Tag Archives: washington dc

Quick Stop to DC, or How I Learned to Anticipate Gentrification

trans character writing panel imageI just jumped into DC this weekend after an absence of a few years, taking a quick flight from Detroit while we’re still on vacation to attend an LGBTQ book festival on U Street. It’s been truly fantastic to see old friends and have the kinds of sincere conversations that are hard to find with people one meets in one’s forties instead of in one’s more vulnerable youth. I suppose we erect sturdy fortresses in the interim, but I’m not sure why or if that’s helpful for us.

The OutWrite festival was successful, and here it is only in its fourth year. It would have been nice to know before I left Walla Walla that I’d be responsible for bringing my own books to sell, because then I’d have had more than my reader’s copy with me. (Crossing fingers the Internet pulls through for me and people shop online to get them.) I was grateful to see so many familiar faces, people I’ve known from when I lived in the District and did earlier activism there, and get to meet some new folks who are doing interesting work in LGBT literature. Read More…

On the Road for an Unknown Writer’s Book Tour

The book tour is an endangered species, part of the soon-to-be archaic practice of publishers in getting publicity for top- and mid-list authors when their latest books hit the market. I remember book tours from the bookstore perspective, because I was once a book buyer and I coordinated readings up in Syracuse, New York. Stephen King, impeccably nice. Oliver Stone, not so nice. Mollie Katzen had lots of culinary tips, William Bennet was reserved, and Donna Shalala had a great booming laugh. For each of these events we ordered 30, 40, 75 copies of their tomes, and the lines stretched out of the store and into the student life building atrium. We’d put extra people on shift and listen to the cash registers ring with sales. It was something of an assembly line: customers waiting, picking up books, paying for books, getting books signed, out the door. A signing could last one or two hours before the interest petered out. We tried not to frown when people arrived with their own books or with books that had been released years earlier, because the authors were sure glad to see everyone. Some of the authors had requests up front or in their contracts that we had to fulfill, things like having sparkling water, or having a rival’s books tucked out of sight, and of course, of course, we were more than happy to oblige them.

When I do a reading, I count it as lucky if the store remembers I’m showing up that night. One reading had me and a few friends standing nervously on the sidewalk, the store dark and empty of staff, while I called my publicist. We were saved from reading on the street or walking away in sorrow when a random car with three store employees drove by us, wheeled around, and opened up the building. By the time I started reading in the quickly rearranged room, 15 people had shown up. Read More…

Driving Miss Dodo

The DC BeltwayOne of my favorite statistics about Washington, DC, is the number of lawyers working in the city: 50,000. That’s one lawyer for every 10 residents. Do these people directly benefit those residents? No, not really. Perhaps some of them do, or must, just by the laws of chance and probability. But certainly, many of those J.D.-carrying folks are members of an elite squad known as the lobbyists. They represent everyone from chemical producers to apple farmers to county-level employees. They’re not concerned about the people in the city so much they are getting into the city. And that is exactly where the residents made their stand. Read More…

The Community Inside My Head

Many of us who had the fortune to attend college, or who lived in a tight-knit community can relate to the concept of venturing out around campus and its nearby neighborhoods and running into lots of people they knew. In Syracuse, an acknowledgment or short conversation seemed to happen every 6.3 yards. With my move to Washington, DC, after nine years in snowy Central New York, I was suddenly anonymous. And in that urban landscape, hardly anybody cared if they saw a masculine woman in a tweed jacket, so I was initially pleased that I’d gotten some degree of quiet in my subway/walking commute to work. But quickly, I realized that I missed the little, often pithy small talk from New York. What I missed was that degree of community. Read More…

If land or by Seattle

Everett contemplates a volcano

I contemplate a volcano

It was in the parking log at Costco where a woman, looking wholly bereft of home and afflicted of something came right up to me as if I were an old friend and asked if I could help her out by giving her money. I had been completely focused on how to get twenty pounds of flour into a space the size of one small Pomeranian, which assuredly is no easy task. So I nearly jumped from hearing her inquiry, and it took me longer than it should have to explain that I didn’t actually have any cash on me, sorry. She shuffled off, not unlike a zombie, and I realized she could have been a posterchild for the anti-meth campaigns of the Pacific Northwest. My heart went out to her, and even so, I was a bit unnerved.

