living in Washington, D.C.'s last "chocolate" bastion
(Updated Saturdays . . . or When I Feel Like It)
~for Marlene Hawthrone (1982-2012)
You stilled us—we boisterous
lot of poets, singers, divas,
emcees in silent need of what you’d
conjure with a camera and digital
sorcery—to be made crisp
pixels. I never got to touch
one photo of yours. Everything
shared, exhibited online. Why
we loved being present with you
as you worked on us, posed
reluctant torsos and limbs, stole
unexpected clicks. You made
a clique of everyone
who crossed your Canon, friends
stretched over the convex
lens. Your weak lungs.
Your taxed heart. Your good
eye. Your good eye.
D.C. is a territory small enough to navigate
with a compass crafted from all the points
where we’ve since made love as exes.
The Days Inn on Connecticut. Your rented
room in the row house by L’Enfant. My home
I bought in Southeast. Always a surprise
how hungry our bodies were for each other.
Mapping what it means, I’m aware the sex
(what you call it now) isn’t a state to be
confused with love. You say we loved
each other in Indiana, Tennessee, ago.
Here, you say, we press and probe these
bodies we possess because it is familiar
—a known side or angle—but for me
there is little in this little town I know.
If what we do is familiar, mine is the known
sensation of a breath after holding one’s head
beneath water’s window—the burning gasp
before returning my mouth and eyes
to flirt with drowning. Maybe I am guilty
of diving too long into this city of paved
swamp—seven years since it hasn’t ceased
being the city we share. Soon, though,
you will head abroad to serve The State—
speaking the langue of the sleeping dragon.
I wanted to find our third point, but I’ve learned
how L’Enfant’s plans frown upon straight lines.
Where to start this one … ?
Alright. So, I was on U Street (psychosocioeconomic mindf_ck that it is) where some of my basketball buddies were having drinks to celebrate one of their birthdays, and we started to have the “where do you live / what is your neighborhood” conversation. We are mostly younger brown people—ranging from twenty-six to thirty-two. (I’m the older bookend.)
Now the usual response to my telling people that I live in southeast D.C. is what I call the “southeast silence.” Par example:
KGD: Yeah, I live over in southeast.
OTHER: “Oh …” [silence]
There really isn’t a racial or gender demographic for the southeast silence. I get it from just about anyone. Brown folk might give you more of an “ah” than an “oh.” (“Oh”: I’ve heard about that southeast. “Ah”: Yeah, I know ‘bout southeast.)
Back to U Street. So, the youngest fella in the group has the most animated reaction to my disclosure. “Man, you actually live … on the other side of the river!” Now, I’m well aware of the socioeconomic and development divide represented by what lies west versus east of the Anacostia River. (He felt he was equally aware because he had been “over there” canvassing for Adrian Fenty. Riiiiiight. And, full disclosure, I voted for Fenty because I sensed that Gray’s coalition was too broad and his executive tool box was light.) Yes, it is an extreme disparity, but rarely do I encounter the type of candor that makes me feel as though I live in a perceived alternative universe.
The young brother goes on: “I mean, how do you meet any women in your neighborhood?” This is a very revealing comment. Firstly, it shows young boy’s naivety, because what man would want to casually date someone in his own neighborhood? Nothing but headaches there, son—easily foreseeable headaches. Secondly, it makes explicit a conflict that I often ignore in living in Southeast—that being that while I do not judge anyone I live around—if anything, I’m trying to reinforce the humanity of the people who live around me, especially the disenfranchised—BUT ask me if I would date a “neighborhood girl.” General policy: Heck no! Why? I already have ingrained within me the notion that we come from different if not irreconcilable worlds. That we would recognize but be disinterested in speaking each other’s social languages. So even if I wanted to chastise this young brother for his comment about the women east of the river, all he would have had to do to disarm my rebuke is say “… C’mon, son.” And he’d be right.
This has nothing to do with physical attraction, but I’ve never even fathomed approaching any of the women I see on the bus or walking around the neighborhood or at the metro or … well, that’s pretty much all there is to do in my neighborhood. We don’t have any café’s or bookstores or bar lounges (not that I drink, which is its own dating challenge unto itself). I’m not in the carry out. I’m not buying a damn thing of Minnesota Avenue. (Weave? Nope. McDonalds? Nope. Check cashing? Nope. DTLR? C’mon, son.) As far as the social machinations of a neighborhood, most of my neighborhood activity takes place on my block, or over in Eastern Market. And while I enjoy Eastern Market, I’m also beginning to slightly resent that if you are young and African-American living east of the Anacostia River, there are so few options for you in southeast when it comes to neighborhood activity—you wind up having to get on a train or bus to live a social life you should be able to live in your immediate environment.
