Friday, January 02, 2009

Trying the "try me"

Once while walking my dog on Mount Pleasant Street a very drunk man lunged at me, grabbed my wrist and asked me if I liked him. Then he tugged on my dog’s leash and tried to pull him away from me. A group of young men leaned against the side of Sportsman’s Liquor store and watched, their expressions ranging from laconic to amused. No one helped. I pulled hard on the leash and jerked it out of the man’s hand. He stumbled away and I headed home.

I was vaguely aware that for some, the street represented everything derelict and dismaying about the neighborhood, and city life in general. Its Salvadoran saloons and papusarias; its sidewalks dotted with splotches of blackened bubble gum; its men sitting on stoops and leaning against iron railings in front of apartment buildings or lingering with cups of coffee and sometimes steel reserves in crumpled paper bags outside 7-11. But for me, it was just a street that got me from one place to another. It symbolized nothing. It just was.

Then I met Amanda. Unlike most of my friends, who arrived in Mount Pleasant from other parts of the city or suburbs to live in cheap group houses, Amanda had actually grown up in the neighborhood. She was also a huge lover of cities. She loved walking around and taking in the vibe and grooving on the contradictions and noticing little details. Amanda is a punk rock flaneur.

I’d walk around the neighborhood with her and it was like she’d peeled off some layer from the street, and I was seeing it in this whole new way, much more vividly. I began to think of Mount Pleasant Street as a destination, a place to walk within and not just through. One night Amanda and I decided to make a radio documentary about the street. We wanted to make a tape that captured that feel. We sat in my kitchen and quickly devised a few questions for some random “man on the street” interviews. We bought some cassettes and loaded them into Amanda’s Morantz tape recorder and headed over to Mount Pleasant Street at midnight on a cool April night. Everything was lit in pink and orange from neon signs and street lamps. Some people walked home from late night shifts and some sat on benches in Lamont Park. A group of men leaned on a trash can outside Sambar Market talking and laughing. The sounds of a mariachi band poured out of one of the restaurants, swelling and receding whenever the door opened and closed.

We approached a group of teenagers standing in Lamont Park. A girl with shiney black hair in a pony tail yelled to friends across the street while a quieter girl rolled her eyes. A tall handsome boy with dark hair, hands jammed in the pockets of his baggy jeans looked on with an amused expression. We approached the little group and again made our pitch. “Yeah you can interview us,” said the boy, “Are we going to be on the radio? “
“Well maybe – but now, we’re just…. “
Then he started interviewing us. Where are you all from? Do you like it here? Its funny because listening back his interviewing style is so much more relaxed and natural than mine. The boisterous girl said that she thought DC and the neighborhoods around Mount Pleasant seemed like a small town, quiet and even a little boring, with not much going on. “Not like New York,” she said, “Its sleepy around here, like a small town or something”
Then she and the other girl argued with each other about New York. And the boy asked whether we’d want to live there. They talked about the graffiti style up there versus down here. After awhile we steered the conversation back to the questions devised at my kitchen table. “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you here?” I asked him.
The boy looked at us. “Hmm well the worst thing – the worst thing…“ His gaze shifted.. “see if you are in a group of guys and the police see you, you’ll get stopped. They’ll start messing with you. I was on Irving street with some friends and the cops stopped us. I wasn’t doing nothing. I was just hanging out with my friends. But they said they had to search me. So they searched me right there. They made me take my pants down right there on Irving Street. Right there on the corner. It was embarrassing man, it was really embarrassing. So yeah, that’s the worst thing that happened to me in this neighborhood. The police. That’s the worst thing.”

That night lying in bed, thinking about the interviews we'd done, I felt uneasy and a little sad. I thought about the people we’d talked to: a lonely guy from Cameroon, a man from Guatamala on his way home from a cleaning job who came to Mount Pleasant as a child with his mother to escape death squads, the brassy fourteen year old yelling across the park, an older, and very high, black man who’d grown up in the neighborhood but now lived on the streets, “come on now” he had kept saying, over and over again. I thought about the boy in Lamont Park, the look on his face as he told about having to pull his pants down, right on Irving Street. He said they’d made him squat down. I felt at once enervated by the connections we’d made with these people and ashamed - like a vulture..

But I also felt excited about interviewing more people. It hadn’t been as hard as I thought it would be and I was really amazed at how readily people wanted to talk about themselves and what they thought about. So Amanda and I made a plan for the next days interviews. We decided to meet at Triangle Park, a small plaza with a bus stop at the intersection of Mount Pleasant Street and Park Road where we’d seen some flyers about a neighborhood clean up the day before. The park lies at the intersection of Park and Mount Pleasant Street across from a large apartment complex called the Argyle and a row of large detached Victorian Houses with huge front porches. When we arrived the next morning we saw, amongst piles of mulch, a group of people with gloves and rakes standing around drinking coffee. All of them were white and in their forties and fifties, a demographic completely absent from the street the night before.

