n the back of his 1986 Volvo station wagon, a vehicle dubbed the "Big Back Seat," Chad Poist carries a basketball, a football, a Frisbee, four kites, swim gear, soccer cleats, a towel, a change of clothes and a toothbrush.
From his fourth-floor walk-up in Woodley Park he shares takeout food and Popsicles back and forth across the six-foot gap between his fire-escape balcony and the balcony of his neighbors Ben Bradburn and Lisa Rolle in the apartment building next door. He learned salsa dancing from the Colombian guys who used to live across the hall, who would snatch him off the stairwell with a cry of "Chad!" and thrust him into a cramped, gyrating mass of swivelling hips and dark-eyed women. He learned Japanese from a two-year postgraduate stint in Japan, where he taught English and subsequently starred in a ramen noodle ad. He once ran a speed-dating service with his cousin and his aunt. He is trying to launch his own cooking show, though he doesn't actually know how to cook, which is why the show is called, for now, "The Pretend Chef."
Chad doesn't smoke or drink alcohol or coffee. He wears sunscreen when playing outdoors and earplugs when he goes clubbing. He appears to subsist largely on party food and Grape Nuts with plain, nonfat yogurt, a pasty beige sludge that he pre-mixes by the quart, stores in the fridge and eats straight from the container with a soup spoon.
Chad Poist is 30 and single, with a history degree from Haverford and a day job as a systems engineer that he negotiated by text messaging, with the key condition that he wouldn't have to get to work before noon. Because for Chad, "social" and "life" are synonymous and indistinguishable, and a night that sees Chad in bed before dawn is a night, as far as Chad's concerned, not lived to its fullest potential.
Chad has 89 numbers on his cell phone speed dial and 200 local contacts on e-mail, give or take. He is the hub of a continuously reconfiguring and intricately interwoven web of the unattached-and-under-35, the nerve center of an urban tribe of friends and friends of friends and sisters of co-workers of former college classmates and the people they're in a band with and their Ultimate Frisbee teammates and someone from home who's here for the weekend. They all have liberal arts degrees from schools you'd kill to get your kid into, and unexpectedly untroubled spirits in these troubled times -- the result, Chad thinks, of coming of age in the giddy flush of the 1990s, when everything seemed possible.
All of them seem always in motion, on their way to or from somewhere else -- graduate school, another job, a girlfriend, a foreign sojourn, a party -- traversing a meandering, unhurried limbo between college and yet-to-be chosen commitments. Their lives intersect for a Saturday night or a couple of months or a year or three across the geography of their own particular D.C., a city of sublets and group houses, dance clubs and coffee bars, internships and Metro rides and pack dating and takeout sushi and taxicabs. Plans come together in a flurry of e-mails and mobile calls and often shift on the fly, people standing on sidewalks with a palm-sized phone cupped to one ear and a finger plugged in the other, saying "Where are you?" and "We'll be there in 20 minutes."
Just-in-time-delivery social life.
FRIDAY NIGHT CHAD
At 9:30 on a Friday night, Chad is arriving home from work, looping the streets around his apartment hunting for a parking space. The evening, only getting started now, hasn't quite come together yet, so when he gets to his apartment, Chad makes cheese toast and phone calls.
"There's this drum concert in Bethesda," Chad says. "Or maybe it's a concert and someone is playing drums. I might have gotten the details a little off. But it sounds interesting."
Good enough. Off to Bethesda and one of those newly minted clusters of restaurants and fashionable chain stores, an instant downtown that went up overnight. At Parker's American Grill, the drum concert turns out to be a jazz-fusion trio, with a drummer who works by day in a clean-energy company with Jenny Mandel, who is sitting at a table with other friends of the band. Jenny met Chad through Mari Webel, who lives across the fourth-floor landing from Chad in the apartment formerly inhabited by the salsa dancers.
Working the door tonight at Parkers, Tim Barnard comments, "D.C. is a very transient city. People are just passing through."
After killing a couple of hours at Parker's, conversations carried on at a shout over the music, Chad heads back to the city with Jenny because a rumored move for contra dancing at Glen Echo Park has failed to coalesce.
"2003 has been the year of contra," says Chad as the dark streets whip by outside the car window. "2001 was all '80s dancing. 2002 we all did salsa."
