How I Learned to Love Washington, DC

Hope Unity Love

Despite taking a lot of photos of Washington, DC, and writing four books set in the city, my feelings about the nation’s capital have always been conflicted.

It’s never inspired the grandeur I feel gazing upon the emptiness of West Texas or the comforting familiarity of green and sunny Florida in mid-winter.

Pre-pandemic, my complaint about Washington was that there were too many damn people. While a wonderfully compact metropolis, Washington was marred by Type A strivers who I had to compete against for jobs, apartments and even places at the bar.

You can see this conflict in my novels. I end my first book, Murder in Ocean Hall, with Detective Thomas (who is also conflicted about DC) driving home on a beautiful summer evening:

As the sun slipped behind the trees, a warm light remained, turning the streets golden. Every face seemed happy, at least for the moment. It was a different city now. He was sure of it.

It’s as if I’m convincing myself. This conflict over Washington continues in my other novels, leading up to my dark satire, The Swamp, which is about moving Washington out of Washington, kicking the federal government out and leaving the city to the rest of us, a realization of my misanthropic dream of a city without people.

2020 changed me. It has radicalized me in all ways.

It started with a Facebook “friend” posting a lie about Washington, DC. It was a Fox News story claiming that Rand Paul had been attacked by a mob following Trump’s inauguration/celebration of himself. There was yelling and screaming from demonstrators, understandable considering 200,000 people have died this year, but no one was attacked.

I know, because I was there that night. Walk a block away from the supposed “riot” and the streets were eerily empty (the real problem in DC is not the demonstrators but the covid-caused economic collapse).

Massachusetts Avenue vanishing point

Over the summer, Trump decreed that Washington was an anarchist jurisdiction. I discovered that I was living in anarchy as I ate a scone on the steps of the Scottish Rite Temple, one of the loveliest spots in the city. Joining me in my scone-eating anarchy that morning was a fitness boot camp, a dozen men and women doing pushups as ordered by their instructor.

And another bit of disinformation went viral on social media, this one asserting that Washington had been totally destroyed by rioters. I read about that as I walked through Meridian Hill Park, an urban oasis designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. That afternoon, I saw kids playing around a statue of Joan of Arc in a park very much un-destroyed.

Joan of Arc and kids in Meridian Hill Park

The real destruction took place in June when federal forces beat and teargassed peaceful protesters so Trump could have a photo-op in front of a church. And then came days and nights where National Guard helicopters swooped over the city at rooftop level so close that I could see the pilots at their controls.

Along with the helicopters came the American equivalent of Putin’s little green men. My city suddenly had men in a motley collection of uniforms (but no badges or IDs) standing on street corners with M-16s.

My city…

2020, year of the improbable, had achieved what nothing else had been able to: made me a defender of Washington, DC. Seeing the city threatened by Fox News misinformation and armed paramilitaries turned me into an advocate for the city.

Washington has a larger population than Vermont and Wyoming. We should be a state. It’s time to bring democracy to DC, the last colony.

street hockey on East Capitol

Over the weekend, I biked down East Capitol Street. Families played hockey in the street. On the cobblestoned sidewalk, couples sat outside a cafe. A man browsed a Little Free Library in front of a row house.

And as I coasted down East Capitol, the white dome of US Capitol came into view, sharp against a blue sky.

I love DC.

Strippers and Gyros: Cities Will Endure

Gyro Grill Kitchen

The last bar I went to before the covid shutdown in Washington, DC, was McClellan’s Retreat.

It’s a favorite of mine – I even put in my book LIKES – because it’s a cozy little space with good cocktails and no TVs. I was a regular, being a fan of their happy hour Old Fashioneds.

On the Saturday night before the world ended in March, the bar was packed. I was there with friends and we had to wait for a table before we all squeezed together to share food and drinks.

Five months later, I was back with a couple of the same friends. None of us were courageous enough to sit inside. Instead, we sat outside at a table carefully spaced apart. In March, I was shoulder to shoulder with my friends; now I had my own bubble of space.

