FOUR YEARS AGO, when I quit a career as a banker to become a reporter, the thing that surprised me the most about my colleagues' reaction was that they were most stunned that I was leaving my home town of New York City without ever having lived on the posh East Side of Manhattan.
I lived in Brooklyn then, while most of my up-and-coming professional friends resided in Manhattan. To most of my friends, Brooklyn was a place outside and some distance apart from their lives, though it was in fact adjacent to Manhattan and well connected by bridges and tunnels. They looked at Brooklyn and saw a home for their most unnameable fears and vivid myths. In wonder they would often ask me just what it was like "out there."
It is this same fascinated wonder that people who live in Northwest Washington and its adjoining suburbs have for Prince George's County.
Maybe I'm just bound and determined to do the things I'm not supposed to do, but I am happy to call Prince George's home today. And like my friends in New York, the downtown Washington world can barely mask its grimace at my choice.
Yes, I'm "Pee Gee," and proud of it. And like half of the black respondents in a recent Washington Post poll, I think it is a better place to live than any other area locale.
We know how to have a scrapping good time in Prince George's. When you have a problem in Montgomery, you do a boring study. In the District, you do a study which then gets lost in a computer and has to be done over. In Prince George's you cut a deal, then do a study afterwards. That's why we have cable television now, and they don't.
Pee Gee is where the president lands his plane, the Capitals and the Bullets play and scientists direct men who walk on the moon. We've even got two racetracks and more prime waterfront then Montgomery and Fairfax combined.
Even if most of Washington still doesn't know where it's largest suburb is, I like Prince George's because it is located squarely in the real world.
Which is more than can be said for Dupont Circle.
That's what I think even if, as the poll suggested, a significant number of white county residents feel that the county's quality of life is going down as the black population is going up. I still think Prince George's has a chance at being the most thoroughly and successfully integrated suburb in the country.
Disloyal whites may yet join the 170,000 of their race who left the county during the 1970s in the wake of school desegregation. It would be a shame if they did -- a shame that they would accept the notion that their thirst for status will never be quenched while living in a 37-percent-black county. It would also add another chapter to the long book of racial irony in America, since Prince George's new black residents improved the overall levels of income and education in many formerly all-white neighborhoods.
If they move, they will once more fulfill the expectations of the downtown elite, confirming what they have always wanted to believe about the blacks and whites of Prince George's County. Although moving to Charles or Anne Arundel County to get closer to the cognoscente in Georgetown is dim reasoning, by my lights.
But then again, I can't worry about what white people may do; I have enough trouble getting people to imagine where in the Washington area I live.
Downtown, they say I live "way out there" in Adelphi, 9 miles from the White House. Rockville is nearly 18 miles away by comparison, but somehow White Flint Mall seems closer to them than Prince George's Plaza, just 10 miles from the Reagan residence. The problem with Prince George's County is that you have to go through two invisible parts of Washington -- Northeast or Southeast -- to get there. Prince George's surrounds the District of Columbia on two of its four sides, but for practical purposes it does not touch the Washington portrayed in the social sections.
The problem with Prince George's is the image people have of who lives here. When you think of Brooklyn, you think of greasy teens from "Saturday Night Fever," the ones who carry knives inside their leather jackets.
Those who think of Prince George's think of the same youth, only the grease is under his fingernails, instead of in his longish hair. His sleeveless T-shirt doesn't pretend to hide the tattoo with the macabre death motif on his bicep. He is the all-American working class threat, the guy the bouncers watch out for in Georgetown.
His father also has a red neck, so the story goes. His mother has one of those beehive hairdos you just don't see on Connecticut Avenue.
Yes, Virginia (a state in which the right of blacks to vote is still a matter of contention), there are some pure rednecks living in Prince George's County. But there are a lot more accountants, school teachers, secretaries and government clerks living there too. Some of them are rednecks too, but, except for their addresses, they are indistinguishable from co-workers who live in supposedly more enlightened climes.
