There is a man who walks very slowly down my street every morning. He never walks on the pavement, always the road, keeping close to the parked cars. I spotted him once downtown. He’s not hard to miss. Dressed completely in black, he has a large sports bag slung across his back and a scarf wrapped around his head. He walks with a gait that suggests he is listening to a particularly mournful Billie Holiday song; perhaps he has earphones on under his scarf. He looks like a weary ninja.
Never on the pavement, always the road. I want to stop him and ask, why do you never walk on the pavement?
I generally try not to think too much about paths, and choices. I rarely look more than a few months ahead. I fall into jobs. Trip into relationships. Stumble over music and literature. I like to think this is because I am the right-handed child of left-handed parents; my sense of direction is so skewed that I am happy to let the waves of life push and pull me every which way until they dump me where they think best.
If I am to be honest, I’m a lazy toad who can’t be arsed to make decisions and would much rather someone else make them for me. Particularly because then I would have some other fuckwit to blame when things go wrong.
Interestingly, I suppose, this is not a true reflection of my behavior once I have started a job into which I have fallen. I am rather decisive then. I have had jobs where the decisions I made, had they been the wrong ones, could have resulted in major pointing-and-shouting fuck-ups for the entire world to see. But that’s work. This is life.
So. I continue to take small hops from pavement to road to pavement.
Moving to D.C. was a classic Hebe hop. Two years on, it has proved a pretty epic leap.
If the great Ed McBain were alive today, and so minded, he might describe D.C. thus: the city is a woman, envied for her beauty and her history, despised for her politics, smothered by the constant attention of opinion. In the game of ‘shag, marry, murder’, D.C. is the woman men want to sleep with solely for the satisfaction of bitching about it afterwards.
A few months after my arrival, standing smoking in the street, I thought ok city, here I am: do your worst. Moments later, as I bent down to put the cigarette out, I got whacked in the face by an angry, ranting homeless man wielding a piss-stained blanket.
My current job is not as stretching as my last. This enormous change in circumstance, with its sudden abundance of free time, was not unlike a baby discovering its feet for the first time: what the hell are these and what do I do with them? So I walk. And walk. And walk.
This city was built for walking. Tree-lined streets and wide boulevards lead to monuments and museums, galleries and gardens and parks, bars and restaurants and roof-top terraces, theatres and clubs. And stretching above, unmarked by skyscrapers, the vast, forever-blue sky.
My favourite walk, the one I insist all visitors take with me, is along Q Street from 14th all the way to Wisconsin Avenue, block after block of beautiful row houses, higgledy piggledy with turret windows and French slate and verdigris, all shades of pink and cream and brown and lemony-yellow. With the advent of spring, the tiny front yards are filled with pansies and hellebores and tulips, the pavements sticky with browning magnolia petals.
Of course it’s not all pretty. The city has its problems, as all major cities do. The homeless guy who loiters on the roundabout near my apartment, bawdily wishing me a good evening as he pees into a trash can (I am always amazed he can do this hands-free). The panhandlers, standing wearily with arms outstretched on the corners of cross streets, the invisible lines encircling them drawn by the passersby – we, me – who give them a wide berth.
The underfunded public transport system, the lack of decent housing in poorer neighbourhoods, the reliance on cheap, unhealthy fast food for want of fresh fruit and vegetables, the city’s constant struggle for power over its own budget, the disenfranchisement of the entire population and the battle for statehood … I could go on. You get the picture.
Where else but in this small city of 600,000 people, where inhabitants change from year to year as jobs reach the end of contracts, would I meet and become friends with people far removed from my usual group? In London, you have your friends. You don’t need any more. Here, you are open to widening the circle. “My blog,” I told a departing friend, “is called ’New Friends, Better Friends’, not ‘New Friends … Oh Fuck Off Then’.”
I have even made friends through social media, something I would never have done back home. “Do not,” warned someone as I went to meet a couple I had chatted to on Twitter, “go back to their apartment. They might want a threesome.” My new friends were forever after known as The Thruple.
As for dating. Well. I live in a gaybourhood where the only single, heterosexual men in my age group are homeless. This is a young person’s city. A badly dressed young person’s city. Take a walk downtown on a Saturday night if you fancy a little DIY retinal surgery.
Although no longer employed in the world of politics, regular readers of this blog (er, there’s an email sign-up button, yeah? USE IT) will be aware of my continuing fascination/borderline stalking of all things political.
Exchanging one capital city, with its petulant, shouty politics, for another with a political system more baffling than a denim two-piece and the kinds of personalities you might meet in a focus group on a Saturday night, has been revelation. Not perhaps on the scale of the Second Coming, fair enough, but there are parallels with the struggle between good and evil. Also, a necessary reminder that politics doesn’t have to always be serious. Because, Newt.
I love this city. It has helped me to understand that whether you walk on the pavement or on the road, the main thing is to keep going. There’s probably a bar somewhere at the end of the block.