The bartender recognized me, despite my mask. “It’s in the eyes,” he said. I signed the register with my name and phone number, a covid requirement in DC.

McCllellan’s Retreat is at the busy intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues north of Dupont Circle. The sidewalk is narrow and cars rush by just feet away. It’s not a spot I would choose to sit outside at, pre-covid.

But in this covid era, I was delighted to have a drink with Carlos and Flo. It made me happier than anything has in months.

People need social experiences. They need to sit across the table from another person and share stories. We are storytelling animals; that is how we built civilization.

And we do it in cities.

Jerry Seinfeld published an article on how New York is not dead. In it, he writes:

Energy, attitude and personality cannot be “remoted” through even the best fiber optic lines.

We cram together in impossible places like a narrow island off the East Coast (or a Mid-Atlantic swamp) because the presence of so many people creates a bubbling stew of possibility that is irresistible to social creatures such as ourselves. We long to see human faces, to hear their voices and enjoy the novelty that they bring to our lives.

I ordered a second beer. A Raised by Wolves by the local brewery Right Proper Brewing.

And then a gyro truck pulled to the curb in front of McClellan’s Retreat. Carlos got up to order some food. The driver explained that he wasn’t supposed to park there but would cook something up if Carlos didn’t mind going around the corner.

My friend followed the truck down the block, disappearing into the distance, leaving me there with Flo.

The bartender explained that the gyro truck is for Assets, the strip joint across the street. The city has a covid requirement that bars must serve food. Even strip bars. The gyro truck (run by a couple of Pakistani guys) makes a loop around the neighborhood and parks in front of Assets.

I wondered how you operate a strip joint during social distancing. The bartender explained that the strippers perform outside on the patio and do not get naked (technically). This explained the parade of women in short-shorts I had seen across the street. All evening, I had watched ladies emerge from Assets and walk around the corner to the patio in feather boas and glow sticks.

This kind of energy only exists in cities. Nothing pleases our curious primate minds more than learning something new.

A Zoom call is a pale substitute for the real thing, the real experience of being sweaty and drinking beer outside as you listen to a bartender tell an amusing story about strippers after one of your friends has walked off in search of a gyro.

This is why cities will endure, for they provide happy combinations such as strippers and gyros, novel experiences that you can only get by being there.

LIKES: The Stories Behind the Stories

LIKES front cover

My new book LIKES is a collection of short stories about social media. Dark and funny, they cover everything from Instagram husbands to the dangers of going viral.

Where did I get my ideas from? What was my inspiration? What’s real and what I did I invent?

These are stories behind the stories of LIKES.

Avocado Toast: Be careful if you’re friends with a writer. This first story in LIKES was inspired by a friend who I play soccer with. I would gently tease him about his love of avocado toast. He would talk eloquently of good bread. The first half of the story is largely true, the second half is invented. Sometimes your paranoia is justified.

King of the Mountain: While I love Strava, the fitness tracking app, the competitive nature of it rubs me the wrong way – perhaps because I’m so slow on laps around Hains Point.

Hotel Mondo: I have been an Instagram influencer and have received free trips, in exchange for social media promotion. I’ve been glad to do so but wonder about what’s being exchanged.

The Chicken Salesman: I served on a mock jury for a case that was very similar to this one. While I was outraged at the treatment the defendant had received, he was undeniably guilty. It was all on paper. I had sympathy for this man who had been kidnapped and held in a US jail so far from home.

AnimalFarm: The idea of people spending their time building a virtual farm always struck me as absurd. Also absurd is the reality of poorly paid coders working for millionaires in electronic sweatshops.

The Influencers: Social media is about vanity. Everyone wants to be popular – even Mexican revolutionaries. I set the story in Tulum, a place I had a chance to visit years ago.

Typhoid Margie: Trump voters were not duped. They are complicit.