It occurred to me after this incident that different places have different expectations for interacting with strangers. In DC it’s either tourists who are chronically clueless about their surroundings, laden with a map of the city or not, or it’s someone panhandling. The lobbyists, lawyers, government workers, hotel staff, cab drivers, administrative assistants, Metro drivers, and other commuters all keep to themselves, wanting no part of any conversation with anyone else. I rode the Metro for years, and very infrequently did I ever hear two people conversing who hadn’t boarded together. MP3 players were the best thing to happen to the silent travelers of DC—suddenly everyone had an easy means for ignoring the world around them.

So people looking for money from the hands of strangers kept, for the most part, personal distance, and requests were limited to the actual sidewalk or on public transportation. I think that’s why I was startled here in Seattle. I actually had to spend the better part of a second realizing that this wasn’t an old friend or acquaintance of mine, because she walked right up to me, and I in turn was right up against my open vehicle. It was her lack of recognition for whatever vulnerability I had at that moment that started my first sense of anxiety.

But for my part, I was just as destabilizing to her, because as soon as I recognized that all she wanted was money, which I was actually out of, having just left Costco, I went immediately into my DC-generated response when I don’t have cash to donate, which is, “I don’t have any money on me, sorry.” In DC this ends the exchange, 7 times out of 10 the requester will then ask God to bless me or tell me to have a nice day, and then I’ll wonder how much of their request was tinged with a need for human interaction and a measure of dignity that someone will talk to them. This woman, on the other hand, seemed shocked that I’d make eye contact with her, much less have a quick answer.

It occurs to me that people are less straightforward in Seattle than in DC, so people looking for handouts need to be more in their face. But the other big adjustment seems to be about sobriety: I can’t remember even a single instance of a non-sober person asking me for money in DC. Not a one. But everyone in Seattle who has asked for money has seemed to have an affect for one reason or another. And there seem to be many more homeless folks here than back out east, and I have no idea why that is. I’m sure there are experts out there who analyze such things, who advocate for this solution or that, but I don’t know who they are or what their positions amount to. But I’ve never thought about how different cultural expectations for civility play into how people on the margins express themselves. And clearly, there’s some kind of effect or panhandling would look the same no matter the geography.

For our part, I’m very glad to once again have a home. We might have been without a fixed location for two months by choice, but I don’t for a minute want to lose sight of the millions of people who have lost their houses or who are without their own home but who desperately need their own place. We are very lucky people.

To market, to market

Eastern Market doorI’m very excited to get back to Eastern Market this afternoon; having lived in walking distance of the market building, we went there on a regular basis for food staples and baked goods, and I for one greatly miss such easy access to fresh vegetables and the like. Once upon a time Washington, DC had several market areas tucked into its quadranted neighborhoods, but now, there is only one standing.

Even this market building suffered a serious blow from an electrical fire that swept through the brick structure, and only in the last six months is it back, having been painstakingly restored by the city. Good thing it sits next to one of the wealthiest and most historic neighborhoods in the city, Capitol Hill. It’s so beloved it is the namesake for its own local area, and the corresponding Metro stop. The mayor couldn’t possibly have turned his back on Eastern Market and lived to talk about it.

I’d moved from Arlington, Virginia into the city in 2004, never really venturing over to the brick building, where inside, deli counters, fish and seafood mongers, a baker, a cheese counter, and a couple of produce sellers stood, always grinning from ear to ear while they put edibles in one’s bag and pocketed one’s donation of green paper. Actually, I couldn’t have told anyone that these people existed when I moved because I’d never gone inside. Susanne, however, was a regular visitor. She lived a few blocks away from me and I’d never met her. But she knew the value of the market.

Once we started dating, some weekend or other rolled around and I went with her—much to her astonishment, I’d lived 10 minutes walking time from the place for more than a year and had not yet checked it out—and I was amazed. On Saturdays and Sundays more vendors flocked to the block like they were wildebeests descending on the only watering hole for miles, filling up the sidewalks with everything from pottery and paintings to local fruit and fresh in-season vegetables. Silver queen corn, cut yesterday. Pink lady apples. Yellow watermelon, the leaves still drying on one end. Stubby carrots that tasted like sunshine. Peaches that made even patient people beg while they waited for them to ripen. I could not believe these were my options in a city, and I spent my first working summers at a produce stand at the edge of New Jersey’s farmlands.

