by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

Shutdown with a Pearl Earring


This shutdown has been no fun, needless to say.  Just watching John Boehner go through the grimaces each morning is enough to make me want to shut down the Internet in my apartment.

But the previous government shutdown, in January 1996, brought on one of the transcendent moments of my adulthood.

The federal government was shut down courtesy of Newt Gingrich & Co.  But the plans were in place for a weekend trip to the capital – the first trip I was taking out of New York with a woman I’d met.

She and I rode Amtrak from New York to Washington on a Friday evening, and stayed with one of her college roommates in Columbia Heights.  It snowed that night – snowed six inches, while we ate hummus and crusty bread and drank wine and told stories and looked at old college yearbooks.  (Well, not that old: I was thirty.)

The next morning she and I took the Metro to the National Gallery of Art: and the combination of shutdown and snowstorm meant that the sold-out Vermeer exhibition – as many paintings by the Dutch master as have ever been assembled in the United States – was not sold out after all.

Reader, we saw them.  And Vermeer’s fondness for the small scale – “A View of Delft” is a little more than three feet square, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” fifteen inches by eighteen – meant that there was a real advantage in seeing his paintings in crowds thinned out by crisis.  We could actually see them.  We could see them for ourselves. 

Reader, we got married: and in my imagination the snow is still falling faintly, faintly falling, upon the ships and spires and houses on the shore of Delft.

  • 16 October 2013