- According to Google Maps, the distance between the Jefferson Memorial and the White House South Lawn is 1.2 miles. It’s a 24-minute walk, and on the morning that I took this route, it was windy, and the grass was muddy and covered with geese droppings. I wanted to see the National Christmas tree because nothing pleases me more than a city dressed up for the holidays. When I finally reach the southern edge of the park, I discover that because it is before 10 am, public access is restricted. The tree from the distance looks puny and plastic-wrapped. I am not impressed.
- Near the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and K Street, there are a four park benches, placed perpendicular to the sidewalk curb. If you sit on the side next to the street, you’re close enough to the traffic that to stretch out your hand means running the risk of amputation. Chunks of gravel and small pebbles clatter along the gutter. Breathe at the wrong moment, and you’ll inhale a lungful of exhaust from a passing 42 bus. This is my favorite place to read.
- In a city known for brunch, I am still waiting to find a place that does not oversalt their hash browns or make me miss Valois.
- The best way to find your way to the Jefferson Memorial is to follow a group of women carrying little lunch bags from Pret A Manger.
- I’ve been told that while DC is not a literary city, it is the most literate city. Someone is always reading on their morning commute.
- The bonsai trees at the National Arboretum are surprisingly impressive. (I also like all things miniature, so the impartiality of the above statement is dubious at best.)
- The best place to people watch: 11 o’clock on the corner of U Street and 12th Street, right outside the U Street Metro station.
- My favorite museum: the Hirshhorn, or as a friend once called it, “the poor man’s Guggenheim.” Second place goes to the Phillips Collection because of their Rothko Room. But all this doesn’t matter because you’re most likely to find me at the National Portrait Gallery at the end of the day.
- During the summer, I waited for a bus in Adams Morgan in the company of a homeless man. Skinny with a buzz cut, he wore a neon jersey (the kind a traffic director would wear) and sat on a milk crate, selling copies of Street Sense and talking to the voices in his head. Four months later, I am waiting for the bus outside McPherson Square. As the Circulator headed towards Woodley Park pulls up, I see the same man, still dressed in his jersey and holding a milk crate under his arm, walk towards the stop and board the bus. The world feels extraordinarily small.
- At Dupont Circle (the roundabout), there is a healthy growth of moss and algae on its fountain. Crabgrass and clover have displaced most of the grass in the park. Amateur brass bands play show tunes during the summer. I watched pigeons and sparrows devour an apple core that someone dropped on the walkway. Across town, there is a roundabout in Capitol Hill that is always emerald green, which might also make it inhospitable to urban wildlife for there are no vicious birds hunting for food. Instead, you might run into an outdoor wedding with guests walking in their Sunday best from the doorsteps of their townhouses.
- Nothing is more frustrating that a Metro system that refuses to run 24 hours, even on the weekends.
- And why does it take up to 3 business days for the money I add to my transit card online to be usable?
- The fact that DC does not have a real also Chinatown boggles the mind. But at least there are a lot of interesting grocery stores.
- The city is pretty in the rain.
- Any of life’s sorrows can be cured by the white peaches or the free samples of apples found at the local farmers market.
- The National Mall has its perks. Like many other vast green spaces, it offers opportunities for pickup soccer games, scenic walks, impromptu picnics, and suntanning, among other things. But it also spans nearly two miles. The walkways are unpaved, and there is shade only on the outer perimeters of the park. In most cases, the only way to go from one place to another is to go by foot. I am totally uninterested in wasting my energy and time traversing a giant patch of grass.
- From The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu (this year’s pick for DC Reads): “That’s the dirty little secret about D.C. For all its stature and statues, the city could just as easily have been one of the grander suburbs of America, an appendix hooked to Virginia or Maryland. As the joke goes, everyone who has lived here long enough suffers from an inevitable inferiority complex, size not being the least of it.”
- I’m pretty ready to go.
Like a scene from an inverted Proust novel, the memory of breakfasts with my grandparents conjures the taste of cantaloupe milk. In fact, it is the only thing I can truly remember eating during those early mornings. My grandfather bought the milk from a vendor down the street. It came in amorphous plastic sacks labeled in green with a line drawing of a melon. I picked these packages up by their corners and used a pair of scissors to carefully cut a slit for a short plastic straw.
Here in the US, the milk comes in structured cartons, the flavorings in three: plain, chocolate, and strawberry. Cantaloupe is a seemingly counterintuitive flavor option, but no more so than strawberry, a fruit more acidic and thus more likely to curdle milk than complement it. Most chocolate milk also fails to live up to the promise of its name, offering little in the way of actual chocolate taste and leaving a grainy trail of sediment from chocolate powder too stubborn to dissolve. On the other hand, we describe the taste of ripe melons using adjectives derived from dairy products: creamy and buttery. The pH of a cantaloupe clocks in at an almost neutral 6.5. But more importantly, the cantaloupe flavored milk of my memory was not sweet in the hollow, sticky way that made the back of your teeth ache. Its sweetness was full-bodied, drawing out the wholesome richness that could only be attributed to milk. Each sip felt well-rounded.