Canales' deli and SusanneIt wasn’t long before I’d made friends with the weekday vendors and knew what kind of small talk interested the weekend folks. Susanne just shook her head at me doing my extrovert thing. After we’d gotten engaged, the deli owners would ask us how the planning was going. Their daughter had tied the knot the year before and had lots of advice and enthusiasm for us. I totally fell in love with Eastern Market, but it had shown me its affection first.

We had just decided to try a new kind of sausage every week and were fixing to grill up some weisswurst when I heard about the fire in the South Building, the technical name for the weekday market center. I was crushed. We ventured over to see how bad the damage was, since brick seemed like a fairly sturdy construction material. The roof hung down in strips, the big gaps letting in the evening sky. Bricks sat in their rows, tidy, scorched, looking ghostly. This was a gravely wounded structure, and we weren’t certain anyone would get it together enough to repair it.

But the the groundswell of support came loudly and quickly, businesses saying they’d donate what they could, the mayor making all kinds of near-frenetic-sounding promises, and the proximate school lending over its playground so a temporary building could be erected while the displacement of the vendors continued. I was heartened that everyone’s focus was on the owners of the market shops and their families; we made it a mission to head over there at least as often as we already did to keep buying from them. And they counted us among their regulars, too stubborn to let a little 5-alarm fire get in the way of cured meat.

burned out Eastern market buildingThe restoration work began with the demolition of the ruined roof, and its reconstruction. Those days at the market we would make our purchases with the cacophony of drills, hammers, and saws cutting through the air to our ears.

The temporary building was sturdy, but reminiscent of what was probably dotting the landscapes of Iraq and Afghanistan. We didn’t care for military housing for our peaceful market, but we were glad the war hawks had invented something we could use to keep the vendors going.

The city sponsored a mural contest, inviting artists to paint window panels while the work continued. These would at some point—some point being when the glass was ready—be auctioned off to help pay for the restoration. It was as if art didn’t want to be left out as a helper to save the heart of the neighborhood.

City managers closed off 7th Street SE next to the market so the weekend vendors could gather there, since there was a fenced perimeter around the building, taking up a good chunk of the sidewalk space. It was brilliant, and why hadn’t they done it before?

restored Eastern Market buildingWe saw the estimated time of completion for the project and again were saddened because we knew we’d be moving away before its rise from the ashes. But last January we were back in town, and got to walk through the redone space. I could still see the sun through the roof, but this time it was because of a lovely line of sky lights. Eastern Market was back.

And so I smile every time I see the old brick building with its la grande dame makeover.

Driving mechanics

railroad track signReflecting on all of the intersections within Walla Walla, I can’t recall a single NO LEFT TURN sign. Not by the Bi Mart, south side of town. Not at any point on Isaacs Road, which is a straight shot east into the Blue Mountains and which is littered with fast food shacks, auto parts stores, car washes, and oodles of plain gray parking lots. Not in the small downtown, even though every other city I’ve tromped through has boasted at least one stubbornly red sign.

It’s a small thing, I know, but it takes on a bit more meaning once one ventures into a large city with any kind of traffic issue. One finds oneself in a strange place and on the wrong street, and once the first battle with orientation is settled, realizes that the quickest way back to the tiny quadrant one does know is forbade by the local powers in charge. And then one is faced with a decision: break the law and feign innocence, or try to find another way over to the relief zone.

In DC, drivers could find themselves hitting a series of NO LEFT TURN signs, their frustration building quickly as they creep along, stuck behind other tourists, bicycle messengers, and a lot of men in suits with big briefcases.  And here the visitors thought government was trying to go paper-free. Little do they know that those are more likely the private sector guys. There are 50,000 practicing attorneys in Washington, DC.

In DC, defensive driving means watching out for all the Lexus owners texting while driving, the cars with fake paper license plates in the rear windows that add the important note, “STOLEN,” and the truly clueless in RVs. Who the hell RVs to a major city? Sometimes I would stand on a corner and laugh while they circled the block, trying to find parking. I wasn’t trying to be mean, it was just such a great pastime. Twice in DC my car was hit while I was idling at a red light: once from a guy who slid into me on black ice, and once when a driver in front of me backed up, trying to make room for a turning tour bus. These things just don’t happen in Wallyworld.

In Walla Walla, defensive driving means looking out for small children who’ve broken free of a parent’s grasp, slowing down for momma and baby ducks, and watching the red light runners, which I’ll get to later. These things tend not to happen in DC, although there is a street over by the army hospital with a goose crossing sign, and the two days I was on that road, I did in fact have to stop for crossing geese. It was almost as if they waited for my car just so they could cross, which I’ll note is the logic most pedestrians in the city, use too.

