Monday, December 12, 2005

I’d been to Chinatown many times before, but I was about to enter a new scene entirely: the DC literary scene. In the basement of the Teasim restaurant, a small eatery
on 8th Street, people munched on Chinese food and sipped on tea before a weekly poetry slam began. I’d been to readings before, but never a slam, and I was in for something very new.
First, a gaggle of “newbies” stood up to perform on the open microphone, some good, others…less so. The first woman blew me away; she stood up, introduced herself as “Chunky” and then fell into a sort of trance. Her poem was almost a rap and somehow simultaneously almost an acted scene. Her poem focused on reforming society and her performance was moving. The rest of the performers were less moving, but equally interesting: one man read off of a map-quest paper, and the last boy read out of a cell phone.
Finally the headliners, two nationally ranked slam poets from Denver, took the stage for their pieces. I was blown away, Andrea Gibson seemed to become her poems, her breathing, her intonation, her voice—everything was a part of the piece. Katie Wersling was also fantastic; she had a wry sense of humor and dry wit, though I found them both to deal with similar issues. I had no idea it would be possible to watch these two performances back-to-back and see the beauty in both.
As I walked from the restaurant, I realized that this may be my first contact with the literati, well, the pseudo literati. It may not have been Umberto Eco or Zadie Smith, but I appreciated it nonetheless. I suppose all I can hope is that when I am the starving artist people think the same.
The city falls away almost instantly when I walk through the gates of the National Zoo. A secret garden, a furtive playground hiding a few blocks from the Metro stop, I find the National Zoo to be one of DC’s gems. I don’t especially care for animals, but I need to wander this week, and even given all the time I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve never been to the zoo before.
The lyrics from Simon & Garfunkel’s “At The Zoo” seemed to fit, and I hummed along to the tune as I walked about. Some one told me it’s all happening at the Zoo, I do believe it, I do believe it’s true. First, I was struck by a rather large construction project, and initially assumed I was in for more disappointment, for this is what I usually encounter with Washington…disappointment. The monkeys stand for honesty, giraffes are insincere, and the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb. I strolled about lazily, looking at the animals, wondering how they liked living a caged life, do they even know? Perhaps I’m living a caged life and I’m equally naïve.
Orangutans are skeptical of changes in their changes, and the zookeeper is very full of rum. There was one area of the zoo where they actually had free-ranging monkeys. Signs read: “Please hide your food,” and the air took on a kind of creepy stillness as I looked about for small animals jumping through the trees. I couldn’t find a single golden tamarin; at one point I thought I’d found one, but no, sadly, it was a squirrel.
The zoo, I thought while leaving, is an interesting place, who is really looking at whom? After all, I perceive myself to be the free one gazing upon the Giant Panda, but nobody would make a big deal about my having a child, in fact they’d most likely shun me. The Metro elevator felt a bit more like a cage than ever on this day. Society’s cage may be slightly larger, but it certainly doesn’t feel any less cumbersome.
I’ve always loved walking in the rain; it seems to cleanse the air and give the city a kind of baptism. When it rains really hard I like to stand under a ledge and close my eyes and just listen. Raindrops hit the ground and roofs with a distinct pitter patter, tires squeak and horns honk. People rush by, and eventually I can even hear my own breath. It reminds me of that Verlaine Poem:
Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur ?

Ô bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits !
Pour un coeur qui s'ennuie,
Ô le chant de la pluie !

It cries on my heart
Like it rains on the city;
What is this languor
That penetrates my heart?

O soft sound of the rain
On the ground and on the roofs!
For a bored heart,
O the song of the rain!

I recited this to myself as I sat beneath an overhanging roof, waiting for the rain to let up a bit. My eyes closed, the city seemed more alive than ever. Smells fell down with the rain: grass and trees and hot dogs from a vender not far away mixed into one entity in the rain. From the Metro grate came the musty smell of stagnant air being washed clean by the rain.
