The Capitol Hill Riot Was Not a Surprise

Capitol security fence at 3rd St NW

The Capitol Hill Riot was not a surprise.

Everyone in DC knew that something bad was coming on January 6, 2021. If you lived in DC, you had seen Trump supporters escalate their violence over the previous months.

In November, Trump supporters brawled with counterprotestors in the streets of downtown DC and in front of the Supreme Court. The Proud Boys took over Harry’s, a dive bar downtown, and used it as a base of operations to drunkenly menace the city, cheered on by President Trump.

December saw the return of Trump supporters who again brawled with police and bystanders, in addition to vandalizing a church by burning a Black Lives Matter banner. Thousands of police officers were mobilized and a huge chunk of the city was shut down to contain the violence.

I had seen how violent the Proud Boys could be. On the day of the December rally, I ran into some of them downtown. I didn’t think they would be out at 8 AM but there they were, looking for people to fight. After yelling at some black kids on Black Lives Matter Plaza, one of them got up in my face. The Proud Boys advance in their organization by fighting “Antifa” even if it’s just a guy going out for coffee.

Prior to the Stop the Steal rally, there was a debate in DC on whether progressive groups should organize a counterprotest or not. The city discouraged this and Mayor Muriel Browser urged residents to stay away from downtown to avoid confrontations.

I typically photograph large protests but I stayed away from this one. Photographer friends of mine, the fearless ones who document everything in DC, stayed home too. A friend of mine shared a video showing a Trump supporter following him and threatening to kick his ass.

The day before the rally, I was alarmed by the numbers of Trump supporters I saw everywhere in DC, even in Logan Circle, where I live. They wore red MAGA hats but, more ominously, were also outfitted in military-style tactical gear, including helmets, vests, bear spray and poles wrapped in Trump flags that could be used as weapons. In their trucks, they drove around the city, Trump flags flying.

January 6 was the last chance they had to “stop the steal.” Take control of Congress and they could prevent Joe Biden’s victory from being certified.

Online, there was lots of chatter about doing that:

I don’t have the Capitol Police’s $460 million budget. Yet, it was obvious to me and everyone else in DC that something terrible was going to happen on January 6.

So, it was quite extraordinary to hear the claims by former Capitol Police officials that this was an intelligence failure.

You didn’t need an FBI report to know that something incredibly violent was coming on January 6; all you had to do was look out the window! Every hotel in the city and nearby suburbs was filled with Trump supporters, people who had escalated their violence over the previous months. They had weapons with them and were motivated to “stop the steal.” January 6 was the last chance to keep their cult leader in office.

I didn’t know that they were going to attack the Capitol but I knew that they were going to do something incredibly violent.

I assumed that every police agency in this city (and there are many) would be 100% prepared for every possible eventuality.

Watching a violent mob push aside “bike rack” barriers and rush the Capitol, I was shocked at how unprepared the Capitol Police were.

The Capitol Riot on January 6 was not a failure of intelligence. It was a failure of leadership.

Dispatch from the Green Zone

four years ago, I saw a limo burn here

I stood on the spot where four years earlier, I had watched a limousine burn.

At the time, I thought that was the craziest thing I would ever see in Washington, DC. It occurred on Inauguration Day 2017, after anarchists tossed a flare into an empty limo on K St. The police responded with flash-bangs and everyone ran. Hearing a flash-bang was also new to me.

limo in flames on K St

Then came the Muslim Ban and the Family Separation Policy, where immigrant children were taken from their parents and placed in cages.

But this was not the worst crime that the Trump administration could perform. They were just getting started.

I Was Wrong

I was wrong. If I had to sum up the 2016-2020 period in American politics, I would merely say, “I was wrong.”

After Trump was elected, I told friends that Republicans would get him under control and make him a normal President. This was the right thing to do. Instead, the GOP, a party of limited government and respect for individual rights, gleefully participated in the near destruction of American democracy.

Fine people on both sides after the Charlottesville atrocity. The unhinged speech before the Boy Scouts. The constant firings and the endless lying from the press room lectern.

I have friends who come from countries with experience in dictatorships. They said I was naive in my belief in the sanctity of our institutions and for holding onto my faith in American exceptionalism.

Resist/Persist

We protested. The Women’s March. The March for Science. The Tax March. Kava-nope. The continuous nightly protests outside the White House, back when you could get close enough to see it.

