Letter from Washington: Gotterdammerung

Reject the Coverup rally in Washington, DC

A small crowd stood in the cold outside the Capitol.

Impeachment had failed.

The speakers were desultory; the mood, bitter. A banner waved in the night reading, “REJECT THE COVERUP.” But the cover-up had succeeded, the Republicans admitting that Trump had blackmailed Ukraine and obstructed Congress. But they weren’t going to do anything about it.

What do you do when you lose?

You can fall back upon conspiracy theories. My favorite is that Trump has dementia. All the signs are there, from his fumbling speech to incoherent rage. You can see it in his dilated eyes, his exhaustion, his warped and twisted body language.

Yet, his handlers have managed to keep him upright through meds, makeup and camera tricks. There’s no reason to think he’ll collapse before Election Day. He must be defeated at the ballot box.

A few days after impeachment failed, Nazis marched in the streets of DC.

They slipped into the city without notice and quick-marched to the Capitol, protected by a phalanx of DC police. They wore masks, lest they be identified and shamed. They vow to return.

This is why the election is so critical. “We’re not at fascism – yet,” one of the speakers at the Reject the Coverup rally said. Yet.

I support Elizabeth Warren but lately I’ve been drawn toward Michael Bloomberg. Why? He’s a fighter.

I’m cheered by articles about him spending lavishly and hiring the best people. So many enterprises in American life (Uber, Amazon) are built cheaply on the backs of underpaid labor. Bloomberg is willing to pay for quality.

And his ads are amazing, a slap across the face of Trump and his slavish supporters. They’re clear, direct and motivating.

Does a candidate lead the people or do the people push their representative to victory? According to Rachel Bitecofer in Politico, it’s the latter. The most motivated side wins. Candidate quality is less important.

There are no swing voters. There are no undecideds – how can you be undecided in a contest between fascism and democracy?

With impeachment failure, this may feel like the end, the gotterdammerung of the American experiment.

It isn’t. This is merely the pause before the last act. November 3 will be when this dark opera comes to a crashing end, with the voters rendering a final decision.

Fleishman Is In Trouble

Fleishman is in Trouble

I have a thing for novels about the problems of wealthy New Yorkers. Of course I was going to pick up Fleishman Is In Trouble.

Toby Fleishman is doctor making $300,000 a year who still feels poor. Possessed with rage against almost everything, but especially his ex-wife, he drowns his sorrows in a never-ending cornucopia of app-based sex.

And then his ex disappears, leaving him with their two children.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner dissects with anthropological precision this tribe of rich (but not rich enough) New Yorkers who always want more. Another million, another beach house, another trip to Biarritz while they relentlessly self-improve through spinning classes and Goop-level quackery.

But buried in this sharp satire is a love story. It’s a story about loving yourself. What do you do when all this hustling leaves you empty? How do you cope when your spouse turns into a stranger? When is enough enough and how do you get off the hedonic treadmill?

I nearly gave up on this book. Brodesser-Akner doesn’t believe in chapters and the novel unspools in novella-length sections. Fleishman’s sexual adventures get a bit tiresome and you start to wonder where all this is going.

But, the last fifty pages of the novel are incredibly moving, tying together all the disparate strands of narrative and revealing the truth beneath them.

Fleishman Is In Trouble is a book about the trouble all of us will confront, a kind of middle-aged malaise that will eat away your soul. Brodesser-Akner writes about finding meaning when everything falls apart.

I had expected a satiric novel about New York. Fleishman Is In Trouble is so more than that, a compassionate guide through the dark wood of the midlife crisis.

City Paper 2020 Fiction Contest Reading at Eaton DC

City Paper 2020 Fiction Contest Winners
(l to r) City Paper 2020 Fiction Contest Winners Carmen Munir Russell-Sluchansky, Rhonda Green-Smith, Joe Flood

I had a chance to read my short story, Apartment 101, at a reading arranged by the Washington City Paper for its 2020 Fiction Contest winners.

I read first, sharing my fiction before an audience at the arts-friendly Eaton DC hotel and online via Facebook Live.