I could have been the poster child for the now-defunct “Got Milk?” campaign. Each week, my mother brought home a gallon of milk from the supermarket. By the end of seven days, we would open the fridge to find that the shelf on the door was empty, the plastic container already sent to the recycling bins next to the driveway. I drank at least two glasses of milk every day. It seemed to match everything I ate: cereal, slices of Betty Crocker cake, tacos, baked ziti, fried rice, soup, the frozen pizza and chicken nuggets served at the school cafeteria.
For the most part, the milk of my childhood came in plastic jugs. It was pasteurized, homogenized, and fortified with vitamins A and D. The label was red, which meant it was whole. From the ages of six to eleven, my brother and I drank it out of matching plastic mugs featuring the Disney characters inexplicably dressed in Mexican costume. My mug had a scratch over Donald Duck’s head. His did not.
Not only had my parents made milk the kid-approved beverage of our household, they also had left me believing that the best milk had exactly four percent fat. I had my first glass of skim milk at a sleepover, and I left the next morning, sleepy from too many movies and confused why anyone would buy something so diluted. 2% came later, also at a friend’s house, but we ate from plastic utensils that had absorbed the synthetic scent of dishwashing detergent. Water, milk, orange juice—everything tasted like fake lemons.
But as quick as they were to support the reign of whole milk in our house, they were also just as quick to end it. Their cholesterol levels were too high. Their hearts beat under the sudden specter of clogged arteries. Whole milk, while not the main culprit, was now an unnecessary risk. Besides, my mother explained, my brother and I didn’t need it anymore. When we were small, she had fretted whether our bony wrists and thin limbs were the products of genetics or undiagnosed malnutrition. Ignoring her own delicate wrists, she bought whole milk and hoped its lipids and proteins would smooth out our angles.
Whole switched to 2%. The gallons turned into quarts. My father developed lactose intolerance, and my brother began to complain that milk unaccompanied by food also upset his stomach. Yet when I tried to leave the house without eating breakfast, my mother would shout after me to take a granola bar, and when I refused, to please at least drink a glass of milk.
I am not a picky eater, but I am particular. I will frown if the cupcakes I have baked are too dense, when the giant apples from Costco have none of the honeyed fragrance that fruit is supposed to have, and when broccoli is cooked past the point of crunchiness. I can also tell you when the milk has past its peak of freshness. I can even quantify it on a scale where a score of zero is an unattainable Platonic ideal and a one means that your milk is too solid to pour down a kitchen sink.
Milk spoils gradually in our refrigerator. Five days after purchase or at the approach of its sell-by date, milk scores a 0.5 on my sliding scale of freshness. When it begins to turn, it still tastes fine, but only if you don’t think too much about it. Two days later though, the milk, at a score of between 0.6 and 0.65, is only passably drinkable, more suited for baking and cooking. Anything beyond that is questionable. My mother, who both drinks milk regularly and lives at our house on a permanent basis, is the only one brave enough to stir dregs of this product into her occasional cup of coffee.
“What’s the difference?” I watch black turn into sepia as she stirs her spoon.
It is times like these when I wonder whether this is a matter of mind over matter, but I cannot be the only one who can tell that the old milk from the fridge is more viscous than it should be. That even the smallest amount of whole milk will make a richer cup of hot cocoa than a river of skim. That the UHC milk sold in rectangular cartons, unrefrigerated on the shelves of French grocery stores, tastes caramelized. I swear the grass-fed, organic whole milk that I accidentally bought one spring afternoon from Hyde Park Produce tasted sweeter and creamier. My roommate shrugged when I said this. She thanked me for buying groceries and took the glass she poured back into her room while I stood at the kitchen counter, still trying to make my case. It was different. It really was different.
If you try to find cantaloupe milk today, you might return home empty-handed. The closest substitute that you can find are paper cartons of papaya milk, its official-looking label explaining how many kilojoules contained in this product. In fact, my milk-drinking days largely exist only in my memory. In keeping with most of my family members, I now only have milk when it comes with a bowl of cereal and spend my grocery money on Greek yogurt instead. Between spoonfuls of yogurt and granola, I worry that I will eventually lose my tolerance for dairy altogether. My dad, who still eats ice cream out of the carton with me when I am home for school breaks, tells me that it wouldn’t be the end of the world, which is all I need to hear before I add milk back to my mental grocery list for next week.
At the store, I hover in the dairy section. 2% or whole? Other shoppers whisper “excuse me” and bump into my elbows. Their choices are automatic and easy. Nine times out of ten, I will walk out of the store with 2%, but sometimes, I pick up a plastic container with a red label. It always tastes exactly as I remember.
Last weekend, I called my mom from the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden, and because I rarely call my parents unless I need to ask them something, she expected me to launch into an explanation of the latest bureaucratic mishap, minor illness, or disaster in the kitchen. Instead, I told her, “I’m bored.”
“I’m bored” was a ridiculous thing for me to say at that exact moment. The reasons are as follows:
- I was listening to free jazz in a notable cultural institution.
- I was sitting across from a sculpture that was probably worth more than my lifetime earnings.
- I was drinking sangria that was too sweet and not fruity enough to be considered good but still made me feel super cool anyway.
- Even if the jazz was too abstract for me to really appreciate it, I had The Luminaries, which, with its 800+ pages, is impressive both in a literary sense and its ability to kill the occasional scary spider that crawls from the bushes.
Yet somehow, I’ve run out of things to do. Or to be more accurate, I have convinced myself that I have run out of things to do.
