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Snapshots of Life in the City

The Return of the White Squirrel

I don't much care for squirrels.
As Carrie Bradshaw, a character from Sex and the City, once opined, "You can't make friends with a squirrel. Squirrels are just rats with cuter outfits."
It was a good summation as far as I was concerned.
But there was an outcry by city residents regarding the white squirrels, once so easily found at Franklin Square, who were now gone. Gone by the hand of gentrification of that park, apparently. I took note but didn't think too much about it.
Then one day I was walking on the national mall and what did I see but a white squirrel! I took out my phone and easily approached the squirrel who seemed unafraid, ready for its photo op. Was this squirrel from the former Franklin Square address – did it move to greener pastures - literally? 
The next day, I wanted to stop back by that area just to see if the squirrel was still there and to my delight I saw several such white squirrels. They were foraging on the ground and running up and down trees while keeping an eye on the human audience gathering to take pictures.
An older woman, toting a serious-looking professional camera, emerged from the crowd.
"You can get closer to her," she said.
"I was here yesterday and noticed how tame the squirrel was – but I didn't know there were so many white squirrels here!"
"I noticed them showing up here about two years ago. This one is called "Snowball" and she lives in that tree," the woman said, pointing to a very old, gnarly, and beautifully lush tree.
Surely I looked at her with skepticism but I remained silent.
"Oh yes, these squirrels are very territorial. That is Snowball's tree. And by the way, she had five babies a few months ago, one was albino and the others gray. And her mate lives in this tree over here."
"So this couple has separate apartments?" I asked.
We smiled to each other. But clearly, the white squirrels were serious business to her.
We had an extended conversation – it wasn't that I had time for that, but I was compelled to stay and listen to her stories. She showed me many pictures of these squirrels that she had taken over time. As I left her, I said I'd look for her next time I was on the mall to see what's new with the squirrels.
"Nice to meet you – my name is Judy," she said. I offered my first name in return. We nodded and parted ways.
And as I walked away, I marveled at her passion for these white squirrels, these rats in cuter outfits.

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Hot Town, Summer in the City*

The height of summer is the worst time to be in the city. Everyone looks bedraggled and unhappy except maybe for the tourists. The sidewalks seem to sizzle and pop with the heat. And pedestrians duck under shade whenever they can and otherwise limit time in the direct sun.
I reach a point every summer where I feel like running down the street screaming -I'd rather be anywhere else!
The other day, the temps were well into the 90's and the humidity was raging but I had to run an errand. So outside I went. Over the short span of about 90 minutes, I experienced a series of inexplicably maddening scenes. Here were just a few:
A man arrogantly and openly smoking pot on a metro platform with smoke billowing out like a chimney, forcing many of us to choke and move;
Another man dragging leaking, large-sized garbage bags onto the train (yes, leaking, and with God-knows-what contents) so I had to rush to get onto a different car before the train pulled out of the station;
A metro worker, who I simply asked whether there was a phone nearby connecting us directly to the station master above. "Yes" or "no" would have been good answers, even "I don't know." And yet, she kept shaking her head saying over and over, "I pick up trash. That is what I do. I don't do anything else." 
And, in the closing moments of my errand, thinking it was all thankfully almost over, I'd be home very soon, a man yelled directly into my ear:
I was not obstructing his passage in any way, nor was anyone else, and I have no idea why mine was the ear that had to be screamed into.  (I swear he was so loud that my hearing was affected long after.)
So that was it – he hit my limit of tolerance for the day - and I yelled back:
Obviously, this was not my greatest moment. (Well, at least I used initials and not the words.)
When I got back to my air-conditioned place, errand done, I was satisfied that I survived and could kick back a bit. And hours later, totally rehydrated and settled, I went out onto my balcony – yes, outside! - and I looked down upon the world below.
These were just people trying to get through the day – a hellishly hot one – but a day.  And I noticed that even the traffic seemed to move sluggishly, just like the people on the sidewalk.
Maybe if the day had been cooler I would have hardly noticed the crazy behaviors while I ran my errand. I just should have shown more restraint a few minutes longer, not respond to the guy who was yelling about his train. I didn't need to add to the pain of the muggy, searing hot day.
After all, I choose city life. I have to take the bad with the good.
*With acknowledgment to the Lovin' Spoonful song, "Summer in the City."

