Friday, December 29, 2006

Could I have fries with that McThrownOutOnMyFace?

Okay okay I’m awake! Jeezeohman!

I got to sleep late last night, and was a bit groggy as I stumbled to the metro this morning. As I walked past the bus stop next to the McDonalds on U Street, I noted the extraordinary amount of McTrash strewn around the bus stop shelter, the side walk, the gutter, and, of course, around the empty city trash can.

Strewn trash on U Street is like tumbleweeds tumbling down the dusty streets of old western movies: just part of the stage scenery. So I wasn’t particularly shocked. Apparently, neither were the dozen people standing at the bus stop.
So then I’m waiting for the light at 14th Street, and I hear a woman behind me say “I think I’ll go sit at the bus stop.” At first, I assumed she was with someone, but then she continued to ramble on in that vein any denizen of the city is familiar with: talking in earnest to no one about the injustices of the universe. I felt that twinge of uncertainty and discomfort I always feel in the presence of a crazy homeless person. It puts me on edge. But, like everyone else there, I pretended not to notice.

I was just getting interested in her monologue (“I bought something so I should be allowed to use their restroom”) when I heard expletives and a scuffle coming from the McEntrance directly behind me, and suddenly a man literally flies past me, like George Bailey and Clarence being ejected from Martini’s, landing face first in the street! I turn to see from whence he came: the McManager had bodily thrown him out. I can’t imagine why.

The man staggers to his feet, MFing the McManager, threatening to get a bat. This does nothing for my discomfort level. He then proceeds to calmly rifle through the empty city trash can (instead of the McTrash strewn all around it), mumbling incoherently. Again, like everyone else there, I acted as if this were a usual occurrence at 6:30 in the morning. My nonchalant air said “no big deal; why, even I enjoy a good asphalt face plant every once in a while. Who doesn’t?” When the light changed I walked on, the rush of Mcadrenalin propelling me on my way. At least I’ll save money on coffee today.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

DC is full of “Concerned” Passers-by

Along the lines of yesterday’s post about crime, I used to have a house I was renovating in Southeast near RFK. One day, my brother and I and a couple friends were out front on the side walk eating lunch, and we had various items sitting out on a gang box in the front yard: cell phone, wallet, Pringles. Here’s the scene: four of us, filthy, covered with concrete dust and mud, swigging water and wolfing down munchos and such, with various large and heavy tools leaning haphazardly about, and this guy walking down the street says “someone left a wallet and a cell phone sitting there. You better be careful.” My brother, the 6 foot 3 inch, bearded, concrete-carrying, 20 oz. hammer swinging broad shouldered carpenter, says back to him “why, you going to steal them?”

The man wasn’t sure what to so say to this, as the four of us stood there staring at him. “No, no, but this neighborhood ain’t so good.” He walked on.

Why do people make comments like this? To make others feel uncomfortable? Maybe they think they really are being helpful, but I think it’s because it crossed this guys mind to steal the wallet and cell phone. And he would have, except for the four guys with easy access to picks and shovels and sawzalls standing close by.

It’s the same as the people who are always suspicious of other people’s motives. We all know these kinds of people (at work mostly, because who would choose to be friends with them?) The person who resents someone who just got a raise and assumes she got it for sleeping with the boss, or the person who locks his modular-cubicle-fake-office door when he goes home each night, just in case. These people assume the worst about everyone, I suspect because they assume the worst about themselves as well. Given the chance, they’d sleep with the boss to get ahead, or root through other people’s offices after hours. Either that, or they’ve had too many random people make foreboding comments to them.

Overdue Thanks!

I’m long over-due in my thanks to Arjewtino for plugging my fledgling blog (say that sentence a few times and see if it still makes sense. No alcohol required (NAR)...). Also, thanks to DCBlogs, who picked up my piece about the DC street cleaning holiday and made me feel famous for a while.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

DC Crime Rate

The murder rate in DC is the lowest it’s been in years. And, in a time when the violent crime rate all across the country is going up, the crime rate for all crimes in DC is going down. This is a good thing, but the plunging crime rate isn’t all about better policing, as Chief Ramsey claims. That’s part of it. However, the population MPD is policing is different than it was 15 years ago. The economy of the city has changed and grown, creating more opportunities. It’s a complicated scenario. It’s no coincidence that the crime rate in places like Prince George’s County is going up at the same time it’s going down in DC. Policing and condo conversions don’t solve the problems caused by entrenched poverty. A problem moved is not a problem solved. It’s just that DC tax payers don’t have to pay for as much of the burden anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy about the change. But it saddens me that as a country and as a city we don’t do more to empower people of all walks of life to make their lives better. Why not use a version of “microlending” here in this country? Basically, microlending is lending small amounts of money to small business people, or people who want to start businesses, enough to give them that little bit extra that could mean the difference between success and failure. Why do all economic revitalization projects in DC have to involve huge amounts of cash and real estate and take years to realize? A small loan and perhaps some business support could help the guy who hauled away junk from my place old place on Capitol Hill buy another truck so he can hire more people; a small loan could help a woman open that coffee shop she’s always wanted to open. If microlending can help India, why on earth can’t we do it here?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sit Down and Write!

