Signs of Life in Downtown DC

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Parts of downtown Washington, DC, are a time capsule, perfectly frozen in time from the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

One of these places is Sweet Leaf on 15th St. It’s your typical high-end salad place – DC loves its expensive salads.

Like much of the city, it closed in March, 2020, and never reopened. They just locked up and left. The signs announcing new salad combinations, the chairs and tables, the register – everything is still inside.

Large swathes of downtown DC look similar. The white collar workers that once poured out of the Metro are working from home. Still. Most of the coffee shops, sandwich places, cleaners and bars that supported them are gone.

So few people that the Starbucks have closed! DC used to have Starbucks across the street from Starbucks but even they can’t survive.

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The city has taken to plastering empty storefronts with murals. They’re quite good but do not disguise the fact that you can be the only person walking down L St on a Tuesday morning – a very unusual occurrence for a place that once used to be the busiest in the city.

Yet, it was worse last year. Walking around Farragut North then was an apocalyptic experience, with streets so dark and empty that it was worrisome. It seemed like the world had ended but no one had told me.

I work from home but cannot sit at home all day. I like to get coffee in the morning so grab a Capital Bikeshare bike and roll down the 15th St bike lane (passing the empty Sweet Leaf).

It’s good to see humanity. There’s a guy at 15th and K who yells hello at everyone. You can hear him from blocks away. He recognizes me. Thinks my name is David. “Good morning Daaavviidd!” he shouts as I wave to him from across K Street.

I like the Peet’s Coffee near the White House. It’s sunny, on a corner and has a view of Old Executive Office Building, a flamboyant and anachronistic construct of marble columns, flags and ironwork, all done in French Empire style.

Pre-pandemic, the line at Peet’s would stretch to the door. I haven’t had to wait in line there since 2019. I bring my laptop to work from home from a coffee shop. There are few customers – maybe a uniformed Secret Service agent with his bike parked out front, a TV correspondent getting a latte before going to a press briefing or a tourist wandering in after a White House selfie.

Lately, I’ve seen signs of life downtown. At Midtown Centre, where the Sweet Leaf time capsule is, Dauphine’s, a Cajun joint, opened last year – and is still open. Construction workers are busy building out a Japanese restaurant, too.

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And biking by Sweet Leaf this morning, I noticed something different. A sign.

NOW HIRING
ALL POSITIONS
PART TIME AND FULL TIME

A simple piece of paper. A sign of life after two years of emptiness. The time capsule reopening.

The days of having a coffee shop to myself are coming to an end. The days of being the only person walking down the block. The days of artwork covering empty windows.

I’ve been wrong before. I thought downtown would spring back to life last year. Maybe it will never come back. Maybe it will come back differently. But it’s definitely coming back.

We Have Not Forgotten January 6th

The Capitol is open again

January 6th has largely been forgotten.

It has disappeared in the mad crush of events of the past year. A new President, the ebbs and flows of coronavirus and the rise of inflation have all taken the place of the insurrection in the nation’s consciousness.

The work of investigators goes on, racking up indictments against hundreds of rioters. Congress is slowly and methodically investigating the organizers. And the media hasn’t forgotten.

But, for most Americans, it’s just another part of the past few years that they’re trying to forget.

Washington, DC, has not forgotten. For the citizens of the nation’s capital – like me – it’s a day seared in our memories.

I saw the rioters. They were all over the city that day, including in hotels in my neighborhood. On January 6th, I saw them bedecked in Trump gear and armed with bats, poles, clubs and pepper spray. Some were even outfitted in camouflage uniforms, complete with patches and IDs. They looked like National Guard to me. I think one part of January 6th which hasn’t been investigated was the attempt by some Trump supporters to impersonate the military.

On January 6th, I watched the mob march up to the Capitol and then march back, where they celebrated in their hotels. They were proud of what they had done. It was the most disgusting thing I have ever witnessed.

Even the next day, there was no remorse. On January 7th they were still running around DC waving Trump flags before eventually departing.

That Trump supporters were part of a riot wasn’t a surprise to anyone who lives here. During their earlier rallies, Trump supporters had brawled with people in the streets and vandalized black churches.

We knew something terrible was coming January 6th. A culmination of months of violence.