Soon it began to let up and I walked down the street and into the Metro. Somehow I feel that standing under a small ledge in the rain in the middle of Metro Center today was more wandering than I’ve done the whole time I’ve been in Washington. I was at once conscious of the city around me as a whole, and I was a part of it. My ongoing lament somehow lifted by the rain, I again said to myself, “pour un Coeur que s’ennuie, / O le chant de la pluie!”
Gravel crunches under my feet, a pebble is in my shoe, God I hate DC. I’ve been to the National Mall before, many times, in fact, but this was a new experience: the National Book Fair. Tents line the Mall and huge pavilions are full of authors, readers and books for sale. It seems odd they’d choose the same weekend as a rather large anti-war demonstration, but such is bureaucracy I suppose, they never get things quite right.
The Mall itself is occupied mostly by older people and families with young children. Characters from books like, Arthur frolic about with kids as people pass by with their free posters and C-SPAN “Book-TV” tote-bags. Rain starts to fall, and quickly the posters become umbrellas as well as advertisements. I make my way down to the end of the Mall and sit on the Capitol Steps. I see DC before me: white, neoclassical buildings and monuments springing from the ground, museums lining the mall, and people. This is one of the few things I respect about the city, its drawing power. Washington never seems so complete as when there’s a crowd, the large promenades are given meaning by the masses, who voice their thoughts and opinions.
I stroll down the Mall again, this time I make it all the way to the Washington Monument, where a free concert is being held to promote the protest. I sat in the grass and listened to Joan Baez strum her guitar and carry us all back to the sixties. A threw up a peace sign and found myself on one of the huge monitors for a moment, what a shock, a tie-dye t-shirt and a peace sign and now I’m a hippie on national television.
Another band was making its way onstage as I walked off to the Metro. The system was packed, people wanted to know how to get to Greenbelt, where nearly every bus was parked, and the Metro employees looked more than a little miffed at having to tell seemingly every middle-aged woman with a fanny pack that their stop was at the very end of the Green line, as noted on every system map. It took me fifteen minutes to get from the mezzanine down to the trains, cutting through tourists and trying my best to disassociate myself from them; I guess this is the price I pay for freedom of speech.
It’s Thanksgiving break, I’m sitting on a train and feel as if I’m about to fall asleep; it rocks on the tracks so soothingly and the grinding metal is taking on the unexpected role of a lullaby. I’m returning from a city—well, not just a city, “the city,” as most seem to refer to it. New York, a city so big and foreign to me that this may be the truest wandering I’ve done this entire semester.
I arrived in the morning, and the city was already bustling with life. It seems that New York always is, it really lives up to its hackneyed moniker: “The City that Never Sleeps.” The town seems a machine fed by the hustle of life. People rush by me everywhere, and I feel stranded, although I’m with a friend, neither of us are very familiar with the city and decided to visit on a lark. Everyone seemed to know where they were going. If New Yorkers had their own language, I doubt they’d have a word for languor. It is no surprise really, the air seems to be charged; massive buildings and corporate offices loom above, a constant reminder of American productivity.
Everything seems to move here except the buildings themselves, people of all shapes, sizes and ages zoom by, cars roll down the wide avenues and streets save a momentary lapse for lights or traffic. Even the animals are in motion: pigeons flit about, rats scurry in alleys and dogs pull their masters along at proper, Manhattan speed. And there is everything here, food, stores, museums, everything. It occurred to me that if there were to be a diorama of humanity, it would be New York, there didn’t seem to be anything missing, love, hate, old, young, rich, poor, crazy, genius, nothing was left out.
After making our way in and out of various stores and sitting down for the first real slice of Pizza I’d had since moving to DC—it was warm, cheesy (but not too cheesy), crisp and the size of a child’s head—it was time to depart. I had one last look at life before returning back into Penn Station and my life. Everything already seems slowed; people nap or laze about the commuter train, recuperating after being subjected to a New York pace for an entire day. I have to go back to school tomorrow, and only one thing occurs to me: I have to get out of DC.
