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Yellowing, with curled corners, or fresh and glossy, pictures of politicians stand watch from the walls of barbecue joints, shoe shines and delis all over Washington, D.C.
Collections of these photos, called brag walls or walls of power, are sometimes curated by first- or second-generation immigrants, for whom they are a totem of success in their adopted country and a celebration of its possibilities.
The brag wall is an artifact from a quainter era, when Members of Congress were simultaneously more approachable and more revered. Back then — and just when “then” was depends on whose hazy, golden memory one consults — they milled around Washington on weekends. They picked up their dry cleaning and ordered “the usual” at diners, instead of rushing back to the endless churn of campaigning in their districts.
The collections are an echo of that past, but they remind us that the small exchanges, which make even Members of Congress human, still happen in the present tense. They tell patrons that powerful people are just like them, leaky oil gaskets and ring-around-the-collar and all.
They, too, get hungry and want a nice meal.
These important men and women might send troops off to war and shape the tax code like clay, but in the end, everyone likes a crispy roast duck.
An American Dream
In an unassuming strip mall in Falls Church, Va., the Peking Gourmet Inn’s neighbors are a discount mattress store and a used-tire place. Not exactly the stomping grounds of heads of state, top military brass and Congressional leaders. But there they are in the photos lining the restaurant’s walls, hundreds of them, grinning, usually flanked by proprietress Lily Tsui or one of her siblings.
It’s one of those restaurants where your grandparents might have first tasted moo-shu pork underneath red silk lanterns and thought it was the most exotic thing they’d ever eaten. An army of waiters in burgundy jackets with black lapels swarm unobtrusively.
Tsui appears in person just as she does in the photographs: polished, with lipstick that matches her ruffled blouse.
She keeps a camera at the ready to capture the VIP guests, a tradition that began in the 1980s when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush visited the restaurant.
Two decades of visitors since, drawn, apparently, by the Tsui family’s hospitality and those glossy Peking ducks, have included royalty, such as several generations of Bahrain’s ruling family, enough starred generals to make up a constellation and what appears to be enough Senators to break a filibuster.