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A Joyous Sniffer Dog Scene

I was waiting for the subway in Union Station and noticed several people watching a scene on the train platform. In a small area under one of the escalators, there were two men, one in police uniform, interacting with a sniffer dog (a dog trained to detect hidden contraband).
I decided to position myself to get a better view.
Luggage of various sizes was strewn about the contained area. The plainly clothed man slowly walked the dog on a leash, taking him in front of each piece of luggage. When the dog correctly stopped and pawed at a certain piece of luggage, both men would praise and pet the dog, sometimes giving the dog a treat.
This reinforcement phase would result in apparent great joy not just to the dog but to the men also! The dog would yelp a little, sometimes raise up on hind legs as if to dance, and the men would smile or laugh and continue to offer statements of praise.
This training was repeated several times while I was there. After a successful trial, one of the men would move the luggage to an area where the dog couldn't see him. Then he would put the contraband inside a different piece of luggage and then would carry the various pieces of luggage back to the spot under the escalator, and place them randomly for a new trial.
Most people were smiling as they watched the action.  Some, like me, were fully engrossed.
During a break between trials, I approached the man who stood waiting with the dog while the other man was moving the contraband to another piece of luggage. "Are you training a new dog?"
"No – this dog is great and has done this work for a long time. We are just reminding him of the job, doing some scheduled re-training."
"So this is a booster session?"
"Yup, this is a booster." He was smiling, probably was used to a curious public.
Usually I hardly notice who is on the platform with me while I wait for a train to arrive. It was nice to be part of a small community engaged in such a joyous, if not quirky, scene for a short while.

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I Practice Walking Defensively

One rainy day, I was walking down 7th Street and I suddenly noticed that I was in the middle of some kind of vortex of people. They were everywhere, and seemingly trying to block my every move. 
There were walkers, runners, bicyclers, and worse, people on motorized scooters. People emerged unexpectedly from restaurant doorways. Some were trying to enter doorways and were standing in the way of this human traffic. And there was one person on a skateboard wearing a Darth Vader mask, gliding quickly through the masses, looking hilariously foreboding while doing it.
When it was time to cross a street, of course we all jammed up and had to let traffic go but as soon as the light changed, people crossed from both directions and the madness ensued for the next block.
Where in the heck did all of these people come from? I wasn't aware of any big events.
Worse, I didn't know why I hadn't noticed this scene apparently looming ahead a few blocks earlier. But then suddenly there I was, a part of street madness.
I bobbed and weaved and tried to avoid crashing into anyone or any vehicle. Quickly, I went into autopilot mode.
Then a young woman somehow fell in step near me and said, "Hi, my name is Barbara."
Was I wearing a nametag or something – how could she have my name?
I glanced at her while deftly maintaining my autopilot mode.
"I'd like to tell you about a church I belong to," she said pleasantly, trying to hand me a small post card.
"I'm not religious at all," I said. I made an attempt at a kind smile. Failed, probably.
"Well Jesus loves you." She didn't seem upset at all.
"Right," I said. And then I picked up my speed the best I could.
Soon after that, I nearly tripped over a homeless person who was sitting on the ground, leaning against a building, but whose legs were too far out onto the sidewalk. But I didn't fall. I wound up sort of leaping - or dancing awkwardly - over his legs. I saw that move as almost poetic on my part!
It suddenly occurred to me how when I was 16 years old and learning to drive, the idea of "driving defensively" was preached. Actually, I bet it's engrained in most of us. It's kind of a cultural meme.
But no one ever talked about learning to walk defensively!
Clearly this is an omission that needs to be fixed.

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Macho Men at the Ballet

I am not a fan of the ballet but it was a pleasant day to venture out to the Kennedy Center. And the performance turned out to be amazing.
I felt like I was witnessing a painting come to life accompanied by perfectly orchestrated live music. The performance told a story without the benefit of words. And, actually, I had to fill in those words for myself.
Feeling energized and renewed, I decided that I would look into the schedule and come back sometime soon.
As I was leaving the theater, several men fell in step behind me who they were extremely loud.
"I am not into ballet at all! The dancing was nice I guess but I went to hear the orchestra!" One of them said in a booming, deep voice.
"Yes, I totally agree!"
"Absolutely.  I don't get the whole dance thing and the costumes at all. The orchestra was the only reason that I agreed to go!"
"Boy that orchestra really was worth the trip out here."
And on and on they went, reinforcing each other's similar comments as loudly as possible.
I was waiting for them to belch next, or beat their chests, or make other "manly" noises. Good grief.
I couldn't help but turn around and look at them.
I was surprised. They were attractive, well-dressed, well-groomed men, probably in their 30's, and otherwise seemingly pleasant. Just by appearances, they didn't match the kind of men I was expecting to see.


Were they so insecure about attending this ballet performance that they felt they had to announce to the world that their manhood was in tact? What a shame.  

But I didn't let them affect my experience. I'll be back.

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How About a Side of Ice Cream with that Commute?