The low point for me was after the first impeachment. Failure on a very dark night at the Capitol felt like I was lost in a wood that I would never escape. I wondered how I could leave this country.

They Smashed Things Up

There’s a quote from The Great Gatsby that’s applied a lot to the Trump family:

They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made

Tom and Daisy Buchanan at least had the decency to retreat back into their money after they smashed things up. Trump kept running over America, day after day, a new horror with every sunrise.

framed covfefe

The Trump Twitter Presidential Library was around the corner from where I saw the limo on fire. It was a couple years later, when we could still find comedy in our tragedy. Sponsored by Comedy Central, it was a room full of crazed Trump tweets in frames and embedded into art. There was even a Trump wig that you could put on and they’d take a photo of you tweeting from the toilet, like the Commander in Tweet himself.

We did not know the horror that awaited us.

2020: Year of Horrors

2020 is a year that none of us want to remember, needing a kind of willful forgetting, like a name in a horror movie that we dare not mention.

I had an ambivalence about living in Washington, DC, because it had gotten too crowded. The bars were packed, reservations were needed for even mediocre restaurants and the brunch crowd were a drunken hazard on Sunday afternoons.

Well.

By the end of March, that was not a problem. Covid struck and the offices downtown emptied out. They are still empty, almost a year later.

forsythia steps in Dumbarton Oaks Park

The gridlock-blocked streets became so empty that I could run in them without worrying about cars. I ran up Massachusetts Avenue and into Dumbarton Oaks Park, a woody sanctuary that had become my happy place. Just me and the occasional dog walker in a forested ravine in the middle of the city.

We all learned what exponential growth meant, as coronavirus exploded through the nation, sickening millions and putting millions more out of work.

The pain that I had seen imposed upon other populations (immigrants, Muslims) now was visited upon my friends and family members.

I saw scenes which were unbelievable just a few months earlier. Protesters rioted against Trump near the White House and looters struck liquor and drug stores throughout the city, even in my neighborhood.

In response, Trump poured in military and police assets. A grab-bag of random dudes in motley uniforms appeared on street corners while helicopters circled at rooftop heights. There was a curfew and kids out protesting were kettled on Swann Street, just blocks from where I live.

The year was hardly over. Confederate statues were toppled and a giant fence was constructed around the White House. In the midst of a highly-contagious pandemic, Trump anointed himself the Republican nominee with a fireworks display over streets filled with protesters, including me.

I Love DC

Facebook “friends” said that my city was a lawless hellhole. I read that comment as I was sitting in Meridian Hill Park, as kids played around the statue of Joan of Arc and people picnicked in the grass.

All my ambivalence suddenly disappeared: I loved DC.

Joan of Arc and kids in Meridian Hill Park

Trump got covid and I watched as his helicopter took him to Walter Reed for experimental treatments unavailable to ordinary Americans. The Presidential campaign began, a slog of insufferable idiocy as Biden debated a Trump spewing both disease and lies.

We won. It was not easy, but we won.

But the failed Trump administration had one final horror to unleash upon my city: an angry mob. I saw them before they sacked the Capitol, for they were staying in hotels in my neighborhood. Everyone knew that they came to fight. I watched them stream toward the Mall, armed with bats, poles, mace, body armor and helmets.

A coup of dunces, live-streamed for the world to see, is an appropriate end to the Trump administration, an action that sums up all the cruelty, stupidity and sloppiness of the man and his movement.

The Garbage Barge

Tomorrow, he will be gone. Off to Florida.

There’s a scene at the end of a Simpsons episode where escaped prisoners are sent to:

a garbage barge where you will bareknuckle-box until one of you emerges as king of your floating hell.

Palm Beach, in other words, where Trump will be lord of the disgraced, surrounded by his low-intelligence children, incompetent henchmen like Rudy Giuliani and coup enthusiasts like the MyPillow Guy, all fighting over shrinking scraps of attention and money.

Now it’s up to us to put America back together, stronger and more secure for the future.

K Street is closed to traffic now, part of the expanded Green Zone necessary after the mob attack on the Capitol. I walked to the spot where I saw the limo burning four years ago and considered everything I had seen happen in Washington, DC.

What a long, strange trip it’s been. I’m glad it’s over.

The Calm After the Storm

Tributes to Officer Brian Sicknick at the Peace Monument

An eerie calm has descended upon Washington, DC.