Music floats from the Jazz clubs around me; trumpets squeal like adults from a Peanuts cartoon, and saxophones moan along with morose songs that cut deep into the heart. I’m walking down U St., taking in the sights, sounds and smells of one of DC’s culturally rich neighborhoods. There seem to be more Ethiopian restaurants here than in the whole of Africa; I realized I’d never really thought of “Ethiopian cuisine” before. The popularized dearth of food in this nation made me naively think there could be none; I initially wondered if they served Red Cross rice rations and malaria ridden water, but I suppose this was more of a sardonically conceived notion than one grounded in any kind of preexisting knowledge on my part.
Unfortunately the six dollars in my pocket made Ethiopian food a new experience that will need to be further delayed. In any event, I’ve just come out of a concert down the street at the 9:30 club and it’s far too late to sit down for a meal. I walk past liquor stores, more restaurants and finally arrive at Ben’s Chili Bowl, where I can have a more affordable and convenient meal.
Pictures hang on the walls—it seems many a famous face has stopped into the establishment, and I can see why. The greasy air iss thick and warm, a steady steam rises from the grill behind the counter. A gracious amount of runny, red chili is slopped onto a hot dog as I wait to order, and suddenly my watering mouth and grumbling stomach know exactly what they desire: chili and meat on a bun (in other words, euphoria). Individual slices of cake are stacked on top of one another in small plastic containers. They seem perfect, almost artistic representations of what cake should be—fluffy off-white pastry slathered with a bountiful quantity of frosty pink icing just waiting to be consumed.
I down my hot dog and leave the restaurant. I look around as I light a cigarette; the smoke hangs heavy in the cool air above my head like a cancerous halo in the glow of the streetlight. So, I think, this is gentrification. I know I wouldn’t have been able to lazily stroll in this area a few years ago, but it is satisfying to see a less antiseptic, less “neoclassical” side of the city. These are real Washingtonians, I suppose, people who know nothing but these streets and have no time for the city’s grandeur. I like them, I like it here, I realized, until I saw a woman walking out of a bar with furry boots that probably cost more than my life, she drove off in a Mercedes and I saw why people fuss about gentrification. Oh well, you can take the woman out of NW, but you can’t take the NW out of the Woman.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Georgetown is a neighborhood in DC that is so well known, so trendy, so posh, so…worn out I loathe to think of the days when the few blocks around Wisconsin and “M” streets enthralled me. Today, I’m getting of the bus with a different idea of the neighborhood and DC as a whole. I’m determined to find something worthy of interest in the area known as Georgetown, something more significant than a pair of shoes or a fancy meal.
That said, Georgetown is one of the best places to shop in DC, so I wander in and out of a few of the stores: Commander Salamander, Urban Outfitters, Beyond The Wall…there are so many places to spend. I found this somewhat frustrating, however; the average college freshman (myself included) cannot easily walk into a Georgetown boutique and buy whatever suits their fancy. “I can’t even afford Urban anymore, God, I remember when they were cheap…well…cheaper,” I complained under my breath as I left, empty-handed from Urban Outfitters.
“Ok, Ok, get over this, this isn’t why you’re here, you’re wandering, remember,” I told myself as I wandered off “M.” The streets of Georgetown seemed to breathe with new life off the main shopping drag. Cobblestones lined the road, a few tracks poked out (I assume from a trolley system now gone) from the street, federal-style brick homes climb three stories. They seem to be out of the 19th century, all the details so miraculously preserved (or, at the very least, replicated): brass doorknockers, painted dormers, windows partitioned by bits of wood, with a swirl in the glass near one corner—a product of hand blowing.
Ivy inched up the old homes, and I realized I was wrong. Georgetown does indeed have character, the character DC once had: old and powerful and beautiful. But Georgetown is loosing its character every time a tourist drops their frappuccino cup into the canal, and as for the character of DC on the whole, I think that may already be irreparably lost and forgotten.
