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Snapshots of Life in the City

A Very Short Relationship

7 & H Streets, DC's Chinatown

 

On a brilliantly sunny Monday morning, I approached the corner of 7 & H Streets, just missing the WALK signal. There was a crowd growing there, waiting to cross. As I removed my jacket, a woman pleasantly said, "Hot day today," and I agreed, nodding.
 
"I hope the weather is this good on Wednesday - it's my birthday," she said.
 
"Do you have plans for a nice birthday?" I asked. (I assumed that she did.)
 
"Not really. This is always a bad week every year. My husband died several years ago today." She paused. "And my grandchild died two days after my birthday."
 
"This is terrible!" I turned to really look at her. She was no longer a stranger.
 
"That child was only seven months old."
 
We crossed the street and paused because clearly she was about to go down H Street and I was headed up 7th. I looked at her sad and dazed expression a moment and, as she started to walk away, I said, "I will think of you on Wednesday, wishing you a happy birthday." She thanked me and disappeared in the crowd.
 
And so our (maybe) five-minute relationship played out.
 
I think of this woman from time to time, reminding me how we never know what anyone else is going through. And despite the frustrations of daily life, I need to be more patient and yielding as I walk among strangers on the street.

 

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What is THAT?

Typewriter Eraser, Scale X at NGA Sculpture Garden in DC. 

 

The large sculpture called Typewriter Eraser, Scale X* resides near an entrance to the grounds of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden.  It is fun to pause there just to overhear reactions from visitors who are seeing it for the first time.
 
"What is that?"
 
"I've never seen anything like that before!"
 
Children stand there looking confused, asking questions. Typically, adults laugh and say something like, "I'm old enough to know the answer," and then they go down a mental alley first saying it's an eraser for a typewriter, then explaining what a typewriter is, and then why a typewriter would need an eraser.
 
For some reason, I find these exchanges funny and engaging and that's why I pause at the sculpture, especially when I see a group approaching.
 
When I first saw this sculpture many years ago I wondered why an artist would use an eraser as a model for a sculpture in the first place. It seemed so mundane, if not strange. But who knew that years later so many people would quickly get engaged in the sculpture and in so many different ways. Self included.

 

*Sculpted by Oldenburg & Bruggen (1999)

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Quaint, Pretty: It's Cherry Blossom Time

Cherry blossom trees at the National Arboretum in DC

 

It's cherry blossom time in DC!
 
I have witnessed 22 cherry blossom seasons as a local resident and have found this time of year quaint: from the weeks leading up to it, the time itself while nature awakens the trees, and even the ending phase leading to the final loss of the blossoms.
 
This time of year presents a rare opportunity to bring locals together with predictable, simple conversations and usually all are smiling.
 
"When do you think the cherry blossoms will be at peak?"
 
"Where do you go to see the cherry blossoms?" (This usually implies not the Tidal Basin since it will be jammed with tourists.)
 
"Will you get a chance to see them this year or will you be out of town?"
 
And despite having seen the cherry blossoms for decades now, I easily fall into the excitement that only this time of year can bring. It's just too sweet, too nice, too special to pass up. So every year, out I go, to walk around smiling for a few hours while inspecting the blossoms and taking a few pictures.
 
This year I went to the National Arboretum with a friend, not one of my typical haunts for this cherry blossom appreciation. It was sunny, windy and just stunning to walk around that park. Hardly anyone else was there which was a bonus for us to peacefully contemplate nature.
 
So I fulfilled my annual ritual and I feel satisfied. I am certain that sometime early next year as winter abates a bit, the local conversation will turn to discussing when peak bloom is expected and where the best place is to see the cherry blossoms. There is a kind of comfort in knowing that.

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January 2: Also a Holiday

People take a walk on Christmas Day on the
National Mall, perhaps to reduce stress.

 

I celebrate January 2 each year.  
 
This date means that all of the major fall holidays, starting with Thanksgiving, are over for another year. It's a kind of Holiday From The Holidays. Hurray!
 
Some people will not choose to celebrate my self-proclaimed holiday – they may actually approach it as more of a funeral, a date indicating that the holidays are gone and they are sad about it. 
 
But I daresay that many of us find the holiday season very stressful, even if one or two of the holidays are meaningful. At this time of year, we hear that suicide rates go up, that people can get stranded in airports for days just to be somewhere on one particular day, and we are reminded of loved ones who are no longer with us. It is a complicated time with little time to take a breather.
 
But then arrives January 2 and you can say that you have done all that you could do, that it's now time to get back to normal and not dwell on the many stresses of the past two months. I say that is a darn good reason to pause and celebrate (maybe quietly and/or with a nap).
 
Happy January 2!

