Pris­on­ers to pol­i­tics

Wash­ing­to­ni­ans say it’s hard to find a break from shop talk – even at the club

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ABHA BHAT­TARAI

Here at Archibald’s Gen­tle­men’s Club, where sales are up 46 per­cent since Pres­i­dent Trump took of­fice, man­agers say one thing is clear: Nearly ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion these days turns to pol­i­tics.

“In this kind of work, I don’t think pol­i­tics is nec­es­sar­ily how peo­ple start conversations, but it’s def­i­nitely where they end up,” said An­toinette Garza, the club’s mar­ket­ing man­ager. “All day, ev­ery day, it’s about what’s hap­pen­ing in the White House.”

The dimly lit base­ment es­tab­lish­ment about two blocks from the White House has long had a sports-bar vibe. Now al­most ev­ery tele­vi­sion in the place is tuned to CNN or Fox News.

Gone are chats about base­ball and Ul­ti­mate Fight­ing Cham­pi­onship events.

In their place, chat­ter about the pres­i­dent and who he’s feud­ing with on Twit­ter.

“We are chang­ing with the cli­mate of Wash­ing­ton,” Garza said. Plus, she added, it doesn’t hurt that “cer­tain peo­ple who pa­tron­ize our es­tab­lish­ment are very in­volved in these top­ics di­rectly.”

In the na­tion’s cap­i­tal — where 93 per­cent of res­i­dents voted for Hil­lary Clin­ton — peo­ple say they feel trapped in Trum­p­land. Po­lit­i­cal talk has in­fil­trated the work­place, over­tak­ing conversations at restau­rants, the gym and, yes, even the strip club.

Garza doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily see it as a bad thing: “Pol­i­tics can be very se­duc­tive,” she said.

But just four months into a four-year term, there are al­ready

signs that the ob­ses­sive talk of pol­i­tics is tak­ing its toll. The Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion re­cently warned that Amer­i­cans are in­creas­ingly feel­ing “stressed and cyn­i­cal” be­cause of per­va­sive po­lit­i­cal talk in the work­place.

More than half of adults sur­veyed said they had dis­cussed pol­i­tics at work since the elec­tion, and 26 per­cent re­ported feel­ing tense and stressed as a re­sult.

“The re­al­ity is these of­ten­heated dis­cus­sions have in­ten­si­fied since the elec­tion, pos­ing a threat to em­ployee well-be­ing and busi­ness per­for­mance,” said David Bal­lard, a direc­tor at the as­so­ci­a­tion.

At Var­nish Lane, a nail sa­lon in Friend­ship Heights, at least one reg­u­lar has vowed to never re­turn be­cause of a con­tentious po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion among cus­tomers.

“In­stead of re­lax­ing, peo­ple are com­ing in and vent­ing,” coowner Lau­ren Dunne said. “It didn’t used to be like that. When we opened [in 2015], that was hon­estly the last thing any­body wanted to talk about.”

Not any­more, says John Tat­ter­sall, owner of Grand Ole Po­tomac Fly Fish­ing Guides, a boating ser­vice pop­u­lar among Republican mem­bers of Congress and their staffers.

“Ev­ery­one’s got a mouth full of this stuff,” he said. “They’re con­cerned and try­ing to fig­ure out what’s go­ing to hap­pen next: Taxes, health care, North Korea, you name it.”

Tat­ter­sall, who does not make his po­lit­i­cal views known, says he tries to stay out of his clients’ conversations.

He used to think their po­lit­i­cal ban­ter was en­ter­tain­ing and even made a bit of his own elec­tion fun, mail­ing clients hats that said, “Make fly fish­ing great again.”

But lately, he’s feel­ing fa­tigued.

“From time to time, it gets to be a bit much,” he said. “The same thing, ev­ery day.”

He’s not alone: 21 per­cent of Amer­i­cans said they feel more “neg­a­tive” at work be­cause of never-end­ing po­lit­i­cal talk, up from 15 per­cent be­fore the elec­tion. And nearly half of Amer­i­cans say they had dif­fi­culty get­ting their work done or thought less of their co-work­ers as a re­sult of such chat­ter in the work­place.

“The po­lit­i­cal ten­sions are about more than who won or lost an elec­tion,” said Bal­lard of the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion. “Be­ing bom­barded with news up­dates, so­cial me­dia chat­ter and ar­gu­ments with friends and co-work­ers can re­in­force stereo­types about Repub­li­cans and Democrats, per­pet­u­at­ing an ‘us-versus-them’ men­tal­ity and driv­ing a wedge be­tween peo­ple.”

