Monday, December 10, 2007

Yeah, I'm Pro-Development

But not just any development.

I’m pro-dense, urban, well-designed, well built development.

I’m against crappy development, like the strip mall at W and 14th which, thankfully, now has construction fences around it.

To create good development, you need government oversight in the way of zoning and building codes, and you need community involvement. Constructive community involvement. The community needs to support good development and oppose bad development. The problem is, of course, that people have different definitions of what those things are. For instance, as I stated in my last post, the Dupont Conservancy is opposed to the proposed development at 14th and U, but where were they when that horrible strip mall was built a few blocks away? Perhaps they didn’t exist then, but that’s the kind of development that needs to be opposed.

There are other great things happening in that part of the neighborhood.
Along with the fence around the strip mall, there are two other big
projects underway. And they just took down the scaffolding in the most
well constructed building ever built on the NE corner of 14th and U. I
say that because they’ve been working on it for about 15 months, and
it’s a small three story building, so it better be the best building in
the history of the world! I’m not sure what’s going to go in there, but
right next door is the new Marvin. We’ve only been there for a drink,
but it looks fantastic and I have a feeling that the food is good.

Further up 14th is the new Union Row where a Yes! Market will soon open.
The silly European style alley they built through the middle of the
building is actually quite nice! I hope that building fills up. If
they build something of that quality at 14th and U, who could have any
concerns?

Thanks to all who read and commented on my last posting about the
project at 14th and U. Surprisingly, all the feed back I received was
positive. I figured there would be someone who disagreed with me.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

14th and U Street Controversy

A developer has proposed a ten story apartment and retail building for the southwest corner of U and 14th Streets, where the McDonalds now is. The proposal is to get rid of the bad one story development along 14th Street and incorporated the historically contributing structures into the design of the new building. This, of course, has brought out all kinds of opposition from various community group, including, for some reason, the Dupont Circle Conservancy and the Dupont Circle ANC, even though 14th and U is NOT in Dupont Circle.

But that’s OK, because in this great city of ours, anyone and everyone can throw their two cents into any issue at any time. Since I live two blocks from 14th and U and walk past that corner twice a day, I figure I probably have more right than people who live at 22nd and S Streets to comment on it. So here goes.

I support the development. To not support dense in-fill development in the middle of the city is to be both anti-urban and anti-environment.

Anti-urban because dense development, as Jane Jacobs pointed out in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is good for the economy and good for public safety. Anti-environment, because in a neighborhood that is well served by public transportation (the Metro is one block away), and in a world where global warming is a reality, leaving a huge plot of land like that under-utilized is backward looking. Us urbanites should be leaders in the environmental movement, not NIMBYs.

The arguments against it come down to traffic and “massing,” which is the same as saying “I don’t like it ‘cause it’s too big.”

The traffic argument doesn’t work because, again, Metro is one block away. Who on earth would move to that building so they could drive to work every day? Plus, I walk past there at rush hour every day, and there ain’t that much traffic there, something the Dupont Circle folks might know if they every actually ventured into my neighborhood.

The “massing” argument is also absurd. To support the “I don’t like it ‘cause it’s too big” argument (and I quote from The Dupont Current), the Dupont Circle Conservancy said that “unlike the Reeves Center to the north, which was built on a large site, this project is being wedged into an existing historic district with considerable adjacent existing residential areas.” The sheer idiocy of this statement is mind-boggling! First, to hold up the Reeves Center as some sort of model of development is lunacy. The first problem with the Reeves Center is that it doesn’t use all of it’s large site, not to mention that it has such things as huge ventilation systems fronting on U street and empty glass and ugly brutalist architecture, all of which make it relate extremely poorly to the prominent corner on which it is situated and not fit in with the historic structures all around it. Which brings up the second problem with the Conservancy’s statement: the Reeves Center is in the exact same historic district, surrounded by the same residential areas, as the proposed site. In fact, it is right across the street! Their argument is simple nonsense. A 75 to 100 foot building would have the same “massing” as the self-storage building it will abut, as the Reeves Center, and as all the other apartment and condo buildings that have been built along 14th Street.

The devil, of course, is always in the details. The plans have to be good. But since it is in a historic district, and there are zoning specifications it must meet, and a lot of it has to be reviewed by the ANC (the ANC that has actual jurisdiction over the area, not one from across town), the plan will have to be good to pass muster.

In this day and age, with the price of oil climbing to ever higher levels, with the reality of global warming, NIMBY-ism and obstructionism should not be allowed to derail good, dense, urban in-fill development, which I believe this will be.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Shameless Promotion: Les Champs Artists' Cooperative

I've come out of my blog-dormancy to make a quick anouncement about a new Artists' Cooperative based in DC. Based, in fact, on U Street. Actually, based right here in this building: Les Champs Artists Cooperative.

My beautiful and talented wife is the founder of the cooperative, and they just had their first highly successful show this weekend at the Junior League of Washington's A Capital Collection. They sold a lot of art!

The cooperative is made up of many talented artists who do what I like to call "representational realism". In other words, artists who can actually draw and have a real sense of color and create beautiful, amazing pictures.

Perhaps I'm biased. But check it out!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

DC Taxi Zones vs. Meters

Ah, cab fares! Nothing gets the DC blogosphere a-rockin’ like a good old fashioned bru-ha-ha over cab fares!

Mayor Fenty’s newest decisive decision (he’s nothing if not decisive when he makes a decision) to switch DC’s cabs away from the zone system and to meters has been cheered by most cab riders, and even some cab drivers, but jeered by many cabbies.

Which leads me to believe that perhaps it’s a good thing.

But it’s quite a bit more complicated that it may seem. First of all, all you people out there who complain about the zone system do so for one simple reason: you don’t understand it. If you choose to take a cab for five blocks, you’ll pay the same amount as if you traversed the entire zone. Sucks to be you, but you WERE NOT overcharged. Too bad you’re too lazy to walk those five blocks. There are also extra charges during rush hour, which is why the same ride can sometimes be a couple bucks more or less at different times of day. It’s all written down inside the cab.

Now, I’m not necessarily defending the zone system. On Capitol Hill, we lived one block inside a zone. We quickly learned that if we were going down town, we had to walk a block west to catch a cab. Today, we also live right across a zone boundary line, so we’ve learned to have cabs drop us off at the restaurant across the street instead of in front of our building. But you can’t game the system if you’re from out of town and don’t know the system. Meters will help.

But meters will also hurt. Right now, I know when I get in a cab in DC how much a given ride will cost me, because I can read, both a map and the fare schedule, posted in every cab. It doesn’t matter if we sit in traffic, or it’s rush hour, or if the driver decides to drive around in circles or stop of a cup of coffee; the price will always be the same. With meters, you’ll never know what the cost will be. It will be completely dependent on traffic, and on the route the cabby takes. Cabbies will have no incentive to find the fastest route, like they do right now. If I want to figure out the best way to get from one part of the city to another, I take a cab and see how he goes, because he wants to get there a quickly as possible under the zone system. With meters, he’ll want to get there as slowly as possible.

So if this is the case, why aren’t cabbies supporting the meters? Two reasons: first, I bet they make a lot of money downtown or in Adams Morgan/Dupont Circle from lazy people who don’t want to walk a few blocks. Second, they’ve already figured out how to cheat in the present system, and they’ve yet to figure out how to cheat with meters. The devil you know if always better than the devil you don’t.

When it comes right down to it, as cab riders, things won’t change very much. Maybe the lazy people will pay less to go 5 blocks. But the rest of us will still have to be vigilant. However, instead of being vigilant about zones and surcharges and fare prices, we’ll have to know if a cabbie is taking us for a ride to run up the meter, and then have the guts to tell him.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

My Wife is NOT Homeless

Contrary to word on the street, I work very hard to ensure that my wife remains housed. We found out about her street rep just recently. She was walking down U Street, carrying various attributes of her profession (paint box, palette, etc.), wearing paint spattered clothes, weaving her way through the crowds around Local 16 and Stetsons, when she happened by a homeless man. He was about to ask her for money, when he changed his mind and apologized. Then, reaching deep into a grimy pocket, he took out a couple dimes and actually offered them to her.

My wife had a hard time explaining to him that she didn’t need the money. Telling him she always dressed that way was not convincing, for he always dressed that way, too. She said she’s an artist, and he said, yeah, he is too. I’m just coming from doing work, she protested. I’m sure this guy is used to seeing people dressed in non-filthy clothes coming from work, so he was rightfully skeptical. Finally, he understood. Perhaps it was her perfume.

She told me what happened as soon as she came in. I laughed.

