On the Road Again
Ode to D.C.: a melting pot of beauty, funk, culture, heritage and history
Once a Texan, always a Texan. Well, according to my Nana. Since I moved away from the Lone Star State in 1981, that’s been my motto. True, I had to adjust to a distinct dearth of Tex-Mex places in my new hometown, but an abundance of expat Tejanos helped me get settled.
It was the beginning of the Reagan presidency, and Moker and I found ourselves settled in D.C. It helped a ton that George H.W. Bush — a Texan by habit if not by birth, just like me — was Ronnie’s Veep. We were part of what was known as the “Texas on the Potomac” tribe — transplanted Texans there to monitor the doings of the new prez and his Lone Star sidekick, Bush. That included politicians, lobbyists, and that all-important third side of the real Federal Triangle — reporters and editors like Moker and me.
We moved from Fort Worth to Capitol Hill, a slowly gentrifying Victorian neighborhood that at the time had more break-ins than neighborhood block parties. Moker used to joke that our rented row house on 11th Street SE was in the middle of the “two Doberman” zone. Translated from ’80s-Speak, I reckon you’d say we were in a “Pitbull Prominent” area of the Nation’s Capital. But the small-town boy and the suburban gal immersed themselves in city life. After a short adjustment period (no, the car is not the center of the universe in D.C. as it is back home — we had to adopt Metro travel patterns), we thrived on the perks of urban life in a quaint Victorian neighborhood.
The 19th-century brick homes and sidewalks. The fact that we had not just one neighborhood Korean store — the equivalent of a 7–11, without the Slurpees and stocked with way more friendly food items — but two in the neighborhood was a real plus. We had friends up the street and around the corner — all within walking distance. The aforementioned Metro — called a subway in New York and the Underground in the UK — was just three blocks away. And such a selection of ethnic food — China, Afghanistan, Italy (both pizza and genuine pasta provisions), New York (pizza, bagels and several really great delis), a genuine dive, where the bartender kept a sawed-off shotgun behind the bar in case of trouble and both deer heads and deer butts hung on the wall (almost 40 years later, I continue to crave Tune Inn burgers. Even though we eventually moved to the suburbs, we still dropped by a few times a year for a burger and a beer. A regular Tune Up at the Tune Inn, as the locals say), were among the choices represented in local hangouts in case we didn’t feel like cooking that evening.
And a trip to Eastern Market — the last of D.C.’s public markets — with meat, fish and vegetable vendors inside, a lunch counter that also served breakfast as an added bonus on one end of the great hall, a farmer’s market and flea market in stalls outside the building and at the junior high playground across the street, and a restaurant row across 7th Street — the “Flower Lady” who set up shop year-round with her stand overflowing with sweetly scented gladiolas, lilies and daisies on the corner of 7th and North Carolina SE is still open even on Christmas Day — made our weekends. Who else did we know, outside of our little Capitol Hill bubble, who could say they shopped at a market built in 1871 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places?
Capitol Hill was a keeper. We walked to the U.S. Capitol for holiday concerts put on by the National Symphony Orchestra on the West Lawn — in fact, I don’t remember missing a Memorial Day, Fourth of July or Labor Day during the 12 years we lived nearby. When I switched from scribing to politicking, I walked to work. We loved having friends and family drop in for a visit. It was a tight squeeze in our humble abode, but we didn’t spend much time at home when there was so much to take in around the city.
True story: After a year on 11th Street, we bought a house around the corner on C Street SE. In preparation for the moving truck’s arrival, and to cut down on expenses, we borrowed a dolly and spent a couple of weeks trundling boxes and other pieces of our lives around the corner. Of course after we moved, we still frequented the Delta Market (no clue about the origin of the name) on the northwest corner of our new block.
After we’d been in our new place about a week, Moker walked to Delta Market for a Coke.
“You move?” the Korean proprietor asked.
“Yeah, how did you know?” Moker replied.
“You come from different direction now.”
Another true story: My brother-in-law Lynn went to Mott’s, the Korean store around the other corner on 12th Street SE, for ice cream after dinner one hot summer evening.
Lynn spent some time rummaging around in the cooler at the back of the store where they kept the good stuff. Mrs. Kim (I guess the Motts hadn’t owned the store in a while) walked up to him, a look of true concern on her face.
