A summer night, a breezy happy hour.
A pretty young woman, friendly but cautious, approaches a small cluster of people.
“Hi,” she says. “Are you New Yorkers, too?”
The wonderful thing about Washington is how it’s possible to visit all of the countries of the world without leaving District boundaries. The Embassy of France. The Embassy of Uzbekistan.
And here, on the rooftop of El Centro D.F., a newish taqueria on 14th Street NW: the embassy of New York City.
This event is otherwise known as the Fellowship of Unassimilated Manhattan Exiles. Or FUME.
The partying continues . . . NYC style,” the e-mailed invitation had read.
And so now 15 or 18 former residents of the great country of New York gather to talk about the great country of New York and how they no longer live there.
“When I’m in New York, I don’t ask people what they do for a living,” says Emily Anthony, who has just been asked by a reporter to meditate on urban differences. She works in education policy and moved from New York with her boyfriend-now-husband a few years ago. “Here, we wear our jobs on our sleeves.”
“There’s no cheap food here,” says David Beaning, a lawyer. “Here, you get world-class food, but not cheap food” — and don’t get him started on how joyful he was when he discovered good Chinese takeout in Washington. (“Meiwah,” he shares proudly. “Off of M.”)
People watch so much C-SPAN in Washington, and why can’t you eat on the Metro (in New York, you can eat on the subway), and where can you find an organic grocery store that stays open past midnight and why is there so much Ann Taylor?
FUME began in 2009 when its founder, a journalist named Pia Catton, moved to Washington to take a job with Politico.
“You have to think back to the spring of ’09,” Catton says on the phone. “New York was in a really bad way . . . and there was a lot of energy in Washington.”
She came. They all came. A whole bunch of New Yorkers apparently came, and then sort of worried about why they had come.
“Trying to buy a newspaper in D.C. drove me insane,” Catton says. “You have to go into a CVS, and then you get taxed on it. You don’t just throw your dollar at the news guy.”
In other words: “We spent a lot of time missing New York.”
She and her boyfriend at the time were the original driving force, but now the semi-regular events are scheduled by a loose panel of organizers in the arts and media worlds. They understand why FUME is funny.
On the one hand: FUME plays into every inferiority complex the city of Washington has ever had. FUME examines D.C.’s short buildings and finds them lacking; it examines D.C.’s long acronyms and goes “pfft.” Those things you fear New Yorkers are saying about you? They are saying them about you!
On the other hand: Lots of people in Washington miss the place where they came from. Washington is a whole city of expats. If there was a Fellowship of Unassimilated Midwestern Exiles, it would have a waiting list for admission. Its members would congregate at the Olive Garden in Falls Church and wonder why you have to drive so far to find a good Dairy Queen and whether it’s really necessary for parking spaces to be so small or so expensive.
Every expat community has something it misses, something that stands for everything that is right about the place you came from and wrong about the place where you’ve arrived.
Let’s talk about bagels.
In New York, “there are just bagel places everywhere,” says Brett Egan, who left a job running a modern dance company in New York to take a job at the Kennedy Center. “You can walk 10 blocks and pass 10 bagel places. There are some bagel places that won’t even toast their bagels. They come out of the oven, and they’re done. There’s institutional integrity.”
Thank God D.C. finally got a Shake Shack.
The weird thing is, Egan — a FUME regular who couldn’t make the last happy hour — didn’t eat bagels that much when he lived in New York. He doesn’t really care about bagels. Maybe he just cares that he used to live in a place that had bagels, and now the lack of bagels reminds him that the place is far away.
He actually likes Washington — likes how walkable it is and how green. So does Anthony and so does Beaning. They are all glad they are here. “But it’s nice to go to [an event] where you have something in common,” Egan says. “You have the homeland.”
“I look back on that time in D.C. as a great reprieve,” says Catton, the FUME founder. “Having a balcony and washer and dryer” inside the apartment? Bliss! She sees that now, even though “I complained about things the entire 10 months that I lived there.”
Last spring, Catton accepted a job with the Wall Street Journal, and she moved back to New York.