I wish there were a better ending to this story. I wish I could say that we rushed back out there and bought him dinner or at least gave him some money. But, instead, we sat down and ate our food and drank our wine while he continued to rattle his coin cup at the bus stop.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Quoting Quatable Quoting Coworker's Quotes

For some reason, I get really annoyed when people quote lines from movies. It bugs me even more when they don’t mention that they are quoting a movie and try to pass off the quip as their own.

For instance, recently someone at work said to me: “I’ve learned two things in my life: there is a God, and it ain’t me.” This is from Rudy, the movie where a Hobbit plays football for Notre Dame. It is said by priest to Rudy, who is having some sort of shortness-related existential crisis.

I don’t remember what we were talking about when this line was trotted out. I can’t possibly imagine how it could have come up; I usually confine my wine-soaked eschatological concerns and theological misapprehensions to the bonds of holy matrimony, much to the persistent irritation of my poor wife. It is quite out of character for me to have spoken so freely about the God-head at work so as to cause someone to quote Rudy to me. I assure you, the coworker was not a priest and I was not seeking spiritual guidance. Perhaps I was asking about the finer points of substituting “Court Leave” for “Annual Leave”, but there was decidedly no supplication involved. What ever the particular circumstances were, it is always inappropriate to quote movies and pretend that you’re not.

I’ve also had coworkers say things like “go ahead, make my day” when I definitely wasn’t lying on the ground with a .357 pointed at my face, “play it again, Sam” when I was no where near North Africa, and “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” I don’t even know where to begin to describe the contextual wrongness of that statement. In each of these cases, I stated, with a half-hearted laugh, that I had seen that movie, too, leading to my coworker simply walking away.

This is a disturbing trend, to say the least.

The only media that it is okay to quote without attribution is any line from The Simpsons. There seems to be a Simpsons' quote suitable for every situation. If the person you are talking to doesn’t get it, it is, in fact, inappropriate (and a waste of time) to say something like “you know, Homer? When he was on the hammock? In the back yard? With the beer? And the dog?” Quoting The Simpsons is like flashing a membership card for a secret club, a goofy, nerdy, pathetic (in a “I laugh at Pablo Naruda jokes” kind of way), club. (We do have reciprical memberships with the Monte Python Quoters Club, by the way.)

If you’re good at quoting The Simpsons, then it’s kind of like being king of the dip-shits. That’s kind of cool. (Attribution needed.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Mugging of City Neighborhoods

Madame M's post on DCBlogs, Muggin About (http://dcblogs.com/?p=625), hit a chord with me. I've been thinking about these very things a lot lately.

I think we're on the same Yahoo Group list serve. And while I've never been mugged, either, (although assaulted, yes), I have to agree with her. The common threads on the list serve: too much crime, and how to keep out new development (i.e., condos on 15th St. SE, taverns on PA Avenue SE).

Are these two issues related?

Jane Jacobs, the patron saint of all urban souls, would say yes: busy streets are safe streets. How do you make busy streets? 1. More density (i.e., more than 50 units per acre, which is what a row-house neighborhood averages) and 2. mixed uses, as in stores, cafes, print shops, offices, schools, churches, clubs, and yes, bars.

An urban neighborhood is not a suburban neighborhood and shouldn't be treated as such. A cut-off suburban neighborhood of single family homes can afford to have no commercial development because no one can get to it very easily. A city neighborhood, wedged in between other city neighborhoods, with mixes of socio-economic classes, races, cultures, and easily accessable by foot, metro, car, bus, taxi, bicycle, etc, can't afford to NOT have commercial development.

All the scariest, most unsafe areas of DC are residential neighborhoods. The lower the density, the less safe they are: east of the river, the density is lower than around RFK, there is no decent commercial development, and the crime rate is much higher. (I don't include upper-NW, which, for all intents and purposes, is suburban.)

These things are all related. My neighborhood (U Street, Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, Columbia Heights, Mt. Pleasant) has much the same demographic as East Capitol Hill, but is INFINITELY safer. The reason: 150 - 250 housing units per acre and tons of mixed use development.

If you don't want to have any commercial development around you, and you want to live in a house, you have two choices: live in the suburbs, or live in an unsafe city neighborhood. There are lots of quiet streets full of beautiful rowhouses in my neighborhood, but they are all within a block of the businesses on U and 17th and 18th and Florida and 14th and P and Q and R, etc., probably too close for the complainers on the Yahoo Groups list serve.

To be safer, areas like Capitol Hill East need more density and more commercial development. 15th Street SE between East Capitol and PA Ave used to have lots of businesses. Most have been turned into housing or remain boarded up. 14th Street also had businesses, most of which are gone. Neighbors should show up at ANC meetings and encourage development, not try to stop it. Worrying about the historic architectural character of a neighborhood when people are scared to walk outside to enjoy that historic character is ludicrous.

I moved from Hill East about a year and half ago partly because I realized that the anti-development attitude and the NIMBYism expressed on the list serve meant many long years of stagnation and of crime. And boredom. However, I didn't move, strangely enough, because of the crime.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What City Do You People Live In?

I like dcblogs new little brain tickler at the top of the page each day. Nice addition!

So I’ll devote this posting to a response to DC’s not quite an urban paradise yet, but we’re getting there.

My response is to the original post(s) at American Prospect by Ezra Klein and the comments specific to DC.

My first response: what city do you people live in? Cause it ain’t MY city.

The amount of mis-information floating around in the original posts and the comments is astounding, such as:

"...a plurality of [DC's] population is well educated and in many ways upper middle class, while far more of its population is poor and not well educated..."

Huh?

(First, I think the word “plurality” is misused: you’re either well educated, or you’re not.)

Some facts: DC Poverty Rate: 18.3%; Percentage of DC residents with a BA or higher: 39.1%
(From the U.S. Census) Please don’t comment that 18.3% is high. It is, but it is not a majority. And 39.1% is also high. Extremely.

DC has a bad rap as being a poor, crime-ridden place. There, of course, is a racial overtone to that bad rap, since DC is 57% black. But the statistics don’t back up the rap.

The black middle class in DC is HUGE, but they live in places few white people have ever heard of, because nothing ever happens there to make it onto the evening news and they don’t have any trendy night spots: Riggs Park, Michigan Park, Brightwood, Hillcrest, Fort Dupont, Fort Totten, etc. (Also in places you’ve heard of, like Capitol Hill and Anacostia and Bloomingdale and Ladroit Park and Shaw.) These people may or may not have college degrees (although many do), but they all have good, stable jobs (either blue or white collar), or own businesses. It’s true that some of these neighborhoods don’t have many “coffee shops,” but neither did McLean, Bethesda, Silver Spring, or Arlington until a decade ago.

The symbolic "coffee shop" comes down to culture: 20 years ago, a coffee shop was a diner. You went there for breakfast and a cup of coffee and sat at the counter. The United States has never had a tradition of cafes, or tea houses, or tea rooms, or hookah bars, or Hamams, or bath houses, or any other kind of "third place" (save neighborhood bars), except in ethnic enclaves, where people brought their old world traditions with them. (And by “old world”, I’m including Asia, the Middle East, and Africa: check out the coffee ceremony at Dukem some time.) To claim coffee shops are white is silly. They are a new phenomenon in most of the U.S., and are slowly spreading everywhere. At most, they are bell-weathers of new prosperity, which says little about race. By the way, Mocha Hut, Love Cafe, and Jolt-n-Bolt are all minority owned businesses. To add to the confusion, many of the new places on U Street (that cater to “Yuppies”) are owned by immigrants, minorities, or, brace yourself, partnerships consisting of whites and minorities together! How does this fit into the rich/poor/race/class/new-comer/old-resident/owner/renter/working class/yuppie calculus that so frustratingly dominates such discussions?

Ezra Klein seems to think that a city government conjures up things like coffee shops (and other amenities that make a city “livable”). While a city government can encourage local businesses in a variety of ways (something I think DC does a poor job of), the “free market” plays the largest role in how a city develops.

Moving on: the idea that DC doesn't have any University ties is also absurd. The city is full of Howard lawyers, doctors, and dentists who stuck around, as well as lawyers, doctors, and dentists (and every other profession you can name) from Georgetown, GW, American, CUA, Trinity, even UDC.

The assertion that DC doesn’t have bookstores or an arts culture is also ignorant. Within walking distance of my place, there are the following bookstores, some new, some old (you know, before all the hated yuppies moved in):
Red Onion Books, Second Story Books, Idle Time Books, Candidas, Books-a-Million, G Books, Kramer Books, Busboys and Poets, Lambda Rising, Howard University Bookstore, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some.

