When you live near a cathedral and wander its grounds on a whim, you see human behavior that’s more grotesque than anything frozen in stone. Sometimes a bus roars in, disgorges children, and barely has time to cool its engine while a guide exhorts his young charges to find Darth Vader on one of the towers. Why? What? Wait—with startling speed, they’re back on the bus, deprived of what they might have discovered if adults had let their minds and bodies roam.
But that’s the tourist experience, and those of us in supposedly sophisticated cities fall back on it too. Some Washingtonians imagine the world in ways that must be comforting in its knowability: stick pins in maps, count up the stamps in your passport, pretend that travel teaches universal lessons rather than fine, unsettling ones. As an adult, I’ve traveled in 38 U.S. states and 17 countries, including some that few Americans ever get to see—and come home without guilt to the same little place.
I’ve lived in my D.C. neighborhood for 21 years, but I’ve rarely written about it, except obliquely. This is the Washington few people love and that many who settle here don’t really see: not political Washington, not black Washington, with its dogged roots, but a charming district lined with trees, dormant on workdays and dreamfully peaceful by night. I’ve never felt totally right for the place. By shrugging off politics, working from home, and accepting crepuscular ways, have I failed to keep up with the people around me and missed what the neighborhood’s really about?
If so, I’ve still witnessed worthwhile things: Every morning, the shopkeepers, the groundskeepers, the panhandlers, and the limping retirees follow their intertwined routes, the veins of a great, blind behemoth. Eyes open, arteries clog: commuters flee, landscapers scatter, clusters of mothers deposit their children at school. Over here, parking is hopeless; over there, you’ll find no line at the post office—unless, for some reason, it rains. The friendly librarian lopes down the block; a uniformed Secret Service agent parks illegally and loiters at the gyro shop; a smiling North African woman shuts down the pharmacy at night and opens the grocery store ten hours later. Look: I can show you where trees fell during hurricanes, where someone got shot when the Star Wars prequels debuted, and where for the cost of a cup of coffee you can kick back in a grape arbor planted by a big-game hunter. I can point out a stone that farted prophetically when we stepped on it after a storm. Like a ghost, I know what all these places used to be; I try to remember a much weirder writer who strolled the same streets as a child.
But my block isn’t haunted, at least not with gloom; all sorts of miracles thrive in our midst. Four houses away, a sneaky raccoon family feasts through the night. You might startle a fox if you go for a walk in the fog before dawn, not far from where the cicadas will be deafening when they someday re-emerge. Tourists grin as their kids tromp through curbside flower-beds; I stop for a moment to mention the rats. Then I hike to the secret spot on the cathedral grounds where it’s pleasant and breezy even on sweltering days.
What use to you is all of this? It’s no more enthralling than a life spent studying a single Italian painter, memorizing Esperanto poems, or breeding heritage chickens—or clicking through a batch of travel photos, for that matter—but it’s the answer I now have for “you still live there?”, which was rarely an actual question. It’s time to move on, but this morning I wondered: what else would I see if I stayed? Yet I’ve already learned what I’m happy to know: if you stake out a strange little place where the world can whirl through and around you, it’s better than going where everyone else stands next to the things that hold still, just to pose.