A summer with the Post

I liked the Washington Post a lot before spending a few weeks in D.C., but there’s nothing likegetting your hands on a paper every day to really give you a feel for it. And the Post is an excellent paper; my favorite one, I think. The Times‘ Magazine is better, and so is its arts coverage, but when it comes to straight news coverage, features, and the editorial pages, the Post is fresher and more balanced.

Here are a few Post stories I read in D.C. that I thought were particularly interesting and linkworthy.

The first story is “At your convience,” a wonderful feature by Libby Copeland about 7-Eleven, written to mark the 75th anniversary of the convenience store chain. Here’s a taste:

Day and night at the 7-Eleven are alternate universes. At 7 a.m., the store is about efficiency. In and out. Construction workers and suits alike are en route to work; they want coffee, “instant food” (quicker even than fast food). Pre-made breakfast sandwiches. Many get the same thing at the same time. Every day. They know how many creams they want in their coffee.

At, say, 11 p.m., the place of business becomes a destination, a community center, in some neighborhoods. There’s a sense that anything goes. A guy walks in barefoot despite the “Shirts and Shoes Required” sign. Two young men jokingly — brazenly — grab a big carton of individually wrapped snacks by the cashier stand and walk out, then laugh and bring it back in. Then they do it again.

The night employees work till early in the morning. They serve breakfast at all hours: They sell to people just getting off work and people just going to work, and the whole thing goes ’round and ’round.

Let’s begin with the sun.

It might seem like a hokey way of going about it, but Copeland executes it beautifully.

The second story is “Cooler heads,” by Jennifer Frey, a pean to Willis Carrier, who somewhat accidentally invented the air conditioner 100 years ago.

A taste:

For most of us, though, summer comes with refrigerated work spaces, chilled shopping malls, bedrooms cooled to optimal sleeping temperatures — at least for the one in control of the thermostat. From the minute the heat wave descends upon us, we dial up the air conditioning, plug in the window units, seal ourselves off from the steamy outside world.

Without air conditioning, we would be limp, damp, foggy, irritable. We would be utterly miserable.

And so let us now praise the invention of air conditioning, which arrived 100 years ago today, and has changed our entire world.

Of course, I was still miserable in D.C. despite refrigerated home and work spaces. It was so goddamn hot. Ugh. The third Post story I recommend is “Designing women,” by Cynthia Gorney, a fascinating look at the scientists who are searching for the “female Viagra.”

While Gorney does a lot of good reporting, in the name of balance of subtlety she takes an overly skeptical view of the entire process. If you read to the end, I think you’ll find her reaction to a woman nearly in tears as obtuse as I did. But here’s a spicy taste:

If you walk into a sexual medicine clinic expecting some version of annotated anatomical charts, with step-by-step explanations of what transpires in the adult female during a fully satisfactory sexual experience, what you get instead still adds up to a giant scribble of circular arrows and question marks, brain to genitals to brain to genitals, with experts like Julia Heiman and Amy Heard-Davison adding research information that sometimes mystifies as much as it illuminates.

The third story is “Brian Lamb’s flock,” by Mark Leibovich, a nice little piece about the cult of personality that has formed around C-SPAN founder, guru and “Booknotes” host Brian Lamb. A taste:

Lamb is open to interpretations of himself — the solemn ones, mocking ones, camp ones.

He’ll play along. He is resigned to his celebrity niche. He has been called the most boring and the most trusted man in America, both of which he would take as a source of pride, or, at least, humor. He’s heard the cult thing over and over. He finds the status silly, if hardly complicated. “I do not want to be a star, I do not want to be a personality,” Lamb says, “and that fact creates a following that I can’t really explain.”

Lastly, there’s this excellent story by Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan, “Disparate Justice Imprisons Mexico’s Poor.” A part of the same series on Mexican justice which produced an excellent story about rape in that country, this story is just as heartbreaking. A taste:

Giovanni Hurtado Aviles was hurrying to his engineering class when he realized he didn’t have the two pesos — about 20 cents — for the subway. When he tried to use somebody’s else’s pass to get on, he was caught and hauled to jail. “I made a mistake. I am really sorry. I won’t do it again,” Hurtado, 20, said he told the guard who nabbed him that January morning.

But the Mexican justice system, which often fails to punish serious criminals, zealously prosecutes the most minor of offenders. So the college student with no criminal record was denied bailand forced to mop floors for 12 hours a day for two months while he awaited trial.

The rule of law is almost a cliche, now, but it’s not any less true. It’s this kind of injustice that makes a place like the United States, for all its flaws, such an attractive place comparatively speaking. Welfare has very, very little to do with why Mexicans stream across the border. It’s about opportunity. It’s about having some sense that the game isn’t rigged from the very start.