If you could diagram the Chadian universe, it would emerge as a dense pattern of overlapping circles. The Contra Dancers make up one subset, and so do People Who Have Lived in Japan; Jenny belongs to both of these, and also to People Who Went to Stanford. The Mostly Mount Holyoke Graduates who hold regular singalongs are another subset; Chad's the only guy in this group ("I badger them to play more Simon and Garfunkel and fewer Sarah McLachlan and Indigo Girls," he says). There's the University of Texas Alumni Flag Football Players, and the Two DJ's, a very small subset that nevertheless manages to intersect with the Married Couples (also numbering two).
For his 30th birthday party -- the one Chad called the XXX Party until some people started getting the wrong idea and he had to explain he meant Roman numerals, not Roman debauchery -- Chad rented out the top floor of Chief Ike's Mambo Room and sent out a batch of e-mails inviting everyone he knew and welcoming all of them to invite someone else. By the end of the night the tally was something like 250 people.
Back in the city, in Adams Morgan, Chad and Jenny rendezvous with a group that includes a couple of guys from the Soccer Teammates From Haverford subset, and everyone heads for Habana Village on Columbia Road. "I refuse to pay a cover at 1:30 in the morning," someone mutters as the group presses through the door and into a blast of music and smoke and body heat.Upstairs there's a bar, music and dancing, and downstairs another bar, a packed dance floor no bigger than a double bed and a live Latin trio, three well-seasoned musicians who might have been plucked from some corner cafe in the crumbling streets of Old Havana that afternoon. Chad and Jenny wriggle into the fray. Salsa looks like it's holding its own in 2003.
When the lights go on at last and the music finally simmers to a halt, an all-night pizza place not far away, and dramatic readings of the "None of the Above" personals from the City Paper, keep Chad out with the last stragglers until the edge of dawn. Until 5:30, in fact.
CHAD IN THE AFTERNOON
Midday Saturday finds Chad showered, shaved and shoveling down Grape Nuts and yogurt feet up in the baby-blue recliner in his living room. Chad has decorated his digs in First Apartment Modern, that design triumvirate of futon sofa, family castoffs and Ikea. The recliner belonged to his grandfather, and every time Chad jumps up, which is often, it bangs back into the wall behind it.
Chad is fielding cell phone and land line calls as the day's plan shapes up. If there isn't a plan, Chad makes one. "I really like being around people. Being around people energizes me far more than alone time." Not that he can't endure solitude. He simply prefers not to.
For today's agenda, Chad is hoping to round up a few willing chefs from the neighborhood for his cooking show. Sustained culinary ignorance is the premise for "The Pretend Chef"; Chad is Everycook, unmanned by reduction sauces, flummoxed by puff pastry. In each episode, Chad will get a chef to teach him one or two dishes in the morning that he will try to re-create in his under-equipped bachelor's kitchen before dinner guests arrive in the evening (he's shooting for minor celebrities -- say Marion Barry). On the demo tape, a towering whoosh of bourbon flame nearly brings Chad's efforts at Lex Cajun Grill's Jack Daniels lobster linguine -- not to mention Chad himself -- to a dramatic conclusion.
"The big challenge is that I have to make sure I don't learn too much," Chad says. "I have to stay fresh and dumb."
Chad is also working in lunch with a friend. Then, "There's this great group of people who are going to be ice skating -- they're kind of like neo-hippies. Tonight we're going to a 'Big Pants' party and then Mari's party."
Meanwhile, Laura Turner (People Who Went to Stanford), who's been staying with Chad temporarily, has found her own place nearby and is moving. Chad has volunteered the Big Back Seat to transport her stuff, which is heaped into the grocery bags and salvaged boxes that signal swift packing and a short-distance move.
Jenny Mandel drops by to help. Mari-who-lives-across-the-hall comes over to talk chairs; she's borrowing some for tonight's party, her 24th birthday celebration, an event marking stasis more than change.
"So many of my friends are applying to graduate school," she says. "They're just doing their stint here in the real world. But I'm so happy to be in one place for once -- I've lived in my apartment for a year."
Down on the street, the Big Back Seat proves true to its name, absorbing everything down to the small bookcase Laura found abandoned by the curb one day. Jenny and Laura pull away in the car, and Chad speed-walks down the hill to Connecticut Avenue and into Tono Sushi, buttonholing the manager and launching into the Pretend Chef pitch, in Japanese.