Twitter Famous: This is my favorite story in LIKES, because it’s set in Florida (where my family lives) and sums up all my conflicted attitudes toward social media fame. I had a photo go viral, an overwhelming and not entirely pleasant experience. That moment and stories about online public humiliation were the genesis of this tale.

The Dark Web: A relative told me that it was useful to have a gun in Phoenix.  That got me wondering: why would you need a gun in Phoenix?

Instagram Husband: I just wanted a story called Instagram Husband because I thought the title was hilarious. And I may have been reading too much Isabel Allende (her new book is great).

Applicant Tracking System: As anyone who has looked for a job in the last decade can attest, the HR system is broken. There was also a twitter storm in DC about a guy who scheduled dates back to back like in this story. And it’s set in one of my favorite bars, McCllellan’s Retreat.

The Source Code: Wouldn’t it be ironic if the one person who understood the dark power of social media was considered crazy?

Likes: For my final tale, I wanted to go back to the beginning of this online trap, which was constructed by computer scientists with the best of intentions.

Write what you know. Or read about it. Or see. If you’re a writer, any moment can be inspiration.

These are the stories behind the stories of LIKES.

 

I’ve Written a New Book: LIKES

Likes cover image

I’ve written a new book!

It’s called LIKES and is a collection of short stories about social media. In it, you’ll meet an emigre who discovers that there’s no escape from Facebook. An Instagrammer seeking fame in Hollywood. A Florida woman who goes viral after a drunk tweet. And a grandmother spreading Russian disinformation online.

Funny, dark and thought-provoking – that’s the world of LIKES.

Available in print and Kindle. Order it today!

Rediscovering E. L. Doctorow

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

It was the day before the world ended.

March 24.

Non-essential businesses were to be shutdown in a desperate attempt to stop COVID-19 in the nation’s capital. Washington, DC, was going into lockdown and I was at Kramerbooks searching for something to read.

The bookstore looked pillaged. Deliveries hadn’t come in for days and book-readers had snapped up as much as they could, desperate for something to read for what was announced as a 30-day shutdown.

Gloves and hand sanitizer was available but not masks. That requirement was in the future. Masks were for medical personnel, only.

I wanted to get in and get out. I figured two big books would be enough to last me for the month. The first was a massive tome, The British Are Coming, a serviceable work of history about the opening days of the American Revolution.

But it was the second book that imprinted itself on my memory, providing consolation during these chaotic, disastrous days.

Ragtime

That book was Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. It’s one of those books that I’m sure my parents read. They have bookcases full of novels. Maybe I picked it up at some point when I was kid and paged through it.

I saw it on a ravaged shelf at Kramer’s and took it.

There’s a magic that only a good novel can perform. It’s a spell cast by an author that envelopes you completely, taking you out of your world and placing you in another one that seems just as real as your own.

Doctorow conjures America in 1906, all the heady optimism and crushing tragedy, with an operatic scope that touches upon lives large and small. We meet historical figures, like Harry Houdini and Henry Ford, and the ordinary folks of New Rochelle, NY.

Ragtime unfolds as if in a dream, a story told by an omniscient, God-like presence that zips back and forth in time, sweeping across the entire American continent. The stories pile up upon each other, a kaleidoscope view of a country in constant motion, powered by new technologies such as automobiles and electricity, a people finding their power on the world stage.

I read the book as the shutdown lasted well beyond 30 days. I read the book as the news grew dire. I read the book on park benches, the city as quiet as a tomb, no cars on the roads, no planes in the sky, with just dog walkers and runners outside.

On June 22, non-essential businesses like Kramerbooks were allowed to reopen. I think bookstores and libraries are essential; I was glad to see them open again.

I returned to Kramer’s. I masked up and picked up the only E.L. Doctorow novel on the shelf.

The March

The March is about Sherman’s path of destruction through the South during the Civil War. It’s a tragedy but is also about finding little bits of hope among the ruins. Like Ragtime, it features real characters. We go into the mind of Sherman himself, full of darkness and doubt, yet determined to prosecute this war to the bitter end. And we meet colorful characters like General “Kill Cavalry” Kilpatrick, whose roguish adventures were so unbelievable that I had to look them up on Wikipedia. They’re all real.