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Metro Escalators: A Stage All Their Own

Typical escalator inside the DC metro system.

 

The escalators at metro subway stations provide an unusual stage by which to "people watch."
 
I'd say most of us hold onto the handrail or our hand hovers above the handrail if we decide to cautiously walk while the escalator is moving. Some people just hold on and stand in order to read a book or newspaper during their trip.
 
But some people are so nimble and confident!
 
I have seen people walk (or run!) down a long escalator ride texting on their phones (ergo using both hands) and not looking at anything but that phone! There are some who carry a small child positioned on a hip and jog the escalator. 
 
How can they do that, I would marvel. What if they trip? It must happen sometimes – mustn't it? They surely wouldn't survive such a fall or would be seriously hurt.
 
Then one day I was standing and holding the handrail on an up escalator, boring normal stuff, I know. But out of nowhere, the escalator came to a crashing STOP. I guess it just suddenly broke somehow. I squeezed the handrail but it was reflexive as I was fine. I was startled and looked around.
 
Everyone was looking at everyone else but we were all in one piece. (I am guessing there were no acrobats using the escalators at that time, thank goodness.)  Within about a minute, before I could start walking up, the escalator started moving again.  So I stood and patiently waited to get to the top.
 
I guess I felt validated to be a boring, cautious rider. I was safe and happy and just a little startled. But, weirdly, as I walked home, I felt uneasy thinking about those who take a whole lot for granted, and what that sudden stop might have done to their lives.

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"I got my life back!"

Man in electronic wheelchair inside a metro car 

 

A man, sporting a suit and a bowler hat, rolled into an elevator as I held the door for him. He evoked an earlier era as he greeted me pleasantly and politely. The whole time he smiled so broadly that it just had to hurt his face.
 
"You are in a good mood," I said.
 
"This chair is everything! I have had it about a year now and have almost worn out the wheels already because I use it so much. It's everything!" And he leaned over to point out the tread on the small wheels. I also noticed a lot of "personalization" of his vehicle, for example, large prominently placed rear-view mirrors, an umbrella at the ready, and a blanket on the seat back with a message.
 
"I am so glad you like it!" I said.
 
"Like it? I got my life back! I can go anywhere I want to now - and by myself!"
 
Was it possible his smile even got larger as he said that? It appeared so.
 
"Fantastic! That is wonderful!"
 
When the door opened, he engaged the motor and exited with a flourish and with some serious speed, heading to the platform to catch the subway. He was still smiling ear to ear as he turned his head side to side, weaving in and around people to get to the front car.
 
It's moments like these when a life lesson is obvious.

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Veering From My Path

"Angels Unawares" statue on Catholic U campus in DC.

Over the years, I have walked a certain path when I'm on the Catholic University of America campus. It's a tree-intensive and beautiful campus, usually quiet and serene.
 
A few weeks ago, a friend and I were scheduled for a guided tour of the Basilica which is on the campus and I knew how to get there but as we walked up the hill from the metro stop, I could see "my" path was pulled apart by construction. It threw me off! There was no choice but to walk a different way.
 
This seeming annoyance turned into a gift.
 
As we navigated our way, we happened upon the "Angels Unawares" statue depicted above. In short, happening upon this statue unexpectedly took my breath away.
 
The determination of the immigrants, people of limited means who had few belongings in tow, were headed to a new life together. They were young and old and male and female – and they were clearly united in their meaningful journey.
 
This experience was a good reminder to me, who has lived here quite a few years now, to intentionally veer from my normal walking patterns because who knows what exists just a block or two off-course?  I just might find myself again staring at another wonderful statue or site that impacts my day so palpably.

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Historic Dupont Circle Calms The Beast

An out-of-towner contacted me to say she was going to be in Dupont Circle for a few days and asked about meeting for lunch. I love that area – it has a nice historic vibe and there are so many, probably too many, great restaurants to chose from. Good problem.
 
We settled on Iron Gate on a beautiful, tree-lined, quiet street. It boasts being one of the longest continuously operating restaurants in DC, founded in 1875. All I know is that it sets a mood that is conducive to conversation while reminding patrons of a simpler time.
 
We easily settled into a conversation and as we left, we paused to look a bit more closely at the dining room, formerly a barn where horses were kept, and the carriage house, now housing the bar. The old window frames, lighting, and walls were carefully preserved throughout.
 
"We have a group looking at our place today for their wedding," the bartender said.
 
"What a great idea – what a great place to have a wedding!" I responded.
 
"We get a lot of business from weddings," he said with pride.

 
Once outside, I suggested we stop in across the street at the longest continuously operating hotel in DC, the Tabard Inn. I knew it would be worth a few minutes as I had been there countless times over the years and was always glad to have an excuse to return.
 
