Every now and again, while riding the subway, I would see a friend who worked for an Atlanta newspaper. Each time we met the circles under his eyes had grown darker and the slump of his shoulders appeared more pronounced.
The last time we spoke, however, he informed me that he had had enough of a job that gave him only minimal satisfaction, kept him from sleeping soundly and left him little time to find friends or a lover. After two lonely years here he was returning south, anxious to resume his "real life."
While I shared many of his feelings about working in Washington -- I was a frantic one-man bureau for a Nashville newspaper at the time -- I always thought he and others who move here primarily for their careers experience the city with their eyes half-closed.
They know, and often dislike, the pressured world of work in which they spend their weekdays. But they ignore those who have lived here for years -- the ones who lend some humanity and stability to a city with so many rewards for the driven and the mobile.
If, for example, some of those who complained in a recent Washington Post article of being "Washingtoned-out" were to spend some time on 17th Street NW just north of Massachusetts Avenue, they would discover a fast-disappearing world where children still play noisily in the streets and sidewalk groups sing a cappella on weekend nights.
Like Columbia Road in Adams Morgan, 17th Street has a spontaneity and spirit rarely evident at the bottom of the K-Street canyon or along Wisconsin Avenue in self-conscious Georgetown. For now, at least, the people who walk 17th Street remain in the neighborhood because it is their home -- an affordable place where they feel comfortable.
There are problems, of course, many of which are being caused by newcomers to the neigborhood. Young, often childless professionals have taken over many of the surrounding streets. Many of them look away nervously when they pass someone of a different race or economic class, and thieves take full advantage of the anonymity this gives them.
Nevertheless, those who have taken time to acquaint themselves with the neighborhood and who regard it as more than a place to make a good real estate investment, walk at night with a confidence that many of the newcomers never develop.
Ron Morgan, a 38-year-old poet who was blinded by a brain tumor 16 years ago, rarely walks home alone along renovated New Hampshire Avenue because he knows no one on that street. Instead, he prefers noisier 17th Street because those who frequent it watch out for him as he passes.
"What all these people moving in here don't realize," Morgan says, "is that this place becomes more dangerous instead of safer when high prices force out those who have lived here longest.
"When that happens," he adds, "suddenly nobody knows anyone any more, and a guy looking to snatch a purse or walk off with a stereo knows he won't be recognized."
Ron grew up in a house near Washington Circle, where his family still lives, and he has decided to stay here primarily because he loves the city and its people. After passing most of the last nine years away from Washington, I, too, have decided to return and make my home here for precisely the same reasons.
Having spent my childhood in the far northwest part of town, I am in many ways a stranger to the neighborhood off 17th Street that I now call home. Nevertheless, I feel more at ease here each time I make a new acquaintance or see someone familiar.
If my friend from Atlanta ever returns, I hope he looks me up. I have some people he might enjoy meeting.