When my husband and I got married we moved out of our Mount Pleasant group house to
Takoma Park, Maryland. For two years, we lived in a little bungalow with a curving garden filled with ornamental trees, hydrangeas and wild rose bushes.
The first week we moved in I sat in the window, surveyed the yard and felt suffocated with regret. This was a terrible mistake, I thought. I longed to live back in the city, in our old neighborhood. I didn’t care if we had to live in a gritty house with a dark living room, no parking and rats in the backyard.
A year later, a new baby in my arms, that longing only intensified. As Jackson’s screams pierced the silence of our deserted block after my husband went off to work, I felt bereft. I’ll never forget the joy when, a few months later, driving in silence through some lovely Takoma Park street, my husband said, “let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Within a month of this pronouncement, we moved back to our old street. I thought, "ahhh I’m finally home." But, our new house seemed grungy and overwhelming. Thieves broke into it and stole a blender and some tools the day we moved in. I kept finding empty plastic liquor bottles in strange places, left behind, I suppose, by the previous owner. "Why did she have to hide her habit?" I thought to myself. "She lived alone." I found this and the general vibe in the house creepy. I had to clean up vodka bottles, and occasionally human feces from our parking pad and weave the stroller through a gauntlet of guys selling, well, something that attracted a lot of desperate people. One day out in front of my house, this guy asked me if I wanted to buy his backpack for five dollars. “No thanks.” I said.
At times like this, I looked at my little boy and felt selfish. How could I have taken him out of that place, the grassy lawns, the old trees, the clean sidewalks – our little squirrel nutkin cottage. Why did I bring him here?
But then I’d pull the stroller out and walk to Mount Pleasant Street and walk up and down both sides. We'd stop by the bakery and eat cookies in Lamont Park. Sometimes we'd watch the pigeons flying in formation from building to building: from Super Save to El West to La Casa to the Deauville.
Holding my son in my lap, watching the pigeons I'd think about how, as a child, I wanted to live in a real city neighborhood like this rather than the leafy “might as well have been the suburbs” western reaches of Washington DC where my parents raised my sister and me.
I have this memory of myself with this urban longing. A friend and I had been riding bikes in her neighborhood - a collection of colonials and Tudor style houses on winding tree lined streets near the edge of Rock Creek Park called the Gold Coast. We had biked down a path through the woods, crossed a parkway and then dragged our bikes up a muddy hill that ended up in a neighborhood of plain brick townhouses. We rode up a narrow street darkened by an apartment building and more row houses. After biking up a few dark narrow blocks we came to the corner of what I now realize was the intersection of Mount Pleasant Street, 17th Street and Park Road. A great wide city street opened in an angle before us, lined on both sides by Laundromats, taverns and five and dime stores. In the distance you could see steeples and domes of churches poking into a cloudy blue sky.
The street teemed with people, kids riding bikes furiously down the sidewalk, a group of guys sitting on milk crates talking loud and laughing, two women arguing on a street corner. A jolt of excitement and anxiety coursed through me. I was filled with a longing, an elemental longing, that I couldn’t define, like all that was concealed in my neighborhood was revealed right here on this street.,,That this was actual life – and mine was stultified and somehow less real then what I saw unfolding before me.
When I was a kid, my favorite scenes in Sesame Street were the ones on the street – Mr. Hooper’s store, Oscar, kids sitting on the stoop with Gordon. I was entranced by this world – the world of “the street” constructed as a safe and accepting place.
With my own kids, walking on Mount Pleasant Street one day, I looked up and saw a One Way sign with some graffiti on it. Someone had written “There’s more than” above the words and “to live a day” below them. And looking at that sign, I felt so happy to feel like I belonged in this place, this place that’s such a sea of contradictions – where you must confront discomfiting things and where sometimes you actually notice all sorts of hearts beating out these wild syncopated rhythms. And your heart is one of them. It belongs there. It has something to add.
(photos by Lely Constantinople and Eddie Janney)