I wasn’t there, but Ella Numera Dos described the encounter. Lynn, all of 6-foot-5, hunched over, looking for ice cream. Mrs. Kim, not even five feet tall, fluttering her hands, lines of worry etched in her face.
“What flavor you not finding?” Mrs. Kim queried.
“I was looking for chocolate almond,” Lynn explained.
“Oh, we don’t have. We do have chocolate fudge. Very good!”
Lynn bought a quart of chocolate fudge. In case you were wondering, the next time Lynn and the kids went to Mott’s for ice cream (two days after the initial encounter), the store had several containers of chocolate almond in stock.
We enjoyed the give-and-take of life in our hood for 12 years. The trips with the kids to Lincoln Park. The weekly jaunt to recycle (long before trash companies picked up recycle bins on the regular) in the red wagon, followed by a stop at the library. In fact, Ella Numera Dos’ first words were not really words, but a whole sentence, uttered in our kitchen and centered around our weekly excursions.
Dos was eating breakfast on a Saturday morning. In between picking up apple slices from her high chair tray in that particularly precise way she had (she did the same thing with grains of rice — for years), she noticed Moker crossing the floor to throw a couple of cans in our bucket out back.
“Recycle, Daddy?” Really, I’m not sure if the original utterance was a question or a statement. But both Moker and I stopped in our tracks and stared at the baby, who was less than a year old. A complete sentence, featuring a three-syllable word, was not in our wheelhouse of experience. Her sister spent a good long time sweetly uttering the word “Hi!” before she acquired syllables and sentences.
Of course, Capitol Hill wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Ella Numera Una grew up quickly enough, and it was time to send her to school. And her Yuppie parents, filled with enough liberal guilt for a family of 12, didn’t do the right thing. Instead of enrolling Una in the perfectly good public elementary school down the street, we took the private school route. And soon learned that overpaying for an education — especially for a 4-year-old — didn’t give a child a better chance at learning.
If I were able, all these years later, to give my younger self some advice, it would be to go with the public option. Kids are smart. And they are resilient. They know Bravo Sierra (a military term for — what else? — BS) when they see it. And though we don’t live in a perfect world, we hope they all end up in the same place when they’re grown. So why start them off thinking they’re special?
Also, we didn’t always live in peace and tranquility during our dozen or so years at 11th and C Streets SE. There was the matter of our neighbor, who was held up at gunpoint as she tried to wrestle groceries up the steps to her rowhouse. She started screaming. Moker and another guy from the block ran out in the street, and took off after the perp. They rounded the corner by the alley on 12th Street (right next to Mott’s) and ran into at least two squad cars containing D.C.’s Finest. Wheezing and bending over so he wouldn’t expire from all that exertion, Moker talked to one of the cops, who was holding what looked like a 14-year-old boy by the scruff of his T-Shirt. The suspect, as it were.
“Hey, buddy, were you and your friend chasing this kid?” the officer inquired.
“Yeah.” Huff, huff. “We.” Wheeze, wheeze. “Thought.” Puff, puff. “We. Could. Catch. Him.” Ginormous exhalation.
“Don’t do that kind of shit,” the cop said. “The kid was armed. Call us next time, OK?’
“Yesssir! Thank you, officer.”
Then there was the matter of space. Ella Numera Dos was three years old. We were pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before she caught on to the fact that her room approximated a closet that had been painted to look like a little girl’s room.
Fast forward. Past the late-night discussions and the worries and the concerns about moving from the city to the suburbs. We got over all that, and then some.
When we first moved to Northern Virginia (10 miles from the D.C. line) in 1993, we had so many projects, we thought we’d be there a good long while. When we finally enclosed the screened porch (best room ever) in 2012, we knew we would be there even longer. And when we redid the kitchen last year, we knew we’d be there forever.
Welp, forever came and went. After 27 years in NoVa (Northern Virginia) and 39 total in the DMV (District-Maryland-Virginia), the I-95 Road Warriors saddled up and headed to Charlotte, NC. Ella Numera Una and her Hubby are long-time Charlotteans, and we settled down near family (remember — Ella Numera Dos is “stuck” in Hawaii). We’re making new friends, and enjoying all the Queen City has to offer.