In most cases, boredom, especially the inattentive or dismissive kind that comes from confronting something that is simply uninteresting, usually leads you to pursue possibilities. The mind wanders, daydreaming of the ways the passing minutes could be better spent or plotting the next move. At a certain critical point, you eventually take a next step towards doing something else, and nine times out of ten, it’s something marginally more riveting. But in recent days, I’ve been experiencing a restless ennui that feels like a craving for a mysterious snack food that you can’t describe or find in your kitchen cabinets.
The terrible part about this particular brand of boredom is that rather than truly leading me to something else, it blankets possibility in blandness. Yes, I could walk around the Jefferson Memorial or grab a free ticket to Winter’s Tale or wake up early enough to beat the crowds at the Holocaust Museum’s permanent exhibition. I could also do absolutely nothing. All these choices have become equivalent.
The best part about this particular brand of boredom is that it does lead you to wander, albeit listlessly. Usually, these are the times when it’s best to take a walk or go window shopping, where you can look at a dress on a mannequin or a book display or a scarf on a sales rack, items that don’t seriously demand your attention. Or maybe it’s a brightly painted Victorian-era house or the dog that comes to investigate your ankles. Eventually, something snags a neuron, and this snag is enough to remind yourself how to find the world interesting again. As you continue with your walk, you remember that dress or scarf or house or dog and wonder what is next.
On the bus, my preferred way to sit is sideways. I had gotten the idea one summer afternoon after telling someone that I was never able to read in anything that lurched as much as a four-wheeled vehicle. I could do trains and planes, perhaps a boat too. But in the instant I focused on printed text in anything else, I began to feel the lingering nausea that is unique to carsickness, the kind that lingers even after I spend minutes staring at a fixed point in the far-flung horizon. The friend, upon hearing this, nodded and agreed, “I could never read on a bus either, but when I have my back against the sides of the bus, I’m usually fine.”
I’m not sure whether it’s the placebo effect or something about the altered perspective of sideways sitting that keeps me feeling grounded. But in either case, it lets me be productive and curbs my people watching, which is no longer discrete in the narrow, air-conditioned, confines of a grumbling Metrobus.
The rules to successful bus ride reading are simple. The sideways seats on busses are often also the ones plastered with handicap signs. To avoid confrontation, you should always move when asked and always take the seats at the end of the rows. The former is mandated by law. The latter keeps the elderly from glaring because they have to dodge the corner of your bag and your outstretched elbow. Both let you read in peace. You will be left to your stories and your essays and your well-wrought prose.
“What are you reading?”
The man who asks me this peers over my shoulder. Today, I am reading The Black Book, and I explain that it is a Turkish novel about a man whose wife disappears.
“Oh, it’s a mystery!”
I think about the non-linear narrative and the current passage that I’m reading is actually about movie stars and newspapers in Istanbul. And then there’s the fact that the protagonist begins to impersonate his journalist friend, who also disappears as the same time as his wife. Which makes me think about doubles because two springs ago, I read The White Castle, written by the same author, for a class on magical realism that taught me that doubles are everywhere if you look closely enough.
“Yes, it’s a mystery,” I say. I smile and return to my book.
After a few minutes, I hear, “You must be a student.”
I look up again. “I actually just graduated.” And I explain that I went to the University of Chicago.
“So you’re from Chicago!”
“No, I’m actually from New Jersey.”
He ponders this for a moment. “What are you doing in DC?”
I describe how I’m interning for a small academic press and how I want to go into publishing.
“Go into what?”
“Publishing. Book publishing.”
He nods. I pull the stop cord and wish him a good day. At the National Museum of American History, I sit outside at a park bench to finish the chapter before seeing the Star-Spangled banner and a replica of Julia Child’s kitchen.
Once, an old woman carrying a shopping bag from a museum complimented me on the design printed on the front cover of my planner. I had taken it out to glance at the directions I had written inside.
“That’s very pretty.”
She tells me that she is now retired and spends her free evenings taking textile classes.
She then proceeds to ask, “Are you from Asia?”
“No. I’m from New Jersey.”
For the rest of the bus ride, she talks about her art classes and asks for my opinion of Japanese landscapes.
“What are you reading?”
The man who asks me this question on this particular afternoon also looks like a retiree. He is toothless, wearing a short-sleeved collar shirt, and he smells faintly of old beer.
Today, I’m reading Joan Didion’s “Slouching towards Bethlehem.” When he hears me talking about how Didion wrote about 1960s counterculture, he shakes his head. He mumbles, and although I can’t hear exactly he is saying, there is garbled disapproval about how writers “who were never there” have no right to be talking about the hippies.
“She was there actually. She talked to a bunch of people.” I gesture towards the book that is open in my lap.
He repeats the same thing again.
“Yeah, I guess.” I reply.
Satisfied that he has imparted some wisdom, he lets me read one sentence and then interrupts.
“Are you nineteen?”
I shake my head and correct him.
“Well, you look nineteen! I just had a birthday last week. I’m 78!”
Interested in more biographical details, he asks if I’m from Japan.
“Nope. New Jersey.”
“How about your parents?”
“That’s great.” He stares off into space for a moment. I reread the same sentence when I hear, “Now, do you feel connected to Japan at all?”
