Two years ago, en route to my AmeriCorps job as a teacher’s aide in a prison-like, failing elementary school, I caught the tail end of a disagreement between a citizen and a police officer in a subway station. ‘Leave the station sir’ the officer commanded, which the man did, walking up the broken escalator with me. ‘Fucking faggot’ he said.
A few days prior, A teacher at my school had lost her patience with a particularly trouble-prone 6 year old; when he resisted a nominal punishment for fidgeting, she picked him up by the scruff of his collar and threw him into a corner by himself, looming after like a low-flung bear, as if daring him to fight back. He snapped: “Faggot. Don’t touch me, ho!” The class took in a collective breath -- scared, with an echo of something less savory, anticipation -- and held silent, waiting to see an unwritten script play out: or maybe the next step in a dance that only I didn't know.
I’ve lost touch with the child and the teacher. But I thought of him one night soon thereafter when having dinner with my book club. I envisioned the slim possibilities for his future, how bleak they were, and started to lose my composure in front of an ex.
The other day, I ran into a college friend on the subway, talking to her NIH friends about the crazy things she had learned on a trip to Easter Island. I got off two stops later to board a capital bike share, now completely seamless with any subway commute I’d make: 3.82 miles; 25 minutes, almost entirely downhill, to my grocery store to buy vegetables. On the way out, I saw two men, one young and white and one older and black, arguing on their respective porches. 'Go back in your house sir' the young man said tiredly. 'I will not go back in my house!’ the other man said. ‘You think you can come here, and live here, just cuz you’re white.’ I walked away and talked to a white neighbor whom I hadn’t met but who had seen the altercation. We shrugged. We’ve already come. The country hit the skids, and D.C. thrives; it offered us jobs, built us Churchkey and Whole Foods, and then nods goodbye: my successors’ U-Hauls are already in the alley behind the house that I share with 6 friends. In two weeks I’m starting a PhD in political science in New York.
I make people cry more than I would like to. Two times in which I felt completely comfortable with my choices stand out; both times, we were better off apart, and I was sure I had done no lasting harm. It hit me recently that being right and feeling level with hurting someone aren’t the same thing. I still feel shaken when those memories resurface. I should aspire, I think, to do better than leaving no trace; I should try to leave people and places better off than I found them.
I cannot say I’ve done so for D.C. I have definitely left some of the friends I made this year better off: introduced them to other friends, to significant others, to bike trails and restaurants they’ve liked. Almost none will be here in 5 years. In some ways I’ve left no mark; In others, I have driven gentrification in a way that I am at best ambivalent about. Two blocks east from my row-home, in what was a rough area, a restaurant called The Mothership has opened up. On weeknights, you see us eating pierogies under Christmas lights. A friend’s mom joined him for Jazz in the Park last year and commented “Are there any adults in this city?” Perhaps not. Perhaps the only people who will still live in the NW in 10 years will wear slacks to work, jeans on Friday and drink Sangria in the evenings, while the SE decamps to PG county.
I’m gone, D.C. I’m going home. I can’t be the one you need. But I’ll remember you well. I walked to happy hour last week and ran into an acquaintance I’m quite fond of, on his way to the bookstore to prepare for the Foreign Service Exam. I biked to the National Science Museum in June with friends to view the largest nature photographs I’d ever seen. I walk up Connecticut and say, Starbucks: why not? I walk down 14th and watch the buildings rise.
I don’t know whose city it was. But it’s ours now. I still have to leave.
Also I used to write a travel blog. It's here.