I know I should devote enough word space to all that almost three decades gave to us. But really, I think the D.C. suburbs outgrew us. We loved raising our kids there — Ella Numera Una was in first grade when we moved, and Ella Numera Dos a wee 3-year-old, and they went to school there all the way through to high school graduation. But then they moved on, to college, to careers, to families of their own. They no longer lived in the hood, or even remotely close to us. The traffic grew to be close to overwhelming, the buildings started to grow taller (the exurban “city” near us, known as Tyson’s, is on track to be the size of Boston soon). Our little suburban oasis started to feel a little less like a lush haven and more like a concrete desert — only one with the mammoth suburban sprawl that comes with so much growth.
Moker, he of amusing observations, encapsulated our life in the D.C. burbs quite concisely — at least when we were still feeling comfortable and it wasn’t yet so crowded.
“We’re within walking distance of the church, should we feel the need for spiritual affirmation. We’re about a mile from the golf course, and I could walk it if the car breaks down. We’re about the same distance from the grocery store and restaurants, if we get hungry.
“We’re a little farther away from Money & King. But they pick up,”
He was referring, of course, to the local funeral home.
We did the soccer thing with the kids, and then basketball. Moker coached, then he was the league commissioner. Both girls swam competitively, on three different teams — summer, year-round, and high school, when they were old enough. Both Moker and I volunteered for Brownies, then Girl Scouts. We made sure the girls went to church and Sunday school, and were proud when they both became acolytes in their high school years.
Ella Numera Una, all 5-foot-4 inches of her, fought (figuratively, not literally) one of the boys at church for the right to carry the processional cross down the center aisle, especially on holidays. She was a “crucifer” for four years, bearing a cross that was a good foot taller than she. From an early age, Ella Numera Dos had her eye on the acolytes who swung the “thurible” — in the Episcopal Church, that’s the gilded container on a long chain housing the burning incense, which is used as part of the service on Holy Days. Dos was especially impressed with the young woman who could swing that smoking incense 360 degrees during Easter services. Dos, of course, attained her goal, and was a “thurifer” for much of her church career. Her Dad, though, who grew up Lutheran (not so much standing and kneeling and then standing again, you know), always made sure to sit a few rows back when his kid was in charge of the burning hot incense. And he flinched every time she swung that sucker in an arc near the altar.
The D.C. suburbs are where I found my second calling as a high school journalism adviser and English teacher. I taught newspaper, yearbook and AP English Language for 23 years, and advised both high school publications. I can’t think of a more fun or fulfilling career.
I tell ya, you’ve never lived til you’ve learned that high school kids are in fact just mini-adults, and you will earn their respect if you treat them that way. But you have to keep an eye out for those who can’t handle your sass. It takes a while for a student to “graduate” from asking permission to use the bathroom to running a newspaper staff. And the road is filled with all kinds of bumps along the way. Ask me sometime about the floor tiles of Room 215 — before they were covered up with raggedy carpet — and the mysterious holes and mini-volcano-looking knots every few tiles or so. Or the mold that consistently grew out of the false ceiling. Someone told me it had to do with asbestos, but those concerns, when you’re a teacher, are better left to the administrators who are tripping over themselves to please the guy or gal in charge. Unfortunately, the Peter Principle is still alive and well in American education.
Not to extend the metaphor too much longer, but when we both retired — Moker from a successful career in reporting and PR, and me from the teaching trenches — it seemed like it was the right time to go. And we got tired of taking 45 minutes, on occasion, to travel the one mile to meet Carmen and Steve for dinner. Traffic and hungry tummies? I hope never the twain shall ever again meet, at least where I’m concerned.
Thank you to our family, our friends, and our neighbors, for making the good life in D.C. and environs possible. Our Nation’s Capital isn’t a “swamp.” It’s an incredibly livable, fascinating melting pot of beauty, funk, culture, heritage and history.
It’s the Tune Inn and the Vienna Inn. It’s Eastern Market and Middleburg. It’s the Fam visiting from Wisconsin and marching the kids from Arlington National Cemetery to the White House to Ford’s Theatre to the US Capitol, and getting ejected from at least two of those venues, maybe three — all in the same day. It’s getting crabby in St. Michael’s on the Chesapeake Bay and discovering Naked Mountain at Wintergreen. It’s Ben’s Chili Bowl. It’s learning how to “Metro-Surf” — Yeah, you really had to be there.
It was a helluva run, D.C. We love you. Your cherry blossoms. Your monuments under the moonlight. And the fact that those who reside there are from all over the world, and yet so uniquely “D.C.”.
And even though we call the Queen City home now, we’ll be back. Just remember — we’ll never be tourists in the place we called home for so many years.