FROM THE TOP of the hill, she seemed very old. You could see her making her way to the corner, walking slowly, the cane out in front of her a bit, crossing the street, taking her time about it, doing what it seems a lot of old people do when they cross the street - dare the cars to hit them. She made it to the other side and as she got closer it was clear that she had an envelope in her hand. There was a mailbox on the corner, but the water from the melting snow had formed a puddle before it so the old lady got as close as and leaned into it, arching herself over the water, dropping the letter into the box. Then she pushed back the cane, righted herself and beamed in triumph.
"Too much mud," she said with a wide, crinkly smile. "Too much mid for a lady like me."
She was the third old lady of the morning and not the oldest. She was 87, but the first had been 90 - "90 and six months," is the way she put it, and I had found her walking with her daughter right off. The idea from the start was to find an old lady - find one old and maybe sick and probably poor and come face-to-face with what is happening in the District of Columbia. It's getting to be a rough town for old ladies. We keep pushing them out.
So yesterday it was McLean Gardens where the residents of the 600 or so units that are left have been sent eviction notices. They were told to move out, but they were not told what will happen to the Gardens - whether it will be converted to condominiums or rehabilitated and then rented at higher rents or maybe the wrecker will come and knock it into history. Either way and anyway, it will be worth more to its owners than it is now. Now it stands as an affront to Adam Smith.
Once before, I had been here. Then it has been the summer and the old ladies were on the lawn, sitting in aluminium chairs. Then the issue had been rents, a proposed rent increase, I think, and I had come up from downtown as a reporter, pad in hand, taking down quotes - everyone saying how the higher rents would drive them out and what a shame it all was. But the rents were never high and all you had to do was look around and see that this place had outlived its time and that, in the scheme of things, the people would have to go.
There was a tenant activist showing me around and we went into one of the buildings which was a dormitory or something and there the place reeked of age. It was a smell from my youth, from those visits to my grandfather in what was euphemistically called "the home," only here there were no counter-smells of disinfectant, just old people with no place to go. Tell them and the poor and all the others while you're at it, that there comes a time when land is worth more than people. Tell them that business is business.
So now in the morning sun, an old lady is coming out to mail a letter and I am walking toward her, looking for an answer. She drops the letter in the slot and then comes to the corner where she stares at a puddle at the curb, looking for the best way back.
"You need help?" I ask.
"No thank you," she says. She smiles broadly, steps across the water and then stops in the middle of the street. She is dressed in a heavy winter coat, blue wollen hat, skirt of dress and what looks like men's cordovan loafers. I tell her who I am and ask her age.
"Eighty seven years old," she says. "That's too old." She laugh, repeats what she said and laughs some more. She stands still in the middle of the street, then walks slowly again and then I ask what she will do when the time comes to move.
"I told my daughter what happened and she said, 'Whoopie! Whoopie! Now you'll have to move in with us,' is what she said. But I won't. I won't live with my children. Children don't want their parents living with them. I want to live alone. I'm independent. I'm still independent.
She walked as she talked, laughing a lot, smiling a great deal, telling me a bit about her life. The pace was slow and the sun was out and there was time to talk about a son in the Maryland suburbs who she wouldn't live with either, and yet another daughter and the daughter who had died from drink. She stopped when she said that and looked at me and the smile came off her face.
She walked some more and then she got to her door and we talked again about where she would go when the time came to move. There were places to go, she said, but the were expensive and out of the city and . . . "Something will turn up," she said and went into her house and I went to my car and drove out of a place whose time has passed and from people who must make way.
After all, there's a buck to be made.