As a kid, I watched Schoolhouse Rock. I’m Just a Bill taught me how democracy worked.

Change in America, unlike other countries, occurred through the legislature. It was done by elected representatives who followed the Constitution.

But how could you believe that after January 6th?

We nearly lost democracy to an angry mob. Only the brave men and women of the Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police Department (DC’s police force) prevented Steve Bannon from installing Donald Trump as President for Life.

The country has moved on, more concerned with gas prices and covid. The facts of January 6th are uncomfortable to examine too closely.

But the people of DC have not forgotten.

LIKES Book Signing at Metrobar

Likes for sale

When I was asked to sign copies of my book LIKES at Metrobar, the decision was an easy one: YES!

I sold my book of short stories about social media as part of their Holiday Art Fair and Book Sale on December 5th.

I’m a huge fan of this Metro-themed outside bar near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro. It’s also right on the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which makes it very convenient for people who bike (like me). Since Metrobar opened, I’ve brought multiple groups of friends there, all of whom shared my enthusiasm for drinking outside next to a disused Metro car.

I’ve never sold books in person before. Prior to this, all my sales were online.

In our super-wired age, there’s the temptation to believe that everyone and everything is on Twitter or Facebook.

They aren’t. The Metrobar Art Fair and Book Sale was an opportunity to sell books in person to people outside my online social network.

There’s also something different about seeing someone with a physical object (a book) that you created. Something that is more tangible and real than pixels.

LIKES is a collection of dark and funny short stories about social media. But it’s also a beautiful physical object that you can put in a bag and take with you to read on the Metro. Or in Metrobar.

Get your copy today.

 

Little Free Library Find: Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins

I had seen Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters in my local bookstore in a stack of paperbacks where they kept the popular fiction.

Glancing at the cover, with its sunny shot of the Italian Riviera, and the blurbs from from famous people, I instantly put it in the category of “Live, Laugh, Love” books, dismissing the novel as a piece of feel-good, literary fluff.

I didn’t have to read the back cover. I was sure Beautiful Ruins was some silly nonsense about rich people going to Italy for some spurious reason (a marriage, perhaps) and then rediscovering the joy of life among the simple Italian peasantry.

But seeing it in the Little Free Library, and needing something to read, I took it.

How wrong I was!

Instead of light fare, I got a weighty and complex tale told from multiple viewpoints, spanning from World War II to today. A story that encompassed combat fatigue, post-war poverty in Italy, the making of Cleopatra and even the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Beautiful Ruins was a literary page-turner, full of surprises.

And full of profound questions on the life of an artist. If you write one perfect chapter, is that enough? Will becoming famous really change anything? Is it more important to make money from your art or pursue your own vision?

Jess Walter’s novel left with me a lot to ponder. And it came from a novel that I dismissed as fluff, based solely on the cover. There’s a lesson there somewhere….

Downtown DC is Deserted

Soho Cafe
Where is everyone?

The Axios article is correct. Downtown DC is deserted. I live at the edge of downtown, and spend a lot of time walking and biking through it.

Recently, I went to lunch at Soho Cafe at 13th and K St NW. Pre-covid, it was one of my favorite lunch spots – I have a thing for steamtray Chinese food.

Normally, it’s a buzz of activity, in which you elbow your way up to the buffet, fill a tray with food, wait in line to pay and then try to find a place to sit. Sometimes, I even had to share a table with someone else.

Yet, when I walked into Soho yesterday, one of the cafe workers was taking a nap in a chair. There were no customers, no line and I had my pick of tables.

Looking around the cafe, I thought to myself: this place won’t make it.

DC is Back?

DC is not back, despite the social media campaigns. It’s not DC’s fault, though. Spooked by Delta, the federal government is still working remotely. The thousands of feds which commuted back and forth to downtown offices have not returned.

The return of DC’s indoor mask mandate killed off meetings and conventions, too. Visitors are often surprised at the strictness of the mask mandate, which applies to everything, including hotels, nightclubs, restaurants and museums. Meeting planners have moved their events across the river to mask-free Virginia.

Some places reopened too soon. Swing’s Coffee, for example. It doesn’t open until 8 AM and even then it doesn’t seem to have enough business to support itself, with the nearby World Bank still working remotely. I meet a group of biking friends there on Fridays and we make up most of their business.

