deficit numbers—and generally making people briefly forget the narrow special interests they came to represent. When you meet the president unexpectedly, all you can think to do is aim your cell phone to get a sweet shot for Facebook. (“That’s the top of the president’s head, right above my index finger! I’M SO STOKED!!”)
My biggest fear in meeting Obama was that my intermittent stutter would kick in and I would add more “p”s than are generally required when saying “Mr. President.” I would need an alternative phrase to get me started, something with softer consonants, such as “your highness.” A simple “Yo, Obama” rolls easily off the tongue for me, as does “Hussein.” But any of those would probably earn me 15 minutes of shame, which in today’s unit of measure is 140 keystrokes of disgrace on Twitter.
Clearly, my anxiety was growing as I subwayed to the White House, and I was wishing I had a photographic tie to hide behind.
But it turned out my “exclusive” invitation was to an annual event attended by hundreds of people, who were already waiting in line when I presented myself to a White House guard. “I’m here at the behest of a White House staff member,” I said confidently. “So are they,” he replied, pointing to the end of the line, while slowly moving a hand to his holster. He was fully prepared to employ the Secret Service’s new uninvited-guest policy—shoot first, Twitter later. (Thanks, Salahis.)
It was at this point that I realized I had another calling, the one frequently attributed to nature. I turned away from the guard—leaving behind my dreams of stuttering in front of the president—and walked, with a growing sense of urgency, into downtown. The Starbucks on the next block looked good until I saw the line to the men’s room, which was crowded with people who, like me, were probably there at the behest of the White House. So I hurried to a nearby Episcopal church where I am not a member. (I would join immediately, if there weren’t too many forms to fill out.)
I entered a side door and noticed a woman in priestly garb standing behind a lectern. I excused my interruption—she seemed to be looking at notes and talking to herself—and asked in an expectant tone if I could use the rest room. She smiled, pointed to a door on the other side of the church and said, “Christ be with you.” A nice sentiment, I felt—although quite unnecessary since I planned to do this alone—and then, as if in reply, several voices from the pews on my left said, “And also with you.”
It was a short walk across the front of the church, but the journey was lengthened by the realization that I had just vocally—and with a marked sense of urgency—interrupted the noon service and in the process had received a blessing from the priest and best wishes from the congregation. While washing my hands a few minutes later—is cleanliness next to godliness when you’re in a church, or is it the other way around?—it occurred to me that my sacrilege might have confused some worshippers into thinking the liturgy had been unilaterally updated. Would their next service combine an urgent cry for relief with a sense of heartfelt empathy, not to mention clear directions to the facilities?
I exited quietly out the opposite side of the church, not wanting to contribute any more than I already had to the Episcopal sacraments. And the priest was still smiling.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners. His book, A Hamster is Missing in Washington, D.C., is available at store.sojo.net.
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