It is a cold, windy, rain-soaked night and, having been underwhelmed by the premiere of "2010," I'm sitting at a booth in a nearby nightspot, just off Dupont Circle. Several seats away, a woman strums a troubadour harp before collecting the only money she will receive by walking past the customers, holding a tattered hat. The air is warm, touched by the scent of hot cider, cinnamon and wet wool.
On a notebook, between gulps of cider and wondering if the harp player is married, I feel inspired enough to do more work on the first short story I've tried to write in years. Somehow, the ambiance of this place and the people (no yuppies, just relaxed folks) make me feel that I should be here writing something. At least it helps in playing the role and that, sometimes, is half the fun.
It is easy to imagine how the night would have been spent if I were still living in my obscure high-rise apartment near the Warwick Village and Arlandria sections of Alexandria: A grumpy drive home on the 14th Street bridge, trying to avoid collisions with tourists, then trying to find a well-lighted parking spot so the neighborhood hoods won't try to rip off my car battery again.
In the hallways of the apartment building, chances are that someone I don't know and who has never seen me might be behind or in front of me, walking quickly and, as I admit I have done also, doing the "slam-click-slide." This is not a new break dance. This is the practice among dwellers of large apartment buildings to enter hurriedly, slam the door behind them, click the dead-bolt lock and slide the chain lock into place.
Chances are that I might then consider calling some friends in D.C. and inviting them to my place. Invariably, I would probably change my mind after remembering what it is like to explain the quickest way for a city dweller to get to my apartment. (Okay, take a right at the light where the fumes from the Metrobus garage make your eyes water. Then take a left at the light where the sewage treatment fumes start making you gag. Then . . . .)
Chances are, in fact, that I would just spend the evening at home, with stimulating selections on Alexandria cable television, like the exciting discovery of who is selling cabbage at the lowest price this week (on a channel that gives you nothing but dentist office Muzak and supermarket prices) or watching a gripping rerun of that week's Alexandria City Council meeting.
In the section of Alexandria where I lived for more than four years, there was an incredible diversity in the types of people there.
Typically, a playground would look like something you would expect at a playground near the United Nations, with Greeks and Iranians and Nicaraguans and Southeast Asians having fun together. But these are not the Embassy Row children. The poor ones lived near me in Alexandria. On cold winter days, it was not unusual to see a child or a mother from Southeast Asia wearing nothing on their feet but sandals in the snow and slush. The faces of the mothers and fathers showed the premature aging lines of people who have struggled and suffered most of their lives.
Increasingly, also, a type of slovenly and despicable person was moving into this suburban Virginia neighborhood, a type of person that I loathe -- who referred to Asians as "slants" and "slopes," called Latinos "spics," and, of course, had a few choice names for blacks.
So it was time for "black flight" into the city, to a place where the people are not struggling immigrants, blue-collar families or dyed-in-the-wool racists.
I live in what real estate agents call Dupont East, on Corcoran Street in Northwest, between 14th and 15th streets. It is a location that on the east borders a rough stretch of 14th Street, and on the west, expensive renovated homes.
Now that I live there, I could kick myself for living in Alexandria for so long. It is not that I don't like Alexandria, but there were few intellectually stimulating and entertaining alternatives there. I was wedded to a car I didn't want because of the necessity in the suburbs to have to drive nearly everywhere.
In the section of Washington I live in now, there are about seven movie theaters I can walk to, five record stores that cater to everyone from classical music lovers to new wave teen-agers. Within a 15-minute walk, there are also dozens of restaurants plus art galleries, antique shops, book and magazine stores where you can browse, have dinner and drinks and listen to live music under the same roof.
The people are those whom I have wanted to be around for years, but there were few near my old Alexandria apartment. These new faces are intelligent, artistic, or just plain interesting. It is also a neighborhood where I already have friends -- friends without cars whom I would never see in Alexandria, but who are now close enough for me to walk to, or run into on the street or in a restaurant or bookstore.
On winter nights now, I can turn the heat off and sit by my fireplace with a friend who didn't need directions to find my apartment. On workday mornings, I can listen to the WTOP traffic reporter describe another truck accident on the beltway that has commuters backed up for miles, chuckle, and saunter off on my 10-minute walk to work.
Ah, that city life . . . .