That is in­creas­ingly the case at Mama’s Kitchen & Pizza, a neigh­bor­hood gath­er­ing place in Ana­cos­tia.

“Ev­ery­body here ar­gues all day long,” owner Musa Ulu­san said. “We have CNN on all the time — I’m ad­dicted to it — so the back-and-forth can be­come pretty fierce.”

One em­ployee in par­tic­u­lar, an ar­dent Trump sup­porter who is African Amer­i­can, tends to clash with other work­ers as well as the restau­rant’s cus­tomers, Ulu­san said.

“I’ve tried to tell him, ‘Hey, tone it down,’ ” he said, “but, of course, ev­ery­body has very strong opin­ions these days.”

Sam, an Uber driver who spoke on the con­di­tion that he be iden­ti­fied by his nick­name, hears a lot of those opin­ions em­a­nat­ing from his back seat.

“Be­fore, peo­ple would start conversations by bring­ing up the weather,” he said. “It’s not about the weather any­more. It’s, ‘What do you think about what Don­ald Trump just did?’ ”

April M., an en­ter­tainer at Archibald’s Gen­tle­men’s Club, says she hears that ques­tion all day long. More than half of cus­tomers be­gin a con­ver­sa­tion by ask­ing what she thinks of the pres­i­dent.

Talk­ing pol­i­tics, she says, is now part of the job.

“It’s be­come unavoid­able,” said the 32-year-old, who has been work­ing at the club for 10 years and de­clined to give her last name.

She gen­er­ally re­sponds, she said, with some­thing like, “Let’s talk about things that don’t stress us out.’’

(If that doesn’t work, she’ll say: “I’ve been taught not to talk about three things in bars: Pol­i­tics, religion or money.” Af­ter all, tips are at stake.)

But in­creas­ingly, she says, her de­flec­tions don’t work.

“The po­lit­i­cal air right now is such that peo­ple do need to talk about it,” she said. “And if that’s the case, we’re here to lis­ten. This is a great place to talk.” (Although, she added, she doesn’t voice her opin­ions un­til she has sussed out the other per­son’s po­lit­i­cal lean­ings.)

It’s been good for busi­ness. The club — with its se­cret VIP en­trance in the back and a sign up front that ad­ver­tises “ex­ec­u­tive lunch with a view” — has been so busy that man­agers are hir­ing ad­di­tional en­ter­tain­ers. They’re host­ing more pol­i­tic­s­themed events, too. On in­au­gu­ra­tion night, for ex­am­ple, the club stayed open un­til 5 a.m. while dancers per­formed in lit­tle more than “Make Amer­ica Great Again” hats.

To be fair, some say, this is Wash­ing­ton.

“When has pol­i­tics not taken over our lives?” asked Ashok Ba­jaj, whose nine restau­rants in­clude Bib­iana and Nopa.

It’s busi­ness as usual, he said, as din­ers at his restau­rants keep up their fa­vorite pas­time: dig­ging for po­lit­i­cal gos­sip.

“The first thing ev­ery­body is ask­ing now is, ‘Hey, who have you seen from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion?’ ” he said. “That’s typ­i­cal Wash­ing­ton.”

(Some re­cent sight­ings: Ivanka Trump and Jared Kush­ner at Rasika West End; Ben Car­son at the Bom­bay Club; Omarosa Mani­gault at 701; and Sean Spicer at the Oval Room.)

At in­door cycling chain SoulCy­cle, ex­ec­u­tives say there has been a “huge uptick” in rid­er­ship since Trump was elected.

“Peo­ple are seek­ing so­lace in move­ment,” said Gabby Etrog Co­hen, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent at the com­pany. “They’re look­ing for a way to dis­con­nect from the never-end­ing news cy­cle.”

But even then, she said, they can’t help them­selves. In re­cent months, locker-room conversations have shifted from the per­sonal to the po­lit­i­cal.

“The day af­ter the elec­tion, the stu­dios were packed, and there were emo­tions on all sides,” Co­hen said. “We kept think­ing, ‘Okay, it’ll stop.’ But to be hon­est, it never did.”

MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

In­stead of show­ing sports, Archibald’s Gen­tle­men’s Club in the District now has its tele­vi­sions set to CNN and Fox News.

JAHI CHIKWENDIU/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

At Mama’s Kitchen & Pizza, a neigh­bor­hood gath­er­ing place in Ana­cos­tia, “ev­ery­body here ar­gues all day long,” owner Musa Ulu­san said. “We have CNN on all the time — I’m ad­dicted to it — so the back-and-forth can be­come pretty fierce.”

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