"A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." Thomas Mann

After one whole week of blogging, I find myself creating a blogging persona. This isn’t particularly shocking if you’re a writer; it’s what writing is all about, especially fiction: creating characters.

I also realized that I’m straying a bit from what I said I was creating a blog for in the first place. I wanted to talk about the writing life, and instead I’m just being silly and creative. That’s fine, but I find I’m doing the same thing with my blog that I do with my writing, which is find ways to avoid writing (or blogging about writing).

Of course, this is a trait common to lots of people involved in art. I find lots of excuses to NOT write, like cleaning the house, or going out with friends, or I’ve had a bad day, or I’m not in the mood. There are no tricks for becoming a published writer. But I do know a sure-fired way NOT get published: by NOT writing. I’m pretty good at that. Successful writers all have one thing in common: they never stopped writing. Writing is difficult, especially writing fiction. Anyone I’ve ever met who says writing is fun or easy doesn’t write very good stuff.

This makes the physical act of sitting down to write a struggle. Usually, once I start to write, I like it. And the more I write, the easier it becomes to sit down. But starting a new story, a new book, a new chapter, sometimes even a new day, I feel like I’m gingerly stepping to the end of a high-dive. Do I chicken out and climb back down, or do I stand there, with my arms wrapped around me, shivering? Or do I simply jump off?

Of course, all of this belly-aching (and I’ve got journals full of this stuff) doesn’t change the fact that each day, I simply must sit down and write. And when I think of it that way, it’s rather simple, only four words: sit down and write.

New Town/Capital City Market Redevelopment

Yesterday, DC council passed a bill that allows for the redevelopment of the Capital City Market. Richard Layman, on his Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space blog, posted the bill I highly recommend Layman’s blog to anyone interested in development issues, both here in DC and globally.

In case you don’t know, the Capital City Market is the clump of wholesale and retail market and warehouse buildings along Florida Avenue near Gallaudet University in Northeast. It is a vibrant area full of small businesses and vendors. It may look a gritty, but it’s a thriving, non-blighted place.

I’ve got some concerns about the way the city and New Town Development, LLC, wish to redevelop the Capital City Market. I think a “main street” program that helped revitalize Barracks Row on Capital Hill is a great thing, but wholesale redevelopment of 24 acres of private property harkens back to the misguided policies of the mid-20th century that created so many urban problems and dead urban spaces, not to mention the destruction of many small businesses. The similarities are eerie: starting in the 1930’s and accelerating into the 1950s and 60s, local governments would declare an area “blighted”, and then use a combination of public and private money to “improve” the area. The problem was that many areas they labeled as “blighted” were anything but. They may have been working class and a bit run down in places, but they contained successful small businesses, families, churches, and tight-knit communities. Look at Southwest Washington between Independence and I-395, which is really nothing more than a suburban office park stuck next to the National Mall, to see the legacy of 1950’s redevelopment of blighted areas. Admittedly, the Capital City Market is a single use area (wholesale and retail), so the correlation with Southwest is not perfect. What it may need is the development of other uses while retaining the affordable storefronts and economic activity that make the Capital City Market the wonderful place it is right now.

But even the housing component of the new bill makes little sense. The bill has the noble goal of increasing affordable housing for people like fire fighter, teachers, police officers, and other workers who simply can’t afford to live in the city. However, one particular line in the bill undermines this goal: “(k) The land trust shall require that all units developed under the program remain perpetually affordable.”

This sounds good, but if these homes are for sale, why would anyone buy them? Homeownership is one of the basic and most successful ways for people to build a stable financial future. The teachers and cops I know have the same dreams of financial independence as anyone else. If they can’t sell the house at market rate later on, why buy it? It makes no sense. Creating homes that are affordable for first time buyers is a good thing, but to then limit the home’s future value is self-defeating.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Chelsea at San Giovanni Laterano?