My ears pop as the Metro plunges under the Potomac. I find it something miraculous, the Metro: veins of the city. Trains are always pumping through tunnels, over bridges and under rivers, depositing would-be pedestrians across the entire DC metro area and finally surging back to Metro Center, the system’s most crucial artery. Today I am riding from Tenleytown to Rosslyn, and my ears are still popping as I climb from the depths of the station.
“Great, I thought,” I’m in Virginia now. It wasn’t exciting; DC is a boring enough place in itself, but rarely does leaving the District equate with transcending the state of life within it. Rosslyn strikes me as a sort of piñata of a city; it appears to be something on the surface, but when you get right up close you see it’s hollow. Empty after five in the afternoon, save a few apartment buildings, Rosslyn’s charm was inextricably linked to the number of fast-food chains located within it. Wow, I thought, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonalds, Burger King and Chipotle all within a fifteen-minute walk of each other.
A giant tobacco shop—more of a tobacco emporium, really—and a bookstore seemed to encompass literally everything else in this desolate, empty city. The bookstore was amusing enough, but I still felt that I’d wasted a few hours when I found the Courthouse Metro stop; I had indeed walked from one stop to another without finding anything of significant interest.
The landscape was quickly degenerating from the quasi-urban feel of Rosslyn to true suburbia, and I knew it was time to go. I looked down the street, and I actually caught a glimpse of the Capitol. I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to get back into DC when I felt my ears popping under the Potomac again.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Union Station is a kind of wandering hub, full of people coming to explore an unfamiliar city. Certainly, many of the people embarking from trains cannot be considered wanderers—business men off to a meeting at Golden Triangle, residents who are arriving home after an out-of-town stay—but the spirit of the locomotive, since the days of manifest destiny, seems to be one of wandering. I took my hand at wandering about this massive station, and found that it is much more than a transportation depot.
Feet clatter and voices echo in the great hall of the station, soaring high into the sky, the concrete roof adorned by art in an almost Renaissance fashion. People school like fish, trying to get onto trains and into the streets, waiting in endless lines to get a cab or sinking beneath the surface to board the Metro. This however, is only one level of the station. Smells of many fast food restaurants clog the air with a greasy delectability, and a few nicer institutions try to serve food terrace style within the massive building, tables arranged oddly within fenced-in areas on the expansive first floor. A mall attracts residents and out-of-towners alike with a myriad of store displays. Manikins contort in windows and signs advertise sales and products all throughout the station. Every few minutes a voice blares announcements of arriving and departing trains, and slight rumble of locomotive engines is omnipresent.
I find my way out of this microcosm, itself almost a tiny city where one may go grocery shopping, pick up a book, acquire clothing or gifts and board a train to find a new life. It was a wandering overload, where confused and wondrous faces converge to find a new experience. The Metro moans and howls as it sinks back underground to enter the station and I board my own train. I may not be looking for a new life, but I have found a new adventure.
I quickly yank the cord hanging above my head, requesting the bus to stop. I was on my way to the Hill, but saw a crowd of people gathered about a few blocks from the National Archives and though I should investigate. Quite serendipitously, I stumbled upon a Turkish heritage fest taking place on this seemingly sleepy Sunday. Immediately it was as if I had stepped into another world; the neoclassical facades on Washington’s buildings seemed to be more like a block out of Istanbul than America’s capital.
Traffic was diverted and the streets were satiated with pedestrians; those of Turkish decent and others, like myself, who had wandered into the commotion. Several of the areas finest Turkish restaurants had set up shacks to compete for the best kabob. Meat roasting on spits filled the air with a thick smell—my mouth began to water as I strolled past stand after stand, each full of Turkish delights. Children ran in the streets as a band played faintly down the street, with the Washington Monument looming, omnipresent, in the background.