A block away is Peet’s Coffee. I love this spot, since it’s on a corner with lots of windows and a view of the Old Executive Office Building. In the morning, sometimes I see the Vice President’s motorcade go by. Pre-covid, there’d always be a line. Now, no line. It reopened months ago and I’ve never seen it busy.

There used to be multiple Peet’s locations downtown – 15th and M, 17th and L, 11th and E. Only the location near the White House remains.

I never thought I’d see Starbucks close locations but many of them closed as well. And the sandwich places downtown have mostly disappeared.

Hoteling is the Future

I work as a government contractor. Pre-covid, we did hoteling. No one had an office. Instead, when you went into headquarters, you picked out a place to sit like you would an airplane seat. I’d spend the day in a stuffy room at a long table with several dozen other people (hello super spreader event).

Luckily, I only had to go in 1-2 days a week. This arrangement had enabled the government to consolidate office space, saving millions in the process.

My agency was going to have an optional return to the office starting in October. Delta shelved those plans. Covid caused many agencies to rethink who even needed to be in the office. At the minimum, many agencies are going to hoteling models, where people work in the office for a couple days and at home for the rest of the time.

Other businesses have followed the government’s lead. Not everyone needs to be in the office all the time. And if they’re not there, why rent all that space?

But as a friend reminded me, the cars are back. The people who are coming downtown are driving, feeling safer in their own vehicles than Metro.

Van Ness Metro Station
High ceilings, high drama

Which is a shame, because Metro is beautiful. If everyone goes back to the office in force, not everyone is going to be able to drive without complete gridlock.

Ironically, DC has more traffic on the weekends. People may not feel comfortable going to the office but everyone knows you can’t get covid in a bar, right? Between the Ubers delivering people to U Street clubs and the Ubers delivering Chik-fil-A to lazy apartment dwellers, DC approaches traffic meltdown on Friday and Saturday night.

This is the End

So, how does this end?

Federal commuters will eventually return, but in much smaller numbers. Most people will work remotely at least part of the time. With fewer people working downtown, many businesses will not make it. Offices will be consolidated leaving an opportunity for the city to remake this space – into housing perhaps?

Not everyone can drive everywhere so we will need Metro to survive, as well as vibrant car alternatives like protected bike lanes and pedestrian-only streets (like the recent Open Streets Georgia Avenue).

And Uber needs to be destroyed, before this parasitic company swamps DC with cars delivering chicken sandwiches.

I’m optimistic. Cities are unique places with an energy that cannot be duplicated. The pandemic has taught us that virtual is no substitute for the real thing.

No one wants to do another Zoom meeting but have lunch in a cafe, browse a bookstore, grab a latte with a friend – yes. People want that.

And those are things you do in a city.

One Day Out of Life

Downtown DC on Wheels at the Portrait Gallery

Celebrate…

Biking up 8th Street, I heard Madonna’s song, recognizing the 80s classic instantly: Holiday. Echoing off the buildings was her call to take a holiday and celebrate one day out of life.

In front of the Portrait Gallery, the street had been closed and a temporary outdoor rolling rink constructed. It was Downtown DC on Wheels. Skaters were enjoying a mild afternoon of rolling in the shadows of the marble columns of the museum. The scene was joyous as kids learned to skate and older folks relived their youth, while a DJ played extended dance remixes.

And I thought: who would want to destroy this beautiful city?

The day before, the Capitol rioters had returned, staging a rally to free their January 6 co-conspirators. This time, the Capitol Police were prepared and the rioters were heavily outnumbered. The rally was an embarrassing bust.

It was a beautiful weekend, too, featuring the kind of sunny and mild days that DC gets in September before summer comes to an end. Soon, the leaves will be gone from the trees, the sun will set before 5 PM and we’ll be in mid-winter dreariness.

Why waste your time enslaved to a conspiracy theory? Imagine spending a beautiful weekend in DC – not to see the monuments or visit the museums – but to wave signs and shout slogans from a failed political campaign.

I don’t feel sorry for the demonstrators. They made their choice.

I am with the people rolling around the rink to Madonna’s Holiday, who know that it is better to pursue joy than surrender your mind to conspiracy.