After hearing my answer, he sighs and smiles sadly. I notice that he still has one tooth left. He mumbles something to the effect of “it’s so nice knowing what your roots are.” And for the next five minutes, he talks about how he is descended from slaves and talks about Civil Rights activists that I do not know about and shares his thoughts on Hilary Clinton. Will she be elected? Probably not.
I nod in what I hope is a sympathetic way. Through the bus window, I see the white dome of the Capitol Building.
When I hop on the 32 for the third time in a day, I notice that the bus is almost empty. Instead of sitting on the last sideways seat in the row, I pick a spot in the middle and feel indulgent. I read a few pages before I notice that there is a girl, maybe about three or four, and her father sitting across from me. She wears a beige striped dress and pink polka-dotted raincoat, her hair tied in a topknot, more stylish than I ever was as a preschooler. Her father is dressed in the uniform of a bus driver or some other kind of public transit official. He adjusts the brim of his Yankees cap as he hands an open bag of Mini-Oreos to the girl.
He has spread a paper bus schedule underneath his daughter to catch the stray cookie crumbs, of which there are many. His daughter pouts as he explains to her that her snack is the same as her mother’s. He points to the bus driver, who shouts something to placate her daughter. The girl eats a cookie but remains unconvinced that her Oreos are just as tasty.
I’ve lifted the page, and it hovers in mid-air, waiting to be turned, but I pretend to look out the window and watch the family out of the corner of my eye. I picture the bus driver parking the bus and leaving the door open. With her last trip behind her, she climbs out with her daughter holding her hand, as the man gathers the cookie fragments and crumples them into the crinkled paper map.
“Cross your legs. Like that girl over there.”
I look up and then back down, pretending that I was just taking a break from the printed page.
The man smiles and misinterprets my startled expression. “I’m sorry. I was using you as an example.”
I say it’s no problem and return to my book.
I almost reach the end of the section break when a sudden onslaught of people parade onto the bus. They linger at the fare box, which means that they are tourists, surprised that the buses do not make exact change and unsure of how far they want to go. Uninterested, I keep reading as the sideways seats around me fill with people. As the bus begins moving again, I glance at my new neighbors, and there are five of them, three men and two women. The men wear t-shirts, plaid shorts, and sneakers. The women wear sandals, stylish capri pants, and tunics in muted prints. They carry all the vitality and grace that old age can imbue and none of its back-breaking weariness. They sit close together. They are French. They are confused.
The man in the uniform asks them where they are going, but he speaks too fast for them to understand. He explains to them how they will reach a Metro station that can take them to Alexandria, where they are staying, and he also advises that it will be cheaper to use a Smartrip card and pulls one out of his wallet. The French tourists absorb the directions, but at the sight of the plastic card, they nod in the vacant, cheery way that conveys only a thankful incomprehension.
“Do you like DC? Do you like the museums? The museums?” he asks. These bemused French tourists intrigue him, and they lean in closer when again, they can’t make out his words.
The woman next to me, whose English is better than her friend’s, whispers, “Oui, le musée,” and later, “Le Maison Blanc.”
Her travel companion nods and lists the things he and his friends have seen in a thick accent. In his hand, he holds a travel book with L’États Unis printed in sans-serif font on the spine. The United States was a country so big, how could they fit all there was to see into a book slimmer than the travel guides I used for France, a country a fraction of the size? I am half-tempted to ask if I could borrow their book to see what it said about DC or Chicago or New York.
The French tourists continue to chatter to themselves, and they peer out of the window when we reach Foggy Bottom. The woman next to me pulls out her travel guide and begins reading its description of the neighborhood. The way she pronounces “Foggy Bottom” emphasizes how dense English can sometimes sound. I listen along with her friends although I do not understand a word. There is a mention of George Washington. Or are they talking about the university? She says “Foggy Bottom” again. Foggy Bottom. The more I listen, the more I begin to understand that it is a ridiculous name.
It is only when they exit the bus, on M Street in Georgetown, that I remember that I am supposed to be reading a book. By the time I reach my own stop, I still have not made it to the section break.
One day, a guy wearing square-rimmed glasses and a green t-shirt steps onto the bus with an armful of books and a white tote bag tucked flat under his arm. The bus has just passed the Georgetown Public Library, and the man, still standing, begins to leaf through the cookbook he has just checked out. There is also another cookbook, a McSweeney’s compilation, and a DK Companion to Architecture in the pile that he holds against his chest.
His eyes never leave the page. The bus jostles as it winds up the steep hill on Wisconsin Avenue and jerks to a shuddering stop at each stoplight. When a seat next to him opens, he slides seamlessly into it, head still tilted down and eyes scanning a recipe for some kind of stew or soup.
When the bus reaches his stop, he stands and makes his way towards the front door, the volumes still nestled in the crook of his arm and the cookbook still held open as he steps down the stairs and onto the sidewalk. He looks right and then left at the intersection and crosses the street. Halfway across the crosswalk, he returns to his book. He continues to read, and I watch him until the bus pulls away, and there is nothing else to do but to pull out the battered paperback I picked up from the same library and read and read and read.