There is a large and dynamic arts scene is DC. It’s just that it’s filled with people who actually spend their time painting, writing, sculpting, acting, and dancing, and not a bunch of highly visible posers who hang out at cafes NOT painting, writing, sculpting, acting, or dancing, like in other cities. Because to be able to afford to live in this city, you better get off your ass and do some work. Here are some fine examples:

Washington Writer’s Publishing House
Capitol Hill Arts Workshop
Mid City Artists
Brett Busang
Anna Demovidova
Agatekartstudio
Solas Nua
Lines and Stars
Burlesque Poetry Hour

And these are just the ones I know about.

Finally, I came to DC to go to grad school, and discovered that it is awesome, and so I found a job here so I could stay. It’s awesome because, unlike Portland and Seattle (overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly boring, overwhelmingly easy to live in (or "livable")), DC is diverse and challenging and stimulating. You’ll find a lot of people like me in DC, at least the DC in which I live.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Ducks of Jena, Louisiana

Seeing so many of my fellow Washingtonians wearing black today, I can’t help but feel a little neglectful at not having shown, somehow, my feelings about the Jena 6.

I like to think of myself as open-minded, never leaping to conclusions without knowing all the facts. So in a case like this, I usually would reserve judgment, especially on a whole town, that everyone else is calling racist.

But sometimes, I have to admit, one can simply know things without the benefit of all the facts.

I’m sure the African American kids did some provoking, as teenagers, especially boys, do, and it is obvious that the white teens did some of there own, in no uncertain racist terms. I suppose one could say that everyone in the situation was at fault, that no one had more blame than anyone else. Except, that’s exactly what the local authorities are NOT saying. Why were the African American kids the only ones arrested? I know I don’t have all the facts, but if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck...

I used to coach youth lacrosse in Northern Virginia. One day, we had Gary Gait (the Michael Jordan of the Lacrosse world) come out to give a clinic to our league. There were probably fifty or sixty kids huddled around him, all of them white, except for one black kid. He was probably 12 or 13, standing towards the back, joking around with his (white) friends. They were making noise, which was inappropriate, and maybe the black kid was making more noise than the others, but he wasn’t the only one. One of the fathers, another volunteer coach, came over and pulled this lone black kid, and only this kid, out of the group, and proceeded to yell at him with that seething, closed-teeth, bulging-eyed style of restrained-yet-not yelling that belied something deeper and more menacing than a simple reprimand for inappropriate adolescent behavior. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but they weren’t racist or off color in any way. But it didn’t matter. Even though I didn’t know a thing about this man, I still knew a duck quacking when I heard one.

A small town in Louisiana, far from the cosmopolitan excesses of places like DC? You’d have to be naive if you didn’t think there were some ducks down there, even some ducks in power.

I was going to write a post about how my neighborhood, from Dupont Circle to U Street to Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and Mt. Pleasant, was like a snap shot of the American promise: one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country, and one of the most densely populated. African, Middle Eastern, Latino, and Asian immigrants live and work side by side with established African American and white families and new comers of all colors (like me), young and old, gay and straight, well educated and not, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and unaffiliated, and it all works. There are problems, just like anywhere else, but nothing like Jena, Louisiana. Now I don’t know how to write that post, because it seems we are still a long way from that American promise.

I’m just glad I live where I live.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Woodley Park, Whistle-men, and the Revolt of the Street Furniture

Update: I found two of the wayward mail boxes huddled on the sidewalk on 16th Street near Q, trying to appear inconspicuous. But I knew.

What’s more, I’m pretty certain they were wearing disguises. They seemed to be lower and fatter than your standard variety mail box. They were still blue, but just barely.

I also found another one up near U Street: it thought it could simply camouflage itself with green paint, but it wasn’t fooling anyone.

They may be trying to get away from the guy with the whistle. I’ve seen him in one place so far: outside the Woodley Park/Adams Morgan metro (which isn’t in Adams Morgan, if you haven't noticed). He was sitting on a box, next to a garbage can, mixed in with the other street furniture (you know, Louie Canz lamp posts, pie crust newspaper boxes, drop leaf police call boxes) blowing a whistle. A regular, referee-type whistle. As loud as he could. As long as he could. I could hear him at the bottom of the escalator, and as far away as the middle of the Calvert Street bridge. No one seemed to notice. Perhaps the trauma of the absent mail boxes has numbed the populace.

If he keeps this up, this whistle-man, I’m afraid the garbage cans may decide they’ve had enough as well. And perhaps the lamp posts will stage a Tolkienian Ent-inspired rampage.

That’s all we need.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Great Mailbox Conspiracy on U Street

Now that I’m back from my travels, I suddenly realized that something terrible has happened in DC while I was gone: someone has stolen all the mail boxes. Or they all got sick of standing around being blue and just took off.

I had a very important letter to mail (or “screed”, as editors and the judiciary all across the land have called them in their “restraining orders”), and I walked all around the neighborhood, down New Hampshire and up 17th, and down 18th and around U Street, and not a mail box was to be found!

I suspect they are congregating somewhere near the river, perhaps in one of the Potomac Parks, maybe near where The Awakening will soon be torn from the ground, saying their good-byes.

Or maybe they are tired of being Borfed, and are staging a mail-in (or squat-in, or sit-there-in, or whatever mail boxes do) at the USPS headquarters building (it’s that big blue rounded-top building in Southwest that always makes me think of grandma - you know the one).

In any case, there are no mail boxes near Coladams Circle, and my screeds are piling up, and we are in danger of suffocation by screed, necessitating more writing of screeds, with no way of emancipating said screeds. Thus the provenance of this blog entry.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Las Vegas – End of Days

The apocalyptic title of this entry expresses my feelings about my time in Las Vegas. The problem is, people shouldn’t live there. It’s a desert! It was 106 degrees every day we were there. You can’t live without air conditioning. You can’t go any where unless you drive a car. The city is in a constant state of drought because, well, it’s in a desert!

The town of Las Vegas was originally built at a spring, or maybe a couple of springs. There was enough water for a few people. But they have long since outgrown that meager water supply. So they’ve damned up the Colorado River and created Lake Meade. Every time I’m in Las Vegas, my colleagues always express surprise at how low the water is in Lake Meade. How could they possibly be surprised? Most of the southwestern U.S. uses the Colorado river as their water supply. And more people keep moving in, creating an ever-increasing demand on the same water supply. This isn’t rocket science. It’s not even hydrology or ecology. It’s math!

On the plus side, most of the electricity in Las Vegas comes from Hoover Damn, so at least they aren’t pumping coal emissions into the air. There’s enough smog as it is, as this picture shows.


My wife felt sick when we were on the Strip: head aches, sneezing, common allergy symptoms. She spent her days in Red Rock Canyon while I was at meetings, and felt great there. It had to be the smog. Vegas’s smog problems are simple as well: since people are obliged to drive everywhere, they, well, do. The problem is exacerbated by geography: Vegas is surrounded by mountains, so the smog never blows away. It just sits there like soup in a bowl.

There was one good discovery in Vegas itself: Bouchon, at The Venetian, a bistro owned by Chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry. We didn’t have reservations, but we decided to take a chance. We ate at the bar. The food was fabulous, and the restaurant itself was very nice. A bit kitchy, perhaps, decorated in the “Parisian Bistro” style, but not over the top. It was the best food I’ve had in all my trips to Vegas, except perhaps for a little Mexican place in a suburban strip mall, which I’ll never find again.

After two days of meetings and an early morning visit to Red Rock Canyon, we headed back home. I was sad to leave San Francisco, but thrilled to be out of Vegas and happy to once again be in DC. I always seem to forget just how much I like living here, everything about it: the people, the neighborhoods, our apartment, even the buildings themselves, and the weather. I love to travel, but I’m always glad to get back to DC.

Monday, September 10, 2007

San Francisco Day 4 - Las Vegas

Our last morning in San Francisco we ate breakfast at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill. It was little pricey, but quite good. And the Fairmont is a grand old hotel, full of pretension and columns and molding and mirrors and marble, just terrific! We visited Grace Cathedral, built after the 1906 earth quake.

The church is built out of reinforced concrete. The impressions the forms left, along with the color of the concrete, make it look as if it were built of stone. We found the same thing at the San Francisco Art Institute on Russian Hill, built to look like a Franciscan monastery complete with a (concrete) campinile! It is truly amazing what they did with concrete in the early part of the 20th century, a far cry from the horrible brutal uses of concrete in Washington (such as the HUD building, L’enfant Plaza, and the Third Church of Christ Scientist on 16th Street).

