Just As I Thought

Looking back: Elian in Washington

Tomorrow’s 60 Minutes will feature a report on Elian Gonzalez — remember him?
I wasn’t blogging back then, but during his last few weeks in the U.S. he stayed at my office. Well, not my office per se, but just under my office window. I worked at the time on an estate in upper northwest Washington, DC, in an old dorm building built beside a 18th/19th century house. Elian and his father, along with a bunch of friends, stayed in that house. Every day — at least, at first — we watched them play on the swing set outside my office window; until we got tired of it and got back to work.
Almost overnight, a fence sprung up around the complex, and the day he arrived we had fun watching live streaming video from a helicopter on the internet… and then turning to the window to watch the helicopter itself.
Satellite trucks squeezed through the narrow streets of the Cleveland Park neighborhood, and took up residence on the street in front. Marshals strung up yellow tape to mark off the area, but residents complained — they were used to walking their dogs on the estate’s lawns (rather than their own acre plots… love those rich NIMBY bastards), so the marshals were forced to pull back the tape a hundred feet to let people’s dogs crap everywhere.
Those of us who worked there were issued with official-looking IDs by the Justice Department, I still have mine with a particularly unflattering picture. The glass corridors that connected the various dorm buildings had translucent plastic applied to them to prevent the media using telephoto lenses to capture images of Elian; but from inside, we had a clear view. I remember particularly one day when Elian’s father cut his hair using a pair of clippers and a bowl. At that moment, I flashed to my dad doing the same thing, and felt so sorry for his kid, this normal kid, caught in an extraordinary situation, a clash between governments and cultures and philosophies.
Soon, Elian and his entourage left, the fence came down, and I no longer had to give my parking space up to a marshal. And the house was evidently left in such poor condition that it had to be repainted inside.

Today, my old dorm-room office is gone, torn down when the property was sold a few years ago — replaced by expensive designer homes on postage-stamp parcels of land. The house where Elian stayed passed from a non-profit ownership to a private owner, the garden where Elian got his hair cut is now a swimming pool.
But the neighborhood wealthy still walk their dogs on the lawn. The major difference here is that they own the lawn, and won’t let anybody else walk their dog there without a membership. A doggie country club.
The whole thing really couldn’t be more of a contrast between American philosophy and Cuban philosophy, could it?

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