One of the questions that has been floating in the back of my mind is why DC seems to lack a certain liveliness, a joie de vivre so to speak, that make other cities seem energetic and dynamic. Last week, while I was on yet another of my museum excursions after work, I decided to walk. The distance between the office and the Museum of American History is about a mile and a half. Because I was too impatient to wait for a bus that theoretically comes every fifteen minutes but only shows up every thirty, I decided to travel by foot. Even the weather was cooperating that afternoon. It was sunny, but the humidity had temporarily disappeared, and the temperatures floated down to a temperate high-70s. The locals were calling it a polar vortex; I tried my best not to laugh out loud.
The most direct path from Dupont Circle to the National Mall is Pennsylvania Avenue, which cuts a straight diagonal through the heart of the city. The beginnings of the evening’s rush hour brought people with government IDs and badges hanging on lanyards from their necks. As I approached the part of the avenue that passes the White House, tourists began to outnumber the men and women wearing suits and pencil skirts. Instead of badges, they had DSLR cameras.
It certainly wasn’t emptiness that gave the city its soulless feeling. There were plenty of pedestrians, but similar to the ones that I saw everyday in Dupont Circle, they seemed to be walking for the sole purpose of getting to Point A to Point B. Had Baudelaire lived in DC instead of nineteenth century Paris, he would be hard pressed to find anyone remotely resembling the flaneur who loves crowds and walks passionately through the bustling streets. I’ve never walked downtown at night, but I can imagine it deserted. The bureaucratic buildings, which already stare blankly on the brightest and busiest of days, could only become more anonymous without its inhabitants. There would be no restaurant goers, odd passerby gazing in wonder at the moon-lit office buildings, or night owls recounting their evenings as they wait for a bus or funnel into a metro station.
A few days later, I found an article on Facebook (posted by either The Atlantic or CityLab) explaining how Pennsylvania Avenue largely fails its purpose as DC’s grand boulevard. The article cites the absence of street-level attractions and retail, its inhospitable public gathering spaces, and its sheer size to explain why the thoroughfare is far from a “lively and engaging street.” It was gratifying and reassuring to receive a tiny confirmation that my discontents with DC were not solely a result of my own fickleness.
What the article mentions is not only confined to Pennsylvania Ave. I was waiting for a friend to meet me for dinner and drinks in Adams-Morgan. I had two options for sitting space: the bus stop where I had gotten off or these uncomfortable brick boxes. I couldn’t tell whether I was inhabiting an actual public plaza or an extension of the bank next door. Were the brick structures meant to serve as places to sit? If not, then why were they there in the first place? With the exception of Dupont Circle (the actual park that makes up the roundabout that gives the neighborhood its name), the small patches of green space that dot the city are mainly inhabited by the homeless, other shady characters, and the occasional weary local, who has nowhere else to sit. I miss the tiny parks in Manhattan, where people walked their dogs, took their children, ate food on their lunch breaks, and gossiped with their friends.
This is what surprises me everyday about DC. The city has all the trappings of a bustling metropolis. Its landscaping is impeccable. The buildings possess all the majesty and history you could ask for in a nation’s capital. Cultural institutions abound. The people form a colorful cast of characters–the young and seasoned professionals; the rich, famous, and the powerful; the bright-eyed students and interns; the parents who manage their fussy children on the bus; the tourists snapping pictures in Capitol Hill. Yet despite all this, everything fails to cohere. All these components seem to run parallel to each other. Rather than intertwining to form that living, breathing fabric that I’ve always loved about cities, they sit, blank and impassive.
Although I’m only scheduled to stay in Washington DC for a summer, I am still eligible for a library card. With an electronic copy of my signed sublease stored on my phone, I made my way to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library downtown to sign up. I had a simple afternoon itinerary planned for myself. After work, I would pick up some books at the library and head towards U Street to Hana, a Japanese grocery store that promised to have soy sauce and fresh produce.
As luck would have it, the sky split open. In the same moment that I stepped off the bus, it began to downpour. To say that it merely rained does not capture how the water fell in a thick sheet that rippled in the wind. I stood under the awning of the bus stop along with half a dozen others as the storm continued outside. A fork of lightening struck nearby. Everyone stopped talking when the thunder tore through the sky. A few buses passed by, their windshield wipers flinging water onto the slick streets. Small waves of liquid lapped the curb of the sidewalk as the cars paused at the traffic light.
Because I still haven’t quite figured out how to navigate this city, I had gotten off at the wrong stop. I only had an extra block to walk, but even with an umbrella, I would have been drenched. So I waited. The crowd thinned when an X9 pulled up to the corner. I watched the people across the street. Some tried to sprint and outrun the rain while others walked stoically as if the heavy raindrops were simply a light morning mist. Twenty minutes later, the rainstorm eventually thinned into something manageable. I tiptoed around puddles and finally stepped into the library.
The lobby was large, the carpet in the adjacent reading rooms brown, the lights fluorescent. I had to fill out the registration form twice because I did not list my DC address. The woman at the front desk was amiable and did not mind that I wasted a sheet of paper. She handed me my card. As I made my way to the Popular Media room, I walked past rows of plastic chairs and a makeshift stage. Large crowds of preteens and their parents lounged in the seats or stood in line to pick up their copy of the latest book written by Chris Colfer.
Chris Colfer? That guy who plays Kurt on Glee? He writes books? Yes, apparently he writes very popular books. And he was hosting a Q&A at the library. I had arrived at about 5:00, and by the time I finished browsing, it was 6:00, leaving only a half hour before this famous preteen idol would emerge onstage. I decided to stick around.
