Letter from Washington: Celebration Time

The happiest day of 2020

With the blast of a boat horn, I found out that Joe Biden had been elected President on November 7th.

I was outside at The Wharf, the luxury development at the old fish market. I heard a horn. And then again, insistent blasts echoing off the blue waters of the Washington Channel.

I checked my phone: CNN and then the rest of the networks had declared that Biden had won.

For a few minutes, I seemed to be the only one aware of the news. I stood up on a bench and screamed, “YES!” No one paid any attention to me.

We Are the Champions

And then, rounding the pier, a boat motored into view, the one that had been blasting its horn. Decorated with Biden and gay pride flags, they were celebrating with song.

“We are the champions, my friends…” drifted across the water. Everyone now had the happy news. A cheer went up from an outdoor spin class on another pier.

It was Saturday afternoon and the city was in happy chaos. I was wearing a Biden-Harris mask, prompting  yells of celebrations as people passed me.

Hopping on bikeshare, I could only make it as far as Constitution Avenue before the crowds got too thick. The police hastily blocked off 17th Street as the people took over the streets. Behind their fence, the Secret Service watched as a man paraded back and forth with a baby Trump balloon.

By the time I got to Black Lives Matter Plaza, it was celebration time as crowds poured in from all directions.

toasting Biden Harris

People drank champagne on the spot where Trump, just a few months ago, had people beaten for a photo-op. Now the people were toasting their victory over him.

It was over. This city of Washington, where I had witnessed the Women’s March, the first stirrings of protest, the closure of Lafayette Park, an invasion of paramilitaries, helicopters flying by my window, the pandemic shutdown and far too much history in one year to absorb without breaking – and it was over.

“It’s over,” I shouted.

I met my friends Carlo and Flo. We took photos of ourselves with the cheering crowds on Black Lives Matter Plaza. A man stood on a bus shelter waving his shirt around and threw it to the crowd. A home-made sign read: Victory for America. A huge roar rose up from the street, the sound of thousands celebrating as one.

We went in search of a drink. At Farragut North, there was a parade of vehicles, a happy gridlock, cheers echoing through the glass canyon of office buildings on Connecticut Avenue.

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There’s one tiny liquor store nearby. I had never seen anyone in it but that day it was mobbed with people. All the champagne was sold out.

I bought myself a giant can of Fosters and walked down the sidewalk with it, swigging from the beer can. We saw a guy with a parrot on his shoulder. A man with a portable speaker leading a line of dancing people. Cars waving Biden-Harris flags.

We walked to Zorba’s by Dupont Circle. That block of 20th Street is closed to traffic for a streatery, with outdoor tables for several restaurants. Every time a group of people walked by with a Biden flag, a huge cheer rang out from people sitting outside, an entire block standing up and applauding.

It’s the happiest I’ve seen DC in years.

16th St

And it was the kind of day you didn’t want to let go. After Carlos and Flo left, I walked back to my apartment. Stopping at Scott Circle, I could see vast crowds down 16th Street, stretching all the way to the White House. Cars, bikes and scooters navigated the circle, horns and bells ringing everywhere.

The horns went on all night. I didn’t mind. We won.

 

Letter from Washington: High Anxiety Edition

looking down 22nd St NW from the Spanish Steps

How can I be bored and anxious?

2020, hell year, manages to deliver two contradictory emotions at the same time.

I’m bored because I’ve lost my social life. All the meetups, happy hours and coffee with friends that I assumed would go on forever because why wouldn’t they? Trump couldn’t fuck things up so badly to impact my life, right?

Oh…

I live in a city because I like being busy. I like having things to do and see. A typical week might see me be social at:

  • WordPressDC: I’d always learn something new at this monthly meetup (this blog runs WordPress) and there was free beer and pizza.
  • Friday Coffee Club: Sometimes I’d drag myself out of bed on a Friday morning to wake up at Friday Coffee Club, a biking meetup at Swing’s. Scores of bikes would park out front at this shop near the White House.
  • #BikeDC Happy Hour: If I missed FCC, I could go to this monthly happy hour for cyclists. Some of my fondest memories come from sitting inside with bike friends at Velo Cafe, a combination bike shop/cafe (which is sadly no more).
  • Post-Soccer Coffee: I used to play soccer with people on Saturday mornings. Afterward, we’d stop at Fresh Baguette in Georgetown for croissants and to talk politics. Over coffee, my foreign friends would warn me that dictatorship could happen here too. I didn’t believe them.
  • Bars: I was teleworking long before covid-19 forced America to adopt the work from home lifestyle. At the end of a day in front of a computer, I want to go out. I want to see and hear people (which is great research if you write books), even if it’s just having an Old Fashioned at McCllellan’s Retreat.

