WASHINGTON -- They transform the landscape of this city, arriving eager to climb the ladder, acquire some skills, pad their resume, and course, get to know Washington. They're the interns, emerging from post-Lewinsky infamy in an increasingly institutionalized summer ritual.
Here at one juncture of north and south, the country's political epicenter draws an estimated 25,000 young people yearly, all ready to exchange summer leisure for a glimpse of life in the capital.
"The benefit of being in D.C. for the summer is that it's an intern magnet," says Aaron Levenstadt, 22, from Toronto, a senior at Stanford University who is interning at the attorney general's office. "There are so many young people in this town that it's like being a freshman in college again."
Indeed, most interns find lodging in college dorms that have emptied for the summer, where they can engage in the same kind of befriending fervor that characterized their first year in school.
Kate Gluckman, 19, from Naples, Fla., and a student at Harvard University, lived at the Georgetown University Law Center.
"When I say 'lived,' I should really say 'slept,' because not much time was spent in the dorm itself," says Gluckman, who was an intern at the television show "Hardball with Chris Matthews."
When interns aren't putting in late hours at the office, having been saddled with tasks lofty to menial, they often head to after-work happy hours.
These food and drink deals are a staple of the D.C. intern social life. Arguably, they are where youth is introduced to a new facet of the adult world, one where awkward schmoozing gives way to cocktail-side complaints about bosses. Interns ape junior-level staffers in exchanging gossip gleaned from being a fly on the wall in the corridors of power.
This is a city where Excel spreadsheets of weekly happy hours are surreptitiously circulated on the job by e-mail. Sometimes, all it takes for cubicle neighbors to become the best of friends are $1 beers.
Popular nightspots are clustered in a few zones: Adams Morgan, U Street, Capitol Hill. In a city schizophrenically split between scrubbed government edifices and segregated poverty, it's no surprise to find social life polarities, between divey college bars (such as Millie and Als in Adams Morgan, 2440 18th St. NW, 202-387-8131) and more upscale cocktail lounges.
Front Page on Dupont Circle (1333 New Hampshire Ave. NW; 202-296-6500) is a hot spot for the junior business casual crowd. Capitol Hill institutions like Hawk and Dove (329 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-543-3300) see their patrons' average ages sink come summertime.
Still, the city's chief preoccupation is never far from an intern's mind.
"Politics is ubiquitous," says Gluckman. "Even at bars and clubs, a person's political party affiliation can make or break a conversation and preclude the future of a date."
Some interns make an effort to see more of the city than its nightspots, but their schedule does not always encourage taking advantage of Washington's cultural offerings.
Jacqueline Chattopadhyay, 21, an intern at The Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank, and a student at the University of California at Irvine, her hometown, complains that "many museums, restaurants, and other places I've wanted to visit are open only during the hours that most people are working during the week, and for limited hours on the weekend."
Many interns enrich their weekly routines with speaker events and workshops organized by their universities, and brandish their student IDs to get discounts at numerous theaters. There are also free outdoor events, such as The Shakespeare Theatre's Free For All in the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Rock Creek Park and open showings of classic films on the National Mall.
And though Chattopadhyay pointed out that living here for the summer was expensive for interns, most of whom are unpaid or receive only a stipend, she waxed positive about the city itself.
"The mix of old and new architecture is a wonderful break from suburbia," she says. "The ambience is very 'downtown,' but the buildings are short enough that you can still get your dose of sunlight walking down the street."
For interns sequestered in fluorescent-lit offices, often hunched over their computers, those doses of sunlight and after-work socializing help remind them that this is, after all, summer vacation.
Irin Carmon, a student at Harvard University, is a researcher-writer for "Let's Go Travel Guides." Taking Off, her column on student travel, appears the third Sunday of each month. She can be reached at www.irincarmon.com.