Friday, July 26, 2013

Two Day DC City Break!

Washington is an exciting city in which to be a tourist, and an even more exciting city in which to be on the take!  While recreational drug use, overconsumption of alcohol, and madams named after expensive hotels are available to tourists and corrupt politicos alike, it is so much more exciting to partake of these pleasures using fraudulently obligated tax money after having tossed wads of what is known in the trade as “payolla” out of stretch Hummers at random leaders of the local constabulary.  Why, not being corrupt in Washington is like not having an affair in Orange County or not placing a single Carhartt glove on a beer bottle moving past you on a conveyer of thousands of other beer bottles in Milwaukee. You can do it, but why bother?

Admittedly, for the casual visitor, peddling enough influence and quickly sinking to new depths of depravity are a challenge, especially on a Two Day City Break.  For those without the means or will to do so, here is a quick two day itinerary that guarantees you’ll get the most out of your trip.

Day one.  Plan on having the famous half-smoke breakfast at Ben’s Chili Bowl.  To get there, simply ask one of the ID-sporting middle aged office workers near your downtown hotel for directions - any of the doughy, bleary-eyed, back pack wearing people will do.  But don’t be surprised if they turn on that famous DC charm and either completely ignore you or actually push you out of the way.  Those that actually level with you will admit that they’ve never been to Ben's Chili Bowl since it’s in a bad neighborhood and all.  But remain undaunted and keep asking until the rush-hour supply of commuters has slackened and then grab breakfast at that Starbucks right in front of you.  (No, not that one on the left.)  (No, not that one across the street, either.)  (That one, right there, RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU.) This will make you feel sophisticated, like that guy with the Blackberry on his belt and the golf shirt monogramed with his company’s name.  And the enormous back pack.  (Note: under no circumstances ask for directions to Ben’s Chili Bowl from someone wearing some kind of livery, such as a Starbucks Apron, a janitorial shirt, or a parking enforcement uniform - while all of these people have actually been to Ben’s, as you’ve just learned, it’s in a bad neighborhood.  Better to tell everyone at home that you tried to go.)

After breakfast, proceed as quickly as you can to the Air and Space Museum.  It’s a straight walk down 7th Street, but you will get lost.  Get your bearings by stopping on a street corner while looking at the free map you picked up in the hotel lobby with the impossibly large cartoon drawings of the museums and monuments and wonder why you can’t see the Air and Space Museum from there - it’s so big!  You’ll have to ask for directions again, but no one will know where it is.    Plan on stumbling upon it by dumb luck.  But do hurry!  There is so much to see at the Air and Space, you could easily spend an hour.  Once you’ve arrived, take a much deserved break in the IMAX theater, perhaps even a nap.  And for lunch, I recommend the fine pizza, chicken fingers, or even hamburgers you can purchase at one of the many franchises located in the food court that is inside the Air and Space Museum!  You’ll make the most of your time by eating at the museum and not have to fight the crowds of muggers, drug king pins, and politicians that you’ve heard roam the streets of Washington randomly killing people.

Afternoon: Attempt to walk across the bleak, sun-baked expanse of dirt that is the National Mall to the American History Museum which seems to magically move farther away with each step you take, until you collapse in the burnt-off grass.  Sleep here until the start of rush hour.  Be sure to wear plenty of sun screen as your bare legs, between you socks and shorts, will burn to a crisp in the hot DC sun.

Evening: Disrupt the flow of rush hour commuters in a vain attempt to negotiate Metrorail by standing in front of turnstiles, stopping at the bottom of escalators and generally making a nuisance of yourself, in hopes that one of the trains will magically whisk you back to your hotel.  This is a great way of interacting with the real Washingtonians who live in far flung exurbs and wonder constantly how, exactly, their lives turned out like this.  Leave the metro station by a different exit (although you think it's the same one) which puts you in what looks like a completely different neighborhood, or country, maybe, and then walk quickly with your head down not making eye contact until you can find a taxi to take you back to your hotel.  Order room service and watch your favorite television shows.  Plan on going to the pool but fall asleep.

