DC is traffic circles, non-working fountains in some circles’ centers, jammed downtown corridors and quiet Anacostia neighborhood streets no taxi driver wants to know after midnight. It’s Muslim taxi drivers unfurling prayer mats in alleyways near the homeless guy singing to himself while the overworked, underpaid Congressman’s staffer takes out his trash. He’ll forget to separate the recyclables from the waste but always remember to contribute to his friends’ non-profit causes. It’s driving home late night and remembering to look out for the tourists who won’t remember to look out for you because they’ve got their eyes on the monuments, the memorials and that big white house they want to soak up before flying home. It’s living in Chocolate City, though it’s no longer as chocolate as it once was, and talking beyond the race issues DC’s moved past, except for the days it falls behind. But mostly, for me, DC is the city whose heart I thought I held in my hand until I realized this holding of hearts was a two-way street.
DC’s in the spotlight and on my mind a lot this fall, even though I moved away last year. Most people think monuments, bloated budgets and stale politicians when they see DC in the news. The city’s got some of that. It’s got a whole lot more too. Not because it’s where the president lives. Because it’s carved out its own community in spite of that. And there’s nothing like this election week to remind me how great this city is.
Election Night, 2008. Republican or Democrat, everyone in DC watched the results come in. I made my way up 16th Street to U Street and my friends. I could’ve taken the metro or one of the many cabs out that early evening, but that night, of all nights, I wanted the 16th Street view.
16th veers around Thomas Circle, swallows a statue or two and climbs the stretch toward U. At P Street, I stopped and turned for my daily look at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Whether it’s kids playing by the Anacostia River, suburbanites commuting down Connecticut Avenue or wannabe urban hipsters making their way to U Street, everyone can get a look at the White House every day. It’s not as high as the Capitol Building. Nothing’s allowed to be that high. But the roads unfold around it so that we can see it from all over the city and be moved. On Election Night 2008, many of us were moved.
I heard the –thwack– coming fast from behind. This is the sound of flip-flops. It can be heard on DC streets year-round, Snowmageddon and Snowpocalypse-cold days aside. Lest we ever try to defend DC against the allegation that it’s Hollywood for Ugly People, the flip-flops and their male counterpart, running shoes worn with suits, do us in every time.
The thwacker hurried by. She was still in her boxy suit jacket and below-the-knee skirt. Neither piece matched her flip-flops’ hot pink straps. Her work shoes were sticking out of her bag and her ponytail was bouncing.
It wasn’t a good combination.
She didn’t care.
She was hurrying somewhere to watch the results pour in. That counted for more than looks. With a last glance at the White House, I hurried on myself.
DC is journalists, non-profit workers and government staffers. It’s news junkies who follow multiple news sources daily and watch the Sunday morning shows before anything else, no matter how hot the new lover in their bed is. It’s parents and singletons alike working full-time and still volunteering in one if not THREE organizations because they know that knowledge comes from doing as much as from reading. And it’s people who discuss Afghanistan for hours over cheap wine, cheaper poulet roti and pommes frites at Bistro du Coin, cholesterol, calories and the debilitating effects of sleep deprivation be damned.
They choose these things over better-paying jobs, over taking time to find more fashionable clothes and replace suits worn down to a fine sheen, and over waking extra-early to exercise themselves to a Size 0 and prepare a day’s worth of organic meals. Could they hold their own in a beauty pageant or CrossFit competition with coastal Californians and Manhattanites? You know the answer. Do they want to? Not as badly as they want to do big things and put big ideas to work.
I don’t know if it was DC’s concentration of non-profits and journalists or the sheer lack of money these fields pay, but somewhere along the way, image took a backseat to content in the nation’s capital. In a world of reality shows and pressure to look a certain way if you want the good life, DC, in all its wonky glory, shines.
By the time I reached U Street, the bars were packed. Every window glowed with the light of television screens and poll numbers racking up. My three friends had squeezed themselves onto a chair built for one. I shared a stool with a guy who’d quit his job and gone on the road with the Obama campaign team. His neighbors had taken care of his cat and his friends were trying to find him a new job now that he was done stumping for Obama. He’d been offered a higher-paying job in Chicago. He had turned it down.
“You came back for a girl?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“A guy?” I tried next.
A cheer rose up. Obama had just gotten enough electoral votes to claim the presidency. People hugged, clinked glasses and hugged again.
“How can I leave all this?” he shouted over the noise.
A new president moves into DC every four or eight years. People assume the whole town’s rotating out just as fast. DC residents don’t leave that easily.