While the country has reopened, the coronavirus news is even worse. 138,000 dead, a total more than most of our wars. I read The March at home, sheltering from other people and the stultifying heat. And I finished it by the pool, on the first day it reopened, my neighbors and I carefully spaced apart on the rooftop, everyone a bit nervous.

Like you probably do, I spend too much time doomscrolling. Looking at Twitter and reading articles about contemporary disasters.

Reading fiction breaks that habit. A good novel does more than just transport you to another time and place; it heals your brain. The hours go by as you silently read, whether it’s on a park bench or poolside. The nervousness dissipates as you enter the dream world of the novel.

Put down your iPhone and take up a book instead.

Letter from Washington: The Flying Circus

July 4th airshow over DC

Seeing a plane in the sky, I feared the worst.

My apartment looks south toward downtown Washington, DC. It’s a no-fly zone. When I look out my window and see a plane in this corner of the sky, it’s always a bit alarming.

The last time it happened was on June 1, the day that Trump unleashed his forces to brutalize protesters for a photo op. Paramilitaries cleared Lafayette Park so he could pose with a Bible.

And then the helicopters arrived. Through my window, I watched as Blackhawks thundered low across the city, packed with soldiers, in a deliberate attempt to intimidate this very Democratic city.

This went on all night long, my window rattling from low-flying military aircraft, like I was living in Fallujah. The next day, walls went up around the White House.

Black Hawk helicopter flies past Logan Circle apartment building

One month later, on July 4th, a plane popped up in my window, banking over the no-fly zone downtown. With my window open, I could hear the chants of demonstrators from a block away, “Black Lives Matter.”

And, in the sky, an airplane where no airplane should be. It was circling. I assumed it was there to spy on demonstrators or attack them.

This aircraft did not drop bombs. Instead, out tumbled parachutists. The Golden Knights of the U.S. Army.

230,000 dead from coronavirus but we get a man in a parachute holding an American flag drifting out of the sky.

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This was the beginning of a military air show, ordered by Donald Trump. The pageant of power scrolled across my window from right to left. I saw classic planes, like a B-29, the plane that dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Then came a B-52, roaring like a freight train. F-16 fighters rocketed overhead. A stealth bomber silently slid over the apartment buildings of my Logan Circle neighborhood.

Your perception of the US military changes after it’s used to intimidate you. Cool airshow but you wonder when the planes will be used against you again. It’s even more galling when you realize that you’re paying for the shock and awe campaign.

I’d see the planes on TV and then a couple seconds later, they’d be in my window. On the screen, Trump preened, a child delighted at this air show, the world’s oldest toddler.

In Ancient Rome, they got bread and circuses.

No bread for starving Americans who have lost their jobs in this crisis. Instead, we only get a circus, a noisy air parade from the Department of Endless War.

In Europe, they have free health care. Workers were paid to stay home during the coronavirus. Protective equipment was provided. They beat covid. Now, they celebrate the achievement.

We can only watch from afar because we are banned from visiting. Too much covid here. Trump let the virus get out of control, along with his fellow dictators in Russia and Brazil, who preferred to spend money on military parades.

We deserve more than meaningless gestures, like a flying circus on July 4th.

We deserve a government that works.

Vote blue in November.

14th Street Now and Then

murals at Barrel House

Boarded-up buildings used to be a feature of Washington life.

For much of the 1990s, I lived a block off the 14th St NW corridor. It was not the avenue of conspicuous consumption that it is today.

Instead, it was known for prostitutes. 14th St was the city’s red light district.  While most of the seedy strip joints and peep shows were gone by the 90s, the hookers remained. Coming home by cab, I’d see women in tiny skirts and high heels trolling for customers next to shuttered buildings. (An experience that helped to inspire my novel, Don’t Mess Up My Block.)