On our trip to Rome in October, we visited many, many churches. Half of them, it seemed, we either designed by or contained something sculpted by Michelangelo. More amazing, though, was what we found in the guest book of San Giovanni Laterano:

I’m not sure if Chelsea really signed this, but if someone was trying to be funny, they would have written “Nicole Ritchie” or “Paris Hilton” or something, who probably wouldn’t have set foot in San Giovanni Laterano, even if they knew what it was, for fear of it falling down on them. There’s a good chance that Miss Clinton, a graduate of Stanford and Oxford, actually visited San Giovanni Laterano. Whether it was on September 12, I don’t know.

But my wife and I contend that it was THE Chelsea Clinton who signed the same guest book as we did. It makes us feel important.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Street Cleaning Holiday

This month, DC announced that they were suspending street cleaning for the winter.
Which, of course, begs the question, DC cleans the streets? I’ve seen the signs announcing “street cleaning day”, but I always assumed “street cleaning day” was a vestigial holiday with mythological roots, whose origin is lost to the mists of time, a meaningless day that no one pays much attention to. Kind of like Ground Hog Day. Or Election Day.

I’ve never seen anyone in DC livery cleaning the streets in our neighborhood. But, like most ancient traditions, certain rituals are carried on, even after they have lost any connection with reality; in this case, DC still writes tickets for parking on the wrong side of the street on “street cleaning day,” and they still announce when they suspend and resume street cleaning.

Some day, these rituals will die out, too, just like the day-long massacre of ground hogs on Ground Hog Day. And hopefully, someday, “street cleaning day” will be tossed on the ash-heap of history, like the ancient Hanseatic “Baby Eating Festival” of yore, that no one hears much about any more.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Da Vinci Cold

I came home the other night and found my wife thinking like Leonardo Da Vinci. This was a distressing turn of events, I thought to myself. Leonardo, while a genius, was probably not the easiest person to live with, what with all those sheaves of mechanical drawings and poisonous tinctures of cobalt for making paint lying about. I imagine he was a bit distracted, as well, finishing very few of the projects he started. His garage was probably full of half-painted porch furniture and various kinds of saws (wet saws, table saws, band saws) for all those home improvements he meant to get around to.

My wife had come down with a cold, and so spent the day at home listening to the book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day, by Michael J. Gelb, on CD. We listened to the rest of book while eating dinner, playing pick-up sticks (I’m not kidding) and gin rummy, and then building houses of cards (which seemed like a very Da Vinci thing to do). Two bottles of wine later, we figured out that this book belongs to a certain genre of books I call “pseudo-intellectual,” or “stupid as hell.” They’re books for people who majored in business in college and are now realizing that maybe there’s more to life, books to make them feel educated without putting in the actual effort to become educated. Like most books in the genre, this one mixes capitalistic business school ethos with warmed-over new age hippy crap, along with a good dose of over-simplified interpretations of history.

At the end (of the wine, not the book), we had learned a number of amazing things:

Nothing at all of any importance happened during the middle ages (I’ll have to re-check the dates of the founding of the University at Bologna, the building of Notre Dame, the creation of the Hanseatic League, the development of the long bow …)

Da Vinci, if he were alive today, would prefer the stemware from a specific manufacturer and would work as a consultant to multinational corporations. (This second one might actually be true; that’s what he did when he was alive.)

There are people out there, somewhere, who are “modern renaissance people”, and I don’t meant those “creative anachronism” folks.

Building a house of cards is really hard.

My wife kicks butt at pick-up-sticks.

Drinking good wine, even two bottles, doesn’t give you a hang-over.

For a more in-depth view of the phenomenon of new-age capitalism, I suggest the book Bobos in Paradise, by David Brooks.

When In Rome

My wife and I recently returned from two weeks in Rome, drinking too much no-so-good Italian wine, eating way too much really good food, and not seeing enough of the sights. Washington and Rome are similar in a lot of ways: half the Romans seem to want to cheat you out of your money, and the other half want to give you free stuff.

Upon arrival at Termini station, we took a cab to our apartment We learned later that the ride should have cost 10 Euros. This guy charged us 30. I paid it, being a bit loopy from the flight, even though I knew I was being rooked. Later that night we were overcharged for pizza and bad wine. It wasn’t an auspicious start to our stay. We’d read about the con-games and pickpockets Rome is famous for, but we figured, hey, we’re from Washington, where even the garbage men expect to be bribed and getting robbed on the street is like a right of passage.