We had one last espresso in North Beach (Cafe Greco) and one last stroll through China Town, and got back on BART.

A short flight back to Vegas and we ended up at the dreaded CONFERENCE HOTEL, one of those newer places on the western outskirts of Las Vegas, in Summerlin, actually. These places (Something Something Station or Somethingelse Coast, etc.) are springing up in residential areas around the valley, with huge parking lots, and are popular with locals and retirees. In fact, they were having some sort of Senior Miss Nevada contest or show that week.

But since I was one of the meeting organizers they upgraded me to a suite, and even with my cynical attitude and disgust at all things fake-glitzy-gambling related, I have to say, it was pretty damn cool! I think it was bigger than our apartment, with great views of the mountains and the Strip, about 10 miles away.



We found a Home Depot so my wife could buy some turpentine, and then bought way too much food at a supermarket (the suite had a kitchen, of course), ate some chicken and Boudin bread we had brought from San Francisco, and then enjoyed the high-roller life style! Actually, that is how we enjoyed the high roller lifestyle.

Friday, September 7, 2007

San Francisco – Day 3

The day started off overcast and chilly, a perfect day for a museum. A 15 dollar cab ride to Golden Gate Park, through sleepy Sunday morning neighborhoods, and we’re at the de Young Museum just as it opens.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m not much impressed nor interested in modern architecture. Not because I so love old architecture, but because so much of new architecture simply doesn’t work. A building should have an entrance that you can find, it should have a form that doesn’t make you feel creeped out or brutalized, it should have windows to let in light, its interior should be laid out to function well for what it is meant for. And it shouldn’t look like a giant piece of feces. Which are essentially all the problems of the de Young.

Our docent spent quite a bit of time defending the new building, always a tip-off that maybe it ain’t so great. They torn down the old museum, a classically inspired stone structure, because it was “the most seismically unsound building in San Francisco.” After spending however much money it costs to tear down a huge building and cart it all away, they then spend 200 million dollars to build the new museum designed by the “renowned Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron and Fong & Chan Architects in San Francisco.” I bet they could have spent all that money on Mel’s Concrete Contracting and Seismic Engineering Services, LLC, and made the old museum seismically sound, but how can you brag about that? The new building, for some reason, is covered in copper. Right now, the copper is (feces) brown. Eventually, it will be green, which, the docent assured us, will be better.

As we approached the de Young from the drive, we couldn’t find the entrance. It is tucked back in a triangular court yard reminiscent of a prison exercise yard, although without the symmetry or romance. There are some glass doors back in there that might have been for the cleaning staff. The entrance was not prominent, and there were no signs telling you where the entrance was or when you had actually found it. I suppose that’s part of the experience of the building, a hallmark of “renowned” architecture.

Inside, the building is confusing, and seems to use space extremely inefficiently. The lobby area is vast and empty, but, we were told, the large windows that look out on narrow triangular interior courtyards filled with vegetation (or “weeds”) helped bring the outside inside. (Personally, if I wanted to be outside, I’d go outside. I came inside to be outside of the outside, not inside the outside, and so on.)

The American art collection housed at the de Young is quite nice, and Golden Gate Park that surrounds the museum is very nice. And, actually, the cafeteria serves good food at reasonable prices and is quite pleasant. So I thoroughly enjoyed my half day there, trashing the architecture and looking at the art.


We walked back down towards our hotel through Haight Ashbury. It’s very hard for me not to sound like a crotchety old man when I say things like “why would perfectly healthy young suburban teens and twenty-somethings choose to sit around in dirty clothing begging for money on Haight Street?” Not just one of them. Scores of them, amid the head shops and touristy bars and cafes. I suppose the only plausible explanation is that I’m old and I have a job and I’m a “square.”

A trip back along the edge of the Tenderloin on Market Street, a quick visit to SOMA, and a wonderful dinner at Trattoria Contadina, another Michelin recommendation, rounded out a fun day. Contadina is at Union and Mason Streets, over the hill from our hotel, on the cable car line.

All through dinner, I watched the cable cars go by, timing them, enabling us to dash out just as one came up the hill and hop on. The ride was a bit chilly, but the views were spectacular, especially at night, and we actually used the cable car for real transportation, not just as an amusement ride. It beat the heck out of walking back up Nob Hill. The cable car got stuck at the top of a hill on a flat spot where it makes a left turn. The driver just didn’t time it right and it ran out of mojo (I think that’s what they run on), so he radioed for help. In about a minute, a pickup truck with a big plow on the front showed up and gave us a shove, and gravity did the rest.

Not a bad way to end our last night in San Francisco.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

San Francisco, Day 2: Borders Surfing and Sushi

In our travels, we’ve learned that the cheapest way to find a good meal is to go to a bookstore and peruse their Michelin Red guide. Not buy it, mind you, just borrow it for a few minutes, all the while saying things like “hmmmm, should we buy this? Is this book any good? Hmmmm…”

So when we ventured out again after our nap, we went to the Borders on Union Square and found a Michelin rated Japanese place right across the street from the hotel. At that point, we had probably looked at it 10 times already, but never guessed it was any good.

I didn’t find anything in the red guide for Fisherman’s Warf, so naturally, that’s where we headed, via a circuitous route up Russian Hill and down Lombard Street, where we got to watch a you couple skate board down between the flowers to the amusement of all. We also walked up the “street” that Armistead Maupin used as a model for Barbary Lane in his Tales of the City series. It wasn’t so much a street or even lane, as a pathway up a hill through a jungle. Pretty darn cool.

My wife wanted Dungeness crab, but Fisherman’s Wharf was so crowded we couldn’t even get near the out door fish vendors. Plus, we couldn’t figure out the logistics of eating whole crabs while standing up. The wharf was about what we expected, kind of a more gritty version of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. So we walked back up the long hill to Sutter Street and went to our newly discovered Japanese place.

It was the best Japanese food I’ve ever had. They had sake that actually tasted good, unlike what you might get at Benihana or even Blue Fin. We got a sampler, served cold. I’m sure they were serving those bottles you see in the liquor store that cost like $30 for a half liter. But it’s worth buying even at that price!

The sushi and sashimi were excellent. Back at the hotel, we stopped in the pub, decorated in old English pub style with lots of bright work paneling and molding. There were a good many locals there who said it was their neighborhood hang-out. And it wasn’t a neighborhood hang-out a-la The Tune Inn, where men go to get drunk fast. It was more of a Jane Jacob’s style “third place.” We split a Guinness and headed for bed.

The Klan in Manassas

This morning’s Post ran an article about the KKK distributing leaflets in Manassas.

As a blogger, obviously I’d be a hypocrite if I wanted to curtail the Klan’s right to free speech. They can spew any kind of hate they want to. If no one listens to them, they have no influence. But the problem is that there is a receptive climate to the Klan’s message in places like Manassas and Herndon and all those outer suburbs.

This country does have an immigration problem, if that’s the way you want to phrase it. But we have always had an immigration problem. In San Francisco, I learned that in the 1870s, congress passed laws specifically restricting Chinese immigration. Local jurisdiction, feeling that the Federal government wasn’t going far enough to address all those Chinese people destroying their communities, passed repressive laws stripping them of basic rights, such as property ownership and business licenses, and restricting them from working. Sound familiar?

My mother grew up in Homestead, PA, a mill town just outside of Pittsburgh. She tells me that as late as the 40s and 50s, there were still many different ethnic communities in her town, speaking different languages, who only socialized with themselves. There was the Italian church, the “Hunky” church, the Irish church, the Russian church, the Polish church. Language barriers kept them separated, and the Americans who lived in Homestead (who had only been Americans for a generation or two) didn’t like any of them: the Italians were greasy, the Irish were drunks, the Polish were stupid, and the Hunkys were all those things, plus filthy on top of it all. (Hunkys, for those who don’t know, was a catch-all term for Eastern European: Slovaks, Czechs, Romanian, Ukranian, Hungarian. Not only was it a demeaning term, it wasn’t even accurate!) It’s amazing how similar the language used to describe today’s Latino immigrants is to the language used 50 or 100 years ago to describe other sets of immigrants.

Of course, the children of all these immigrants and Americans intermarried and created, guess what, the white America that now has such a problem with Latino immigrants.

When someone says they don’t have a problem with Latino immigrants, only illegal Latino immigrants, they are making a circular argument bordering on the absurd. Illegal immigrants are illegal because we say they are. We create laws that determine who is illegal and who isn’t. Tomorrow, Congress could pass a law changing the status of all illegal immigrants, and granting work visas to anyone who wanted one. Suddenly, there is no illegal immigration problem. But I doubt that would end the debate. People who the Klan appeals to don’t like Latinos, not illegal Latinos.