When I am in the neighborhood engaging with the people, I’m usually in the schools working with kids—which ties into another challenge. Many of the women my age on this side of the river are single mothers. My mother was a single mother. So, no judgment there. Many are superheroes and inspiring … but it shouldn’t have to be that hard to have a child. I think of all the aspects of my mother’s life that she either had to, or perceived she had to, sacrifice to raise me. I don’t want to go about it that way, and I’m leery of integrating myself into such arrangements. But what does one do when you have neighborhoods in wards 7 and 8 where ninety-percent of the households—ninety—are single-mother households?
Recently, I’ve been “feeling a certain way” (as negrofolk say) about buying my house. I love my block. I’m grateful for the opportunity to own a home. I think it was a shrewd fiscal decision. What I gave no serious thought to ahead of time, though, is what effect owning a home, and specifically owning my home where I do—in southeast D.C.—would have on my dating life. As a young man, maybe I should have thought more about dropping anchor. (To be honest, it is my experience that the women I do somehow manage to meet and date would rather I own a car than my house here.) But it is what it is. Instead of asking why I thought it could work, it’s time to start asking how I’m going to make it work. Because, naive as he may have been in other regards, the young brother was right. Living east of the river has potentially hamstrung my romantic life, which seems so absurd and so clear.
Postscript 1: Yes, the Real Housewives of Benning Road is an actual thing.
Postscript 2: R.I.P. Teddy P. Still miss you, sir.
I was on my way to Harris Teeter (“The Teeter” if you hail from locales farther south), zipcaring across the Sousa bridge from
southeast east of the river, when I saw the massive plume of smoke hanging over Capitol Hill. Though it makes sense, I never considered how the land just to the east of the Anacostia, just before you head up the real hill—Hillcrest—is lower-lying land. I could see the smoke, but, because of the incline, I couldn’t see what was burning. I knew whatever it was had to be huge, and as the police directed traffic off of Pennsylvania onto Potomac Ave, I kept wondering what it could be. When Eastern Market burned down a few years ago, I was in the city but had never made myself familiar with the market. When I lived in northwest, I lived a northwest life—rarely crossed farther than Gallery Place. Since I’ve relocated to southeast, I live more of a mixed experience in the city, and I feel like a part of the Capitol Hill community. My gym is there, my trainer (yes, he has a separate studio because he’s too beast for the regular gym). I walk up and down Pennsylvania Avenue all the time. I was even trying to start up a literary reading series at Mr. Henry’s pub where Roberta Flack first started performing while she worked as a D.C. school teacher. (A little D.C. history free jewelry for you there. You’re welcome.) So, when I found out it was Frager’s—the home hardware institution—a true sadness crept over me. Eerily, Frager’s was going to be my first stop before Harris Teeter. (I needed some mulch and something to deconstipate—unconstipate? deconstipate?—my shower drain.) It was, instead, on fire.
The supermarket was uncharacteristically empty for a weekday evening—possibly because all the Pennsylvania Avenue traffic was blocked from 9th street to 13th street—and an early darkness had settled around us as the smoke veiled the setting sun.
D.C. seems to be losing institutional memory by the second. Given the size of the blaze, there was little hope that things would be “OK” for Frager’s. All those years, all those jobs, all that institutional community memory burning grey. When I arrived home, I get a much delayed e-mail
Live in SE DC, near Cap Hill? You’re advised to keep windows closed, A/C on. Smoke from Frager’s fire may be toxic: wapo.st/14y51yT— Capital Weather Gang (@capitalweather)
from the city alert system urging Hill residents to stay indoors with their a/c units on to prevent inhalation of the potentially hazardous fumes. But someone needs to be catching that smoke, right? That is what real memory is like—tar or soot that eventually leaves the body violently, forcing all around take notice. If Frager’s never comes back, some will need to hold it in their lungs for the time being.
A discussion of / debate on President Obama’s Morehouse graduation speech. It was an interesting exchange. As disappointing as our political system is, I love living in the same city as C-SPAN.
Been asked to do another TEDx talk. The last TED conference was a little … I don’t want to say disorganized but definitely hectic. So, I’m hesitant. (I’m still recovering from that.) But now that I actually understand that what makes for the “best”—in terms of response—TED talks is telling one’s own story, I’m tempted to take another stab at doing it TED-right, you know?
Anyway, this was the most enjoyable aspect of that last TED event—being interview by the little homie here.
For my entire post-puberty life, women in service jobs seem to have taken a particular liking to me. I cannot and do not try to explain it—random flirty conversations that sometimes end in free burritos and the like. Unsolicited, mind you. I’m not a fast food gold-digger. I don’t even eat fast food anymore. Well, I do go to Good Stuff from time to time for a free-range turkey burger—which, being made fresh, takes about twenty minutes. So, maybe it isn’t even fast food. Anyway, I have digressed. The point is that I now have many of these conversations with the cashiers at the Harris Teeters I go to. These exchanges occasionally go something like this:
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Cashier: “Ooo, what’s that?”
Cashier: “Hmm. It taste good?”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Me: “Can I have two of the salmon burgers?”