At this point, all the seats had been taken. I stood in the back, next to a middle schooler peering at the thick layer of foundation on her face with her iPhone and a boy and a girl who complained about their mothers posting their picture on Instagram. At about 6:20, another gaggle of children pushed past. About fifteen minutes later, Chris Colfer appeared, flank by security guards and waving to his adoring fans. “It’s raining Republicans and Democrats out there!” he said. I’m pretty sure that he could have said anything, and everyone would be happy to laugh along.
The Q&A only took about twenty minutes, but during that time, I learned that Chris Colfer’s literary crush is Bellatrix Lestrange; his preferred sandwich involves turkey, avocado, and provolone on white bread; and that he thinks Snow White needs to reevaluate some of her life choices. I have a feeling that he rehearsed his answers beforehand, but to his credit, he sounded at ease and earnest in front of his fans.
I didn’t stick around. As soon as Chris Colfer finished answering his last question, I slipped past the middle schoolers and walked three blocks to catch a bus that would take me north to Columbia Heights.
My mission to find soy sauce was complicated by a number of factors. The first problem is that I’m picky, which is nothing surprising, but I’ll be the first to tell you that the offerings at your normal grocery store just won’t do. The second problem is that Chinatown only exists in name only. The Friendship Archway is the only emblem of something that is even remotely from the eastern hemisphere of the world. Otherwise, you’ll find some cafes, a Chipotle, a Verizon store, and other retail establishments whose only claim to China is their translated signs. The third problem is that although the buses are supposed to arrive every ten minutes during rush hour, they actually materialize once every half an hour.
Hana is a small corner store, and they did have some interesting offerings. But as a small corner store, they charged higher prices than what I expected at an Asian grocery store. And their soy sauce selection was mediocre at best (although still cheaper than your average grocery store–I suppose all was not lost). I remembered my parents being disappointed by the Chinatown in Chicago and wondered what they would say about the offerings here in DC.
I returned home at 9:00. In my bag, I had Remainder by Tom McCarthy, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, a travel book on Japan, a Chinese grammar book, a small bottle of soy sauce, a bag of green onions, some mushrooms, and a package of wheat noodles. I also returned with a battered umbrella, seven mosquito bites that I acquired as I waited for the bus, and two pictures of Chris Colfer on my camera. As I was putting away my groceries, someone asked me how my day was. “It was good,” I replied. “I got a library card today.”
I’ve been in DC for a little over 24 hours now, and from the brief amount of exploring that I’ve done so far, it’s quite scenic. It’s also quite different but first, a brief disclaimer. I’m mostly comparing DC to Chicago and New York (since those are the only two American cities that I’m reasonably familiar with). More importantly, I’ve only walked through Georgetown and Dupont Circle, so opinions are likely to change. With this in mind, here’s a brief list of the things I noticed.
- There are hills here, the kind that blocks your view of the horizon if you’re standing too close to them. Although Manhattan means “land of many hills” in the Lenape language, you can power walk for blocks without any sign of an incline. And then there’s also Chicago. All this means that walking five blocks may not be the breezy stroll that you expect it to be.
- There are also a lot of plants. Along the sidewalks and into the distance, there are saplings, expanses of grass, small patches of forest, flowering shrubs, flowering trees. It makes the tulips on the Mag Mile look like the work of amateur gardeners.
- On the other hand, there are no skyscrapers, at least not from what I’ve seen so far. You can see the peak of the Washington Monument along the Georgetown Waterfront Park (which is also a dumping point for sewage overflow, according to the many signs posted along the pathway). The absence of skyscrapers makes the city feel residential, especially when some of the tallest buildings are luxury apartment complexes downtown. (Among the many things I miss about Chicago: being dwarfed by all those architectural marvels looming along the coast of Lake Michigan.) All this also makes me think of Paris, which has a similar restrictions on skyscraper construction. But despite this, it still has the feel of an urban center at all times of day.
- There also aren’t that many crowds, which again, might be because I haven’t been to many places yet. However, I’d imagine that any crowds that I do encounter will consist mainly of tourists, but I’ll provide an update once I wander around the Capitol Hill. In addition to not having crowds, the people seemed very straightforward. What I mean by straightforward is this: I wandered around Dupont Circle during my lunch break and after work to check out the environment. I saw suit-wearing business people looking for food, a few people headed towards the local Trader Joe’s, some joggers, and a few families, and it was easy to figure out what everyone was doing. In contrast, when I had lunch in the parks near the Flatiron District in New York, there were always people that made you wonder. That’s not to say that people in DC are boring, but there’s an everyone-is-going-about-their-ordinary-lives feel to walking through the streets here.
- The public transportation system so far annoys me rather than impresses me. Like many others cities, the Washington Metro uses an automated card that you can load online. The Smartrip card promises convenience, but everything takes up to three business days to activate or process, from my online account balance to the 7-day bus pass I bought yesterday and still cannot use. Transfers between buses are free, but anything involving the subway requires you to pay over 25 cents, which makes me miss the CTA a little. To be fair, New York has a similar system, but I’ve never really needed to use anything besides the Metro when I’ve been there. Monthly passes in DC are also very expensive, especially in comparison to the CTA and MTA; it requires me to be a little more deliberate about how I get places, and not thinking about those questions was always my favorite thing about buying a transit passes. There’s a kind of freedom in it.
