When the furlough first happened, the federal employees seemed a little scared but also pretty excited. Buzzfeed posted an article entitled D.C. Is Just As Drunk As You Think It Is. Well, no joke; we were. I had the fortune of ending up at a bar on the first day of the furlough. At 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, I was with a fellow actor. We had just finished performing for a class across the street, a gig which we did not get paid for, and decided to do what starving artists do best and lament our plight over a glass of beer. We were promptly bombarded by drunk employees from the EPA, one of whom insisted I buy him a shot because, poor him, he was furloughed. He’s a mitigator, and boo hoo, he’ll be getting his paycheck late this month. Ha! After explaining to him that furlough or no, he still makes four times as much money as me on any given day, he ended up buying the shots instead. Ah, the good-hearted folk from the EPA. Cheers, sir, for your good work for the world and the kindness you’ve showed me.
Silly as the first few days were, the drinking and fun times were quickly lost as the second week hit. People got bored, and they got scared. Purse strings began to tighten.
Well, you got a taste of the real world, federal employees. You are used to cushy benefits, ridiculous amounts of paid federal holidays, and paid snow days whenever it’s a bit dusty out. Welcome to how things work for the rest of us. When we don’t work, we don’t get paid; but the federal employees ARE going to get paychecks, just late. A paycheck for NOT going to work. Now I don’t want to sound heartless. I know that there are thousands of federal employees out there in more rural areas of America for whom two weeks of back pay is really going to hurt. They live paycheck to paycheck as I do. I feel for them; I know how hard it is.
Who I don’t feel for are the federal employees of Washington, D.C. Two of my roommates were furloughed. One of them took a vacation to Cali and the other saw about 10 movies. I met a guy in my rock climbing class who said he’d wanted to spend the next few weeks learning how to climb because why not? All week long, I met furloughed people out at coffee shops, bars, etc., enjoying the nice little mini-vacation they got from work. The folks really hurt were not the federal employees, but the people who don’t get the cushy benefits. The part-time contractors, the hourly tourism workers, and most especially the poor. Friends of mine who were relying on contracts have lost them, and all of a sudden they are out of work completely. They don’t get back pay, or any pay. Neither do folks like myself that rely on the tourism industry.
The atmosphere within the city itself was just plain strange. Because I work unusual hours, I’m used to having access to places like grocery stores and coffee shops crowd free. Now, all of a sudden, I was standing in line at the grocery store and fighting for a spot at my favorite coffee shop. Ugh. The National Mall and Tidal Basin, which are usually jam packed with people, were deserts, and odd places on Pennsylvania Ave were full of tourists. The general effect was that the city was turned on its head. Americans in general were angry over this shutdown, but none to the extent of the people here in D.C. Even the Park Service refused to get on board. After a couple of days of keeping off the monuments, they essentially gave up and posted signs saying “Due to the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service area is closed, except for 1st Amendment activities.” In other words, do what you want, we won’t stop you.
The tourists were grumpy, and by week two, the furloughed workers were depressed, and the attitude felt dire. So much of D.C.’s economy was affected, and not only the government employees, but the nonprofits, the tourism industry, and many others. I think the only people making money were the bartenders. It was a strange flip for D.C. because normally we are less affected by the economic shape of the nation. Because of the government and tourism jobs, fluxes in the economy that other cities experience do not usually affect us as much. So this was weird and different.
It was quite a shock to the system, enough to flip the bordering state of Virginia to the Democrats in the upcoming governor’s election, and most likely over the next two years. It’s true Americans have a shockingly short memory, but this pissed people off enough to stick for a bit, I’m betting, at least judging by the general air of anger here in the district. For the first time, I saw a several bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling the House and Senate parking lots on an hourly basis. Wow. I have never seen that, and I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff here.
All in all, I’m glad I was here to see this happen and see the repercussions it will have on politics moving forward. It’s an interesting time to be living in the heart of the beast.