Meat Counter Attendant: [Looks at me like I just asked for low-sodium chitterlings] “OK.”
Me: [Taking package] “Thank you.”
Meat Counter Attendant: “Those taste good?”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Now, I grocery shop in D.C., Arlington and Alexandria and as is the case with the service/custodial staff at my university, a lot of the grocery store staffers live in my ward. I see them on the bus, on the metro. And once I make that connection, I start thinking about the “food desert” debate. The idea being that brown folk in urban communities don’t eat healthy because they don’t have many healthy options or grocery stores around them.
It’s easy to think that might explain some things, and there are efforts being made to counter these realities, but then think about these people who live in my ward but work at these grocery stores on Capitol Hill and in Northern Virginia. Their work environments, where we all spend a significant amount of our time, are filled with healthy cuisine options. In some cases, they are prepping the food (salmon burgers don’t grind themselves, yo), but they are really unfamiliar with said healthier options. Sometimes when I am having these conversations with these women, I’m thinking: “But don’t you work here? Don’t you see this food all the time?”
I believe this is another example of how modeling as a form of education may be what’s significantly missing in areas such as Southeast D.C. It is likely not going to be enough to plop organic supermarkets and farmers markets in the hood. The healthy lifestyle needs to modeled and explained so that it is not so foreign. Yes, it might be fair to say people need to educate themselves, but it’s not just ignorance they are battling. It’s the passing on and encouragement of bad habits. If anything, that’s not starting from zero. That’s starting from negative one. So if you live in the hood, go eat something “weird” and healthy. Model that life. You might be helping someone come out of the nutritional wilderness.
Whenever I have to cross over into Northern Virginia to grocery shop, meet a friend or eat a decent meal (one of my favorite restaurants, The Carlyle, is in the painfully metro inaccessible and hella bougie Village of Shirlington), I’m always shocked by how ethnically and socioeconomically diverse it is. Actually, I should be specific and say Arlington. Alexandria ain’t diverse, son.
It smarts just a bit because if you were to ask me how I think the nation’s capital should look, I’d say it should look like Arlington—many shades of brown folk, many different classes. Not quite a melting pot. Maybe a soup and a salad (add voting rights for 50¢ for the combo meal).
D.C. is so crazy right now, it’s getting too expensive for middle-class Caucasian people to live. It seems New York is going (ha, “going”) in that direction, too, but that is New York: Either you’re struggling or you’ve arrived—no real middle. You want middle, you move to Jersey, pal!
For some reason, and I don’t know how I feel justified in thinking this, but shouldn’t the nation’s capital not show its oligarchical leanings so bluntly? If New York is just about money and fools’ dreams, can’t D.C. just be about dreams, or that space between dreaming and waking—a foot in both. That’s my kind of middle.
Sometimes, I think D.C. should reclaim Alexandria and Arlington as a means of saving its soul. I often feel much more American there than I do in D.C. proper.
Everyone remembers their first time … they get taken to the hood in a new city.
Fred Joiner was first person to give me a ride deep into Anacostia almost five or six years ago. I think we, and some other people, were looking at properties that young negro folk could buy and keep “black” before gentrification caught a good whiff of Southeast.
As we were driving, I remember someone saying something about going to “the [housing] projects.” I was cool with that. As Dave Chappelle says, the first rule of taking someone to the projects is that you inform them that you are taking them to the projects. (That isn’t something you spring on people at the last minute and let them adapt to.) So, I’d been allowed the proper advance notice to get my mind right. I was cool.
Now, when we rolled up into Barry Farms (and, yes, it did feel like we were on hood safari—in a bad way), and I thought to myself “… These aren’t projects. These are garden apartments.” Being from the northeast (but Chicago people understand this just was well), I think of projects as these dark, modular, monolithic buildings that rise into the sky. That doesn’t sound much different than a basic apartment building, but then you add the broken and piss-soaked elevators, the murderous stairways, the non-working security doors, the barred windows, the gates, the static tarmac moats and you’ve got capital “P” projects.
But what I saw at Barry Farms was, well, a community, whereas the design of northern projects is crafted to thwart community. If you know anything about negro neighborhoods and blocks, you understand the importance of grandmothers—grandmothers who sit on porches, who observe the street, who scold, who protect, who chronicle and remember. Even in very poor communities, the presence of the elderly at the street level (and the interaction of generations) can lead to communal health greater than any skyrise housing project could ever aspire to. When America decided to move urban negroes off the block and into the projects, when it made the grandmothers sky high and ineffectual, it contributed greatly to the decline of urban negro families and communities.
So looking at Barry Farms—with its courtyards and community barbecues and storied basketball summer leagues—it really reaffirmed for me how impactful this issue of verticality is to public housing. While there are many issues with TANF and public housing in D.C. (I live next to Simple City and thus can attest), they did one thing right by not stuffing poorer “chocolate” citizens—the folk—into sky towers. They’re still on the street—watching each other, sharing dirt and grass, not melting as fast as they could be.