Their status as “illegal” has nothing to do with free market economics or the right-wing’s worship of the idea of a free labor market. People come to this country to get jobs. If there were no jobs, they wouldn’t come. Manassas is overwhelmed with Latinos because there are lots of jobs for them in Northern Virginia. Otherwise, why would they be there? Just to annoy Americans?

I don’t know what the answer is, but I know the Klan has nothing constructive to add to it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

San Francisco, Day 2


The Hotel Beresford is situated on Sutter Street in a burgeoning district of galleries, an art school, art stores, theaters, small restaurants and bars, and other small hotels. The Beresford is an oddity in the United States. It’s a small hotel with small rooms, a tiny lobby, and a pub. The pub serves double duty as the breakfast room each morning, where they serve cereal, pastries, croissants, and fruit, all included in the price of the room. At $99.00, it’s also one of the best values smack dab in the middle of San Francisco.

Apparently, there are a good many of these kinds of hotels in San Francisco: small, comparatively affordable, including breakfast. Very few other American cities have places like this anymore. New York and Boston perhaps. But the small hotels in DC are obscenely expensive “boutique” hotels. Or they are rather seedy places, more flop houses that rent rooms by the hour than tourist hotels. I suspect this phenomenon has something to do with the decline of American cities over the past half century. As the car culture became more prevalent, and the middle class fled cities, people saw fewer and fewer reasons to stay in the city, unless they stayed at a mega-conference hotel. Better to stay at a cheap motel on the out skirts and drive into the city to visit any sites worth seeing. But San Francisco, like New York and Boston, didn’t empty out like other American cities. (For instance, between 1950 and today, DC has lost 250,000 residents, or nearly ¼ of it’s population. Pittsburgh has lost 500,000, or nearly 2/3 of it’s population. San Francisco and Boston have basically held steady, and New York has actually gotten bigger.) The small, affordable city hotels still worked in San Francisco, and so remained.

The second day, we went to Chinatown early in the morning and experienced the crowds of older Chinese women, and some men, doing their shopping. I love Chinatowns and Asian markets. Everything seems so fresh, so natural: live frogs and fish, unknown fruits and vegetables, animated conversations. Blocks and blocks of activity. We had a coffee and what turned out to be pork buns (although I thought they were butter buns, which would have been much better for dunking in coffee) in a little place on Broadway that was filled only with old Chinese people. Our waitress didn’t speak English, which partly accounts for the pork buns.

From there we went on to the Ferry Terminal Market, which was a bit of a let-down after the frenetic activity of Chinatown. The Ferry Market is a larger and Disneyfied version of Eastern Market. It was very nice, and had great views of the bay and the Oakland Bay Bridge, but everything was a bit too upscale and polished to be of any real interest.

So we headed back to Chinatown for a late lunch at another restaurant filled with only Chinese people. The place was loud and chaotic, the way it should be. The food wasn’t great, but it was good, and it was authentic. The tea was wonderful, served in plastic water glasses. After that, my wife had an acupressure foot massage while I wondered over to City Lights, which must have every work of fiction ever published. They only stock paperbacks, which is an interesting (and affordable) concept. (A side note: check out Red Onion Records and Books at 18th and T Streets, just south of Adams Morgan here in DC. It’s small, but they have great used books and records.)

After my wife’s feet were back in working order, we went to the Chinese Historical Society of America museum in what used to be the YWCA. I was amazed at how much discrimination the Chinese faced in the United States, right up through the 20th century. I felt ignorant and uneducated there, and I’m eager to learn more. After that, we headed back to the hotel for a rest, before going out for the evening.

Next: Fisherman’s Warf and sushi.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

San Francisco, Day One

We arrived at SFO about 8:30 in the morning and took BART to Powell Street near Union Square. After some philosophical ponderings on BART’s choice of filth-gathering upholstery and carpeting, and amazement at how the landscape really did look like Italy, we emerged into the crowd of tourist and pan handlers around the cable car turn-around. It was over-cast (which we soon learned was really just fog), we were tired, we had a lot of luggage (which we usually don’t have, except that I had my work attire and my wife had her painting rig), and we had a 4 block climb up Powell Street to our hotel. I had planned on taking the cable car up the hill, but the line was probably an hour long. How silly.



The Hotel Beresford was small and quaint, everything that the Monte Carlo wasn’t. The room was tiny with a view of a brick wall and a square of now blue sky (hurray!) above. But it was perfect, with a fridge stocked with good beer at cheap prices.

We left the hotel just before lunch time and headed straight to the Asian Art Museum. Well worth the visit. The walk to the museum, however, was even more worth it. We took Market Street from Union Square along the edge of the “Tenderloin,” and let me tell you, I thought I knew what homeless drug users were, but I had NO IDEA. DC doesn’t have a homelessness problem compared to San Francisco. Maybe they all just congregate near the sex shops and liquor stores and cheap hotels along Market, and maybe if you pulled all of DCs homeless together in one place, there’d be just as many, but I’ve never seen anything like this, not in Europe, not in New York, not anywhere. People of all ages and races, both sexes, talking to themselves or yelling at each other, scabby and dirty and skinny, sprawled on the sidewalk or stumbling out of alleys, scores of them. There were also scores of people like us walking along as well, so I never really felt unsafe, more uncomfortable, as if I had surprised someone (or a lot of someones) in an intimate and embarrassing moment. We didn’t notice the drug-addled homeless masses anywhere else, not even in Haight-Ashbury, at least not to the same extent.



As the shock of the Tenderloin wore off, we explored China Town, Northbeach, Telegraph Hill, and Union Square.
San Francisco is a deceptively small city. We walked everywhere and I was always surprised by how short a time it took. The hills are, of course, daunting, and make things seem farther apart, and aside from some huffing and puffing and a little sweating (only on my part), we had no problem negotiating those hills.



We had terrific food at Nanking Palace on Kearney, recommended by Frommers. It was full of tourists, so we were a little skeptical at first. But we let the waitress order for us, and it was unbelievably good. We didn’t even eat dinner that night, save a glass of wine at a vinoteca close to the hotel. More to come.

Ultra-Amazing Sophisticated Fantastic Fabulous Las Vegas!



As previously reported, the wireless modem was not warmed up and it worked no where I tried it. Hence, no “live blogging” from the road as I had planned.

But I’ve got lots to say about our travels.

We arrived in Las Vegas on a Thursday evening and stayed at the Monte Carlo, one of the nicer hotels, in our opinion. The food was so-so, but the pool is nice.

Neither my wife nor I gamble. We’ve talked about this a lot, and formulated lots of reasons to not gamble.

My aversion to gambling has little to do with any system of ethics. While the idea of getting something for nothing, which is essentially the attitude one has when one places a bet on a game of chance, is counter to my philosophy of life, that’s not really why I don’t like to gamble. I don’t gamble because I don’t find it interesting.

This is the counter point to people who make the argument that the money they spend gambling is simply money spent on entertainment. They could spend it on football tickets, or admission to a museum, or at Six Flags, but they choose to spend their entertainment budget at the gaming tables or slot machines. These people enjoy it, and the drinks are free. I accept that.

I choose to spend my entertainment money differently. I’d rather have a nice meal, or go to the Louvre, or see a play. I get about as much enjoyment from gambling as I do from playing Shoots and Ladders. But to each his own.

Gambling, in itself, just isn’t that interesting. So why do people keep going to Vegas? What Las Vegas is really about, and I think the real reason that people enjoy it, is the allure of sophistication and excitement. You can get drunk in Vegas, play at being a “high roller” (at least as long as your cash holds out), see “sophisticated” shows, eat food from around the world all at the same buffet, see naked or nearly naked people, all within the strictly controlled and safe confines of a casino. It’s a fantasy world, where people can pretend they are experienced men (or women) of the world without ever having to actually engage the world.

The reality of Las Vegas is much more mundane. Las Vegas is cram packed with retirees dragging oxygen tanks and urinating on themselves so as not to leave “their” slot machines (which will soon get hot!), living out their twilight years in the twilight of the casinos surrounded by bleeps and bloops they probably can’t even hear. Las Vegas is full of mediocre food and absurd stage shows and water features that pander to the lowest common denominator. Regular people from all walks of life crowd Las Vegas Boulevard, people who have come to rub shoulders with the sophisticates they’ve seen in “Oceans Eleven” or even “Viva Las Vegas,” but end up struggling through throngs of people they see all the time at their home-town malls.

But the magic of Las Vegas is that, despite all this, people keep coming back. People still believe the fantasy.