Walking further down the road, I approached the band. They played traditional music, and although I was unable to understand the language, it seemed familiar, as though I were really in Turkey and the procession around me were a regular occurrence. Women in flowing garments danced, beads twinkling in the sunlight and chattering as they knocked together. Twelve women performed the dance, it seemed like a harem performing for their sultan; ritualistic, but powerful, their movements seemed to flow almost naturally. It was not they whom moved, it was the music that moved them.
Finally I reached the end of the festival, back in Washington, back to the familiar. I pull out my transfer and hop on an approaching bus, immersed again in my own life. Perhaps it isn’t possible to travel around the world everyday, but it is nice to try.
It has been more than a year since I’ve stepped into the building I once considered more of a home than an office. The Metro pulls into Capitol South and I feel a tug on my stomach, a surge of feelings wells up inside me as I ride the escalator to street level. Canon, Longworth, Rayburn- the three House Office Buildings vault up from the ground before me; looming behind them is a place that will always be connected to my heart: the US Capitol building.
Images of Washington will always be skewed for me by my junior year of high school and the time I spent Paging for the House of Representatives. Every year, seventy juniors are invited to work for Congress and live on the Hill; I was one of the lucky few chosen two years ago. Now when I look at Washington it is not a city of wonder or possibility, it’s haunted by the faces I know and associate with the District. My best friends, members of Congress, bosses and teachers, they all seem to be rounding a corner or stepping on the Metro with me just a step or two too far behind to call out.
The Hill does not seem like a place I would be “wandering,” per se; I know it like the back of my hand, but today, I do not know what I am looking to find. Inside the Capitol life has moved on; I am surprised, almost betrayed, as if the lack of my insignificant presence should have affected something. Feet clap hurriedly on the floors, the building smells important—old, musty, with an almost palpable reverence hanging in the air. The marble steps have been worn down by time and expensive shoes, and my feet still sink into the ornate and plush carpets.
It feels so similar but it is not, not for me anyway. It never will be, a piece of me will always exist, jovial and young, walking down the halls bathed in soft yellow light; watching from a corner a votes take place, running to give a message to a Congressman and laughing with my cohorts. However, maybe I wandered down here to find my freedom, not my old self. Now that DC is not the city of my past, I can try to make the city of my future.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The DC Metro is a perplexing mode of transportation; like any subway it allows for somewhat rapid subterranean travel, but it strikes me as the baby of real subways. The Metro certainly stops all over town, but, for the most part, it leaves its passengers in the most familiar and well known areas of the city: Capitol South, Metro Center, Dupont Circle, Smithsonian – all reek of tourism. My objective is not to see DC through the lens of fanny packs and Mickey Mouse sweatshirts, but to find the city I must now come to know as my own.
With this mission in mind I leave the maps and disposable cameras behind as I embark from the Woodley Park – Zoo / Adams Morgan station. I walk over a bridge towards one of the few areas of DC that is active after eight o’clock in the evening, but on Adams Mill St. I decide to change my course. I look to the right and notice a slightly less populated by infinitely more “local” neighborhood. I quickly find this to be one of Washington’s Hispanic areas and it feels as if I have entered a new world.
Spanish is shouted around me, and I am slightly proud of how much I can pick up with just my high school training. Children play ball in the back alleys and I pass “The Grill From Ipanema,” a interesting restaurant with a trendy name but less than trendy dishes; Alligator, Brazilian sodas and other Ethnic cuisine complete the menu and I can the sweet smell of cooking meat and vegetables rolls out from within the eatery. I thought it odd that a Brazilian restaurant would find success in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood, but I suppose it is just a testament to the diversity of Washington.
The sun is setting now as I walk past “Banco Americo” and the children are moving indoors; I can hear mothers yelling from apartments, beckoning their “niños” inside. A calm breeze seems to whip mosquitoes into the evening air, and I pick up my pace back to the Metro. This was the first night I understood what it means to “wander” in a new city- to see something special in the place I now live. I am starting to realize DC is not just a tourist Mecca, but also the place that more than half of a million people, including myself, call home.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

I step off the bus and travel back in time, before me lies an anachronistic structure reaching to the heavens: the Washington National Cathedral. I’m not a religious person; in fact I have no faith at all, but I am still awestruck by the manifestations of adoration. Mass is just letting out and confronted with droves of worshipers, garbed in their finest and ready to reenter the here-and-now, their religious fixes satisfied for another week.