I’ve been made aware of the split between this corner of the United States and the world inside the Beltway that ensnares everything in the District. It has come in the form of massive snowfall. And it has come in the total lack of snowplowing afterward. It’s shown its face in the 5-minutes-to-anywhere nature of the city confines, a distinct difference from DC, in which most things are at least 35 minutes away, no matter how one travels. 2,800 miles away from the Capitol’s epicenter, how government really functions is invisible to people, who have en masse decided to decide that everyone in government has their worst interests at heart. And I try to explain as gently as possible that the government is just like every other office they’ve worked in, with all of those personalities working against and with each other for 8 hours a day.

These discrepancies remind me that we fear what we do not know. I’m not a subscriber to the “if we educate, we’ll have world peace,” because I’m far too cynical to believe that bigotry, oppression, and anger are only the result of ignorance. People have stakes. People earnestly believe their group (read: race, nation, state) has stakes that are threatened by some of other group. I could no sooner “educate” Rush Limbaugh and inspire him to be a bleeding heart liberal than I could teach a worm to fly, and I say this feeling pretty certain that even Rush doesn’t believe half the crap he spews out into his microphone. But Rush has a stake in his persona, and like everything else, if he’s not being increasingly conservative, he risks becoming irrelevant. And so he spews.

In the same way, people dig their heels in about what they think government represents, who they think it represents. It’s been a long time since I heard anyone say they feel personally supported by the Federal government, even as they drive on interstate highways, take their kids to the public library, call 911 when their kitchen’s on fire, or go to their child’s high school graduation. Instead when they make the pilgrimage to DC they get caught with one-way streets and NO LEFT TURN signs and it signals to them that they’re unwanted, when all it really means is there are way too many cars on the roads in the city and someone is trying something to make the system keep working.

Walla Walla is a place where people run red lights all the time. I was astonished when I saw the first runner, because I’d been conditioned out of it from all the ticketing cameras that have grown into the East Coast traffic system like kudzu, and because I’m such a law-abider, my exception that of speeding. I never saw a speed limit that 7 more miles an hour didn’t make better. But going through a red light, to me, was just jaw-dropping, in the same way that any minimally suicidal tendency is, like intentionally gaining 500 pounds, or BASE jumping.

But maybe it says something about the garden variety Walla Wallan. As if the rules don’t apply out here. Or that my neighbors and fellow car drivers won’t mind. It’s just one light. It’s just today. It’s just that it’s 3AM. It’s just that I see other people do it all the time.

In this kind of context, what else can the government represent but an angry nanny, an everything-is-rules custodian who seeks to end pleasure and red light running, out of spite? I shouldn’t be surprised at the level of distrust, I suppose.

I wonder what 20 months in Walla Walla has done to change my perspective, what new kinds of things I’ll see as we drive back across the country, and what I’ll miss that I wouldn’t have before. I am the guy who wants to discover the hidden world in the sidewalk crack, a focus on fascination that I’ve carried with me since I was 3. I want to start seeing where we come together because I am damn tired of seeing how far apart we are. I want people in DC and Walla Walla to know that they are closer than they think: in both towns I was a regular customer of several businesses, laughing with them about inanity. Both towns boast big, tree-covered parks. Both towns struggle with caring for their elderly, face cutbacks to their education budget, struggle with aging and fading infrastructure. We could learn a lot from each other.

I am not looking forward to being told I can’t make a left turn. But I won’t blame anybody about it, either. I’ll try to take the laissez faire attitude of the Northwest to the Type A personality of DC. I’m a peace ambassador.

The San Francisco treat

Day 2 in San Francisco and I had a much clearer, well rested brain in my head. I decided to brave the BART and check out the Castro district. Primarily I wanted to see the GLBT museum and check out the bookstore, since I really loved the stretch of Connecticut Avenue between Lambda Rising and Kramerbooks when I lived in DC. I’ve ascertained that I really miss a good, robust bookstore, even as I find them sometimes annoying—not for the books, but for the other pretentious people and the conversations they sometimes insist on having in them. Do note that I include myself in the “pretentious people” category, because I think pretentious conversations can be like twisting back and forth on a squeaky chair: fun for the user and irritating for everyone else.