- Numbered streets run west to east instead of north to south, which I’ve constantly forgotten in spite of devoting part of my evening staring at Google Maps. Lettered streets are the ones that run north to south, but the letters run in descending order. I’ve backtracked several times today, trying to find my way home.
- There are a lot of cool brick townhouses that are painted in pastel colors, and the sidewalks are sometimes made of brick too, especially in Georgetown. It makes for a picturesque walk through the neighborhood. I wonder if the landlords/homeowners color coordinate.
That’s all I got for now.
The back story: My brother wanted to go to Six Flags with a bunch of friends from Governor’s School. However, since Great Adventure is about an hour and a half drive from our humble town, my mother wouldn’t let him drive myself. And my mother, who didn’t want to be by herself for an entire afternoon, dragged me along for the ride.
“We can go to the Safari thing and see giraffes!” she said.
The Safari thing my mother was referring to is Safari Off Road Adventure, Six Flags’s attempt to lure nature enthusiasts to spend money at their theme park. Next to the roller coasters is a giant wildlife preserve where giraffes and other safari animals roam. While my favorite animals happen to be the ones that call the Serengeti home, I was unsure whether either I or the giraffes on-site would be very happy about frolicking the wilds of central New Jersey.
As luck would have it, Six Flags is also conveniently located in Ocean County, and some educated guessing will lead you to conclude that yes, Ocean County is located next to the ocean. A half hour after we drop my brother off, my mother and I arrive at the shores of Point Pleasant, armed with a new beach umbrella bought at an end-of-seasons sale (probably at K-Mart), towels, and a bottle of sunscreen that happened to have expired a few months ago but remains surprisingly effective.
Because we did not have a real address, it took a bit of navigational tomfoolery with the GPS to reach our destination. We wound up on Jenkinson’s Boardwalk, which features a small offering of amusement park rides, fried food, and ice cream.
As you can see, it was a clear day. The sun was out, but the temperatures hovered near the low eighties. With the constant breeze, it almost felt chilly. (My preferred beach weather is sunny to the point where it’s a little uncomfortable but not impossible to step on the sand with bare feet.)
I didn’t really go swimming today either. The water actually was not that cold, but the surf was especially rough. No one else was doing anything besides wading in up to their knees, so I took it as a sign that venturing out further was not the best idea. Since it was a weekday, most of the beachgoers were kids with their grandparents/parents/babysitters. The sea-soaked children had a grand time running into the waves and flinging sand and saltwater as they sprinted past. The different caretakers were content to observe from a distance and got up occasionally to rescue their young charges when they were knocked over by a particularly strong tide. The people watching was not particularly exciting, except for one family who decided to feed the wildlife and attracted a swarm of laughing gulls to their blanket.
Instead, I spent a lot of time watching the ocean. Generally, nature is not really a point of interest for me, but I have an affinity for oceans and for waves in particular. I like how the water curls in on itself and all the foam that creeps towards the shore and the chilly saltiness of the spray. I like the surprising violence of the surf–how the sea slams into the land hard enough to make a sound and how it can knock you over if you’re not paying attention.
Unfortunately, real beaches require a couple hours driving distance from DC, so I’ll have to spend another summer without the Atlantic Ocean within easy reach. But luckily, another nice thing about oceans is that they’ll always be there.
In an ideal world, I would have written this post as a fond farewell to the BA that I submitted late April. However, writing that thesis involved sometimes literal blood, sweat, and tears, and by the time the deadline finally rolled around, I was more than happy to wash my hands of the thing for the rest of forever and never talk about John Cheever and the New Yorker ever again. Two months later, I still have no wish to really talk about what I wrote, but I spent an entire afternoon of my spring break thinking about one particular story that eventually did not make an appearance in the final product, even though I had written a nice footnote for it.
The story in question is “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin,” which Cheever published in the New Yorker in 1963. Like all the other stories in my thesis, its protagonist is a traveler; more specifically, he is an American expatriate who has returned to New York from Paris. While he is in transit, he begins reading graffiti scrawled across the train station walls and bathrooms. And here’s where things get weird. Three of the four scribbles quote from real-life, and at times, literary works. The longest piece of “graffiti,” which spans the length of a magazine page, is an imitation of a gothic Victorian novel. Although the unnamed protagonist does not recognize the allusions of these passages, he is fascinated by it all. He shares his discoveries with his intellectual friends, only to be ridiculed. They conclude that he “had been away too long; [he] was out of touch with decency and common sense.”
At the surface, “Mene Mene” seems pretty cut-and-dry: American returns home and discovers that he does not belong. But as several academics have pointed out, Cheever was quite the experimental writer, especially given the fact that he published in the New Yorker, which was not interested in what Harold Ross called “overly impressionistic.” Impressionistic might not be quite the right word to describe why this short story is so strange. In the likely event that you never read it, here’s a short list of my observations:
- The title is an allusion to a story from the Book of Daniel. Daniel is called upon to interpret this phrase and concludes that the Babylonian kingdom is on its way out. Indeed, that very night, the king is killed.
- The first piece of writing comes from “Spartacus to the Gladiators,” written by Elijah Kellog for a oratory competition. You can read the speech reprinted in a local newspaper here.
