People Watching #6

I’m sitting next to the three of them because I wanted tacos, and instead of waiting until 8 to eat, I went at 7.

I wanted to eat at 8 because 7 is still peak dinnertime, and I was on a schedule. I wanted to read one more chapter of Little Failure and finish aimlessly scribbling in my journal. There was still one more cover letter to write for a job posted over a month ago, and I am so sure that a day could make all the difference between a missed opportunity and the perfect amount of good luck.

But I was sitting in the courtyard at the National Gallery, and on this day, it didn’t want its visitors to forget that it was once an outdoor space. I was so cold that goosebumps grazed the arms of my long-sleeved shirt. I wondered why I’d left my coziest sweaters in a basement in suburban New Jersey and why I still wasn’t convinced that temperatures dipped below the forties below the Mason-Dixon line. I was unsure how the clean lines of the courtyard’s wavy glassy ceiling and the smooth gray tiles, which felt soothing in the summertime, were now too sleek and spare. How sixty minutes were suddenly too long to spend in the company of its trees, too green and wispy from their cultivated lives indoors.

Because it is a weekday and the sidewalks around the Metro Center are empty, I think that 7 will work just fine, but when I walk into District Taco, there are too many people and too many taco combinations, and it takes me ten minutes to figure out what to even order. When the cashier asks me whether I want my food to go, I tell her that I rather stay because I am too distracted, still trying to remember whether barbacoa is made with beef or pork. And when I realize my mistake, the next person in line is already nudging me out of the way, and there’s nothing else I can do but wait for my food and squeeze into the one empty chair next to these three strangers.

The trio are smartly dressed, their outfits perfect for a workplace where dark-rinse jeans are reserved for Friday. Person A wears a blazer over a lace embossed dress while Person B has draped a cardigan over a chiffon blouse. Person C arrives late in a green sweater and khakis.

They never say their names as they eat, but A and B tell C how they are going to the ballet and how they’re so glad that he could stop by for dinner. And C apologizes for being late because he had to help clean up the holiday party he had work today. How was it? It was great! The first one that they had in their new building, but they had to pay out of their own pockets. Was there an open bar? Everyone had really strong gin and tonics. Did he make anything? Pulled pork!

It’s Christmas next week, and C still hasn’t finished shopping. His plan is to make a list, cross-check it with the other relatives, and shop while he is in New Mexico. A and B are intrigued, and C explains that his family lives there. He’ll upgrade his flight to first class, because he can. He also has TSA clearance and double knots his shoelaces.

A complains that she has to work right after the holiday weekend, but it doesn’t matter because no one else will be in the office, which means she’ll probably do nothing. But there’s been exciting things happening because of Cuba. C tells the group that he’ll probably be flying there soon. A nods. Of course, Cuba is so interesting because there’s a lot of potential for both private investment in its health care, especially in the primary care sector.

B says that the last time she traveled was to go to a wedding in Italy. A complains that one of her friends from college is getting married on New Year’s Eve, but she’ll go anyway because it’ll take place on a rooftop. She’ll stay until midnight. The couple sent e-vites.

What is everyone doing for New Year’s?, C wonders. There are friends who are worried about the neighbors and will kick everyone out right at midnight, champagne barely emptied from their glasses. Where do they live? Columbia Heights, and A is excited to hear that because Columbia Heights is “the port to Washington DC.” What a great location!

I finish my second taco when it’s time for the trio to see their ballet. The three gather their trash and leave while A explains to the group how she makes her own preserves and would be happy to send some jars over. As I discover that barbacoa is made from beef, I think how fun it would be to work at a health care company that sends its employees to travel-restricted countries. Or can fruit at the peak of its ripeness. Or believe that a single stop on the Green/Yellow line is enough to convince you that you have an entire city at your disposal.

But I think cooked fruit is more comforting in a pie crust than a mason jar. A grandma sweater is just as fashionable as a structured blazer. I’d choose Prague in economy class over Havana with TSA privileges. I’d rather live somewhere that I can’t fold up and put in my pocket because it will always keep me on my toes.

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Second Impressions of DC

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Nothing is more frustrating that a Metro system that refuses to run 24 hours, even on the weekends.
  12. And why does it take up to 3 business days for the money I add to my transit card online to be usable?
  13. 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.
  14. The city is pretty in the rain.
  15. Any of life’s sorrows can be cured by the white peaches or the free samples of apples found at the local farmers market.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.”
  18. I’m pretty ready to go.

How to Read on the Bus

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.”

“Thank you!”

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?”

“They’re Chinese.”

“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.

A Walk Down Pennsylvania Avenue

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.

A Library, Chris Colfer, and a Japanese Grocery Store

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.”

First Impressions of Washington DC

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.