The former spies kick around coffee shops, their pockets light without the gadgets they used to carry and their minds heavy with the secrets they can’t give back. The government employees stay in their DC homes, living on pensions after they retire and watching property values around them climb. The journalists, victim to a struggling industry, shift to consulting or teaching so they can stay. It’s not just the intellectual energy of the place. It’s their friends, it’s the neighborhood storefronts where they’re known and it’s those embassy parties where free food from other countries is handed out. It’s not always especially tasty, but it’s still cool that you’re getting smoked salmon from the Norwegians in your own town. Even those of us who leave, like I did after ten years, keep coming back. We wonder why we left something we can’t replicate anywhere else.
I left the U Street bar around 2:00 a.m. and cast a glance toward Ben’s Chili Bowl, just up the road. More friends were there, having hotdogs and rehashing the election results. I considered joining them. There’s no more iconic place than the legendary restaurant, enjoyed by the likes of presidents, celebrities and our newest president, Obama, to cap off this night. But the air was filled with an energy that would evaporate in the lights and noise of Ben’s. I began walking home instead.
Cheering Democrats and quiet Republicans filled the streets along Adams Morgan’s Columbia Road. Some tried to flag taxis, but the taxi drivers were busy, talking about the election results outside the 7-11 at the corner of Columbia and 19th. I looked around for the other man usually near the 7-11 that time of night. DC’s most famous homeless man: Compliment Man.
Compliment Man doled out kind words for dollars, coins and thank-yous. He praised shoes, suits and smiles. His own suit hung loose and his shoes needed new soles, but he stood tall and looked people in the eye when he complimented them. That night, his bench was occupied by a couple sharing an IPA. They offered to share their bench and the IPA. I complimented their taste in beer and kept walking.
I made my way down Columbia Road, past the Hinckley Hilton to Q Street and the Firehook Bakery where loaves of bread lay in the doorway. They must have fallen from Mohammed’s bag.
Mohammed, until he died a few years ago, was almost as big a DC institution as Compliment Man. He came to the Firehook Bakery at the end of each day, gathered their unsold food and took it to Dupont Circle. He scattered the loaves, cakes and sandwiches on the grass before heading elsewhere for evening prayers. People complained about the food drawing rats. They never complained about the food drawing homeless people. Someone had to make sure the homeless were fed.
I turned the final corner for home and found my neighbor, goofy on his anti-retrovirals, pissing in the bush outside his building. When he was done, he zipped his fly, picked up his garbage bag and carried it across the street to another neighbor’s stoop rather than take it out around back. He went inside and, minutes later, a barefoot man appeared, hobbling and swerving, and carried it away. He was digging through the bag as he ducked into an alley. We all knew he slept there most nights. No one called the police. Sometimes people took him a blanket or leftover food.
DC is black people, white people, everyone in between, living together and letting you think their having African-American mayors and Asian-American school superintendents means they’re the champions of respect for diversity and that racial discrimination – in reverse and forward modes – never, ever happens. DC is knowing you outsiders almost surely know about only one of its rivers, the Potomac, and not its other river, the Anacostia River, that separates Anacostia, a high crime, high poverty, primarily African-American neighborhood, from the part of the city you see on the maps and think is the entire District of Columbia, but caring more about helping Anacostia than standing on soapboxes to talk about it. DC is being called the nation’s murder capital when the murders happen almost entirely in Anacostia and knowing the politicians will never do enough, fast enough, to fix the problem, but being the community member who volunteers and does what he can to help his neighbors across the river, all the same.
DC is Home Rule, Taxation Without Representation license plates and knowing you live in a capital that hosts politicians who won’t give you voting control over how you improve your local or national community but saying “Fuck you” and volunteering, engaging and sticking around despite that.
Maybe even because of that.
The Washington Monument casts a physical shadow not half as long as the White House and Capitol Building’s psychological shadows. Somewhere along the way, people in DC decided they were going to shine a light even bigger than the shadows.
The morning after Election Night came fast. I was in a classroom of English students with several other volunteers and their teacher. Everyone was bleary-eyed. Everyone was wired with an energy that had something to do with Obama’s message of hope and change but more to do with the night itself. I can’t remember what any of us said, but, four years later, I still remember the energy. Everyone had a story. Every story involved their neighbors, families and friends. No one had been to any fancy, VIP results-viewing party. No one knew anyone in power of the sort the outside world equates with D.C. And no one cared.
I headed to work after that, coat thrown over my arm because winter hadn’t yet hit DC. I passed people raising money for charity, homeless men playing chess in a traffic circle and a diplomatic motorcade the locals ignored. DC, I thought, is a city we hold in our hands as surely as we can walk so much of it end to end. But then I passed another corner of tourists, volunteers and harried workers who still stopped to give the tourists directions and I reconsidered who holds whose heart.
Four years later, with another election now finished, I don’t have to reconsider. I know. Just as surely as the people who love DC hold its heart, DC’s holding our hearts, our minds and our wonky spirit just as tightly.