Standing in front of the crowd with my short story in hand, I read slowly, stressing the funny lines and looking up at the audience occasionally. A reading needs to have a bit of performance to it.

This wasn’t my first reading. I won the City Paper contest in 2017 for my short story Victory Party and read at Kramerbooks, which was the experience of a lifetime.

I was glad to read first because then I could sit back and enjoy the work of the other winning writers from the Fiction Issue.

Carmen Munir Russell-Sluchansky shared his story about an epic paintball war in DC. It’s funny, a rarity in these grim times in the nation’s capital. A journalist, he wrote it the night before the contest submission deadline.

Rhonda Green-Smith read her story of a child who learns everything she needs to know about life one morning in 1986. Her voice is DC authentic, coming from the real city beyond the monuments. This story is part of a collection that she’s working on.

Then we did a Q&A with the audience, including being asked for writing advice. I said: write what you know. Apartment 101 is based upon an apartment I lived in during the 90s. The characters and the events were all drawn from my experiences.

Thanks to City Paper for setting this up! Fiction provides a more satisfying experience than skimming a tweet. I hope that I inspired other people in the room to pick up the pen and start writing.

Apartment 101 Published in Washington City Paper Fiction Issue 2020

Washington City Paper Fiction Issue 2020
Washington City Paper Fiction Issue 2020

Three people. Three decades. One drafty apartment.

That’s the premise behind my short story Apartment 101, which was a winner in the Washington City Paper’s Fiction Issue 2020. The issue also includes two other great stories by local authors about life in Washington, DC.

The inspiration behind Apartment 101 comes from experience. During the 1990s, I lived in an apartment building at 15th and Swann.  Like in the story, there was a drug dealer on the corner, a weird hoarder in the building and I got up on the roof. And it was drafty as hell.

Creative people need unstructured time. I got the idea for the story walking home from work on a rainy December evening. My brain was wandering, thinking about how many years I’ve spent walking around DC. I got to thinking about my old apartment and how much I witnessed there. Could that be a story? How could I organize it?

Once home, I immediately sat in front of my computer and started to write. I’ve written so many traditional stories that I wanted to write something with a different structure. Apartment 101 is three stories in one, with little vignettes from 1989, 1999 and 2009.

Originally, I intended to include 2019 but I ran out of space – the contest limit was 1500 words. Guidelines are good for creativity, however. The sparse word limit forced me to cut my sentences down to what was absolutely necessary.

I wrote most of it in one sitting over a couple of hours but returned to it dozens of times over the next week, making little tweaks and changes.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in the City Paper Fiction Issue. My short story Victory Party appeared in 2017. I’ve also written several novels set in Washington, including my latest, The Swamp.

Look for Apartment 101 on newsstands and online! And come out for reading by contest winners on January 15 7 PM at Eaton DC.

 

Lessons Learned, 2010 – 2019

Andrew Jackson statue at sunset

This past decade has been interesting. Too interesting, an ancient curse come to life, providing times with drama that seems to be accelerating into a mad president tweeting us into World War III.

Stealing this idea from a friend who posted her lessons learned, 2010 – 2019. Here’s what this decade taught me:

  1. If you don’t do politics, politics is going to do you.
  2. Your most interesting times will be the worst.
  3. You can bike in any kind of weather. Snow, rain, polar vortex. Doesn’t matter. Humans are designed for this.
  4. Read that book. Reading is the best use of your leisure time.
  5. Write that book! Creating art has its own rewards.
  6. Don’t try to monetize your hobby.
  7. If you’re healthy, appreciate that. If not, endure.
  8. We’re not here forever. Go to that party, hug that friend, take that cheesy sunset photo.

District Hardware vs WeWork

District Hardware in black and white

After nearly fifty years in business, District Hardware & Bike closed last weekend.

Founded in 1971, this small business was where many Washingtonians bought their first bikes. For others, it was a convenient spot to pick up a hammer, a can of paint or a missing screw.

After the store moved to The Wharf in 2017, it became a neighborhood hotspot, adding a café that served coffee, snacks and a great selection of local beer.