The Logan Circle area had been like this since the riots of 1968. I couldn’t imagine it ever changing.

Also, it wasn’t called Logan Circle, a neighborhood name that was synonymous with slum. My apartment at 15th and Swann was in a place called Dupont East, according to the real estate listing.

pawn shop

There were no big glass storefronts on 14th St back then. Instead, you had riot architecture. The places that were open were built to survive a disturbance.

One of my favorite dive bars, Stetson’s, embodied this style. It had a brick front with one small window that was made of smash-proof glass cinderblocks.

On 14th St, buildings were either boarded up or covered with big metal shutters that were pulled down after dark. There were a few exceptions to this, of course, like the Black Cat and the ubiquitous auto repair shops that lined the strip; they were probably chop shops.

Things changed slowly and then all at once. Theaters and clubs moved in, opening up the old auto showrooms. For a while, there was were even used bookstores and indie coffeeshops in the neighborhood.

Lee Jensen Brake Service, temporarily an art gallery

The brief period of the late 90s/early 200os was my favorite 14th St era. Still a bit cheap and seedy, and just dangerous enough to scare off the suburbanites. You could have an unbothered drink at Bar Pilar, go see a pop-up art show in a former brake shop and still afford to live in the neighborhood.

I represented this transition in my short story Apartment 101, depicting three decades in the life of one apartment. It’s largely based upon my experience of living at 15th and Swann.

Washington, DC, exploded with money and people during the Obama years. We had a good mayor in Adrian Fenty who ushered in reforms, got rid of the worst of the corruption and delivered new amenities like bike lanes and new libraries.

Meanwhile, the grungy 14th St corridor I had come to love went upscale.

Barcelona sign.

The boards were taken off and the old buildings were gutted and opened to the street. Barcelona, a Spanish-themed wine bar, was a revelation. A grimy outdoor gym was turned a sparkling stage with a huge glass window allowing people to peer into the boozy life of Washington’s professional set.

And to my surprise, there was even sidewalk dining on this street where I once dodged ranting crazy people and prostitutes. In a homage (mockery?) of the past, a bar called Red Light District opened on the street. The few people who remembered 14th St from the old days thought this was insensitive.

Red Light District

The city was now bougie. And I couldn’t imagine it ever changing.

In 2020, this unhappy year, the pandemic changed everything. In mid-March, everything closed from fear of the coronovirus. Mayor Bowser ordered the city into lockdown.

I used to be annoyed the drunk brunchgoers, the double-parked Ubers, the places like Bar Pilar that had been discovered by the masses. But it felt really creepy to be on the street without people, especially at night.

Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, demonstrations came to DC which devolved into riots, window-smashing and looting. While the police were busy with Black Lives Matter protesters near the White House, organized groups drove around the city, robbing liquor and drug stores.

smashed windows at Jinya

I went out one morning to see jagged holes in the store fronts of 14th St. Rocks had been thrown through windows of restaurants.

Later that day, boards went up along the length of the 14th St corridor. All the temples of consumerism were now hidden by ugly plywood.

Then the boarded up storefronts blossomed with art, painted by local muralists. An improvement, as the city limps back to life.

Now, restaurants and bars have started to go out of business, like Ghibellina, where I once enjoyed happy hour pizza. While people will do takeout and sit outside, few want to go inside to a bar.

The advantage of the city – the people – has become has become a liability in this covid era.

Our Black Lives Matter

This is the point where I would write something optimistic, that the bad times certainly can’t endure and that things will soon be back to normal.

But I have been consistently wrong about things since 2016, the world surprising me with new terrible developments; this is a dark timeline.

So, what happens next? With people afraid of crowds and a move toward telework, do cities have a future? What will become of 14th St?

It could go from the wink-wink Red Light District to an actual red light district, rolling back progress all the way to the 1990s.

Or, maybe, it could become the bohemian paradise I loved in the early 2000s. Gritty and a little dangerous but affordable.