About ten people spread around a small park that contained two giant concrete planters, flower beds with trees and shrubs, and a bus stop that took neighborhood kids to schools across the park and custodial workers to their nightshifts at college campuses and office buildings on the other side of town. Amanda and I scanned the crowd and decided to approach a trim woman with silvery gray hair, wire rimmed glasses and a thin attractive face. She seemed to be in charge. She agreed to the interview and listened attentively as Amanda laid out the same opening questions we’d asked in our interviews the night before.

The woman leaned on her rake and looked over at one of the large houses on the street and pointed to where she’d lived since the late 1970s. Then she paused. “Well….we’re a very neighborhoody neighborhood and we work together and there’s just a lot of good community spirit in this neighborhood.” She paused “But….I’d like to see Mount Pleasant Street improved. I’d like,” she said, “to see more enforcement of laws - you know people hanging out and….” She stopped and swept her hand across her indicating the park, “you know before we revived this park a few years ago it was a complete mess.”

I tried hard to remember what it had been like when I first moved there. A few images flashed in my mind: some dilapidated benches, boom boxes, broken concrete, a man with a dog who’s leash was a piece of rope.

She continued “It had nine benches and no lights and people would hang out here and drink all evening and make a lot of noise and play loud radios and you know it was just a nuisance, a neighborhood nuisance.”

The woman pointed to the flower beds. “So several years ago we worked with the city and our block adopted this park and they redid it and we agreed to maintain it and part of that agreement was NO BENCHES and that it had to have bright lights.”.

“So it has kept that undesirable activity out of this park.” Her voice wound up further, “public behavior,” she concluded, “I’d like to see a little more maintenance of better public behavior. There’s too much acceptance of that kind of behavior among some people in the community.”

Then she started talking about public drinking and the police and how she knew that city services were lacking but that she had a right to feel comfortable in her neighborhood damn it. She’d lived here long enough to deserve that.

So then I tried to ask this question. I don’t even know what I was trying to get at. It was totally garbled in my mind but I guess I wanted to know where she thought those men should go. But it came out all wrong – I was thinking as I was speaking, trying to put it together, I could see impatience in the corners of her eyes. After a nearly incomprehensible preamble, I said, “can you imagine a space where the people who could do the public drinking could…”

She cut me off “Go and drink somewhere else? No, I’m rather intolerant of that behavior.”
“no no no, I was trying to ask….” On the tape, you can hear me protest feebly underneath her sharp, quaking voice. I don’t think she even heard me.

“Look those people have problems.” She said “And they need those problems addressed. But I have a right to have an opinion on what goes on in my neighborhood and make it more pleasant for me. You’re probably encountering a lot of that.”

Amanda and I laughed nervously

“If you’re not, it’s just because people aren’t telling you what they think.”

We approached some other mulchers and rakers. And every single one of them talked about public behavior – and the need for police to enforce “quality of life” crimes. We heard a lot about their desire for “the zero tolerance that worked so wonderfully in New York City.”

The people we talked to, they were fed up, dismayed, disgusted. You got the feeling that Mount Pleasant wasn’t the city life they bargained for. One of them told us how annoyed he was that only the white neighbors showed up for the clean up day. “Maybe some day these clean up days will be more representative,” he groused, looking over at Lamont Park. Another told us that his biggest hope for the neighborhood was a weekly crafts market, “but not with those Latino tape sellers.

Standing in Park Road Triangle, feeling hopelessly inarticulate, I began to think of Mount Pleasant as a wound – Mount Pleasant Street like a gash dividing this leafy utopic urban possibility from a conflicted dispiriting reality, where the struggle of some people just to get by butts up against the arrogance, the sense of entitlement and fear generated by their more fortunate counterparts.

Amanda and I never made the radio documentary. The tape sat in a box for seven years, unlistened to. But it became a reference point for me, a day that I drank from a little vial that said, “try me” and plunged down a rabbit hole deep into my neighborhood. And once I got to the other side I was totally disoriented. It was kind of like one of those dreams where you discover that there is a whole wing in your house that you never knew about. All of a sudden this set of possibilities rolls out before you and it takes your breath away – the realization that you’ve never even explored rooms that belonged to you, never even opened the doors.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Mount Pleasant cut a groove in my brain

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 w
e 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 o
ld 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)