One day out of life…

 

We Need a Butlerian Jihad

Dune cover While the novel Dune by Frank Herbert has its science fiction elements, it’s really a book about politics and manipulation.

I’ve read it three times, having just finished it again in anticipation of the upcoming film by Denis Villeneuve. At first glance, the novel appears to be the classic Hero’s Journey in which a young man loses his father, gains new skills and allies, and then defeats his enemies to restore the world.

Herbert presents and subverts this familiar tale. As he says in the book, “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”

The novel is a warning about charismatic leaders, though that’s easy to miss in this exotic story of Fremen, sandworms and spice. Herbert is telling readers to think for themselves, and to ponder the way that leaders manipulate their people.

Masses Manipulated by Rulers

The Dune universe is one in which the masses are manipulated by their rulers. Even the good Duke Leto brags that he has the best propaganda corps in the business.

We see this most notably in the way that Paul and Jessica Atreides adopt the myth of a redeemer to cement their hold on the Fremen people and restore the House Atreides to power. The Fremen were seeded with this myth by the Missionaria Protectiva, an arm of the Bene Gesserit that plants superstitions among primitive peoples for later exploitation. Jessica knows the myth and rituals and is able to use them to make Paul the divine leader of the Fremen.

Yet, chaos is the rule of the universe. The Kwisatz Haderach comes too soon for the Bene Gesserit and is beyond their control. And even this omniscient being cannot control the jihad that the Fremen will wreak upon the universe.

Stagnation is the greatest enemy, according to Herbert, and humankind must be periodically refreshed by the kind of wild mingling of genes that occurs only during wartime.

Butlerian Jihad

This jihad is an echo of an earlier one: The Butlerian Jihad. While this is often characterized as a revolt against machines, it was a rebellion against the rulers who controlled the machines. As Herbert states early in Dune:

Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.

The jihad began when the people discovered that their choices were being manipulated. Free will was an illusion. The course of their lives were being altered by men with computers.

Sound familiar?

Men with Machines

Frank Herbert had his own kind of prescience.

Writing in 1965, he could see our future, in which our decisions are manipulated by social media algorithms through the reinforcement and discouragement of certain behaviors.

What path are men like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos subtly sending us down? It’s not the golden path of the Bene Gesserit, seeking to better humanity. Instead, it’s all about the likes. Hate likes, love likes, fear likes – all that engagement adds up to greater wealth and power for the social media titans.

In the Dune universe, people rebelled against this kind of manipulation, though it plunged thousands of worlds into chaos. Shorn of their computing devices, humankind was forced to develop its innate potential, producing human computers like mentats, Guild navigators for safe space travel, and the Bene Gesserit with their exquisite mind-body control and limited prescience.

Butlerian Jihad 2.0

Back in the 1990s, I believed that the Internet was a democratizing force. Anyone could create their own web site – even me. This exciting new medium was a way to get around the traditional gatekeepers and let human creativity bloom.

Yet, the diverse and funky Internet that I was a part of is no more. Instead, the network has been taken over by global social media conglomerates with very different agendas from connecting the world’s people.

Why would you connect the world’s people unless you wanted to control them? Even the noblest soul would be tempted to manipulate users during a crisis (for example: now). You might think you’re doing something good, by raising some voices and silencing others, but it’s still manipulation.

A situation that Frank Herbert would instantly recognize. The machines themselves are not bad; it’s the men who control them that we should suspect. We’ve all been impacted by social media – consider your attention span – and we should ask how these men with machines are controlling our lives.

The Butlerian Jihad did away with thinking machines. There was a new commandment, with the penalty of death for anyone who violated it:

Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.

Frank Herbert had a healthy skepticism for leaders of all types. His view was that we are too ready to surrender our will to others, whether they be a charismatic hero or a powerful man with a machine.

Maybe it’s time for our own Butlerian Jihad.

The Three-Body Problem

Sunset for Humanity
A typically upbeat section of The Three-Body Problem

It’s hard to describe The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin without giving away the plot. And I don’t want to spoil the surprises in this sci-fi novel.

Instead, I’ll describe the three emotions I felt reading the book:

  1. HORROR

There’s the commonplace anxieties that make up much of life (and are mined endlessly for literary fiction) and then there’s the cosmic horror when you consider that your life is a mere speck in the universe.