I took the escalators down to the subway at Foggy Bottom on a very hot day. It was early afternoon, not rush hour, and there was just a moderate number of people in the station.  
I was moving quickly to reach a particular area of the platform before the next train would arrive. Then I almost lost my step, almost stopped completely, when I saw a middle-aged, casually-dressed man sitting on a bench doing something I'd never seen before inside metro.
Now I must pause to say that open food containers are not allowed in the subway system but sometimes you'll see someone eating French fries or even a sandwich and usually they eat while somewhat secluded inside a train car.
But this guy had two large containers positioned close to him on the bench and he held one big spoon. One container was clear plastic and inside was a "piece" of chocolate cake with chocolate icing and this "piece" was about as large as half of an entire cake. The other container was a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream, not a pint or a quart. No, it was an enormous half of a gallon.
With gusto, he would scoop out a bite of cake and eat it and then scoop out a substantial portion of ice cream and eat that next.  And this process was repeated at a rather quick pace.
Maybe he was hungry. Or maybe he didn't want the ice cream to melt!
He seemed in his own world. Oblivious.  Happy.
I couldn't imagine making a spectacle of myself that way and yet no one on the platform seemed to express any surprise. I tried to not react either, although I did surreptitiously watch him devour his food as I walked along.
Once I got over my initial suprise at seeing this scene, I was almost in awe.
It's not that I'd want to eat enormous amounts of food like that, and especially not inside a dirty metro station. And I wouldn't want to contribute to the vermin problem in the bowels of metro by dropping any scraps of food. 
But it must be nice to just do really weird things in public and not care what anyone else thinks.
In any case, it's entertaining to witness scenes like this. It certainly gave me something to think about on my ride home.

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An Almost Invisible Act of Kindness

Early morning, as the sun was coming up, I ventured out on the street to meet a friend for breakfast. I was particularly vigilant about my surroundings as so few people were out and about that early on a Sunday.
Two policemen were slowly walking down the street ahead of me, which I found reassuring, and I fell in step behind them. Then one of them stepped into Dunkin' but he very quickly re-emerged on the street, holding a small white bag, presumably with donuts.


How cliche', I thought, cops and donuts!
Near the entrance to Dunkin', a man with unkempt hair was sitting in a beat-up wheelchair, wearing a dirty tee shirt and shorts. He had one leg elevated but both feet were uncovered, exposing thick callouses or some condition that turned his skin an unnatural, pasty color. 
The cop with the bag walked over to the man in the wheelchair and handed it to him. The man lit up as if it were the best day of his life. I couldn't make out what the man said to the cop but the cop simply nodded to him and then he fell into stride with his partner as they continued walking down the street.
I passed the man in the wheelchair as he was looking into the bag, his whole body shaking with joy. I wanted to join him in some way, become more a part of this story, but it was his moment and so I walked on silently to the subway entrance.
There were few people on the platform and I entered a car with no more than half a dozen people traveling, all looking down at their phones or dozing. For the entire trip, I could only think of what I had just witnessed. It was such a small act of kindness, basically invisible to the city at large.
One human being making a small, kind gesture to another turned out to be the best part of my day. And surely the few of us who witnessed or participated in this moment moved on with our lives, knowing something good had happened that morning.

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It Doesn't Take a Lot of Ducks to Cause Excitement



The National Gallery of Art has an outdoor sculpture garden that is beautiful this time of year. Amid the lush greenery, with trees full of active and noisy birds, are unusual and engaging modern sculptures positioned thoughtfully about the grounds.


But, for me, the focus of the sculpture garden is the large pool of water with eight active fountains that rise and fall to three different heights on a set schedule to a kind of unheard musical score. Surrounding this pool are cement benches encouraging visitors to take a breather.

Many locals, tourists, and day workers sit there to read, eat lunch, meditate or people watch. While birds fly in and out for a drink or bath, excitement rises when a duck appears.

Now there are many other places in the metro area where you can go to see a whole lot of waterfowl, but we who visit to the sculpture garden get excited to see just one duck.

On one particular day, there was a mama duck gliding on the water with six small baby ducks following her.

People were delighted!


The water glistened, the weather was perfect, and there was this little show in front of us all.

I watched the people who watched the ducks almost as much as I watched the duck and her offspring!

I sat back on one of the cement benches enjoying the scene. But then…

"There are only four babies! Where are the others?" Someone exclaimed.

I looked up and sure enough, the mama duck now only had four ducklings following her, although she sort of paused and was looking steadfastly in one direction.

"Look! Two of the babies fell into this edge area and they can't get out!"

"What should we do, lift them out?"

"Maybe the mother will reject them if we touch them!"

The mother duck began quacking in the direction of those unfortunate two babies. I stood up and walked over to get a better view although it wasn't easy because everyone had the same idea.

One duckling could almost make it out of the trap and kept trying, but the other just flailed around randomly. The mother couldn't get any closer – probably because of the number of humans hovering over her babies.

"I think we should all back away and see if she helps them," I said.

But people didn't move. In fact, more gathered.

"Let's call the security guard and see what he says!" And a woman ran off to bring one of the guards over.

I decided to leave right then. I'm not sure why I didn't stay to get the conclusion to the story but it was clear to me that the guard must have seen this kind of thing before, many times in fact, and so maybe with his help, the ducklings could swim again as six, and not four. But surely eventually the tide would push a few unfortunate baby ducks again into the drop-off edge of the pond.

The story might never end.

So I left.

But I returned two days later and saw an adult male and an adult female duck swimming. No sign of any babies.

Was this even the same mama duck from the day before? Whether or not it was, where did those babies go? Surely they couldn't fly on their own yet.

But the crowd of people sitting around the pond was at peace, oblivious to the drama of two days prior. Some read their books, some ate, some just watched other people coming and going. And the reliable, strictly programmed fountains released water at various heights every few minutes.

All was normal and calm.

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