To me there is little difference between Montgomery County's anti-busing school board member Marian Greenblatt and Prince George's County's anti-busing county council member Sue Mills. They both rode to political power on the backs of black children on school buses. The only difference is that in Montgomery, Greenblatt is called a conservative (do not read racist) and the populace pretends to be shocked as white parents move to pull their children from schools in Silver Spring's growing black belt. In Prince George's, Sue Mills is labeled a redneck (do read racist) although she actually gets quite a few votes from loyal blacks who regard her as being responsive to the "little guy."
Surprising? Well welcome to surprising Prince George's County. Everybody knows that Montgomery County is the nation's third richest, but they don't know that Prince George's ranks in the top 2 percent of all counties in income. Prince George's median household income of $25,525 is 28 percent above the national average, yet around here it doesn't seem to count for much.
But it means something to me because in Prince George's, the median black family income is 85 percent of white median family income. Black median family income in the District of Columbia is only 46 percent of white incomes. And black people in Prince George's -- 25 percent of whom reside outside of the Capital Beltway -- live almost everywhere worth living in the county except maybe Bowie.
How can Prince George's County be redneck and poor when almost half of the people I see living here are black and most own decent homes? Why does downtown seem to need to have someone to look down on?
In follow-up interviews with Prince George's blacks originally contacted in the Washington Post poll, the most consistent theme struck by those who liked the county was the feeling of equality here. It is the feeling I get driving along Suitland Parkway at sunset, watching black and white joggers run peacefully along the broad and shady path. I see it way down south in Oxon Hill where blacks and whites live side by side in cookie-cutter subdivisions in the blissful anomie that suburbs are really all about.
I feel it shopping in Landover Mall, where you are equally likely to be served by black or white store clerks who treat you as if you belong there. They have to treat you that way in order to stay in business. Even in rural, conservative Upper Marlboro, white store owners have learned not to be squeamish about touching black hands while making change, a dead giveaway in my book about whether they would really care to see me in their store again.
I never get that feeling at Mazza Gallerie or White Flint Mall, so I rarely shop there. My family income, though it never looks it by my paycheck, is higher than the area median and so is my level of education. But neither dollars or diplomas, I've found, can buy you the sense of security that comes when you feel a place is your own.
I know that black residents of the District claim Washington as their own, with pride. But, as a recent immigrant to this area, "Chocolate City" is a fiction in some respects. The fact is that you'd never guess, after a casual stroll down Wisconsin or Connecticut Avenues, or a peek into the restaurants and bars along 18th, 19th and 20th Streets, that you were in a 73-percent-black city. And of course the unusual "federal relationship" between the city and the Congress disguises the fact that Washington is still the nation's last colony, and a segregated colony at that.
Maryland is by no means a haven for blacks either. But it is one of only 7 states where blacks make up more than a fifth of the population, and of those it is the only one not mired in the history and poverty of the Deep South. Baltimore (54 percent black) and Prince George's (37 percent black) contain 34 percent of the state's population. It is part of the reason that Maryland has perhaps the most liberal pair of senators in Congress today. I wish I could say as much for my home state of New York.
Of course, Prince George's seems to nourish a constant state of political and fiscal crisis. Most of it is caused by TRIM, the absolute cap of $143 million on property tax revenues passed in 1978. The road maintainance fleet is rusting out, per-pupil school spending is 21 to 41 percent lower than every area jurisdiction and at any given time there are no more than 100 police officers patrolling the nearly 600-square-mile county.
But if there is a positive side to TRIM, it is that it has most certainly wrung the fat from the county budget, and then some. With the county business community and some leading Democrats firmly behind a drive to lift TRIM, a semblance of financial health may be just a plebiscite away.
True, too, that Prince George's undermanned and until-recently lily-white police force has yet to shake a somewhat brutal reputation among blacks and whites. Blacks do not have nearly the political clout due their numbers here. There are parts of the county, not unlike the real world outside of the Washington area, where black and white residents live in conditions of poverty and squalor that cry out for a better deal in life. Finally, you still have to go downtown to get brown mustard in a restaurant without making a fuss over it. It's like Brooklyn in that respect, but nowhere near as bad.
But Pee Gee is okay. And it may get a lot better, if only blacks and whites can hang on and realize that we're the ones who are normal around here, and we've got a good thing going.