The Three-Body Problem engenders that feeling, especially the more deeply you read into the book. If H.P. Lovecraft studied astrophysics and quantum theory, then you’d get a novel like this one, full of very real and plausible terrors existing in deep space. Things to worry about that you’ve never worried about before, I guarantee it.

It makes you feel unimportant. What is one life, even if it’s yours, compared to the broad sweep of galaxies and the mysteries of space and time?

Matt Haig in The Midnight Library believes that every life is precious. But in Liu’s cold and unfeeling universe, individual lives matter little, compared to the needs of collective humanity.

Which brings me to my next emotion:

2. GRATITUDE

After putting down the book, I had never been so happy to live on a stable planet orbiting a single, predictable sun.

With covid and coup attempts, I thought I was living in a dystopia now. Hah! The problems of 2021 are mere trifles compared to the world-ending dilemma of The Three-Body Problem.

3. IRRITATION

Is it the author or the translator? Did Liu Cixin write these clunky sentences (the dialogue in parts reads like a bad police procedural) or was it the translator, Ken Liu?

This isn’t a book with sweeping prose to thrill the heart. Instead, it plods along with long discursions on radio telescopes and nanoparticles. At times, I paged ahead to see if the plot got going again or if I should give up.

I kept going because it’s a really good mystery that Liu Cixin has set up. It’s a book about ideas – big ones – and not about characters, which are just clumsy pawns set against an unfeeling universe.

So, would I continue? Am I going to read the rest of the trilogy?

No!

While the ideas in the novel are fascinating (and troubling on a human level), I can’t read another huge book of clunky prose. Instead, I’ll wait for the Netflix series.








Lafayette Square Op-Ed Published in Washington Post

White House behind many fences
Lafayette Square locked up behind a fence

Lafayette Square is open again, but it’s different now – that’s the title of my op-ed in the Washington Post.

I spent years walking through Lafayette Square on my way to work. This historic park was a constant in my life when all else changed. With the statue of Andrew Jackson in the middle of it, the square had a timeless quality.

I assumed Lafayette Square would be there forever. But after Trump had demonstrators violently cleared from the park, he put a fence around it.

Tyranny can take everything from you – even a park.

That’s the lesson of my op-ed.

I wrote about the park to share the local perspective. For the 700,000+ people who live in DC (like me), the parks and monuments are more than just tourist attractions. They are part of our lives.

Lafayette Square wasn’t history to me – it was a shortcut and a green respite from the busy city. I thought the park was sacred and inviolable. 2020 taught me that our institutions can be destroyed if not defended.

This isn’t the first op-ed I’ve had in the Post. See my articles for more.








The Plot

the plot book cover

You can’t copyright a plot.

As a writer, people sometimes approach me with book ideas. They have the idea, they just need someone to “write it up.”

Sometimes, they even offer to split the profits with me. They’ve done the hard part, after all – thinking up the idea – and just need someone to put the words on the paper.

But an idea is nothing. It’s like saying that you have an idea for a bridge and just need someone to build it for you.

Which is why the central dilemma of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz didn’t resonate with me. In the novel, Jacob Finch Bonner steals the plot for a novel from one of his students.

Bonner turns the idea into a best-seller. And then is blackmailed by an anonymous figure who accuses him of being a thief. Bonner then desperately tries to cover up his “crime” while trying to figure out the identity of his accuser.

But it’s not a crime. As Bonner himself says, plots are in the air. They’re narratives we’ve heard a million times before, from the Odyssey to Star Wars. They’re stories we hear from friends. Things we read about in the newspaper. Tales we overhear on the bus.

All these plots – they say there are only seven of them – slosh around in the culture and get recycled time and time again.

Where would we be if we couldn’t use the material around us? My short story collection, Likes, is based upon things I experienced, heard about or read about. I take the stories that are in the air and refashion them into tidy short fiction.

Which is why I didn’t understand Bonner’s guilt in The Plot. Or why he was trying to unmask his blackmailer.

It’s the expression of the idea – not the idea itself – that is the real thing. Jacob Finch Bonner took a plot and turned it into a novel. He did the hard work. He did nothing wrong.

So, if you’re around a writer, be careful. We may steal your stories. And not feel guilty about it.