So we decided that if we couldn’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Since we spent most of our first week’s budget on the taxi and one meal, we figured we could make up the difference by robbing American tourists. For the most part, the American’s were easy to spot (or so we assumed): unstylish clothes, fanny packs worn on the front, neck safes and money belts worn outside the unstylish clothes, heads buried in guidebooks while walking: it would be easy pickings.

But all our careful planning came to naught: first, we tried the old “hand gun in the jacket pocket” trick so popular in DC; we approached a promising looking family, all fumbling digital cameras and baseball caps. I pointed my pocket at them and said “you know what time it is!” doing my best DC-thug impression. The man said “why sure!” and then proceeded to, well, give me the time. “No,” I said, “I mean, give it up!” This only elicited a few blinks and a repetition of the time. But we were not dismayed. We found other prey. However, as it turned out, most of the people wearing American T-shirts were Italians, the unstylish clothes and fanny packs belonged to Germans, and the guidebooks were in the hands of just about everyone else. Americans, amazingly enough, were virtually invisible! One couple, I think they were Canadian, did give us a 2 euro coin. I think they thought we were some sort of street performers. Our crime spree sputtered out.

Later, a cafĂ© owner gave us free champagne, a tour guide gave us a free tour of the Forum, a fruit vendor in Campo di Fiori gave us way too many delicious grapes, and, in an unrelated theme, a shop owner yelled at us for putting garbage in a garbage can, babbling that she didn’t go to London and throw wine bottles everywhere (although I had my doubts). There was no arguing with that kind of logic. On the whole, things seemed to even out on the financial front. Like DC, where I’ve been overcharged by plumbers and electricians, but given a driver’s license even though I clearly failed the eye test, and while I can’t win an argument with the parking enforcement officer, the hearing official usually gives me an out on a technicality. Karma. I think the Italians call if la dolce vita. Or else la curriculum vitae. Or something like that. I’m pretty certain it involves a small bull’s horn made of coral.

When it Rome, we learned, it was best to get drunk and eat too much. Getting drunk and eating too much on a balcony helps. I think the same basic laws hold true for DC, too.

(An aside: in over ten years of living in Washington, my wife and I have never been robbed, and in two weeks in Rome, riding trains and going to all the tourist spots, we were never the victims of pickpockets; both cities suffer from overblown media crime hype. Please don't comment that you've been robbed in both DC and Rome. I don't care. I didn't say street crime doesn't exist. I'm simply saying that people love telling street crime stories, and they make great news pieces, giving the impression that you'll get robbed as soon as you step out your door. End aside.)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Washington on a Bad Day

Even on a bad day in Washington, when it is raining and traffic is at a stand still all over town, and grumpy bureaucrats are arriving late at every FOB, and my car just got another ticket for being parked on the wrong side of the street, and I received an inexplicable summons via certified mail from some obscure DC office that regulates trash cans that I know will only be resolved after a maddening descent into the Kafkaesque bowels of the DC bureaucracy, even on a day like that, I’m glad I live in Washington.

Washington is not Paris, and certainly it’s nothing like Paris between the wars, when you could pay for drinks with a short story and live for years on what you could make fishing in the Seine. Paris isn’t even like Paris anymore. Maybe Paris is better, but Washington, even on a bad day, is a great place for a writer to live. At least for this writer. I need people around me, traffic noises, art, culture, beauty. I need the LOC, the art museums, the literary readings, the Belgian beer, chili and waffles and collard greens, the liquor stores on every corner. I don’t wish to be cut off in a cul-de-sac where I never see another human being walking past my window. Washington is a human city, both in scale and attitude. I’ve started this blog to explore these kinds of ideas: the writing life, but the writing life in Washington in particular.

People might disagree with me about Washington (or with my views on writing). Good for them. They are right. For them. And I’m right for me. I’d rather be in Washington than anywhere else in the country. (And I’d rather read the books I read and write the way I write than do anything else.) Parking tickets are cheap compared to the slow and steady decay of one’s soul that comes from living anywhere else.

This isn’t really my first blog ever. I did a guest blog for my friend ArJewTino a while back that got picked up by Wonkette, much to ArJewTino’s dismay. That had always been his dream, to get a nod from Wonkette, and I beat him to it. I haven’t followed through on my promises to post reviews of reviews for every restaurant I’ve never been to; there’s so many, it’s a daunting task. But it kind of goes along with the theme of this blog: daunting tasks and snacks. Unfortunately, I think Hemingway was wrong: Paris is not a moveable feast; it's a feast alright, but when you leave, the feast stays there. And Washington is barely a snack, but it's the best I've got.