Day Two:  Have breakfast at the Starbucks that is in your hotel, which is next to the pool that you should really take advantage of. Then take the open top bus tour.  All day.  Never get off.  You’re too tired anyway from the cumulative hour or so of walking you did yesterday.  It’ll be a nice break.  From your high vantage point, you can see all the sights, and while you won’t understand the driver’s garbled narrative, at least you can say you’ve been there! Go back to your hotel early and check out, be aghast, truly aghast, at how much they charged you for parking, sit in traffic for a few hours and then eat dinner at someplace like Woodbridge or Breezewood or the Maryland Welcome Center, where ever your travels may take you.  Bask in the relief at being away from the bustle of that corrupt city.

This itinerary may not be for everyone.  Such excitement can only be stood in small doses. While such a short visit will make it almost impossible to delve into true corruption, it will reinforce all your preconceived notions about cities in general and DC in particular.  And that, after all, is why we travel in the first place, isn’t it?

Best time to Visit:  Between the hours of 11:00 am and 3:00 pm on Thursday, October 3.  

Top Sites to See:  1. The Hotel Pool 2. The Starbucks in the Hotel Lobby 3. The Air and Space Museum 4. The Open Top Tour Bus (it’s a convertible bus!) 5. The Starbucks across the street.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Food in DC

The recent article by Mark Furstenberg in the Post about the food culture of DC opened my eyes to the food desert I live in.  I didn’t realize it before.  Not only is DC a food desert, it is an over priced food desert!

Just the other day I was enjoying, actually enjoying, a chorizo taco at Taqueria Nacional.  Never again!  Had I realized how bad the food is in DC, I wouldn’t have dared to enjoy it.  When I think about it, the employees at Localat Cafe some how tricked me into believing that the mussels I had there were delicious, as well.  This misconception stuck with me right until I read Furstenberg’s article.  Now I know better.  

I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences.  Chalk them up to your inferior palate, now that Furstenberg has pointed out how bad the food is in DC, and how bad your palate is.  The pizza at 2 Amy’s, for instance - you can never take your kids there again.  (When they beg to go, just do as I did: tell them it burned down; they’re young, they’ll get over it.)  Or the pig tails at The Pig, but you had a sneaking suspicion that something called pig tails (served at a place called The Pig) couldn’t possibly be as good as they actually tasted.  Mr. Furstenberg simply confirmed it.  Of course, now you know that you were simply wrong when you went to Etete, that everything wasn’t incredible, even when you had no idea what you were eating.  Remember that?  Boy, some places will go to any length to make you believe you’re eating good food in this city, even so far as using fresh ingredients and knowing how to cook it.

The other service Furstenberg performs for Washingtonians is show us how over priced our restaurants are.  You can’t get good cheap food in this city.  I did not know this.  Obviously, I’m being taken advantage of.  For instance, I thought I was stealing the food at Los Hermanos, it was so good and so cheap.  As it turns out, those crafty Dominicans were over charging me!  I should be able to eat that well for two dollars and get a free drink, I believe Furstenberg is implying.  Same goes for Mi Cuba Cafe, where they call breakfast Desayuno - that should have been my first clue that it was overpriced; foreign words on the menu!  But how could I tell that it was overpriced when I was getting Huevos al Gusto con Jamon o Bacon o Queso Frito, Tostadas cubanas, Cafe con Leche y Jugo de Frutas (freshly squeezed) for $6.95?  I suppose I shouldn’t have paid a penny over $2.95! Live and learn.  And then there is Fast Gourmet.  How on earth this place ever duped me I’ll never know!  It’s in a gas station for God’s sake!  It must have been the fact that the food tastes really good and didn’t cost very much.  The bastards.

I’m also, in a way, relieved to know that all those stores at the Florida Avenue Market like A. Litteri, Mexican Fruits on 4th Street NE,  Caribbean Crescent on 5th Street NE, and the nearby Union Market, plus the butcher, baker, and cheese monger at Eastern Market are all terrible.  I mistakenly thought for years that the food I was buying at these places was fresh, affordable, and delicious.  I’m glad to know that I was fooling myself.  I can go back to shopping at 7 Eleven and not feel like my soul is slowly dying.