Often, when I express this opinion of Las Vegas, people are offended. They accuse me of being a snob, but I don’t really care. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like. If people like Las Vegas, for whatever reason, good for them. They should stand up proudly and say that they, too, know what they like and what they don’t like. Why should my measly opinion bother them so much? I suspect it’s because they don’t actually know what they like or don’t like. Pity. Life’s too short to go to Vegas simply because everyone else does and you can’t make up your own mind.

We only spent the night at the Monte Carlo, and left early the next morning for San Francisco, which was, unsurprisingly, much more to our taste.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

If You're Going to San Francisco



Which I am...

I'm going to Vegas and San Francisco, the first for a meeting (no, really! I mean it!) and the second just for fun.

I've heard from reliable sources (old x-military guys at work) that San Francisco is lost and there's really no point in going there. Like the 1890's, it's gone gay. Oh dear.

Las Vegas, on the other hand, I'm informed by the same sources, is worth the trip. You can see Venice, Paris, Rome, Monte Carlo, Japan, the South Pacific, and Egypt, and never be more than a few short breath-sucking steps from soggy fries and a coke!

I'll let you know my impressions. I've never tried it before, but I'm going to attempt to blog from the road. My wireless modem is all warmed up, and my fingers are ready to type.

A couple of caveats: I refuse to leave what happens in Vegas there, and I'm not wearing flowers in my hair (can you IMAGINE?!), nor am I leaving my heart anywhere at all (especially on a cable car)!

Why San Francisco and Las Vegas? Well, because Los Angeles and Las Vegas would be just too damn confusing, that's why!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Adams Morgan: Violence and the Tyranny of Parenthood

The recent article in the City Paper about Late Night Shots got me to thinking about Adams Morgan. The article quoted an on-line thread that went like this:


"If I have said it once I have said it 1000 times. DO NOT EVER, EVER even go near Adams Morgan. That place is Ghetto.

Adams Morgan is only do-able if you limit yourself to a few bars that are close together.

Every minute you spend outside of an actual bar your life is in danger. And do not, DO NOT attempt to get a late-night slice of pizza unless you are a pro.

Any by pro I mean ready to fight people.

Everytime I’m in Adams Morgan, I take on at least 3-4 Ethiopans. Skinny little bastards are feisty."


Obviously, this guy is an unsophisticated, narrow-minded, frightened pubescent (even if he is in his 20s and gainfully employed) with little life experience and little hope of gaining any. But at least he’s honest. He doesn’t want to go to Adams Morgan, and I, for one, don’t want him there.

But there are other, darker forces at work in Adams Morgan: parents.

As part of DC governments on-going crusade to ruin the city, it has decided to enforce a law regarding tavern licenses versus restaurant licenses. Without going into detail, many places on 18th Street have restaurant licenses but don’t meet the food sales standard to maintain that license and should properly have tavern licenses. Except the city has now put a moratorium on issuing new tavern licenses until it drives a bunch of bars out of business by revoking their restaurant licenses.

Why?

Because some people moved to Adams Morgan, had children, and now can’t believe they are living in Adams Morgan with children.

A couple local news stations interviewed some stroller pushing moms on 18th Street, and that the basic message I got from them.

What these mothers on the street were really worried about was violence. Apparently, they take their toddlers to clubs at 3 am, or line up for pizza at 4:00 am, babe-in-arms, and then pick fights with drunken revelers over, what, a girl? Posh’s new hair color? A timetable for leaving Iraq? And end up getting stabbed and bleeding to death in the middle of the street at the feet of a police horse while their babies watch. Happens all the time.

Come on! Does the extremely limited and extremely rare violence on 18th Street at 3 am on a Sunday morning really effect your life so much that you need to start a crusade to ruin the neighborhood for everyone else? You knew what Adams Morgan was like when you moved here, and unless you do indeed take your kiddy out for a stroll at 3:00 am (and NOT EVENT THEN!), you won’t get stabbed or shot or anything else.

Please move to Reston. I hear they have a pretty good Don Pablos there.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Music's Destructive Impact

I avoid listening to music whenever I can. Music listening, as we all know, leads to all kinds of anti-social behavior: drug abuse, pregnancy, dancing at Tom-Tom, voting. But listening to music also leads to something much worse: getting disagreeable songs stuck in your head.

It’s bad enough to have a song lodged in your brain that repeats for hours on end. It’s worse if you only know a few words of the song. For instance, I once spent an excruciating two and half days hearing in my head “I’m too sexy for my shirt, too sexy for my shirt, too sexy for my shirt.” That's it. Only those words. I woke up one morning singing it and it stayed with me all day. The next morning when I awoke, I was song free. What a relief! But sometime between the shower and the sock-garters, it snuck back in! I realized I was singing it again in mid “f-o-r m-y s-h-i-r-t” as I slipped on my shirt. (Perhaps clothing was a trigger; I briefly considered foregoing dressing all together.) It was only dislodged the next day by “When I think of you babe I touch myself”. I believe I can pin point the roots of my drinking habit to that exact moment in time.

Far worse, however, is when you have a disagreeable song in your head that doesn’t even have any words. Since yesterday, I’ve been hearing this 70’s dance song in my head, with no words, that has always bugged me. I can’t share my misery with anyone, because I don’t know the title, and apparently I’m tone deaf. I tried humming it to my wife, but she had no idea what song it was and only looked at me with a deep sadness.

The song goes like this: “dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah dadada dah-dah…” I know you can’t tell what the song is from THAT, but let me try to share with you my misery. This is what has been going on inside of me for almost two days:

dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada dah – dahda dah – dah, dadadada 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And so on.

And no, it’s not “The Hustle.” That goes “Do the hustle! do-do-do dodo dodo do-do, do-do do-do dodo do do-do…”

(do-do-do dodo dodo do-do, do-do do-do dodo do do-do, do-do-do dodo dodo do-do, do-do do-do dodo do do-do…)


Aw crap!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Hey Anonymous! I'm NOT a Slacker!

For those of you who have been wondering (mom, dad, anonymous, cousin It), nothing has actually happened to aportablesnack. I’ve been off in the Provinces for business, spending much of July in the other Washington, specifically Spokane and Seattle, where it was even hotter than DC, jsut as Al Gore said.

I’ve also been busy writing other things, churning out intriguing new drink recipes that involve grain alcohol, letters denying parking tickets, and manifestos railing against DC’s street cleaning conspiracy. Such epicurean and epistolary activities, which in themselves consume a good amount of time for those of us who pride themselves on workmanship, lead almost inevitably to other time-burgling activities, such as temporary blindness, traffic court, and the designing of a contraption utilizing a system of pulleys and levers to de-boot ones booted car. (I never got past the design stage, although I did see a discarded boot with tell-tale pry marks next to the curb outside of Pollys.)

I’ve missed out on lots of hot topics over the past month or so: LNS, hot weather, public school Czars, pre-presidential cleavage, the usual blogger stuff. I’ve got nothing to add, which leads me to believe that perhaps I never did. And after so long a blogging lay-off, I wonder how I ever came up with even one idea for a posting. And now I know: I never did.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

How I learned to Love the Heat

You can ask anyone. If I look at a picture of the sun that, say, a kindergartener drew in the corner of his paper with a smiley-face on it, I start to sweat. On one of our first dates, my wife cooked me dinner and we sat out on the roof of her house on Capitol Hill in the 90 degree heat, and I ran out of things to mop the perspiration off my face with; there are only so many times you can use the table cloth, or your shirt sleeve, or your date’s shirt sleeve, before she’s ready to call the whole thing off.

I hate the heat. I grew up in Pittsburgh, where we have some cold weather and some hot weather, but mostly cool, overcast weather. So perhaps I’m just not used to the heat.

Over the past decade or so, around this time of year I question why on earth I moved to DC. But last summer, and now continuing into this summer, I find I don’t mind it so much. In fact, I kind of like it. All I have to do is walk a little more slowly, especially when I find some shade.

Maybe it has to do with U Street. U Street is hot these days. Soft asphalt hot. But I actually kind of like it. I don’t mind it at all. And I’m beginning to really not like air conditioning. I’d rather sleep with a window open and a fan on, even if it is 85 degrees out. Air conditioning makes my nose do strange things, and if there’s one part of your body you don’t want doing strange things, your nose would be it. At least in the top 5.