The owners gave back to the community, by hosting local groups, including the monthly #BikeDC meetup that I was proud to attend. Velo Café also provided one of the few affordable places to have a drink in the upscale Wharf development.

#bIkedc happy hour at Velo Cafe

Last weekend, neighbors gathered to mourn the loss of the beloved institution, filling the store one last time. One last chance to pick up any hardware needs before the opportunity disappeared from Southwest.

District Hardware said that they didn’t get the foot traffic they expected. It’s a simple economic concept: not enough paying customers. Expenses exceeded revenues so they had to close. Couldn’t lose money forever.

Meanwhile, across the city, WeWork opened a new location at 1701 Rhode Island Avenue. This brand-new building, constructed where the old YMCA used to be, offers 104,000 square feet of space for coworking. In the past six months, WeWork also announced lease agreements for space at Dupont Circle, Midtown Center and K Street.

WeWork lost $1.25 billion in the last quarter alone. In response, CEO Adam Neumann was sacked. He’s walking away with a billion-dollar payout while WeWork employees face the prospect of layoffs.

I was taught that the market is rational. It is efficient. It is impersonal.

The market is ruthless when it comes to small business like District Hardware. Don’t make enough to cover your rent? You have to close.

But investor-funded behemoths like WeWork can lose money by the billions and skate on, forever, it seems with the only consequence being bad press.

The venture capitalists who fund WeWork believe in disruption. WeWork is more than just office space; it is reinventing the way we work, live and play. When they first came to DC, I fell for the hype too, longing for an escape from cubicle nation.

The lesson of the sharing economy is to be careful what you wish for – WeWork is little more than an open office with free beer and snacks.

WeWork Manhattan Laundry - interior

But why would investors pour money into a business that loses money, quarter after quarter, unless they believed in something beyond the balance sheet? They were sold a story by a new age snake oil salesman.

District Hardware, however, had to operate in the real world. They had no tale of disruption for investors. Grounded in the needs of customers, they offered real goods and services in an economy that values these things less and less.

WeWork and District Hardware were competitors. Both needed space in a city that lacks it. But one business was subsidized by dreamy venture capitalists content to lose money. The other had to make payroll.

The closing of District Hardware is a warning. How can small businesses in DC compete against lavishly subsidized fantasies like WeWork?

The market is not rational, efficient or impersonal. Our city is being overcome by coworking not due to a business need but because venture capitalists said that it’s next new thing.

Do you want a locally-owned shop where you can get your bike fixed, pick up a lightbulb and have a glass of wine? Or do you want a rebranded cubicle farm owned by a money-losing conglomerate?

We get to decide what the city looks like. The time to act is now, before we lose another District Hardware.

Day of Remembrance for Victims of Traffic Violence

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Nearly 40,000 people are killed on our streets and roads every year – the equivalent of a major war that America fights annually, endlessly and always loses.

You or probably someone you know has been impacted by traffic violence.

Several years ago, while in a crosswalk near Dupont Circle, I was hit by car. Traffic stopped for me as a I crossed but then a driver decided to whip around the stopped cars and hit me. Luckily, it was a little Porsche that just scooped me up on its hood, leaving me unharmed.

Others, like my friend Dave Salovesh, weren’t so fortunate. Traffic deaths have increased every year in DC since 2015.

On Sunday, DC Families for Safe Streets spoke in front of the Wilson Building on a day of remembrance for loved ones lost to traffic violence. Survivors, loved ones and allies marched from Chinatown to the seat of the DC government in a plea for safe streets in the nation’s capital.

A poem was read to mark the solemn occasion. As we bowed our heads in remembrance, a huge flock of starlings took flight, traversing the sky in vast circles as the day came to an end. It felt like a sign that we weren’t alone.

There is a simple solution to the problem of traffic violence: return space to pedestrians.

Washington, DC would be a good place to start. Designed in the 1700s, the nation’s capital was never meant for cars. With narrow streets and short blocks, it’s a city that was built for pedestrians.

Yet, we’ve let cars go nearly everywhere in the city. And not just people who live here, but anyone in any kind of vehicle is allowed to drive into the middle of this densely-populated urban environment.