A lot of my neighbors in my apartment building are gone – packages are piled up in front of their doors. Some left for good during the pandemic and others left for safety after the coup attempt.

The  building is noticeably quieter. In a big apartment building, you get used to a certain amount of noise – the ding of the elevator, the sounds of plumbing, people laughing over cigarettes in the alley or the distant thump of a neighbor playing bad techno as they prepare to go out.

I used to complain about it; now I almost miss these signs of life.

The streets are also darker. Last night, as I walked to the front door, I thought one of the streetlights must be out. It wasn’t. A lot of the apartments which face the street are empty, which means less light on the street.

Downtown DC is noticeably darker, with most of the hotels and restaurants still boarded-up.

Yesterday, I went to see the tribute to Officer Brian Sicknick, who was killed by pro-Trump rioters at the Capitol. He died in defense of liberty.

I did not take pictures of the security build-up around the Capitol and National Mall, not wanting to provide intelligence to MAGA terrorists; that’s something I think about now.

Away from the federal zone, life in DC goes on. I can still get scones at 350 Bakery, buy new books at Kramers and run around in the woods of Rock Creek Park.

The coup failed. Those that feared the Deep State are about to discover that it’s very real and will track down every last one of them.

I’m not leaving. It’s not just because Washington is now filled with thousands of police and federal troops.

But it’s because Washington is a beautiful city that belongs to everyone. We cannot let a mob take it away from us.

I’ll be home, like you, watching the Inauguration on TV. And then later I’ll go for a walk or bike ride around DC.

 

Eight Thoughts on a Coup Attempt

The Capitol protected by the DC National Guard

I’ve lived in Washington, DC, for more than 20 years. Most of the time in the Logan Circle neighborhood.

On January 6, my neighborhood was flooded with Trump supporters who came to overthrow the government.

They filled the hotels and saw the sights. And then they went to the Capitol to stage a coup. They attacked the police, broke into the Capitol and looted it, all in a futile attempt to stop Joe Biden from becoming President.

The next day, they packed up their cars and went home, proud of what they accomplished.

Eight thoughts on a coup attempt:

  1. This was planned. I saw it all over social media. Trump supporters planned to come to DC to “get wild” and hang the traitors.
  2. Trump encouraged them. Trump held a Nazi-style rally and then told them to storm the Capitol.
  3. They came to fight. In my neighborhood, I saw men in faux military garb and weapons. Camouflage, tactical gear, body armor and helmets – they looked like a military unit. They brought poles, clubs, batons, pepper spray and other weapons.
  4. They believe in a deranged conspiracy theory. I got in a verbal argument with some of them. They kept calling me a pedophile. They believe in the “save our children” QANON conspiracy theory that states that the USA is controlled by a pedophile ring.
  5. They are wealthy white people. The hotels in my Logan Circle neighborhood, which are not cheap, were at capacity with the rioters. The stereotype that Trump supporters are poor is incorrect.
  6. This was a white riot. I was shocked that they could storm the Capitol and walk away without consequence. All day yesterday, I watched them check out of their hotels and leave as if nothing had happened.
  7. The smarter ones took steps to conceal their identities. The group I argued with was in rental car. They told me it was so people couldn’t track them.
  8. They will return on Inauguration Day with guns. The ones I argued with said that they would be back. They want to stop Joe Biden’s inauguration. It’s obvious what their next step will be.

Don’t want to happen this? Make pariahs out of Trump supporters.  Take their jobs, friends, online platforms and reputations from them.

Unless coup supporters are punished, there will be future coups.

Month by Month: 2020 in Photos

At the end of a normal year, I look through my photos and pick out the ones I like best. The prettiest, in other words.

2020 is different. It was tough to look at this year’s photos, since there’s been so much pain over the past 365 days. I have pictures of protests, military occupation and, above all, loneliness. Lots of photos of empty streets, deserted parks and boarded-up buildings.

I picked one photo from each month of 2020. Not necessarily the prettiest, but the ones that meant the most to me.

January

The year started out promisingly, as I won the City Paper Fiction Competition for my short story, Apartment 101. The story is about three decades in the life of one apartment. It’s based upon my time living at 15th and Swann NW.

My story appeared in the City Paper and I did a reading with my fellow winners at Eaton DC, a hip hotel on K St. I was worried that no one would show up! Luckily, the room was full when the reading started. My view on crowds would change over the year.