There’s a BART stop right outside the hotel here at uh, what’s the name of this neighborhood again, Embarcadero, right. I’ve realized I’d be screwed if I lived in California because I can’t seem to remember any of the Spanish names to places. It’s like I get so concerned about pronouncing the name right, even just to myself, that it seems to prevent memory implantation. Damn all those years of studying French. They weren’t even that helpful for reading Lacan or Derrida, the latter of which was written intentionally to be confusing in any language. Maybe Susanne will get into a conference in Montreal. But this day, I was in San Francisco, trying to remember Embarcadero, Embarcadero. So I pulled a Sarah Palin and wrote it on my left palm. Actually, I knew how to crib notes in 7th grade, but unlike Sarah, I chose not to.

Down the subway stairs I went, it smelling a little bit like New York City, looking a little bit like DC. The maps to the subway, the information scientist in me notes, are not nearly as good as DC’s Metro, because they only show the names of the stations. On DC’s subway grid map, you can also see, in gray, almost like a background, the names of the streets that lie above the grid, so you have a context for the stations and don’t need to know in advance that you’re looking for a given station. Moreover, many of the station names are the same as the neighborhood, like Woodley Park, Van Ness, Foggy Bottom. And even though I thought it was a giant waste of money at the time (it cost Metro $100,000 to change all the signs and maps in the system), I can see how adding names to stations, like Foggy Bottom/GWU, is helpful for newbies or tourists.

El Capitan in the Mission, SFAnd now here I was, a newbie, clueless, staring at this map like I was waiting for a religious conversion to BARTism. Castro, Castro, I knew it was southwest of Embarkingdare-o, but where? I glared at the plastic screen over the map and sighed. Standing next to me was a Don Lake lookalike and a little person all decked out in San Francisco giant-labeled clothing. I asked them which stop to take for the Castro. I was a tourist on a mission and without a map, and Embarcadero scrawled on my left palm, so I was going for broke here.

“Oh,” said Don, leaning over the map, which did not give me any confidence, because if we were in the District and he asked me how to get to. . . well, anything I can come up with like Bethesda, the White Flint Mall, Arlington Cemetery, they’re all clearly illuminated as Metro stops. But my point is, I’d know how to tell him to go without looking at the grid. I would use the grid only as a teaching tool for my temporary pupil. This is not what Don was doing.

“Here you go,” he said, pointing to something below what looked like Oakland. I was pretty sure the Castro was not in Oakland. Harvey Fucking Milk was not on the city council of Oakland. I nodded and thanked him. In the midst of this the walking art installation/ode to the SF Giants concurred, that Castro Valley was right over there. He got that Don didn’t have a clue what he was saying, and was being clever about sending a secret message to me. Hmm, I wondered, what other little person had a secret message for people, and doesn’t San Francisco have a neighborhood called Twin Peaks?

It was more than I could bear, this place filled with randomness collapsing into old television narrative. I had become postmodernism! I thanked them, but now I was supposed to stand on this side of the platform, waiting for my train to Oakland. I didn’t want to let Don down, but no way was I going to get on a train headed in the wrong direction. So since the next one was coming in eight minutes, I pretended to find a place to sit down, and then jumped on the train on the other side of the platform. I knew the Castro was somewhere around 18th Street, but I had no idea from the subway grid where the Castro Street was. So I opted to check out the Mission. Maybe I would find a street map or a bookstore.

The Mission reminded me of DC’s Adams Morgan in the days before the Williams mayoral administration started gentrifying everything. Adams Morgan at one point was a Latino/a community, and walking down the sidewalk of say, Columbia Avenue, a passerby would see several Spanish-named bancos, a laundromat, one or two grocery stores, a cellphone store, the windows filled with phone cards that screamed their low, low prices if one wanted to call Latin America, Mexico, or Spain. But really Adams Morgan was about the smells, the lovely aromas of Hispanic, country food that made my mouth water and my mind do a quick assessment of how much cash was in my wallet so I could just slip in and get a torta or fish taco, always wrapped in brown paper that did its best to illuminate the food inside as the grease from cooking coalesced at its edges and folds.

The Mission is kind of like that. There were also short, squat grocery counters, and I realized that all of these foods were local because hello, I’m in California. I didn’t want to stop walking, though, and I promised myself I’d come back later. I have no idea when later is. I also got a good vantage point of the hilliness of San Francisco without having to sacrifice my knees. I took in the row houses; there are some I’ve seen that just look depressing in their run-down condition, but these were like tittery older ladies sitting around on Sunday in their worn but nice fancy clothes and hats. It made me homesick for tiny, old women of color streaming out of church in DC, their headwear three times as big as their bodies, and all bright with every color Roy G. Biv could imagine.

