On credentials and nametags
As in all ponds, there is a food chain in the Washington puddle and it helps to know the various trophic levels. There are the classic ways of doing this – noting cues like the caliber of shoes, briefcases/handbags and watches/jewelry – but in D.C. you have another very important clue…credentials. Everywhere you go you will encounter individuals wearing name tags, ID badges and pins. This is especially true on the Hill.
At the very bottom of the food chain there are the nameless, uncredentialed and unbadged. If a person has no name tag and they are wearing anything less than business casual, they are a tourist. Help them find the bathrooms or the building exit when they ask because their lives are positively awful as evidenced by the fact that they have chosen to spend their vacations walking the halls of Rayburn instead of some place nice like Fiji. They are plankton – easily overlooked but the absolute bedrock of the entire ecosystem.
Next are the unbadged but better dressed. These people are young, eager and massively underpaid. They are the interns or very junior staffers who do much of the heavy lifting in the District but get zero recognition. Be nice to these people because theirs is a rough lot in life and you should always be kind to the less fortunate. They rarely get time to eat or get outside so they may also be a bit pasty and in need of a sandwich. They are the small fry.
One step up are the paper label people. This group is tricky because it usually consists of pretty innocuous minnows but occasionally there may a shark tossed in. Paper labels are for the people who are “just visiting” or “just lobbying.” The “visiting people” who walk through the halls of the legislative buildings do not wear suits while the “lobbying people” do. The visitors want to talk to a legislator regarding an issue of great concern like the failure of their home state to adopt the gladiola as the state flower. The lobbyists are similar but they want to talk about base closures and earmarks. These people are fish, just boring old fish. Like a perch or something.
Occasionally you may encounter a paper label of great importance (PLOGI ®). These folks will have a paper label but will be surrounded by a small school of fish that tend to their every need. They are whale sharks and their tenders are remoras. This analogy is deeply perfect.
Note: If you are a member of paper label school, wear your label on the right hand side of your jacket (you are wearing a jacket, right?) and affix it so that it won’t be obscured by a lapel. The person you want to meet will look at your outstretched hand (mostly to check for weapons), then your name tag and then your face. Make sure all of them are in order. They will probably glance at your name tag when seeing you off so make sure to stand in a way that they can tell who you are.
One step higher, there are the perma-badgers. These people will have a badge made of hard plastic, often with their first initial and last name inscribed along with the logo of their species. If the perma-badger has a polyester uniform on, they are staff, any kind of staff. They are servers, cleaners, belhops, docents, or drivers. If the perma-badger has a big badge with lots of writing on it and no uniform, they are professional guides. They will invariably have a group of people following behind them, or more specifically wandering away from them into traffic. The tour guide may also have a lure they carry out in front of them that they wave in the air to attract and focus the attention of their charges like a benthic anglerfish. Perma-badgers all know where everything is and will help you if you ask them.
Then there are the perma-badgers that have guns. They are security. There are lots and lots and lots of them. They are police, paramilitary, actual military, Secret Service, etc. They are piranhas. They are not actually dangerous but they are unnervingly well armed. It should be obvious that you don’t annoy piranhas.
Next up are the photo-badgers, those with laminated badges that prominently display their image. If the badges are worn on a lanyard around their neck or clipped to a lapel and prominently displayed, these people are workers. They may be mid-tier staffers, agency employees, or contractors. The photo is there to let security know this person is going somewhere with some level of restrictions and the fact that the badge is made of plastic means they are likely to be going there for a long time. If you look carefully (don’t stare – just glance over on an elevator, surreptitiously) you may notice that there are numbers and letters on the badge. These usually equate with the persons rank and security clearance and while it is hard to understand the nuances, level 3 or above means they get to do cool stuff. Cool, SECRET stuff. These people are salmon. They swim upstream against great odds to make a better life for their progeny. They also occasionally are eaten by bears.
Near the top of the food chain is another species of photo-badgers that looks just like the regular photo-badgers with one key difference – the beaded chain. These people wear their photo IDs on a beaded chain that looks like they ripped it off a bank tellers’ counter when going after the pens. You will have to take my word about the ID having a photo on it because you will never actually see one since the beaded-badgers always keep their badges tucked inside a shirt pocket. This is because they are important and they feel you should know who they are without actually having to read it. Sadly, they are correct and you should know who they are because they are invariably Senior Staff. They are barracuda or maybe tuna – they are large, fast moving and rightfully feared by the fry and minnows. The beaded chain is part of the mechanism by which this species identifies one another for mating purposes.
Note: It is at this level and higher where people are permitted to walk around the metal detectors and X-ray machines without removing the contents of their pockets, belts, shoes, and implantable prosthetic hips. While I have not tried it, it seems like the only thing you need to do this dodge is a beaded chain and some confidence. I imagine security begins to recognize the beaded-badgers after a while so if you are going to try this, wait until there is a new administration and all the faces change. Better yet, don’t try this. Piranha.
At the very pinnacle of the D.C. puddle are the pinned ones. They do not wear badges (How gauche!) but instead wear either a small round pin emblazoned with the Great Seal of the United States or a tiny flag on their lapel. These people are legislators. They are whales. They coast down the halls pulling others in their wake. Their language is beautiful to hear but often impossible to interpret without expert analysts. They can plumb the inky black depths only to return to the surface covered in sucker marks from their struggle with giant squid (SuperPACS). The whales are surprisingly gentle and you should say “Hello” whenever you have the opportunity. They feed on plankton.
Enjoy your time in D.C. Don’t forget to take some time to go for a walk on the Mall, visit the museums, do a little shopping or go out to fancy restaurant. I hear the sushi is excellent.