The truth is that 14th St is going to change, like it has continuously, adapting to the people and circumstances of the city. Urban life will endure, because people like it. 14th Street will too.

The Prisoner of Pennsylvania Avenue

crowds gather on 16th St

What the Secret Service has done to the White House is an abomination. They stole public lands – Lafayette Park and the Ellipse – to create a vast security perimeter around the White House Complex.

Trump thinks he created a fortress; in reality, it’s a prison.

Behind the wall is the Executive Residence, West Wing, East Wing, Blair House (where foreign dignitaries stay), the Renwick Gallery, the Treasury Department and, most importantly, the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB), where hundreds of senior officials and support staff work.

The administrative heart of the U.S. government is now trapped behind walls of concrete and wire.

White House under siege

Before the covid crisis, I liked to hang out at Peet’s Coffee at 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. A block from the White House, it has a view of the Beaux Arts majesty of the OEOB, a building I’ve always loved.

It was a busy lively corner – uniformed Secret Service officers came in for coffee, West Wing staffers met with reporters, TV correspondents prepped for shots, foreign delegations assembled before going into the White House and an endless parade of tourists walked in looking for the bathroom.

The White House has sealed itself off from this city.

Life for the people who work in the White House Complex has now become exponentially more difficult.

How do you move food, supplies, staff, visitors and others in and out of a secure complex with limited exits and entrances?

And how do you do this while avoiding roving bands of demonstrators?

Beating and teargassing peaceful protesters just made the crowds larger. Attorney General Barr brought in every random cop and military person in America into the city to squash dissent. And failed.

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H Street, where the Secret Service and the Park Police beat protesters, now has the look of a perma-protest, with demonstrators in the street 24/7, supported by volunteers with water and snacks, and covered nonstop from the national media.

They’re not going anywhere.

Trump and Barr have pissed off the Mayor, too. The curfew is over. Muriel Bowser wants the troops out and now actively supports the demonstrators.

This morning, with the city’s help, Black Lives Matter is being painted down  several blocks of 16th St. This is where Barr walked on Monday after he unleashed the military on an American city.

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Another huge demonstration is expected Saturday.

If you work in the White House Complex, do you want to deal with this? There are lots of non-political folks there in support roles. Do you want to cross a line of demonstrators to get to work? Or are you going to find a way out the bunker?

I am personally very angry. Seeing the damage the Trump administration has done to my city enraged me like nothing else. Watching a Blackhawk helicopter fly by my window on Monday night terrified me and then gave me a steely determination to resist.

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In addition to the challenge of avoiding demonstrators in their thousands, the Trump administration now has to deal with random white men on bikes yelling at them. Like me. I think it’s unexpected.

“Tear down this wall!” I shouted at the officers supervising the construction of the security barrier around the Ellipse.

“Go home,” I told some National Guardsmen on a street corner.

“You’re not real police,” I informed the prison guards blocking 16th St.

But I think mockery works best. The entrance to the OEOB is on 17th St. I was taking a picture of the new fence when a guy in a suit came out of the building. I smiled; he smiled.

“What level security prison is this?” I asked.

“Very funny,” he said, unamused.

We, the people, remain free in this city. We can come and go. But Trump is a prisoner of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lincoln at National Harbor: This Too Will Pass

Lincoln at National Harbor

The Lincoln statue was a surprise.

I had biked to National Harbor to look at The Awakening. During this pandemic year, one invents activities to pass the time.

The Awakening is an aluminum sculpture of a giant emerging from the earth. Formerly at Hains Point, it was moved downriver a few years ago to National Harbor, the hotel/casino/shopping complex in Maryland.

The sculpture was blocked off by fences so I took the opportunity to bike around the abandoned streets of National Harbor, idly coasting by shuttered restaurants and stores until I spotted the Great Emancipator.

The rail splitter can be found on American Way, right by South Moon Under,  up the steps from Potbelly. Lincoln overlooks a video screen (“Good morning from National Harbor: Capitalize on it all!”) and a massive Ferris wheel on a pier jutting out into the Potomac.

