Dispatches from the Swamp: I Watched the Comey Hearings in a DC Bar with a Face Full of Novocaine


All of us, at some point over the last six months, have wished in one way or another that we could be anesthetized. That we could chemically numb the parts of our brains that flare out with anxiety every time our phones (those luminous portals of dread) vibrate with a news alert. That we could simply deaden the pain, or better yet, wake up when it’s all over. We’ve done our best to self-medicate: we take Twitter breaks, delete Facebook, take Xanax, drink, spend more time outdoors, throw dinner parties, eat better, have more sex, gaze longingly at dogs on the Internet. We try to cultivate a world where politics can’t get us, that we can control, because then at least we can control something. We want all this horror never to have happened in the first place, but what we really want is to be comfortably numb.

But for those of us who live in DC, numbness isn’t really an option: When you live in a political football it’s hard to ignore getting kicked.

If you could capture what it’s like to live in the District these days in a snow globe, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than this moment: at 10 a.m. on a Thursday, in Washington, DC, I and a hundred other people are in a bar called Commissary watching C-Span 3, and I cannot feel half my face. The bar is standing-room only, but no one is talking. All eyes are focused on the four TV screens, where James Comey is coolly responding to questions from Democrats who smell blood on the wind, and Republicans who look like they wish they’d never left the private sector.

I am sitting at the bar, laptop and phone out, drinking a Bloody Mary through a straw and trying very hard to keep it from dribbling back out, because I have just come from the dentist, who put two syringes of novocaine into my lower left jaw. My chin and lip have a nasty tingle going on and my tongue feels like a whoopee cushion. I’m still shaky from the hour and a half of the dentist using my mouth like a clown car for medical implements, and I’m having a hell of a time concentrating on the hearing. I can’t tell if this is Good for Trump or Bad for Trump or A Bombshell or a Nothingburger.

I am, in short, living the dream: I finally have no idea what’s going on.

People are drinking wine and beer and cocktails because it’s not every day that one has social permission—even obligation—to drink on a Thursday morning. We have tacitly agreed that we’re drinking not for ourselves, but for our homies locked up in federal office buildings. In the twenty-four hours since a bar called Shaw Tavern announced they’d open early and offer “Covfefe cocktails,” the Comey testimony has turned into DC’s Super Bowl, and the FOMO is strong in our city today. Twitter says Shaw Tavern has a line out the door and around the corner.

“I’ve seen the tweet about tapes,” says Comey. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” For the first time the whole room laughs, and I realize how tense everyone around me has been. And it’s true—for almost ninety minutes the bar has been almost totally silent. No side conversations, no phone calls. When the bartender runs the blender it sends a ripple of irritation through the crowd because it makes it hard to hear Comey speak. Everyone is in either business casual or yoga clothes. The wifi is crawling because a hundred people are using it.

My friend Laura, a PhD student in Education who talks about Betsy Devos in roughly the same tone Inigo Montoya used for the Six-Fingered Man, got here early to save us seats. The Republicans all seem to be scolding Comey for not having told Trump to his face that his actions were inappropriate. Even in my haze I can tell there’s something unnerving about it. Laura rolls her eyes and says, “you could do a really quick mad libs and turn all this into a sexual harassment case.” And of course, she’s right. Twitter is noticing the same thing, and by the end of the day a slew of op-eds will have dropped. But we knew this was coming: even my dentist (who is British) mentioned Anita Hill this morning, just before she slid the anesthetizing needle between teeth #18 and #19.

For we who have thronged the bars this morning are not watching to see if Comey finally gives us the Smoking Gun we’ve all dreamed of, the magic bullet that will bring the whole nightmare to a crashing halt. We know there is no such bullet, because that is not how this city works. What we are watching to see is if we were right: is this whole mishegas today playing out the way we thought it would? That’s what matters here. Because if we are right about this, it means we have a handle on what’s going on, and if we have a handle on what’s going on, then we still have some control.

Here in the District, where even the strip clubs play CNN these days, knowledge is the only power we have. They call us a swamp, but what we are is a hive of very prickly nerds. I’ve only been here for five years, but what I’ve learned is that we’re all a bunch of Tyrion Lannisters: we drink and we know things. It’s our job to know things, even though with no senators to call or representatives to besiege at town halls, we have no power to do anything about the things we know. This is especially true for those who work in the civil service, which is designed to execute policy, but never lead it. For now, Comey’s sins of the past are forgotten. Politics is our spectator sport, and today James Comey, all six foot eight inches of him, is dunking all over the president. Today, he is out here showing DC and its obsessive ass-covering at its nastiest and best.

I eat the cold piece of bacon from my Bloody Mary with the right side of my mouth.

The morning after the election I walked into the Counseling & Psychology Services suite at the university where I teach and sobbed like Antigone. Huge, blinding tears. The city felt like a punctured lung, with all the air gone out of it.

And now, as feeling slowly returns to my face, a dull mandibular ache sets in, and it occurs to me that it’s a gorgeous mid-70s day in June, and a hundred other nerds and I are sitting in a thriving bar bedecked in rainbow flags, two days before Pride Weekend, as the fired head of the FBI burns down the president’s house. Throughout this city the bars are open and serving things like “Covfefe Cocktails” and an “FBI special” of French toast, bacon, and ice cream, and Union Pub in Northeast is promising to buy the whole house a round every time Trump tweets (which, luckily for Union Pub, he will not). Eight months ago (almost to the day) it was inconceivable that we could ever be here. But here we are. I don’t know if I love this city—it’s not interested in being loved—but I do love its combination of idealism and opportunism and ruthless self-interest. People move here to do good, and they will defend their power to do so with the utmost cynicism. We are the swamp, and we will not be drained without a fight. That’s why this is the most resilient city in America. That’s why James Comey kept his receipts.


Logo art by S.D. Photograph provided courtesy of Laura Groth.

Samuel Ashworth's fiction, essays, and criticism have been published in Barrelhouse, Catapult, Hazlitt, Nylon, the TLS, Roads & Kingdoms, and many others. He is currently working on a novel about the life and death of a chef, told through his autopsy. Find him being overenthusiastic on Twitter at @samuelashworth. More from this author →