The result is frustration for all – drivers, pedestrians, cyclists – forced to fight for limited pavement in an increasingly lawless environment.

Mayor Bowser has stated that she wants DC to be a world-class city. Then do what other world-class cities have done: ban cars.

Cities from Madrid to New York have begun to ban or limit cars. Washington should do the same. We have public transport – the Metro. There is no reason anyone should drive downtown.

If the Mayor wants to reverse the trend of traffic deaths and make Washington a truly world-class city, then she can demonstrate her commitment by banning cars from downtown.

40,000 traffic deaths a year is not something we have to live with. Change is possible. It is time to end the silence on traffic violence.

Letter from Washington: World Series Edition

final pitches

How does history change?

Something went wrong in mid-2016, an unexpected shift in the cosmic equilibrium that sent us barreling down the wrong timeline, like a train that had jumped the tracks.

You could feel it, a kind of nervousness in the air that culminated in electoral disaster on November 8, 2016. All the pundits said she couldn’t lose and yet…

I wrote about that night in Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction competition. For me, the story was therapy as much as it was literature, my attempt to explain the unexplainable. My main character supported Trump but with the realization that the new president would not help people like him. In Victory Party, he recognizes the truth, which at least provides some hope.

Of course, Trump supporters are not like my clear-eyed protagonist but people who have willfully blinded themselves, shutting out reality in favor of the comfortable hate of Fox News. They are the people who have driven dark comedy of our times, even as it grows steadily more absurd.

Rudy Giuliani butt-dialing reporters. Mick Mulvaney admitting to a quid pro quo and then taking it back the next day. Republican members of Congress storming into a security facility with their cellphones.

The other day, a friend asked if I was working on a sequel to The Swamp, my satirical novel about the Obama years in DC.

How do you satirize an age that is beyond belief? What I could possibly write that’s stranger than our current reality?

And then the Nationals made an improbable run to the World Series. After winning the first two games in Houston, they lost all three at home. All the pundits said it was over – no way could they do it now.

And then they started winning again. Game 7 and I was in a bar, expecting the Nats to lose. I was with a friend from Boston who mocked my cynicism. She believed.

But I did not. How could you during this timeline of disaster?

Down 2-0 for most of the game, the Nats suddenly started hitting in the 7th. 2-1, 4-2 and then 6-2 with just three outs remaining! Staring at the box score, something like hope filtered into my heart. We’re going to win the World Series! An expectant buzz filled the bar.

And then it happened. The final out and everyone erupted in cheers, hugging and high-fives. Outside, on the street, people honked and yelled. Fireworks thudded over downtown as an entire city celebrated.

There were so many glorious bits of time, like the shirtless guy sliding across the dugout. I watched the local news late into the night as they interviewed drunk people. But my favorite viral moment was this:

Yes! Washington needed this, with some asshole in the fucking White House. Truer words have not been spoken – and on Fox too! You could feel the timeline starting to return to true, turning on an axis from Washington, DC.

A city that had also roundly booed the president during Game 5 and chanted, “Lock him up.”

The day after the World Series victory, while the rest of us were hungover, Nancy Pelosi started the impeachment process of Donald Trump. The wily Speaker had waited until she had the evidence and, more importantly, the votes in the Democratic caucus.

How does history change? It’s done by people. A stadium of them booing the  president, revealing his weakness. A Speaker of the House patiently marshaling her supporters. A drunk person yelling obscenities on TV. And a baseball team who ignores the pundits and just keeps on fighting.

WordPressDC: Create a Home Page That Gets You Clients

Headline with image

Before social media and SEO, web sites were all about words.

Content, we called it, and content was king.

The site with the best words won.

At least they did for a few brief years in the 90s, before keyword stuffing, monetization strategies, content management systems, personalization, cookies, bots, influencers, viral videos, tweet storms and other forms of digital manipulation embraced by late-stage capitalism.

Every once in a while, however, I’m reminded that web sites are about words. Without them, your web site is an empty shell.

Marylyn King presented on the power of words at the October WordPress DC Meetup on creating a home page that gets you clients.

She made the point that effective web sites clearly spell out their offer. Ask for what you want!

