Indeed, some down-on-their-luck-looking men were hauling large objects out of a house, under the direction of armed federal marshals in bulletproof vests. This was not your ordinary eviction, if there is such a thing. The items being laid on the sidewalk were stupendously ostentatious. Nude Grecian statuary. Grand, floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Marquetry-inlaid tables. Bejeweled cigarette cases. Dangling-crystal candelabra. A scowling Napoleon lithograph in a heavy gilt frame. A 19th-century French marble clock. A fussy, plush, single-seat sofa. Wedgwood. Limoges. Massive funerary urns. Dainty stemware. Etageres, armoires and other items of furniture of indeterminate purpose with names that are surely known to someone more sophisticated than I.
I knew it must be Michael’s house. Michael is a neighborhood presence, an effusive, 60-ish man given to wearing gaily colored short-shorts and who sometimes holds yard sales on his front lawn. He works as a chef, sometimes. He’d served in ’Nam. Everyone knows Michael. Some people don’t like him much — he can be an acquired taste — but many of us like him a lot. When Kim the political activist lost almost everything in a house fire a few years ago, Michael took her in, free of charge. “Only woman I’ve ever lived with,” Michael told me, with an oversold wink.
On this morning, Michael was not evident, but his life was rapidly filling the sidewalk. Cars slowed to gape. Some in vans parked and watched, sensing an opportunity to scavenge.
Many people in the neighborhood were familiar with these objects; Michael often gave impromptu tours of his home. He’d once shown my wife and son a huge painting on the wall, of a regal-looking, older woman with a porcelain complexion. It was his grandmother, Michael said — she had used Pond’s Cold Cream every day of her life. Now here she was, on the street, propped against a lamppost.
This is Eastern Market, a leafy, Capitol Hill neighborhood of modest brick rowhouses radiating from the city’s oldest remaining public market, built in 1873. We feel like a little village inside a big city. When the market nearly burned to the ground one midnight a few years ago, neighbors stood outside in the ugly glow of the flames, many of them in tears. But the neighborhood was most recently in the news for a 2 a.m. baseball-bat mugging that left a young father severely brain-injured. The victim had staggered away from his assailants and knocked on doors for help, but had the misfortune to try two empty houses before collapsing on a porch, where he lay all night as his injuries worsened. Had he made it a few more feet, he’d have reached Michael’s house, and Michael would have taken him in, nursed his wounds, and called the police. No one doubted that.