Postcard from DC

The sky above the Supreme Court is wispy with cotton and shot with the sun, blue and slate and gold. Those waiting to get in hold books and coffee cups, smart phones and rosary beads. They flash a range of ages and postures and laughs, though nearly everyone is white. I overhear resigned complaints about regulation, nostalgic praise for the Boy Scouts, but the crowd does not seem especially doctrinaire or originalist. They are that special DC cocktail of out-of-towners in canvas coats muddled with dewy staffers in conservative suits. Everyone becomes slowly aware that our advance has stalled. The police raise metal barricades from the streets, park cruisers across lanes, walk sniffing Labradors among the parked cars. The President is coming, and for an hour we don’t move, though the line grows, folding back on itself, crossing the street, running out of sight past the Library of Congress. The sun sinks and it’s colder when we start moving again, but as we turn onto the Court’s marble proscenium something odd and giddy happens to our spirits. The police direct us around cameramen setting up their rigs. We recognize reporters who are, we agree, smaller than they appear on TV. A few men work the line, begging politely. A copse of pro-life activists with tape over their mouths is planted on the sidewalk. Finally inside, we snake our way into the Great Hall of the Supreme Court, where the justice’s casket lies wrapped like a package in the American flag. The ornate ceiling and the hushed acoustics, the matching wreathes sent by the House and the Senate, the massive columns and the Marines standing at attention are all magisterial and stately. The clerks, though, they are human and intimate. Four of them alongside the casket, a rotation of former aides who will stand vigil all day. Among the thousands of us streaming through, here are four who knew the man, who worked for him; his death real and unreal for them in a way it’s not for us. The clerk across from me, I can see on her composed face that my afternoon of tourism is for her tangible and bizarre. And then suddenly the line is ended. I’m back outside on the court’s massive steps. Across the street, to the west, the clouds behind the Capitol have gone orange and red, on fire with the massively indifferent sunset.