When I struck a logistical compromise with a friend and moved to Silver Spring from Capitol Hill, my home for five years, I left behind a certain way of life.
I could no longer swim daily at the Capitol East Natatorium nor spend Saturday mornings at Eastern Market, where I refilled my cider jug, bought riotous flowers to dry on a string and ate fish sandwiches at my favorite greasy spoon. Ten-minute strolls to the Library of Congress would be impossible, along with browsing at the Trover Shop. And no more spur-of-the-moment beers at the Tune Inn.
At first, I had no idea how to replace those traditions. I thought of Silver Spring as a spillway for downtown Washington, which backed up Georgia Avenue and flowed over the Maryland state line.
It is easy to love Capitol Hill, with its beautifully preserved neighborhoods, lively street life and convenience to the Capitol. It is not so easy to love Silver Spring, with its ungainly high-rises that share blocks with gas stations, car dealerships and small stores.
When I lived on Capitol Hill, I felt a part of a neighborhood just by walking down the same street every day. The same woman sitting on her porch would say hello, while her grandchildren skipped rope and practiced drills on the sidewalk. The same man with snow-white mustache and suspenders would check daily on the frail elderly woman who lived across the street, and walk her two tiny dogs. And every Saturday, like clockwork, the man who lived behind me would get drunk, bellow racial epithets and strum country tunes on his guitar.
Now I live in the Falkland apartments, the oldest garden apartment complex in the metro area. Here, the patterns of community life are not so apparent. The Falklands is a homely oasis on Colesville Road, just over the District line. I wake to the whirr of the day's first subway heading for the Grosvenor station, yet I can see from my bedroom window a shaded courtyard, a secret to the rest of town. But there are no front porches to accommodate rockers, and no nearby shops, churches, stoops or restaurants to generate street life at the Falklands.
Even the children are quiet. Only occasionally do they run up the stairs to hide from a friend, or ambush buddies from behind a dumpster. I know I have neighbors in the apartment next to ours. On rainy days a dripping umbrella rests against their door, and after school, the muffled tones of an untuned piano come through the wall. But I never see the neighbors.
On Capitol Hill, I lived close to the Mall, the center of the city. It was my back yard, where I would jog from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and back, and where little boys would ask, "Can I run with you?" or less polite questions.
Once, at the foot of the Capitol, a group of tourists asked me if they were gazing at the rear of the White House. Another time, a visitor chased me as I jogged, pointing animatedly to his camera. As I ran faster he ran faster, until I realized he wanted his photo taken in front of the Washington Monument.
The pulse of Silver Spring, as far as I can tell, is the complex composed of the 24-hour Giant, People's Drug Store and the vast parking lot surrounding these establishments. Instead of finding my bearings by the peak of the Washington Monument, I search for the towering kleig lights that shine on the parking lot. When I see them, I know I'm close to home.
When I lived on Capitol Hill, I locked my door and parked in front of my house but generally did not let concern for my safety govern my life. I knew, though, that I was never far from others' violence. Once I heard a string of loud pops break the quiet of a breathless summer night, and later learned that down the block, a police officer had shot and killed a man who had threatened him with a gun.
Another time, I recall reading an account of a stabbing, and on my way to the subway found the trail of blood leading to a porch where the victim died of his wounds.
The Silver Spring police log is full of muggings in back alleys, break-ins and other crimes, and sirens often pierce my sleep. Late at night, when I must park my car about a quarter of a mile away from my apartment, I walk home briskly down the lit median of Colesville Road, not without an edge of fear.
On Capitol Hill, the natatorium, where I could swim free, was my second home. I would slip in the water to swim a mile before work, and sometimes in the evenings, to glide away from the day. I plotted my life around the best times to go to the pool. I knew, for example, that by 7:30 a.m., those swimmers who had to be prompt for work were already in the shower and the lanes were clear for lollygaggers.
By the time I was out, an entire preschool class, boys and girls, would march into the locker room, their teachers shooing them like mother hens. The kids would slowly peel off their clothes, giggle, squirm, and stare at my pale, wet body, and greet me with unself-conscious hellos.
Then they would march to the children's pool for a rousing swimming lesson conducted like a revival meeting: "Put your head in the water and kick! What did I say?" And they would respond like a gleeful congregation: "Put your head in the water and kick!"
Now I do my laps at the Takoma Park campus of Montgomery College. It is too far to walk to, but it costs only $19 a semester. There are built-in hair dryers in the locker room, and it is rarely too crowded. But there are no kids. It is not the same.
Capitol Hill's appeal speaks for itself, but as I walk through Silver Spring, I am slowly gathering reasons to love this underdog of a city -- Georgia Avenue at dusk, when the bright yellow Quality Inn sign backgrounded by a lurid purple sky shouts "Vegas!" in my eyes; Crisfield's counter on a Saturday afternoon, where I sit with a friend over a plate of oysters; and the pocket park on East-West Highway that marks the source of the original Silver Spring with a gazebo topped with a giant acorn.