I walked and walked, looking down the side streets for the pearls I suspected were there; a crepe maker here, cheap haircuts from cosmetology students there, the standard cell phone dealer, a blacksmith, of all things. My legs started sending me Morse code by clicking and popping as I walked the uneven sidewalk, so I figured it was time to head back to the BART and rest up before heading out, this time to the Castro for reals.

parade of the angry clownsBack in Alacarta, or wherever I was, I was awakened from my catnap by rhythmic drumbeats. I figured I might as well check out what was going on. I looked out my fifth floor window and saw marchers. Or demonstrators. It was difficult to tell which from my height. But they were chanting something, I couldn’t tell what.

And then I saw the clowns. The very angry, protesting clowns. Wearing G-strings. Hoo boy. Okay, here was the San Francisco I’d heard about. Not the angry, rise from the dead every 27 years to feast on small children Stephen King clowns, but pissed off, make fun of Tea Partiers on April 1st clowns. Whatever, I’m not a fan of clowns, period, because they freak me out and make me think of John Gacy. There seemed to be people dressed in all sorts of outfits, like Abraham Lincoln and Greek . . . goddesses? I really wasn’t getting what the message was. Did people need a parade to see how screwed up the Tea Party is? I thought that contingent was making it clear all on their own.

I put my head back down and after a time, ventured back out again, this time to check out the City Lights Bookstore, a bit north of Chinatown. I hopped a cab and $7 later was perusing the books, surprised at how small the place was. I figured it would be at least as big as Kramerbooks in DC, a well-known independent bookstore, infamous for refusing to turn over the receipt for a certain book of Walt Whitman poetry to Kenneth Star. This place, instead, was packed tight with progressive books and sections of shelves that would make any liberal reasonably happy, since we’re too pretentious to get actually excited: Praxis, Gender Theory, Surrealism. I spent a good amount of time looking at new takes on old classics and contemporary literature. Everything in there was serious, and eventually I wanted something else, but City Lights wouldn’t offer it to me. I hoped I wasn’t too Barnes&Nobleized.

I passed by the palm reader with only a moment’s hesitation, thought about getting a beer at the pub across the street from the bookstore but didn’t want to be the middle-aged guy drinking alone on a weekday afternoon, and kept walking. I walked right into Chinatown, with its glare of plastic lanterns and “import” shops of Asian kitsch, if there is such a thing. Samuri swords for $14.95. Aren’t Samuri Japanese, I asked myself, wondering if it mattered to the 9-year-old children who would lose their minds trying to cajole their parents into buying one for them. Probably not.

I walked and walked for a while, listening and looking and occasionally snapping a picture of something interesting. The Bank of Guam turned out to be roughly the border between Chinatown and the financial district, and my knees started complaining again. Darn knees. I want my knees of three years ago back again. How could 36-year-old knees and 39-year-old knees be so different? Especially when my ankles and hips were just hunky-dory. I looked to find a cab, but every taxi was already on route somewhere with passengers. I could not find one to save my life. Maybe another street corner would be better. Maybe I looked like a terrible fare, or something, with my black hoodie sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers. I walked some more. Fifteen minutes later I finally caught a cab with a sweet older male driver. Sikh, wearing a really nice blue turban that he’d matched to his shirt. How great that Sikh men can accessorize that way, I thought, collapsing onto the vinyl seat.

“Where to,” he asked, sounding like Barry White. I looked at my hand.

“Hyatt Regency Embarcadero,” I proudly announced.

“That is four blocks away!” Oh, crap. I apologized profusely. I hoped he wouldn’t throw me out of his cab because even if it were only four blocks away, I had no idea which four blocks they were. I could be wandering around for hours. Okay, maybe not hours.

He turned off his meter and we turned a corner. The Hyatt stood tall in front of us.

“Yup, there it is,” I said, rather sheepishly.

“So it tis,” he said. His meter blanked out—I suspected he didn’t want his dispatcher to see this stupid fare he’d taken—I asked him how much for the ride.

“Oh, whatever,” he said. I was really sad to have pissed off India’s answer to the R&B giant. I handed him $5 and thanked him again. “And now you can get another fare,” I said.