So we walked in and the floors creaked underneath our feet. The foyer had one wall where hotel guests could speak to someone through a small wooden window, clearly original and preserved, clearly setting a wonderful entree to checking into a room in this hotel. But when we walked next into the parlor, a parlor straight out of the 1920's with an old fireplace, wood paneling, and black and white photos on the wall, my companion paused. 
 
"Oh," was all she said.
 
We stood silently a few moments just taking it all in.

 

And we weren't alone. People were comfortably seated in the parlor having drinks, talking in hushed tones as if they too knew this was a special room. There was just a feeling of being a part of something special, a sense of calmness, and a sense of the many people who had been there before us. 
 
DC has so much to offer. Its history is alive and well and that doesn't just refer to the Capitol, White House, Smithsonian, and other noteworthy government buildings which are often the main (or sole) attraction for tourists. It just takes time to absorb all of the meaningful and inspirational elements of the city. It just means returning often so that you can poke around the neighborhoods.

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Are You In A Hurry?

 

I had just gotten off a subway train at Foggy Bottom and was adding money to my metro fare card, vaguely noticing a woman standing nearby. When I finished the transaction and started to turn to leave the station, this woman approached me.
 
"Are you in a rush?"
 
"What do you need?" I asked.
 
"Could you help me add money to my card? I see that you just did it."
 
I gestured to the booth where metro employees hang out. "There are people in there who know everything about these machines so you might ask them."  She hesitated and she didn't look toward the booth, she looked down at the ground.
 
"But if you prefer that I try to help you, I have a minute."
 
She preferred.
 
I was being too nice, I thought, but it was too late now.  So we found an available machine and I walked her through the process. She was young, red-haired and pale, and spoke English perfectly but with a strong accent. Thankfully, she was also a quick study.
 
"I see now that I could do this if only I just followed the prompts!" 
 
I laughed and shrugged.
 
"But it was nice to have someone helping me so thank you. I am from South Africa, going to a college visit day at George Washington U," she said. And she talked at a fast clip about how she was meeting up with a group in about 15 minutes, wondered if there was coffee nearby and if she had time to explore a little. I answered the coffee question and otherwise listened politely.
 
We walked to the escalator together and when we got on, I stood on the right, and she stood (wrongly) on the left. I didn't correct her for her choice (where people expect access to rush past those on the right). I figured if she did attend this school, soon enough her behavior would be shaped out of that choice! I just hope it wouldn't be done with too much rancor.
 
We quickly reached the top of the escalator and were at street level.  A lot of traffic, people, and noise greeted us.  She stood and looked around as I slowly headed toward the street crossing to be on my way at last.
 
"If you choose GW, I hope to run into you again some day," I said. She smiled broadly. And with that, we parted company.
 
My initial reaction to her request for help had been to refer this lady to the station agent but I'm glad she persisted and that she wanted my help. Who knows why she engaged me – maybe just because I was conveniently there at the machines or maybe she thought I might have time for a short talk before her visitation day. She clearly was taking a big step that day and maybe she was a little apprehensive.
 
In the end, I was happy about that short-lived connection, whether or not I was in a rush.

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Inspiration Has Many Faces

The artist, Finland's Kaarina Kaikkonen, addresses the Amazon's problem of "flying rivers" and climate change.

Matinee performances at the Kennedy Center usually draw a crowd of student groups as well as those in senior care, all showing up in busses, buzzing excitedly to their cohort before and after the performances.
 
I arrived early to a matinee recently and decided to sit on a bench near one of the entrances to the building. I was looking up pondering the art installation shown in the picture above – basically, men's old shirts hanging from the ceiling – and wondered what could the artist have meant to convey - when an older man with a cane sat down gingerly next to me.
 
"What is that?" he asked. He was looking up also.
 
"I think old shirts in flight! I haven't read the plate over there yet."
 
"I'm 92 years old and just got out of the hospital after several weeks but I didn't want to miss the concert over that. And it's nice to see this artwork as well."
 
I stopped looking at the installation and turned to him. "You are 92? Well, congratulations on that – and by the way, I would have stayed home after a hospital stay!"
 
He nodded and smiled. "See that woman over there in the white dress – the one talking to the woman in pants? That's Mary, my neighbor – we go to events like this frequently. We aren't in a relationship – but we are great friends with similar interests." He nodded again, still smiling.
 
And for the next ten minutes or so we talked pleasantly. Mary eventually came over to see if he was ready to go to their seats and he obliged, standing carefully using his cane. They both said good bye and walked slowly, heading to the check-in area. Instead of veering onto the accessible ramp, they took the stairs, holding onto the railing.

 

Inspiration has a way of appearing seemingly out of nowhere.

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