And I don’t seem to sweat quite as much, either. I can’t figure it out. My wife is beginning to question if I’m the same man she married. (Maybe it goes back to the fact that it was 97 degrees out on our wedding day, so now I like the heat.) (Aaaaaawww!) Or perhaps as we age our sense of temperature (like our hearing and eye sight and tolerance for “kids today”) begin to fail us. Soon I’ll be able to make extra cash walking across beds of coals. That’s be nice.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Conference Call of Madness

The other day, a conference call I was attending revealed a psychological tick that I thought had been beaten out of me with rulers and yardsticks in Parochial school: the tendency to laugh, suddenly and uncontrollably, in the most inappropriate situations. Back in elementary school, bizarre thoughts would flood my mind when I was supposed to be “reflecting on my sins” or serving as an altar boy, thoughts such as “what if the priest started making funny noises into the microphone, with a long crescendo of maniacal laughter?” Or I’d imagine that our teacher would suddenly explode, without warning, and then be standing there, black and smoking like in a cartoon, before falling over. Such things, of course, would shake me to the core of my being with laughter that I desperately tried to stifle with the fake cough or the head shake. By junior high, I’d been tortured enough to learn that nothing was that funny, and the strange images no longer invaded my consciousness.

Jump ahead a few decades, and I find myself sitting in a conference room full of people with four more on a speaker phone. Also on the speaker phone is Van Morrison, although no one had invited him. He had a lot to say about marvelous nights and moon dancing and such, a bit off topic. Obviously, someone had put the conference call on hold. Various people made jokes about it (none of which, by the way, precipitated my psychological tick): “if it were my office, you’d hear circus music” or “I think our hold music is the theme to Psycho.” Ha ha! Ha ha!

The meeting started and the music continued unabated. It’s bad enough having Van Morrison serenade you from a speaker phone, but it’s even worse when he sings the same song, over and over and over again, and much, much worse when that song is “Moondance”. (I just looked up the lyrics, and my GOD, it’s worse than I thought!)

As the meeting progressed into discussions of “functionality” and “search capabilities”, no one seemed to notice the music. And then it began: what if, I thought (oh crap! Not again! Where’s Sister Angela with the ruler? Help me Sister Angela! Help me!), what if the music suddenly changed to Motley Crue’s “Girls Girls Girls” or Nine Inch Nails “Closer to God”, and for some reason it got really loud and then smoke started coming out of the speaker phone and then a rock star came crashing through the wall wielding a guitar and big hair and leather pants flicking his tongue around at random meeting attendees. Of course, none of this is funny. In fact, such things belie the onset of a psychotic episode demanding immediate medical attention and sedation. And at first I didn’t laugh. My invoking of Sister Angela seemed to have done the trick.

Then I took a sip of coffee and nearly spit it out across the table: instead of the image of some Slash-like character prancing about, I see my middle-aged, tubby, gray-haired boss stomping around on the table and screaching a-la-Steven Tyler. Somehow, I got the coffee down and shook it off. (Did you ever make hot coffee come out your nose? It’s burny.) But after that, each time I took a sip of coffee, the same or similar absurd images came to me and it was all I could do to keep from choking to death. I survived the meeting with only a few strange looks and no reprimands. But now, I can’t have a mouth full of any kind of liquid without experiencing the urge to burst into laughter. Water. Beer. Soup. Even wine. Wine! I’m at the end of my rope.

I’ll been in the loony bin soon. Thanks, Van Morrison, for destroying yet another life.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Confessions of a DC Gentrifier


When I bought the place I live in right now, I considered many things: what was best financially and emotionally for me and my wife and any future children. Being close to work and metro was a priority so I wouldn’t have to spend very much time commuting and thus spend more time with my family. I also took into consideration my core values: respect for the environment, my belief in the goodness of urban life, my appreciation of a diversity of cultures. City living is green living. We walk an awful lot, instead of taking our one car. Our place is small, and shares walls and floors and ceilings, meaning it uses less energy. We live in a pre-existing urban environment, meaning that no new open space is being destroyed, no new utilities are being installed, no new roads being built for my benefit. I considered all these things when choosing where to live.

But I never said to myself “oh, and as an added benefit, I can get rid of some poor people or minority people this way, too, by running up property values and taxes.” In fact, quite the opposite: I worried (and still worry) obsessively about my culpability for what happens to people who find themselves in a financial situation that forces them to move out of a neighborhood they’ve lived in for a long time.

When I bought my first house near RFK Stadium in 2002, I knew that a young black couple rented it, but had moved out months before I bought it. I didn’t force them out, did I? I still felt a twinge of guilt about it, though. The landlord decided to sell it, but I was never sure if he decided to sell because his tenants moved out, or his tenants moved out because he decided to sell. (After I bought it, I was shocked that anyone had lived there: the floors were rotted away, the windows didn’t open, there was no air conditioning, there were rats under and in the house, there was one bathroom with a leaking toilet, the floors were sloped because of broken joists caused by a sunken wall caused by fire damage that had never been adequately repaired.)

I don’t like the word “gentrification.” It’s an inexact jargon word meant to stir up class antagonism (the Gentry are moving in to oppress the peasants!). The word does little to describe the enormously complex reality of market forces, economics, poverty, racism, city planning, zoning, public policy, and private choices. The reality is so complicated that one word can’t even begin to describe it; instead, it clouds with emotion and anger and frustration any clear thought processes that would allow people to begin to come up with solutions.

Take my old neighborhood near RFK. Some old couples sold their houses for 20 or 30 times what they paid for them years before. Sometimes their children forced them to sell and put them in nursing homes. Sometimes owners sold the houses out from under their renters. And sometimes the renters bought them. Sometimes houses and apartment buildings that were vacant for years, even decades, were rehabilitated and sold or rented to the influx of middle class people. Sometimes rental buildings went condo, forcing out the renters who couldn’t afford to buy. Sometimes public housing projects were closed and the tenants relocated to other public housing, and the land redeveloped to include some affordable housing and some market rate housing. Sometimes the public housing was saved from the wrecking ball. Sometimes an old person died and the children sold the house for as much as they could get. And some people couldn’t afford the rising property taxes and sold for huge profits and moved out. Which of these instances is gentrification? Which isn’t?

I guess it comes down to two things: freedom of choice and the responsibility to help those less fortunate. Is being against gentrification to be against an old couple selling their house for an enormous profit? Is it to be against a person like me, who values diversity and the environment and urbanity, buying a home in a once-working class neighborhood?

Or is being against gentrification to be against the wholesale redevelopment of communities in the name of progress, like what happened in Southwest in the 1950s and ‘60s? Is it to be for government programs and private initiatives that help the poor have a safe place to live while they pull themselves out of poverty? I hope that’s what being against gentrification means.

One thing is certain: it sucks to be poor. Whether you get pushed around because you have no clout, like what Haussmann did in Paris, or you simply get priced out, like what is happening now in Washington, being poor makes you extremely vulnerable. I don’t have a solution. I suspect there isn’t just one mega-solution, but many, many small things that have to happen, and none of them are simple and none of them can be summed up in a slogan or by a "-tion" word. But I know that the right thing to do is strive to help poor people not be poor anymore, and not feel guilty about the decisions we make in the best interests of our families.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Long, Slow, Inevitable Ruination of U Street Has Begun

I saw it, and now I may just have to move: not one, but a whole family of tourists on U Street. I wasn’t sure at first; I mean, how likely is it that an entire family with no connection to the neighborhood would be on U Street in the middle of the afternoon when even people from Fairfax or Shady Grove are terrified to step foot on U Street? (That’s a subject for another blog entry, and I’m just the man to write it!)

But there they were, mom, dad, and two kids, perusing guide books and plastic-sheathed maps, a-slung with cameras and fanny packs, milling about indecisively in front of Ben’s Chili Bowl. (I assumed they were there to see the “Craddle” tags; those artistes are such a draw. Perhaps DC government should give them a grant.)

I just couldn’t figure it out. I walked past them aggressively, just to let them know whose turf they were on. Their reaction confirmed my suspicion: they were crazy. The mother rattled off some sort of gibberish, which the father, who pretended to understand her, answered with similar guttural, monosyllabic nonsense. Frankly, they scared me a little.

I kept walking. It took me half a block to figure it out: they were German. German! It all made sense now! Germans are everywhere! They’re as bad as the Australians: interested in stuff, like history and culture and food and cities, and just head-strong enough not to listen to anything someone from Reston might tell them about “that” part of the city.

They’re still crazy, though. And it’s still gibberish.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

All Hail Our Fuzzy Overlords (and Scratch Their Ears)

I no longer believe in pets. And I don’t mean that I no longer believe in the concept of owning a pet, or the morality of keeping a pet. I mean I no longer believe that there are such things as pets.

I believe we are controlled by cute little animals, and it may lead to humanity’s downfall.