This is the second time I’ve won this competition. I won it a few years ago for Victory Party, which is a dark tale about Election Night 2016.

February

In the cold depths of winter, there is nothing better than seeing half-naked people running through the streets. Cupid’s Undie Run sends scantily-clad people out on a short fun run for charity.

For 2020, runners gathered their booze and courage at Penn Social, near Gallery Place, and then ran down E Street on a chilly afternoon.

March

Just before the pandemic restrictions kicked in, saucer magnolias bloomed in Washington. It was the first bit of floral color in months and people flocked to the garden behind the Smithsonian Castle to get a photo.

At the time, the plan was to close the city for a couple of weeks.

April

With no tourists or commuters, Washington felt abandoned at times, especially around the monuments.

People flocked to see the cherry blossoms but then Mayor Bowser stationed police to keep people away. You were supposed to only go out for exercise or necessities. With everything on the Mall closed, the only people you saw were runners or cyclists.

May

This is the first time I had seen friends since the start of the pandemic. We gathered for socially-distanced drinks in Meridian Hill Park. My hair is a mess from a DIY haircut.

As we were socializing, a riot was taking place near the White House. This was the night that they burned things and broke windows. Though we were just a mile away, we had no idea. That’s how small the disturbance was in a city as large as Washington, DC.

June

After the riot, came the military crackdown. A curfew was established and helicopters buzzed low over the city.

On Swann Street, where I used to live (and set my short story Apartment 101), the police “kettled” Black Lives Matter protesters, preventing their escape.

Residents of the street, like Rahul Dubey (center), opened their doors to shield young protesters from the beatings and pepper spray of the police.

I biked up to see the next morning. The police had left and Rahul and the kids were standing around out front. Everyone seemed a little stunned.

After taking this photo, I went to 350 Bakery. That’s what people don’t understand about DC; there can be a demonstration on one block but around the corner, you can grab coffee and a scone.

That week, I saw lots of misinformation from Facebook “friends” informing me that DC had been totally destroyed by rioters; these slurs convinced me that I actually loved DC.

July

While it was another busy month of Trump atrocities, I was cheered by the appearance of this mural at Thomas Circle.

It’s the Guardians of the Four Directions by MISS CHELOVE. I watched as she put the final touches on  this dramatic artwork that adorns the Hotel Zena. That art was being created in a time of so much uncertainty gave me hope. It made me think of the future, when this hotel and DC will be open and filled with people again.

August

Likes cover image

At the start of the pandemic, I had a dozen or so short stories in various stages of construction, most dealing in some form or another with social media. It occurred to me that I could collect them all into a book. A short one for short attention spans.

That book is LIKES.

September

I had to get away. But where could I go? Where would be safe to go? How would I get there?

You can travel these days without dealing with another person. I rented a car with the Avis app and used a digital key to check into my hotel.

My first stop was Corning, NY, where I visited the Corning Museum of Glass (much recommended). I then drove upstate to check out the Finger Lakes and the Erie Canal, before  returning via Pittsburgh. I brought my bike with me and rode bike trails. It was an interesting time to travel, with so few people on the roads.

October

I did a lot of reading this year. Buying a book from a local bookstore was the  patriotic thing to do so I did a lot of shopping at Kramerbooks. As the pandemic began, I picked up Ragtime and ended up reading a lot by E.L. Doctorow.

Months later, I was ready to read a book about a world-ending epidemic. That book was the thoughtful and lyrical Station Eleven. My favorite novel of 2020.

November

This was the day that the networks announced that Biden had won. Within minutes, Black Lives Matter Plaza was packed with celebrants cheering, singing and drinking champagne. People danced on the spot where Trump had protesters beaten for a photo-op. “We are the champions,” echoed down H St.

I joined the crowds, wondrously and happily drunk.

December

I didn’t realize how stressed I was until I got to Florida for the holidays. Away from DC, my mind was suddenly calm. I was content to just sit in an Adirondack chair and watch the ocean.

After this past year, I understand the Roaring 20s. Totally get why you’d want to forget everything and go somewhere where the gin is cold but the piano’s hot. Why you’d want to smash existing art forms and start something new. Why you’d want to reject convention and move to Paris.

I think 2020 will be one of those years that everyone agrees to never speak of again.

Let’s move on.

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.

IMG_0661

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.

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.

 

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.

IMG_1873

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.