With his blond American boy-next-door good looks, Chad gives the impression he's been waylaid en route to a Ralph Lauren photo shoot. When he speaks, he leans into the conversation with an accelerating flurry of gestures, illustrating the air for emphasis. The sudden onslaught of a highly animated flood of Japanese out of Chad momentarily nonplusses the Tono Sushi manager, but after a few minutes of sorting out, it finally transpires that the owner, who is not in, needs to be consulted, so off Chad goes.
A few blocks away, though, at KoGiBow Bakery, where they are creating elegant cakes commanding enough frosted square-footage to qualify for rent control, Manh Phung and his wife, Lekinh, catch the spirit of Chad's pitch.
"Do you think you could teach me to do this?" asks Chad, pointing to an elaborate confection done up in whipped cream and fresh fruit.
Lekinh eyes him with a doubtful smile.
"Maybe you could just show me how to frost a cake," Chad agrees.
Continuing on, Chad dodges into Tryst for lunch with his friend Son (with a long "o") Cha. Tryst is the sort of coffeehouse that favors bowl-size cups, well-worn couches and long tables where, by the look of the scatter of books, laptops and untidy stacks of papers marked in a neon rainbow of Hi-Liter, patrons are accustomed to settling in for a long haul. It's a mystery why anyone trying to master the finer points of hermeneutics or health care policy would be staking out Tryst for a study session; at 2 p.m., the place is packed and noisy, wait staff threading the gantlet of sprawled legs and overstuffed backpacks, the air thick with that particular coffeehouse fug of espresso steam, grilled food and cigarette smoke.
Chad scans the wall-to-wall crowd for Son. "He could be in disguise," Chad says cryptically. When Son materializes, he apparently looks enough like himself to be recognizable, though. What he doesn't look like is someone who used to play lacrosse for Wesleyan. He takes a seat and orders a bloody Mary. His contributions to the conversation thereafter tend to the oracular and the enigmatic. He knits through lunch.
"I'm calling 2003 the year of crafts," Son says, perhaps unaware that the contra dancers have already staked their claim.
On the way out, Chad spots two women he went to college with, eating by the window. Carly Friedman's in town for an interview; her friend Jennifer Miller lives here. They remember when they were freshmen and Chad was a junior, and at some orientation event Chad climbed up on stage to lead the big cheer: "H-A-V-E-R-F-O-R-D!"
"You know, I did that my freshman year too," Chad says. "Except, I misspelled Haverford. I think I left out the 'R'."
After lunch, Chad tries out the Pretend Chef pitch a couple of more times, first in high school-vintage French at La Fourchette, where the air is redolent with garlic unstintingly applied, and then at the Ethiopian restaurant Meskerem, where the scent of spices is more divine still, and Chad's next-door-neighbor, Eva Hahn, who shares bedroom walls with him, is having a very long lunch because she's locked herself out of her apartment.
Outside on the sidewalk again, more cell phone conferences plot a convergence with the ice-skating neo-hippies, who are waiting in line at the rink at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden.
CHAD ON ICE
They don't seem to be making hippies like they used to. Abigail Elbow and her childhood pal Sasha Clayton skate over, all smiles and cold-flushed faces, looking wholesome enough to star in an inspirational documentary, something along the lines of "America's Youth: Our Promise for the Future." They live and work with several others in a group house that doubles as the headquarters of their collective software company, on Delafield Place, where they host an annual policy summit/dance party to coincide with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (this year's guest speaker was a former senior adviser from the Department of Commerce). If they ever took over a college administration building, no doubt they wrote the president a thank-you note afterward.
Chad staggers happily around the rink with Abigail, Sasha and their pals, gesticulating with animation inadvisable to someone so tentative in his skating skills. With a parting invite to the neo-hippies to come to Mari's party, it's time to swing by Chad's apartment for sweat pants. Then it's on to pick up Chad's friend Ben Goldberg (People Who Have Lived in Japan, among other subsets) and Ben's girlfriend Robin Burke, who are visiting with Ben's mother in Bethesda. Then on again to Anita Padmanabhan's Big Pants party, where knit fabrics rule the night.