“Why thank you,” he responded.

Perhaps it was time I collected myself with another bit of rest. I saw a box on the sidewalk, apparently left behind by the protesting clowns earlier in the day.


Dead cows tell no tales

When Mom visited us last week, we tooled around town. No really, we tooled around town, on the outskirts, north, east, and west. This is surprisingly easy, because two streets this way or that, and suddenly one finds oneself in a wheat field. Or at least, we thought it was wheat. It’s been a while since my farm girl of a mother saw wheat up close, but then there she was, clambering out of the car and her head down near the ground, surveying and investigating. She could have been Jessica Fletcher scouring a crime scene.

abandoned barnAs she was looking at the bright green whateveritwas, a man in a pickup truck drove by us on the dusty road. He managed to keep a tall western hat on his head, and he gave me the man nod as I waited for my parent to finish checking out the foliage. I nodded in return, but I’m not really sure why. What is the man nod supposed to mean? That I’m not here to pillage your town? That I’m in agreement on giving the most masculine salutation afforded by social expectations? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, even as I acknowledge that rolling down our windows to high five wouldn’t have made any more sense. But still, I nodded back at him.

She got back in her seat and announced to the two of us that in fact, it was wheat.

“I just didn’t remember it looking like grass,” she said, almost as if she really wanted to check the earth one last time, like running back into the house to make sure the oven is really, really, super turned off. We rumbled back along this road I’d never traveled, kicking up red dust behind us. We could have been a Mars rover, for all the wheat fields knew, although they were probably more certain than I was of where they came from.

We dead-ended at a T intersection, the car idling, bored, while I tried to figure out if Walla Walla was to our left or our right.

I picked right, making a guess. At noon the sun wasn’t going to give me any indication of where I headed. Where were my so familiar DC streets with their quadrant markers?

It should be noted that DC was once a small town in the midst of farms, fields, and livestock. Pierre L’Enfant liked it because of its intersection of two large waterways, the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. In that way it wasn’t very unlike what Walla Walla is now, I suppose. But certain things—population density of the East Coast, cheapness of land at the time, intentional urban planning by L’Enfant and Masons—helped DC metamorphosize into the large metropolis that it now is. Those things don’t really exist for the Wheat Farming Town that Could, even as it was the site of incorporation for the State of Washington, and its original capitol. Now Walla Walla is only big compared to Dixie, Washington, which has only a single school, and Milton-Freewater in Oregon, best known for the frog statues that run along its main thoroughfare.

So Walla Walla doesn’t need quadrants.

We drove past a farm with several head of cattle, and I saw one cow nudging its face on the still body of a calf. The baby was indeed lying at an awkward angle.

“Oh no,” I said, “I think that calf died.”

Mom looked through my side window. She nodded.

“That’s so sad!”

“Well, maybe he’s just resting,” she said, patting me on my knee.

“No, really?” We’d passed them now so I couldn’t keep looking back.

“I mean, I’ve never seen a calf rest like that, but sure, maybe.”

My mother was mothering her nearly 40-year-old child who really didn’t live in the if-I-don’t-know-for-certain-it-might-not-be-real world anymore. But it was nice, for a minute, to pretend that I was still that gullible.

For when the snow melts

Maybe it’s cheating a little bit, but here’s a re-post of a restaurant review I wrote a couple of years back (well, 18 months anyway) of a hamburger joint on Capitol Hill in DC. Once people can make it outside their homes and restaurants begin receiving supplies again, feel free to avoid this place.

So we went to check out Spike’s new burger restaurant in Capitol Hill, the Good Stuff Eatery, and the vague name should tell patrons something before they even cross the threshold. For those of you who don’t know who Spike is, I’m not talking about Spike Lee, I’m talking about the former Top Chef contestant from a couple seasons ago who always wore a hat and made it pretty far to the end. He was kind of a card, as portrayed in the show. We were curious to see how his new venture was going, and a little dumbfounded as to why he’d open up a burger joint in a town already replete with them (thinking of the fabulous local 5 Guys chain, Booeymonger, Tonic locations, etc.).