All of the above is gone or, at the very least, curtailed.

And, thanks to the internet, there’s a vast network of computers, fiber, and satellites to bring you anxiety-inducing news with just the press of a button.

My anxieties include:

  • Covid, Covid, Covid: I worry about friends and family. I fret over the state of the country and what the pandemic is doing to the less fortunate. Since Trump has throttled the CDC, we’re left on our own to determine if ordinary activities are safe. If I go into this Starbucks, will I get covid?
  • The Election: I doomscroll before dawn, my phone alight in the darkness, scrolling through Twitter, trying to figure out what the election result will be. The nation cannot afford another catastrophe like 2016.
  • Post-Election: If the result is close, will there be riots in the streets? Will Trump send in his little green men and take power? If the unthinkable occurs, what do I do? Leave the country?

I count the days to the election. I savor the little moments, like having a beer with a friends, socially distant and outside. I run to my happy place in the woods of Rock Creek Park. I read books, like the excellent Station Eleven, and buy them locally from Kramers. I take action, like voting early and donating to the Democratic Party.

Boredom and anxiety. It’s a helluva combination. But when confronted with a problem like 2020, mere survival is enough.

Ideas of the Counterlife: The Glass Hotel

Ever since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, it’s felt like we’re in the wrong timeline. History is supposed to move forward toward greater equality. Instead, we fell into the abyss, with a clumsy fascist at the helm and a deadly plague in our midst.

Emily St. John Mandel is an interesting writer to read during these strange times. The Glass Hotel is ostensibly about a Ponzi scheme that goes awry. But that doesn’t happen until halfway through this lyrical, meditative novel.

The book is about the idea of the counterlife, what your life would be if you didn’t make that choice. For some, it’s backdating a stock transaction. For others, it’s deciding to go out on New Year’s Eve. Choices (and dumb luck) propel some characters toward wealth and others toward poverty. They question their lives, whether they deserve their fates, and if things would be better in the counterlife.

Interestingly, characters from her earlier novel, Station Eleven, make cameos in The Glass Hotel. In this version of reality, the pandemic that devastated the world of Station Eleven was swiftly contained.

Ranging across time and space, The Glass Hotel considers the idea of reality, as worlds and lives blur together into a melange of possibilities.

Station Eleven is a better novel, since it has a definite before and after. The Glass Hotel is a more challenging read, with less of a fixed point to hold onto.

But if you like complicated, literary fiction, check out The Glass Hotel. Emily St. John Mandel is a wonderful writer that I would follow anywhere. She’s written a kind of ghost story for the mind, one with a particular resonance for those of us stuck in the horrible year of 2020.

Station Eleven: The World After the World Ends

Station Eleven

When the coronavirus crisis began, I was reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig. While I’m sure it’s an excellent novel, I couldn’t read a book about a pandemic while I was in a pandemic.

It took six months before I was ready to read anything about an infectious disease spreading out of control.

That book was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

It’s an excellent novel. The plague, when it occurs, is brutally short and efficient, wiping out 99% of the world’s population.

Mandel is less concerned with the pandemic but what happens before and after to her characters, who range from a world-famous actor to an aspiring EMT. All are caught up in the whirlwind; some of them survive and some do not.

While the novel was written before coronavirus, Mandel has illuminated the central truth of the crisis: a sense of wonder at the world before covid turned everything upside down.

Little moments of life before the pandemic are full of meaning, recalled with fondness and nostalgia. I remember the last time I went to a bar, squeezing with friends around a small table, shouting to be heard above the crowd.

In Station Eleven, survivors express wonderment about a society where cold drinks were available everywhere and planes traversed a landscape bright with electricity.

It’s a moving novel for it highlights that life is not about grand accomplishments but about the joys of having tea with an old friend or how the gift of a comic book can inspire a young reader.

Ultimately, it’s an optimistic novel. Station Eleven is a dystopia but one where people struggle on the best they can, with compassion and grace.

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.