I push through the herding flock and enter the massive building. In an instant I’m bathed with a host of colors streaming from the kaleidoscopic Rose Window overhead. The mysticism of the church strikes me even though I don’t connect with the faith. It really does feel as if I’ve entered another time completely; the building smells of –if such a smell is even possible- age, a mix of stone, stale air and reverence. The ceiling seems almost nonexistent; reaching so high I could imagine a cloud or two taking up residence in the cavernous structure. Renditions of the Crucifixion and Pieta, however hackneyed they may be outside the Church’s walls, are at home here. I’m compelled to leave a donation and light a prayer candle; the Cathedral, after all, had provided me with the morning’s folly. The air is so still I can track the small stream of smoke from my candle up until it reaches another stained-glass window, disappearing into the rainbow of color.
Before getting back onboard the bus I look back to the Cathedral and try again to take it in. Gothic nooks and crannies, flying buttresses and gargoyles loom above as a flock of pigeons zooms into a hidden nest within the building. I feel so insignificant next to a God I do not even believe exists, and I am unsettled by this realization. A shiver runs down my spine and I am compelled to leave; I need to reenter my time and state-of-mind before I get trapped here with God. I feel comfortable back on the bus, but it is nice to know that the middle Ages are only a short ride from my own life.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A computer melody blares and I hear, “doors opening,” one transfer and thirty-five minutes after I boarded the subway in Tenelytown. Up a short escalator and I’m on Independence Avenue, only a few blocks from the Capitol. I meander down Seventh Street and happen upon Eastern Market; a flea market with a distinctly urban twist.
The air is hot and sticky, it reminds of my contempt for this city and its swampy past. It seems anything can be purchased here: music, posters and prints ranging from Victorian to Post-Modern and knickknacks galore. I browse the posters and a 1920’s inspired poster of the Washington Senators catches my eye; the vendor approaches me and I learn that he actually painted the original of the print I’m now looking at. He shows me the painting hanging in the back of his stand and we discuss baseball, ultimately he gives me a break on the poster and I continue on my way.
Now noon, bodies are crammed into the small-gated marketplace and there is an odor similar to old books and other mildewed artifacts found in various attics fusing with the heavy smell of those perspiring around me. I walk by a table cluttered with old Converse sneakers, jeans and belts; unfortunately none of the shoes are my size. I haggle with a man at the music stand and buy three albums, The Cure, They Might Be Giants and The Stone Roses for twenty dollars. The heat and crowd is becoming overwhelming, so I cross the street.
Across Seventh is a large farmers market; flies buzz about as I walk down the street. Small samples of fruit decay in the open-air huts, giving the air a saccharinely sweet smell that almost stung the nose. A few vendors hawked stone necklaces and old LPs, but I proceeded inside. I was expecting air-conditioning, but I was disappointed to find that the only things in the farmers market that remained cool were the meats and cheeses in refrigerated glass boxes. Spiced and flavored meats of all kind let out an odor that almost hung in the air like a fog; I needed to push through it to get from one end to another. Whole chickens, pig’s feet and more cold cuts than I could have ever imagined lay, awaiting a hungry mouth, as I passed by. I made a stop to get an empanada from a small Mexican vendor and I began to eat it on my walk back to the Metro. It was a chicken and raisin empanada, a combination I would have never expected, but thoroughly enjoyed. The flakey chicken was complimented by the warmed raisins that became a sort of gravy in the flakey pastry.
Upon boarding the subway again I realized how valuable this expedition had been. It was a great taste of diversity in Washington; there were people from multiple races converging on this market to browse and sell. Commands and requests were being shouted in several languages and I knew that I’d found the diversity that is somewhat absent in the Northwest quarter of the city.