I crutched up to the street with Susanne at about 7 p.m. on a Monday evening. There was a line of about oh, 8-10 people snaking down the sidewalk. Really? I don’t think I’ve seen that in DC except for one truly amazing Mexican place in Adams Morgan, but okay. Come to find out, as we cross the street and head over, there’s actually an Ombudsman standing outside guarding the door. You can see inside the place that there’s plenty of space for us to stand inside (where we will later freeze our asses off), but he’s got us out here. Where everyone can see how “jumping” the place is, we presume. Well, clearly Spike’s got the skill of spinning his reality down pat already, giving evidence that anyone can acclimate to DC standards.

I found a chair at an unused outside table (if it’s so busy, how is it that there are free tables), and sat down, letting the others hold my place in line. About 8 minutes later (oh, counting the minutes, I later realized, would get me nowhere), we were let in to Studio 54 — I mean, to the Good Stuff Eatery. We’d had time to peruse the menu so we knew what we wanted to order. A somewhat eclectic mix of burgers, wedge salads (how strangely out of place for a burger joint), three different styles of fries (featuring the Spike™ name), some milkshake options that looked interesting, and assorted beverages. Yuengling and Blue Moon beer were on tap. We should have, however, stored our selections in long term memory, as we saw that there were 30 or so people ahead of us in line. There were a lot of lines in this place. In solidarity, the lines on my forehead decided to join in, furrowing themselves more permanently onto my face.

I realized I wasn’t going to be able to stand for this whole line, so I asked Susanne to order for me and made my way up the inaccessible stairs to get a table. Because surely with these many people here I’d need to also queue up for a table, right?

Nope. Sure there were people upstairs, but there were tables free. It had the same layout as the Cosi next door, which serves people with much more efficiency and much less fanfare from its staff. Susanne remarked that putting the tables over the frying surfaces downstairs caused the eaters upstairs to start to take on the smell and appearance of fried foods, and she had a point. But I’ll add that with the perfectly frigid temperaturs (I mean seriously, the place wasn’t warmer than 63 degrees), the lipids in the air start to harden and condense, giving everyone the appearance of waxed mannequins, as if Madame Tussaud’s had decided to move 20 blocks over to get a little closer to those other waxed celebrities, I mean, our elected members of Congress, excuse me.

So I waited upstairs for the food to arrive. And waited. And waited. And….

WAITED. No sooner than 48 minutes after we entered the place, Susanne came up with the burgers and fries. I was somewhat astounded. They better be slaughtering steer in the back alley. They better be the best burgers I’ve ever eaten, thick as my ass and juicy, layered with truffle shavings, some kind of nearly extinct mushroom, and quail eggs.

Wait for it.

I had ordered a turkey burger, thinking back to the three burgers I’d had earlier in the week. One was an undercooked beef burger from Mr. Henry’s (I mean, I don’t expect much from them, so no biggie), one was from a Wendy’s drivethrough (see above), and one was up in Baltimore for lunch at Pebble’s Diner. Surely this burger, this 48-minutes-in-preparation burger would put all of them to shame.

Mushy bun that had done its best to soak up the bloody juices from the half-cooked, thin-as-a-wafer meat (I mean, it looked a little Jennie-O to me), mushy avocado that probably would have been excellent the day before, limp and mushy lettuce, and a variety of sauces that seemed to act as a pre-stomach-acid food liquification system, which served to make the texture of the experience particularly disgusting. The fries, on the other hand, were terrific until they cooled down, and then I realized they were over-spiced. The shake was great, little hints of caramel and malt that made my tongue decide mutiny after the burger experience wasn’t really necessary.

Susanne reported that they were charging a 25-cent fee on every order for “environmental processing.” She asked the cashier what this was for. He reported that it was because you know, like, they pay someone to go through their trash to make sure nothing recyclable is being thrown out, and that’s expensive. My god THAT job has to suck nails! She found this an interesting rationale, given that practically everything they handed to us was unrecyclable plastic, and that they didn’t have a “is it for here or take out” option so that folks eating in the restaurant could get reusable utensils or napkins. And at the end of the meal, which was like a blessing from God (that it was over, I mean), a busboy took out trays and dumped everything — including two glass bottles — into the trash can. Good thing someone’s going to comb through it later looking for those bottles! That’s like letting your cat catch the fake mouse every so often so he stays motivated to keep trying. If they’re so into the environment, couldn’t they have at least a couple containers for recycling?

So, all that said, I can’t really recommend the place. If you want an $8 burger, go to a steakhouse and get one. If you want a thinner burger for a better price, stick to the places in town that know how to make them that I mentioned earlier.

Thank God he didn’t win Top Chef.

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