It’s a novel concept that’s been lost as so many home pages are soaked in indecipherable jargon. If you’re in the IT field, it’s buzzwords about the cloud. Government agencies decorate their pages with undefined acronyms. Nonprofits do everything but describe what they do.

No one wants to say, “I sell widgets.” Instead, they claim, “We’re a next generation industrial enterprise bringing lifestyle solutions embraced by the marketplace.”

But if you want your customer to buy something or donate money or sign-up for the newsletter, ask them! Make it clear, direct and bold.

Marylyn explained how to write the copy for an effective home page:

  • Problem
  • Solution
  • Authority
  • Call to Action

You describe the problem – I want toast.

You give the solution – here is a toaster.

You mention your authority – 99% of Amazon shoppers gave this toaster five stars.

And then the call to action: buy the toaster!

The silly examples are mine but web content does not need to be complicated and should not be complicated. You’re dealing with a fickle consumer who will click away from your site within seconds.

So, tell them what you offer immediately. Don’t make them figure it out. Don’t make them think.

Content management systems may change. Web design fads differ from year to year.

But the power of words is a constant. Invest in them to deliver returns.

Open Streets DC Opens Eyes

yoga on Georgia Avenue

Georgia Avenue is a street that I actively avoid. I live close to it – less than a mile – but I do everything in my power to avoid walking, biking or driving there.

Why?

Georgia Avenue is a traffic sewer designed to benefit Maryland car commuters rather than the people who live in the neighborhood. It is six lanes of hell, filled with angry drivers rushing from traffic light to traffic light but getting nowhere fast.

With narrow sidewalks blocked with utility poles, it’s not fun for pedestrians, either. And the few times I’ve biked on the street, it was only due to a navigational error on my part.

Until Saturday.

Open Streets Georgia Avenue

Georgia Avenue went car-free on October 5, 2019, for Open Streets DC. For a few hours on Saturday, anyone could use the street and they did! Thousands of people came from around the region to experience this fleeting pedestrian paradise.

In addition to the simple joy of walking, running or biking down the wide avenue, people enjoyed yoga, a climbing wall, bands, DJs and anything else that they could dream up on this open stretch of asphalt.

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But it was the kids who enjoyed it most. Everywhere you looked, you saw children on scooters, bikes, trikes and even unicycles. Parents could safely let their children wander the wide lanes without worrying about crazed car commuters.

It opened my eyes – literally. Without the fear of being run over, I could pause and look around, discovering new delights everywhere I turned.

My day was spent saying coasting down Georgia Avenue on my bike with friends and saying, “I didn’t know that was there…” It’s really a majestic avenue, filled with neighborhood shops and a wonderful tree-lined stretch near Howard University, one that is revealed only when cars are absent.

For example, last week, I walked by a new beer garden – Hook Hall. Yet, I barely noticed it for I was trying to get across Georgia Avenue without being hit by a car. Even with a marked crosswalk, drivers didn’t want to stop for me.

Hook Hall

With Open Streets DC, I was able to peer into the beer garden, leisurely stroll in, and enjoy a stein of beer. I also had pizza at Sonny’s, another place I had walked by but not seen due to the distracting presence of drivers.

Call Your Mother was another place I had read about but hadn’t seen, because it is on inaccessible Georgia Avenue. There was a block-long line for a bagel! And I discovered a new coffee place, Colony Club, and I am always up for new coffee places.

Open Streets DC opened my eyes – literally. Without the danger of cars, I could lift my head up and look around. The area I thought of as “hellish Georgia Avenue” is actually the lovely neighborhood of Park View.

Alas, after a few short hours, Open Streets DC came to an end. By 4 PM, massive SUVs and double-parking Ubers had replaced pedestrians. Parents took their children home before they were hit by a car.

Georgia Avenue was hellish again. I crossed the street and biked home via 11th St, a much safer route but also one that avoids Hook Hall, Call Your Mother, Sonny’s and all the other retail establishments of Park View.

DC was not designed for cars; it was meant for people. Open Streets DC was more than just a successful urban experiment, it reawakened the idea that the streets belong to everyone.

the #BikeDC crew