I look around my neighborhood, and in all the little pocket parks and on any space not covered in concrete, there they are: people stooping down to pick up poop. And who is making them do it? The little fuzzy creature at the end of the lead sniffing happily at a dead bird or a rat hole or the base of a light post. These creatures are not pets. They are the narrow end of the wedge, the vanguard of the coming revolution when our animal overlords will make us not only clean up their poop, but rub their tummies, feed them from the table, raise their young, and in some cases, even bathe them. I hear it’s happening in some places already.

It’s not just dogs, either. Don’t even get me started with the psychological warfare presently perpetrated by cats. And those googly-eyed fish? I don’t trust ‘em. Nor do I trust any animal content with running on a little wheel for hours and hours and hours. Something’s going on in their little heads, and it can’t be good.

While we still have the upper hand, I suggest we force them all to run for Congress. This would not only solve the problem of keeping all the so-called “pets” busy, but also solve the problem of Congress. How much worse of a job could a pack of dogs, 200 cats, and a handful of exotic birds do, even if they do desire world domination?

Friday, June 1, 2007

People Who Hate Metro

I’m sick of people complaining about Metro. People who complain about pan handlers, or rude people, or poor service. What I say to you if you make any of these complaints: if you don’t like Metro, get back in you car and drive to work. What’s that? You can’t? Because there’s too much traffic? Parking is too expensive? Gas prices are too high? Oh yeah, that’s right, you’re a chronic complainer. It defines who you are.

I’m not sure what Metro system you ride every day, but apparently its not the same one I ride.

First, what pan handlers? What in God’s name are you talking about? Have you ever been anywhere? Do you even know what a pan handler is? Trying stepping over half-naked hunchbacks with their hunchback dogs on the steps of some cathedral, or being accosted by families of gypsies who make pathetic moaning and crying sounds in some cobblestoned square. While there are some pan handlers in DC, they are not on Metro; they are outside of the metro stations or Starbucks or the Natural History Museum or St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and while there may be an occasional guy on the train or in the station asking for change, metro card in hand, because, like Charlie on the MTA, he doesn’t have enough to exit the station, it’s not as serious a problem as you make out! All you have to do is ignore them and go on thinking up other things to complain about.

Rude people? There are rude people everywhere, and it’s been my experience that people are a lot less rude on Metro than on I-66. Inside their own two ton hunk of metal, people treat other drivers in ways they would never treat someone face to face. On Metro, not a day goes by that I don’t see someone give up their seat for an old person or a pregnant person or a disabled person, or allow other people to board or exit first, or go through the turnstile first, or up the escalator first. While there are many people in a hurry, walking quickly through the stations, so what? That’s not rude, that’s simply a person who wants to get to work on time.

You say the service is poor. Really? You pay $1.65 (or even three bucks) to go miles to work, bypassing traffic and pollution, and you can read or sleep or write or stare into space and think up even more stuff to complain about, and not have to pay for gas or parking or maintenance, and you complain because every once in a while you have to wait an extra 5 or 10 or 15 minutes for a train? Ever sit in a normal traffic jam on the toll road, where it takes an hour and a half to make your 10 mile trip home? You’re spoiled, that’s all. You don’t know a good thing when you have it.

Go back to Florida or Texas or Arizona or wherever you came from where cars rule and you don’t have to interact with other people and stop forcing me to write stupid blog entries like this one!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Going Out Gurus Love Borf the Leech

Recently, Going Out Guru Julia reviewed the Borf show, The Consolation of Ruin, running through this weekend. The show, in an empty building on North Capitol Street, exhibits graffiti and multi-media stuff.

I usually like reading the GOG column, and while this piece was interesting, I couldn’t help but think that Julia was overly impressed with the whole Borf thing. She seemed infatuated with the “anarchy” of it all, and all but thrilled that she had to be blindfolded and led into the building.

That’s all okay with me. No accounting for taste. But then she writes that the show contains, among other things, a “pretty cool riff on the famous Eddie Adams execution photo made out of smiley-face stickers.”

I had to read that again to make sure I understood: yep. She said it. A “pretty cool riff.” Cool? COOL? COOL? Julia, what the hell is wrong with you? There is nothing romantic or cool or funny or ironic or anarchistic or radical or chic about this picture, about this death. The Borf Brigade appropriated it to use in their little side show of naval-gazing suburban angst because they are ignorant and self-centered. Julia, you should be ashamed of yourself for giving it any kind of credit.

So what’s this Borf show all about? Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past few years, you know who Borf is. John Tsombikos was arrested in 2005 for spraying paint all over DC, and now owes DC twelve thousand bucks. The Borf Brigade hopes to raise money to help him pay his fine.

Tsombikos (and his Borf Brigade friends) is an artist. What’s more, he’s a protestor, and an anarchist, with important thing to say! Things like “grownups are obsolete” and, as the Washington Post reported in 2005, Borf “…doesn't believe in the state, capitalism, private property, globalization. Most of all, he doesn't believe in adulthood, which he considers ‘boring’ and ‘selling out.’”

I’m not sure if by “doesn’t believe in” he means that he doubts these are real things (sorry, Borf, they do exists), or he simply doesn’t like them.

I suspect it’s the first, because it couldn’t possibly be the second: Borf grew up in Great Falls, pays (or did) to attend the Art school at the Corcoran, apparently eats food and wears clothes, and even drives a car, and the spray paint he uses doesn’t grow on trees. All these things, plus the huge amount of free time and the freedom to come and go as he pleases, are all the products of “the state, capitalism, private property, globalization,” and yes, most definitely, “adulthood.”

Sorry, Borf (and your brigade), you’re a hypocrite.

Like all anarchists, Borf wants to believe that he supports the oppressed and down-trodden, the workers and the poor. But these are the very people who do things like go to work every day at places like spray paint factories so he can have something to steal from paint stores, where other working people work. You know why they work? So they can eat. And pay rent. (Steal enough paint, Borf, and they won’t have jobs any more.) Not everyone grew up in Great Falls, Borf.

And then people like me and the Metro bus driver and the bar tender and the bookstore owner and the minister and the paper seller and the packer truck driver and everyone else who lives in DC (but ironically, no one who lives in Great Falls) have to pay to have Borf’s spray paint washed off or covered up.

Borf Brigade, why not go out and study drawing and painting, and maybe a little history and literature while you’re at it, and then spend a few years working really, really hard learning to make the best art you can while trying to earn a living. Or, is hard work and studying and paying your own goddamn way also things anarchists don’t believe in?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Senator Coo-coo Bananas Hates Rachel Carson

Senator Tom “Coo-coo Bananas” Coburn, who, according to Wikipedia, has said that he favored the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions and that homosexuality was the biggest threat to America, and said that television had sunk to “an all-time low” when NBC decided to air Schindler’s List, “with full-frontal nudity, violence and profanity,” describing it as “...irresponsible sexual behavior...I cringe when I realize that there were children all across this nation watching this program”, has threatened to block a bill to honor Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and advocate of environmental protection.

Now, suddenly, Coburn has concern for 2 million people that die each year from malaria, which, he claims, could be wiped out by DDT. He squarely places blame for all these deaths on Carson.

If he’s so concerned with the loss of innocent life, why doesn’t he, a U.S. Senator, use his power and influence to do something about it? There are innocent people dying every day all across the world, from car bombs and rockets and small arms fire and starvation and genocide to HIV/AIDS, dysentery, and malaria. Take your pick, Senator, and propose something!

Instead of blocking a bill that honors a respected writer and scientist, he should propose legislation to end poverty, the biggest contributing factor to malaria. That’s a tall order, but for someone who knows everything and is morally correct on all issues, it should be simple enough.

And his argument about DDT and malaria is ridiculous. We used to have malaria right here in DC, but it’s been gone for a long time. A clean environment, sanitary conditions, suitable housing, clean drinking water, a reliable food supply, pavement instead of mud-puddles, are what help eradicate malaria. DDT can be part of that strategy (even Rachel Carson saw a use for DDT), but it’s disingenuous to think that only DDT is necessary.

Coburn doesn’t like Carson because he sees her as a left wing environmental crusader whose book helped bring about the Environmental Protection Agency, stricter environmental laws, and the U.S. ban on the use of DDT. While he’s a medical doctor, Coburn doesn’t believe in science, instead allowing his right wing political agenda to cloud any small amount of logical thinking his brain may be capable of. (To his credit, but only a small amount of credit, he did call for the firing of Alberto Gonzales.)

I don’t think it matters whether the senate honors Rachel Carson or not. Her work speaks for itself. Coburn makes himself look foolish, and only makes Rachel Carson’s calm reasoning, clear writing, and good science look even better by comparison.