Way Under the Dome

Basement Workers Thrive

Posted August 1, 2008 at 4:49pm

The lights go on and the work begins at 5:30 a.m. for Don Perez, the Senate chef who whips up dishes for every banquet and dining room meal in the upper chamber. The hour is early, but in the windowless basement kitchen inside the Capitol, Perez is already thinking about lunch.

The top chef commands his team of nine like soldiers in the trenches. They work in precision one floor below the main level of the Capitol in a sprawling utility kitchen where prep work is taken as seriously as a markup.

“When it’s go-time, I tell my staff to lock and load,” Perez said. “When it’s showtime, it’s me against the guest, and every guest is going to walk out of here with a smile on their face.”

The Senate kitchen is one of many nooks in the damp, winding tunnels of the Capitol basement, and Perez is one of hundreds of staffers whose underground work surfaces to the building’s main levels throughout the day. And although plenty of folks venture to the basement to migrate between the buildings or run errands, the workers down below have the unique duty of supporting Congressional operations — often without ever being seen.

Like Perez, some workers spend their days behind the grill, ensuring the 10,000-plus folks on Capitol Hill can grab a bite to eat. Others keep Congress tidy, diligently taking out the trash, scrubbing floors and doing laundry.

A few have quirky roles: the woman who decorates Congressional rooms, the man who sets up chairs for events, the people in charge of giving out the flags flown above the Capitol.

“They never see the sun, and I can’t imagine they get paid what they’re worth,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). “It’s like a small city that they’re operating down there.”

For Perez, the focus is just on food.

Meals prepared in his kitchen are served at the weekly policy lunches, where Senators chew on policy issues while they dine on salad or steak. High-profile guests such as Queen Elizabeth and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have visited the exclusive Senate Dining Room — where Senators get dibs over Representatives.

“These are big dogs. No chihuahuas,” Perez said of the restaurant’s clientele.

Perez, a 15-year veteran as Senate chef, is a friendly guy who has a habit of saying “Howdy” when he first meets someone. Briefly trained at the five-star Savoy Hotel in London and formerly employed by the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain, it’s no surprise that the Washington, D.C.-native now works for its most exclusive club.

But like many basement employees —some of whom have worked more years in the Capitol than most Members — John Wall, the Senate’s chef de cuisine, says he is unfazed by the VIP status of his customers.

“If someone important comes in, I tell the staff not to tell me about it,” said Wall, who is married to a pastry chef. “All the food is going to be good, and everybody is going to be happy.”

Wall came to the Senate dining room’s sprawling kitchen that is equipped with convection ovens, storage refrigerators and expansive countertops through a temp agency six years ago.

While Perez and Hall create meals for Members, another team of soldiers prepares rooms for the countless meetings scheduled throughout the day. Lyndon Webb, tall and thin with a permanent smile, supervises operations within the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms.

Webb is literally the mover and shaker on the Senate side, setting up rooms and moving a handful of offices to the Capitol Visitor Center, the massive underground space set to open in December.

Hailing from Trinidad, Webb found his job through a newspaper advertisement. He seems to know everyone in the basement tunnels, from the maintenance crew to the Senators who walk the halls en route to their hideaways.

“The people are diverse and unique across the departments,” Webb said of life as an underground Capitol employee.

The basement confines carve out a unique neighborhood on Capitol Hill. People know one another and often stop to chat. A few employees even have family members stationed in other offices in the Capitol.

“I’m still in awe every day when I come here,” said Grace Ridgeway, who started as the manager of Senate Furnishings in March.

Ridgeway acknowledged she still struggles to understand the basement’s complex room numbering system. Even finding her unmarked office, tucked in a rear part of the basement, can be an adventure through dead-end hallways and darkened corners.

But entering Ridgeway’s colorful office is like finding an oasis.

Color and fabric swatches, rolled floor plans and even a few pieces of furniture surround Ridgeway’s desk, where she draws up interior designs for Member offices and committee rooms. Members come to Ridgeway to decide how to decorate their workplace digs; most stick with colors such as burgundy and navy, which keep with tradition, she said.

Across the hall, the 46-member crew in the Senate Recording Studio work to provide video and audio coverage of the chamber. Staffers operate cameras, teleprompters, video switchers, audio mixers, lighting, tape decks and other equipment to ensure that Americans across the country can see what’s happening on the Senate floor.

A Member might visit the studio to film an interview or create a video to send to an event they cannot attend in person. Staffers also come by, picking up dubs of floor statements, hearings and tapings.

In a few months, the staff will leave the Capitol for new digs in the CVC. But office moves are common on Capitol Hill, and in her 30 or so years working in the Senate, Regina Mosley, a team leader for Capitol Facilities, has seen plenty. In fact, office moves might be more common than personnel moves for her team.

“We don’t have the turnover,” Mosley said of her basement colleagues, comparing them with the transient staffers above ground. “We’re still here.”

Mosley, whose maintenance crew collects trash and delivers water and clean linens throughout the Capitol, hails from D.C. and still lives in her native Southeast neighborhood. Her steady post in the Capitol has even inspired a family member — her granddaughter, Anita Boolock, who works in the Post Office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

“It’s a fun place. You get to see a lot,” Mosley said. “If I’ve been here this long, it’s got to be a good job.”

Like Mosley, Cordelia Roy is a D.C. native and long-serving Capitol employee, but her job is much more transient — she’s a subway operator. Every day beginning at noon, Roy shuffles from the Rayburn House Office Building to the Capitol and back, moving train cars full of tourists, staffers and Members.

“It’s a job that requires a lot of patience,” said Roy, a 19-year veteran. “It’s better to smile and be friendly. It’s nice when people say, ‘Oh, you’re smiling. You must like your job.’ And I do.”

The House side of the basement is home to the Capitol Police locker room, the House Flag Office and a collection of random offices that ensure the daily activities of Congress go smoothly.

Across the hall from the flag office, Mike Cicale organizes the schedule for most events in the Capitol, including the beloved Caucus Room. He’s like the bouncer at a nighttime hot spot, deciding who gets a space and for how long.

“There’s a high demand for rooms,” Cicale said. “If you want something on a certain day, you should schedule it months in advance.”

Cicale and his team set up for the events that take place in rooms HC-1 through HC-5, located in one of the few areas of the basement that sees daylight.

“People travel from all over the country to come here, one time. They want to be able to say that they attended an event at the Capitol,” he said. “There’s a prestige there.”

Not all basement dwellers are located in the Capitol. Hundreds of employees spend their entire day below ground in one of the seven nearby office buildings, and much of their work goes directly back to the Capitol.

Workshops are located underground, including the Senate sheet metal shop in the Russell Senate Office Building. There, workers mold the metal that will become air ducts, roofs and other elements of the Capitol complex.

The House graphic office, located in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building, pumps out graphics and images for Member, committee and leadership offices. The shop, which serves as the Hill’s version of a FedEx Kinko’s, is supplied with two wide-format printers dubbed Tom and Jerry.

“It’s good work, and it’s fun work,” said Terry Rowe, the graphics branch manager. “And at the end of the day, we have something to show for what we do.”

Unlike many basement offices, the graphics team does have a tiny window, providing a little bit of natural light. But there is no sunlight in the Green the Capitol Initiative office, located in the Longworth House Office Building.

“It’s sort of ironic that the greening office has no sunlight, especially when there are so many studies that show sunlight in offices increases productivity,” said Allison Rogers, the initiative’s project manager. “It helps to work with wonderful people who brighten your day.”