Anita lives in a house. A real house, not one of those places peopled with a shifting cast of housemates coming and going like commuter trains at rush hour and someone always camping out on the sofa for the weekend. Anita was formerly a microbiology graduate student, but now she works for an environmental think tank and cooks copiously for her friends.
"Cooking is a non-punitive way of doing microbiology," says Anita, her fingers deftly working pizza dough as she talks. When she hosts a Big Pants party, everyone has to come in loose-fitting clothes and slippers so they feel comfortable and stay comfortable as course after course emerges from the kitchen.
"Food should be the focus at parties," says Anita, pressing a creme brulee on Chad as he gathers himself up to depart several hours and a few thousand calories later. "No one leaves my house hungry."
Back again in Chad's building, at Mari's birthday party, the guys are neatly dressed in khakis and collared shirts and hold bottles of imported beers, while the women sip mixed drinks. There will be no booze-pounding, no puking in the hallway at dawn or half-remembered regrettable excesses. Instead, some time after midnight, Chad breaks out edible bubble soap. The neo-hippies actually show, bringing about another subset convergence. Later, the conversation turns to the book "Round Ireland With a Fridge," which Jenny is reading, in which the author hitchhikes around Ireland accompanied by a refrigerator. Debate ensues over what would be harder to hitchhike with than a refrigerator. A rabid dog, for example. Finally, far into the single-digit hours of the morning, Chad delivers the last of the guests home in the Big Back Seat. He's in bed, say, four-ish.
Noon, Sunday. More yogurt, more Grape Nuts, more phone calls. On this early March day, the sun has returned after a long run of gray and dreary days, and Chad wants to play Ultimate Frisbee.
For the uninitiated, Ultimate looks like a hybrid of basketball and soccer, with a Frisbee. It has a reputation, frankly, as a stoner sport. Around here, though, people take their Ultimate seriously. There are even leagues. "It's kind of the smoke-filled back room of D.C.," Chad says. "People really make connections there."
League play won't start up for a few weeks yet, but a pickup game seems to be in the works down on the National Mall. By telephone, Chad rallies Goldberg and another friend, Stephanie Snow, who is studying at Tryst. Then he emerges from his bedroom smeared in sunscreen and dressed in a sweat shirt and shiny, knee-length Everlast boxers shorts of a particularly arresting electric blue.
On the Mall, a sharp wind whips across the field, intermittently snatching the Frisbee and tossing it out of bounds. The Ultimate players squish and slide in a sodden patch of ground just down the hill from the Washington Monument, every play unfolding in a splattering melee of mud and shouting. Chad is panting hard and liberally besmirched. He has mud in his ear. Miraculously, though, when they finally stagger off the field for good, Chad and his friends manage to find a cab willing to have them.
The weekend is winding down now, people beginning to think again of Monday morning obligations, squaring their shoulders for the week to come. Back in his apartment, though, with a generous coating of the National Mall washed down his shower drain, Chad wrings the weekend of every drop, inviting some people over for Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" on the VCR and takeout from Mr. Chen's Organic Chinese Cuisine. The night is young yet.
Oh the places he goes: a limited Chadian geography
Glen Echo Park -- Friday night contra dancing. Glen Echo. 301-492-6282. fnd.folkdancer.com.
Chief Ike's Mambo Room -- 1725 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-332-2211. www.greatidea.com/chiefike.
Parker's American Grill -- 4824 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda. 301-654-6366. www.vmag.com/bethesda_online/bolpark.htm .
Habana Village -- 1834 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-462-6310.
Lex Cajun Grill -- 2608 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-745-0015.
Tono Sushi Japanese and Asian Cuisine -- 2604 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-332-7300. www.tonosushi.com.
KoGiBow Bakery -- 1817 Adams Mill Rd. NW. 202-332-1202.
Tryst -- 2459 18th St. NW. 202-232-5500.
La Fourchette -- 2429 18th St. NW. 202-332-3077.
Meskerem -- 2434 18th St. NW. 202-462-4100.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Ice Rink -- Ninth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215.
The Washington Area Frisbee Club -- www.wafc.org.
Mr. Chen's Organic Chinese Cuisine -- 2604 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-797-9668.
Caroline Kettlewell is a freelance writer who had considerably more coffee than sleep while chronicling a weekend in Chad Poist's life.