First light catches me whispering to myself. Lulling, seductive murmurings that entrance those who eavesdrop. Listen.
Listen to the soft, whishy sounds of cascading water as it lazily spills into 13 descending basins, listen as the gently insistent breeze musses my bushy treetops, and the birds--cardinal, towhee, blue jay, tufted titmouse--combine to create a crescendo of natural sound. The sound of a saxophone in the hands of a master, melancholy and New Yorky in tone, slices through the lush cacophony, my early morning symphony. He sends his message to bounce off sunbeams as they shine down on me and my beauty on permanent display at 16th Street between Florida Avenue and Euclid Street NW.
I am a park of French-Italian descent. I began 46 years ago and was called Meridian Hill Park, a playground, a promenade park, for the well-to-do inhabitants of the embassies, chanceries, and diplomatic residences along 16th Street. Within the last 20 years however, I've become a different park, now most widely known as Malcolm X Park, as I've adapted to a change of attitude and a turnover in ideas, as practiced by a multi-ethnic hodgepodge of Africans, Hispanics, and black Americans who have cast me in a different light and given me many new roles to play.
I now serve as a halfway house for many seeking tranquil surroundings to think and puzzle out the answers to questions invariably concerned with basics--food, shelter, and family; I overhear low moans from middle-aged men parked on my endless benches, perplexed by a day's turn of events that has left them flatfooted and dragging. If they complain, they complain softly. The teen-agers are different: when they feel they've been wronged, they bellow their hurt.
"I was sent there by the unemployment office," says an articulate 18-year-old, "so the man knew my qualifications, yet when I arrived at his place after walking clear across town, I was told I needed to have a college education to be a stock clerk in his liquor store. This s---'s got to stop." His three buddies, in a chorus, agree.
I keep quiet. I have heard many of these sad soliloquies before and seen them translated into a rage that has destroyed a couple of my tulip beds. Serenity, my statue of a seated barefoot woman in repose with a seemingly weightless gown draped about her, had her nose lopped off one night for symbolizing a mood hard to come by in my neck of the woods.
Despite these occasional eruptions of frustration directed toward me, I am still beautiful. My 11 1/2 acres make me one of the largest parks within the metropolitan area. My upper garden is designed in the French manner with a large, airy, open play mall with two long promenades on either side. My upper level, two-thirds of my acreage, is on high ground, culminating in the grand promenade terrace at the break of the hill, where my people are given a panoramic view of the city, its monuments, and the backgrounding Maryland and Virginia hills.
My lower portion is done in the Italian manner, with a terraced hillside connecting the two levels. My tumbling water cascade, with large pools at the top and bottom, fills my children with delight by cooling their hot bodies and spirits.
Over the years I have become a strategic rallying point for various political causes. Most recently I hosted African Liberation Day. But before that I served as the meeting area for the El Salvadoran protest march on the White House. Next month, Gay Pride Day will begin here, with me.
Soon I'll be bursting with the whites, pinks, reds, yellows and oranges of my seasonal flowers; my petunias, marigolds and begonias will splash and dapple me with the colors of the rainbow, as my people, also the colors of the rainbow, will enjoy me, love me.
My people never stop loving me. And although the National Park Service, my keeper, has imposed a midnight curfew on my premises during the spring and summer, my people can be found visiting me around-the-clock. The anonymous saxophonist at Saturday daybreak signals to the Adams-Morgan and Columbia Heights neighborhoods that flank my boundaries that the week has ended; good or bad, it's gone, come play with me.
I march to a different drum, many different drums. Bongo, calypso, big and small, they come with their owners and set the rhythm, provide the heartbeat for my people. The soccer players, representing a rich mix of countries--El Salvador, Colombia, Argentina, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and Nigeria, among the many--rush about and test one another from two opposing goals represented by a Coke bottle and a brown paper bag.
The drums continue. A flute is added. Seventeen musicians have joined the melodic fray and turned a day with me into a celebration of life. Dishwashers, maintenance men, maids--I know them all--account executives, accountants, secretaries, the unemployed. Look at them, at the saucy brown lady undulating to the beat, using one of my promenades as a runway, causing a sensation as she responds to the universal, though subdued, feeling of naturalness and good cheer. The flute acknowleges her presence with a pronounced zest, a bit of Tabasco. A cowbell is hit, a shaker rattled, and a wave of good feeling rises to the tops of my American elms.
On a blanket flung with care, Michelle, eyes reflecting my delights, passes around a bag of potato chips to four giggling youngsters gathered around her. Michelle collects a group of children every day from her 15th Street apartment building, plops her baby in a stroller, and comes to visit me. She knows I love children, so she lets them climb my statues, climb my walls, and jump in my pool. Across the way, there's Geneva and her two sons, and Barbara and her daughter, Amani. Mothers love me. I make my flowers blush to show my affection for them.
I have overheard the mothers complain that there are not enough activities held on my beautifully landscaped body to combat idleness. Many remember the regularly scheduled band concerts and other special entertainments that pepped up the day for the adults, and overwhelmed the youngsters. Those days are gone, budget cutbacks I'm told, while in other parks, the bands play on.
I have gotten many contact highs from the wafting aroma of the flower-topped weed. I have shaken my trees and popped a petunia or two after getting the giggles from ingesting pot-smoking fumes. My sister parks, I hear by the network, experience the same laid-back giddiness. The police make such a racket when they ride up on motorbikes directly to a bench and, after radioing for reinforcements, take one of my mellow people away.
Lovers and joggers love me. We greet the sun and the moon together. Many different languages sail across my terrain during moments of exultation and exercise; during moments of passion, volume is reigned in, and the serious business of an embrace and a quiet kiss is given first priority in my many shaded, private spots. My people come from all over the city to be with me, to perpetuate my reputation as the United Nations of parks.
My people, like practically all parks, include homosexuals who wordlessly cruise my grounds. Everyone, when so inclined, mixes in activites with eveyone else. When this happens, not even I can tell who's who--nor would I care to.
Cocaine and marijuana can be brought on my premises but, if a person isn't quick, he might not know what's going on. A bike rider will zing by and say "smoke, smoke;" if the buzzword is understood, and the reflexes are good, a score might be made--otherwise it could be believed that the cyclist wanted a cigarette.
I have been witness to a couple of murders over the years. I have seen muggings. I am ashamed. I've also given sanctuary to hordes of people who have come to escape the stifling heat of their cramped, cheerless apartments, who have picnicked on my grass, tossed a carefree frisbee into the air, danced, loved, planned, frolicked, and been brought together. For that I am happy. And it is for that, I feel, my people love me.