I just finished Lincoln on the Verge, the powerful and moving story of this common man advancing toward death and destiny.

If his statue in National Harbor, little more than a prop for Instagram selfies, could come to life, what would he think of America in 2020?

I think he would be pleased that we lasted so long.

He would be delighted by people of all races enjoying a stroll along the promenade. The bright colors and carnival wheel would be charming diversions to him. But the old boatman would be most pleased to be within sight of a river.

Plague would not surprise him. Death and sickness were old friends. He often talked with the dead, believing that they existed in a spirit world that was within reach.

Leaving his home in Springfield in 1861, he did not expect to return. Just getting to Washington required providence, as he was nearly done in by overly exuberant crowds and gangs of assassins, as depicted in Lincoln on the Verge. Four years later, he returned home, in a coffin, his route retracing his earlier rail journey.

Unlike other politicians of the era (who remembers anything James Buchanan said?), Lincoln’s words live on because he spoke clearly and directly. We’d call this authentic. To the people of 1861, who had suffered decades of sophisticated oratory to protect the institution of slavery, this was electrifying.

Elites in the cities scoffed at his homespun tales. But if he was liberated from his bronze, and was free to walk around National Harbor, he’d have a comforting story for listeners:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses!

This too shall pass. Lincoln inherited a broken country and in four short years created an America worthy of its ideals. He knew he didn’t have long. But he endured and triumphed. We will too.

Can there be a Kramerbooks without Dupont Circle?

Kramerbooks closed at eight on a Sunday night

Kramerbooks may leave Dupont Circle.

In this year of loss, this news struck me hard. Kramerbooks is urban life. As a college freshman, the experience of visiting the store defined the city for me.

The RA in my dorm at American University had led a bunch of us on a tour of the monuments. On the way back, we got off at the Dupont Circle Metro. As I rose out of the earth on the escalator, I was immediately enchanted by this bohemian neighborhood of art galleries, record shops and bookstores.

Kramerbooks defined cool. More than just a bookstore, it was open late, served brunch and you could even get a drink there.

It was the height of urban sophistication. When I moved back to DC after a few years in Florida, I made sure to be within walking distance of Kramers.

On the weekends, I’d amble around the city and stop off at the bookstore. There, I’d browse through the new books and imagine myself as an author.

Joe Floods reads Victory Party at Kramerbooks. Photo courtesy of Kramerbooks.
Joe Flood reads Victory Party at Kramerbooks. Photo courtesy of Kramerbooks.

Years later, my dreams came true. My short story, Victory Party, won the City Paper Fiction Competition. I did a reading at Kramerbooks. Staff pushed back the stacks, chairs were set up and there I was in the window of Kramers, sharing my creation with an audience.

And perhaps inspiring another writer, like I once was by the Kramerbooks experience.

Location, Location, Location

DC is all about real estate – Kramers is no exception. Behind the fantasy of a clean and well-lit place for literature is the brutal reality of dollars and cents. Dealing with three landlords, as Kramers does, is complicated.

And Dupont Circle is no longer fashionable; it has become old and tired. The record stores and dive bars that were its peers are long since gone. Storefronts are empty and tents for the homeless have sprung up on the sidewalks.

All the energy of the city has gone east. Why stay in a cramped building on Connecticut Avenue when you could move to a larger space in a shiny new neighborhood like H St or Yards Park?

Kramerbooks is Dupont Circle and Dupont Circle is Kramerbooks. Their brands are married in a bohemian embrace. It’s hard to imagine Kramers anywhere else.

But cities change. That’s what makes them so interesting.

The bookstore I fell in love with as college freshman. The piles of novels I dreamily browsed there on Sunday afternoons. The experience of reading Victory Party before a crowd.

If the Coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, it’s to cherish those precious and unrecoverable moments. Kramers may change but the experiences it created will endure.