- Based on some extensive Google searching, the longest excerpt is Cheever’s creation, but it harkens to Adam and Eve and the fall of man.
- The third passage comes from an essay written by Leigh Hunt in his paper, London Journal. Hunt was a Romantic writer who did a little bit of everything-poetry, literary criticism, being friends with Keats and Shelley, being destitute, etc.
- The narrator ends by seeing a quote from John Keats’s “Bright Star.”
- The narrator has a surprising amount of geological knowledge. When he describes the walls of the train station, he notes, “The marble was a light brown–it might have been a giallo antico, but then I noticed Paleozoic fossils beneath the high polish and guessed that the stone was a madrepore.” In the men’s bathroom, he also comments, “The wall agains were marble. This was common limestone–a silicate of calcium and magnesium, grained with some metalliferous gray ore.”
- Generally, the narrator might be kind of crazy. He’s erudite, but prone to over-interpretation. He’s shocked by trashy paperback books. He describes the train’s warning bells “like a coronary thrombosis.” He wears yellow pointed shoes, which I’ll leave up to your imagination.
What does this all mean? And why did it get published? I’m half-convinced that John Cheever and/or the editors of the New Yorker were playing a joke on their middlebrow audience. There’s nothing quite like the irony of having a seemingly scholarly and cosmopolitan character being bewildered by bathroom grafitti that actually quotes from works that were all the rage back in the nineteenth century. Also, just as interesting as all this is that the story suggests that John Cheever knew a lot of stuff. Most of his biographies are more interested in his turbulent personal life, from his fraught relationship with his brother to his alcoholism to his sexuality, but here is a glimpse of another version of him. I wonder what I could find on his bookshelf.
Ultimately, I cut any mention of this piece because it deserved time and attention that I neither had the time nor energy to give. More importantly, I felt myself sliding into referential mania, more interested in unpacking allusions and tracking down clues rather than doing the type of in-depth literary analysis that gets you places when you’re writing an English paper. As Cheever wisely said in his Paris Review interview, “The easiest way to parse the world is through mythology…It seems to be a superficial parsing.” I will say that having this background knowledge must help though (and not to mention kind of fun), but I’ll leave it to the academics of the world to connect the dots (which may be a while because not a lot of stuff has been written about Cheever in comparison to other authors). Anyway, at the end of the day, I’m glad I bumped into “Mene Mene.” It’s a nice reminder of everything that is interesting about Cheever.
Hyde Park is a disaster once the end of the quarter rolls around. This is what happens when you have students sleep-deprived and stressed out by their last round of finals, visiting families, and/or graduation. Signs of chaos include:
- Students wheeling luggage, often upset when the humidity causes their shirts to stick to their skin
- Students loading their belongings into the trunks of 5-passenger sedan, often upset by size constraints of said vehicles in addition to the humidity
- Students hauling furniture across town, which is just about the most terrible part of moving that you can ever imagine
- Son and father at the post office with a giant crate of books that probably weighs more than several small children–the father looks stoic as he tapes the box shut and thinks of the cost of international shipping
- Local residents peering curiously into the overflowing dumpsters for interesting finds–one man looks on as Hannah and I deposit cardboard boxes into the dumpsters on 53rd and Greenwood and looks disappointed when we drive away without leaving behind anything worthwhile
- Speaking of overflowing dumpsters, the local garbage collectors must hate us all
The lengths people go to move in and out into their apartments, while quite impressive, is never quite as fascinating at the people I see at the airport. As I’m writing this, my flight has been delayed by one hour due to some eastward bound thunderstorms, and the people around me deserve a brief mention. They include:
- A pair of sisters with matching red-dyed hair and Duck Dynasty sweatshirts; one sister sports a giant tattoo of New Jersey on her left calf
- Elderly Russian couple: the wife asks me to accompany her husband because we have the same boarding positions on our Southwest flight and offers to “save me a good seat” and a handful of mini-Oreos in return; husband nods politely and continues reading a translated version of an Isabel Allende novel while also eating mini-Oreos
- Man and woman conversing next to me: Man is dressed in business suit while the woman, who has a book in her bag, seems ready for a vacation. But based on the number of times they have mentioned HIPPAA, FDA regulations, and physician assistants (apparently PA stands for more than Pennsylvania), they not only know each other, but also must work in something health related. The woman talks about her seventeen-year-old daughter who is dying her hair for the first time, and the plot twist: she has to pay for it herself!
- Also, they are clearly sitting in the wrong gate. Health professional man and woman are soon replaced with family consisting of mother, father, and young daughter.
- Daughter is well-behaved and quite happy with a pacifier in her myself and her mother’s tablet in her lap. The stroller carries the mother’s Michael Kors handbag, child-size juice box of apple juice, child-size container of McDonald’s French fries, empty container of milk with hot pink label that matches daughter’s backpack, and the most bizarre thing I’ve seen in a while: purified drinking water bottled in a soda can.
- Mother on the phone, twice to two separate people: “This is like the worst trip to New York ever.”*
- Snarky airplane captain comforts cranky passengers on the loudspeaker: “We apologize for the delay folks. Newark has been congested for the past ten years.” Truer words have never been spoken.
*Little did she know that in addition to being delayed for one hour, we would sit on the tarmac for another sixty minutes, and upon our arrival, we would sit in the plane for another forty-five minutes because of course, our gate is occupied.