Thursday, March 10, 2016

Alma Mater

Tonight, I sat at the hotel bar drinking Kentucky bourbon that a very, very cute (dimples! humor! intelligence!) multilingual bartender poured generously for me. I began by reading a book I had just purchased at Kramerbooks and Afterwards, but, being where I am, the bartender turned on the GOP debate rather than whatever athletic event may be on tonight, so I became distracted from my book. Every time he-who-shall-not-be-named spoke, most people at the bar guffawed and rolled their eyes. A Josh Charles lookalike sitting next to me tossed pointed, very funny political jabs my way. I laughed. He was cute, too. Across the bar, I noticed a woman. I kept looking at her, as I was sure I knew her. Before I left to head to my room, the bourbon buzzing electrically in my brain but not so much so that I couldn't connect, I approached her: "I know I know you," I said. And I did. She was a former neighbor from Altadena, a member of the produce-exchanging community in which I had been a participant; I used to buy eggs from her. She works for NASA and is in town for a big black-tie event. Yup, I'm back in the city, the city that draws the brilliant from all over the world, the first city that as an adult I could call home: Washington, DC.

Dupont Circle at dusk.

K Street, aka law and lobbyist central, at dawn.

940 24th Street, my former home in DC; it was a little house for a big life.
When I landed Monday afternoon at Washington National, I cried as we flew over the campuses, bridges, and monuments. When I saw places that were so deeply familiar to me, I had to slide my sunglasses on in the plane. I'm here for a work conference, the best professional conference I've ever attended. In 1993, I came here to learn, and now, in 2016, I'm back, learning deeply again. But, I've also used every non-conference moment to walk down memory lane, and it has been so good.

Each morning, well before the conference begins, I've risen early to hit the streets, mostly squared but intersected irregularly by state-named avenues. I've walked through the neighborhoods I used to walk when I was a university student. To protect my mental health in college, I'd take long, wandering walks through Georgetown, Kalorama, through the monuments and National Mall to the capitol building, and further, to Eastern Market and beyond. This week, I've found myself wandering again, not to protect my happiness but to accentuate it. At night, I've walked more, sometimes to tenacious restaurants familiar from my past, but also to new, wonderful ventures that make the best of local produce and food traditions. The first place I visited Monday when I arrived was the florist where I worked in college, and as soon as I crossed the shop's threshold, the scent of memory hit me like a boulder: lilies, carnations, roses, greenery, the smell of Oasis brick. I spoke with a man who was a brother of the brothers with whom I worked, his cat-like nose and brusque mannerisms made plain his family.

Sunrise on a typical DC neighborhood street.
In the mornings, early as the sunrise, I've gotten out of my hotel room to take these walks, starting with coffee. The other people in the early morning coffee lines have been at most 25 years old, each wearing expensive suits and cheap computer bags, shoes that are too fancy and awkward hairstyles that don't match their suits. In these outfits, there's no individuality, just the costumes of political professionalism. They are the interns and young folks trying to make it. As I walk longer and later into the morning, the adults come out, professionals in suits that are even more expensive than those of their young colleagues but shoes that are much more comfortable, and each of these adults has an individuality, a way to make themselves their own in their lobbyist and Capitol Hill uniforms—remarkable necklaces, funny socks, flamboyant ties, weird glasses. The young ones conform. The old ones stray.

There are just as many shiny black Lincolns as ever, and this afternoon when trying to rendezvous with a former roommate, I had to trek around a Secret Service blockade and what seemed like a hundred black Lincolns and SUVs to reach her. There is no doubt that I am in a Very Important Place surrounded by Very Important People doing Very Important Things. The flags, all of them, from the Embassy of the Sendirad Islands to the Canadian Consulate, are at half-mast for Nancy Reagan's death. In the center of the city, it's hard to walk a block without encountering an obvious presidential or congressional employee. Yet, there are no more bicycle couriers. My brother and a former beau were bicycle couriers here in the city, and the frenetic speed and purpose they brought to the streets is absent. One of the city's currents has dried up. Other changes exist, too. Neighborhoods that were dusty have been spit-polished, and places where rent used to be accessible are nearly comparable to San Francisco markups. Blocks that were commercially empty host fancy roast-in-house coffee shops, and my old campus, well, it houses a Whole Foods.

The Cairo apartment building: no matter how hard you try to set up the photo, you can't straighten it out, like both Art Nouveau and politics.

Last night, I brought a colleague to Larry's Homemade Ice Cream, where through the years I have ordered many a cone. I ordered a small scoop of Key West Chocolate Fever on a sugar cone, the same order I've placed a hundred times. I told the server (a man who looked approximately my age and therefore may be the owner's son) I used to come here 20 years ago. "20 years? It feels like 20 minutes," he said.

Is this home? It sure feels like it. But, then again, I'm a woman of many homes. Those 20 years are a heartbeat, but that heartbeat is strong among many. I wouldn't trade this mixed up rhythm for the world.

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