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!