I know there are places I missed, neighborhood places like Mangialardo and Sons and Vace or newer places like Taylor Gourmet or Medium Rare that I always enjoyed but now know are simply vile.  

I guess I might as well take all my meals at Ben’s, instead of just most of them.  At least it’s iconic and mixes nostalgia with it’s not-good-ness.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Imagining Raising Kids in DC

Lately, I’ve noticed various bloggers and commenters writing how they can’t imagine raising a child in DC. This opinion is not extraordinary. When people say this, I believe them. They are really actually admiting that they have no imagination. The only thing they can envision is raising kids in the exact same milieu as they were raised – most likely a suburban or exurban milieu. They have fond memories of wonderful childhoods, and assume that wonderful childhoods are the direct result of the physical places they lived. I propose that a wonderful childhood is a direct result of having a wonderful family and has little to do with place.

I grew up in a typical suburb, just like the vast majority of white people my age. I had a great childhood. I had woods to play in, places to ride my bike, and ball fields close by. My friend had a pool. We kids ran around the neighborhood unsupervised all day. It was great! (Of course, if I had an ugly family life, I probably wouldn’t have such fond memories.)

Generations of Americans believe that this suburban existence is what made their childhood happy, and therefore it is what will make their own children happy. They believe that life in the city would deprive their children of these basic childhood experiences. I see it differently.

As a child, I wanted for nothing. Or so I thought. But that’s because I didn’t think twice about having to rely on my parents for a ride everywhere I wanted to go: the mall, the movies, a pizza shop, a friends house. It didn’t bother me that we weren’t allowed to ride our bicycles to the shopping center, nor were we allowed to walk along or across the busy roads. At the time, I wasn’t aware that this was an impediment. It was simply a given. Same thing goes for rarely visiting a museum or going to a concert or a lecture or the zoo, all of which were amply available downtown, but required too much time, too much driving, too much money, to do more than a few times a year. Again, that’s just the way it was. Not knowing that a different life style existed, I didn’t feel deprived at all.

A child growing up in the city won’t know that they are being deprived of the ability to ride their bikes down the street and run around for hours unsupervised. What my child will know is this: his mom and dad took him to a pool (either the public pool or a hotel pool or a Y pool or the JCC pool) all the time; his mom and dad played with him in parks they walked to; his mom and dad taught him how to ride a bike in the same parks; when he is older, his mom and dad let him ride the metro and go to coffee shops/movies/shopping with his friends: no need for a ride from mom or dad, either. On top of that, he’ll remember going to the museums all the time (both the free ones and the ones you have to pay for) as well as the zoo, concerts of all kinds, and even talks and readings as he gets older. Plus, he won’t have to sit in a car seat for hours a day.

Perhaps even more important, he’ll be in daily contact with people who don’t look like him, who speak different languages, practice different religions, and make different amounts of money (or no money at all). At five months, he’s already made friends with the staff of a local Eritrean eatery. This interaction is good: he’ll learn about the diversity of the world and how to negotiate his way through it.

And besides, our little guy won’t miss what he doesn’t know about. I firmly believe that the benefits of living in DC far outweigh riding a bicycle down the middle of the street or running around unsupervised all day. Our little guy will have a far more enriched environment here in the city than if we lived in the suburbs.

I find the attitudes of young couples who simply cannot imagine raising a child in the city troubling for a two reasons.

First, where you live impacts the environment. Deciding that you can’t raise your kids in the city, based on the erroneous belief in what makes a happy childhood, merely creates another family living a wasteful suburban existence in a big house on a big lot; another family with two cars (probably SUVs, because they need them); another family that takes a car for every single trip it makes.

Second, this chasing after the perfect childhood is actually depriving their children of so much that the city has to offer – the diversity, the learning opportunities, the simple exercise of walking, and time with their parents. I spend time with him every day instead of sitting in hours of traffic.

We each value different things. I try not to judge others by what they value, but it is human nature to do so. So I do judge people who publicly state that they can’t imagine raising a child in DC. But I don’t judge them too harshly – these are caring people who want to create nice childhoods for their kids, and they will, but not because of where they live. They will provide their kids with nice childhoods because they are good people.