Nitze Café

Photo Credit: Zdeněk Macháček

By J.W. Dixon

WASHINGTON — It’s 8:50 a.m. on a misty Tuesday and — mother of God — “these snacks are under surveillance.” Kit Kats and frozen cheeseburgers kept in check by Big Snack’s unblinking eye. But, really, I am the one under surveillance. In fact, I get the best look at my softening body in line for the Nitze Grab-N-Go. I have my deepest thoughts. Hell, I make my worst choices.

Time has no meaning, and I’m passing the basement pool table. Who are these people? I want to follow the basement-dwellers’ trope to its belittling conclusion but can’t shake the feeling that these are the coolest folks south of Massachusetts Avenue. Have you ever seen the Rockwellian picture of dogs playing poker and smoking cigars? Well, they probably didn’t play poker when anyone was around. I’m closing the doors and heading upstairs. It’s a house full of hounds up there. I can say that for sure.

It’s nearly noon and three feet of Michael Cohen’s head is being beamed into the ambiguous politics of the Nitze “lounge.” Everyone’s lunch is a proxy for their level of self-control and thus their relative likelihood of being employed by graduation. Peeled grapes will outperform even last night’s leftovers etc. “These snacks are under surveillance,” upon reflection, feels even more foreboding. 

It’s marginally darker outside. Cookie hour ostensibly has a purpose, but no one knows what it is, and nor does anyone care. I’m here for the glorious rush of temporary poverty smashing against permanent calories. Hook. It. To. My. Veins. It’s at the same time every week, yet I never know when it’s coming. I’ve been gifted a taste of the peanut cookie, evidently a rarity, and I can always take two.

I’m on the seventh floor. Massive industrial fans are furiously expelling musty heat down a shaft of very on-brand books. “Whaling and Japanese Trade Union Assimilation.”  “Airpower and Colonial Pacification.” “So, You Want to Be A Neoliberal Shill?” No library has ever been forced by size to distill its own essence so aggressively. Mason Library Washington D.C. is this library.

We should also talk about the slab of the Berlin Wall so subtle and well-matched to Nitze’s brutalist facade that the occasional visitor mistakes it for vandalism. This hunk of liberty in progress mainly bears witness to smoking. It deserves more attention if only because it encapsulates the high-water mark of neoliberalism that SAIS traditionalists love to trumpet — or, more recently, to eulogize. I wonder if it will come to 555 Pennsylvania Ave? The Newseum puts their piece of the Berlin Wall inside, which seems cruel, like boarding a zoo animal in a hotel lobby. And that is the trouble with newer, nicer spaces: You must fill them with something.