Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Beltway Drift

Everyday, usually late morning, the older Black woman downstairs testifies.

"Thank you Jesus! Thank you Lord! Save me God! I feel your power! Yes! Thank you!"

I hear this through much of my apartment, but most directly in my office. Sometimes a taped preacher accompanies her. Most times she's acapella. Like early Christian country music, her prayers soothe me.

There's a storefront Church of God down the street. Praise and singing spill out the open door. Hands clap. Feet stomp. It's a tiny space with ceiling fans, metal folding chairs and hand-painted signs of faith. Passion rocks the sidewalk. I'm not a Christian, but I find this beautiful.

Young white yuppies walk by on their way to the farmer's market. They buy fresh fruit, cheese, bread and meat from hippies in overalls. Organic produce via Maryland. Though only a block from the church, this is a different world. More affluent. Self-conscious. On the rise, wherever that goes these days.

I suppose I'm one of them, but it doesn't feel that way. I'm older, remember pre-internet life, wrestle with savage emotions and moods. The distance between young and old seems greater today. Technology, atomization, the surrender of social life to social media. And yet a lot of these kids glamorize my generation's past. Fetishize the pop culture. Wear its emblems. Maybe everything stopped. All that's left is recycling.

Black neighbors sit on their porches, nod and say hi as I pass. They seem sincere, but you never really know. Given the white invasion, I wouldn't blame them for casting hostile eyes. More likely I'm projecting, an embarrassing, ongoing trait.

It wasn't like this in Michigan. My neighbors kept to themselves, peeking through their curtains. The few I spoke to when my son was in elementary school were rigid and reserved. There was a local pecking order I didn't understand or recognize. Certain parents you couldn't approach without a sponsor. It made me laugh, which extended their distance. In the end, for the best.

The District is a refreshing change. Not my favorite city, but a nice one. At least in the civilian areas.

Giant federal buildings remind you of who holds power. The older ones are less subtle, adorned with Roman colonnades, imperial confidence slowly crumbling. The newer ones, like the DEA/ATF, are streamlined, a fitting symbol for our evolving police state.

When I walk past, I sometimes see people staring back at me through office windows. Do they like their jobs? Do they believe in the mission? To me they look trapped. But then I feel the same way when I walk through midtown Manhattan.

My neighborhood has none of this. Just old brownstones being refurbished as longtime residents watch from their stoops. The middle-aged Black man next door told me that five years ago, this neighborhood was one of DC's roughest.

"You would've been running for your life!" he said, chuckling. Crime is down, though in early morning hours you hear gunshots and loud arguments. Rough areas remain. Judging from the shifting demographic and expanding construction, those areas will be pushed further away.

The local liquor store, run by an Arab family, caters to daytime drinkers who lean against abandoned buildings. They too are sociable, occasionally asking for cheap pint money. I've yet to see another white face in there. The owner, a small thin man with a pencil mustache, brightens when I enter. He's brusque with the regulars, who don't seem to notice or care.

You can't avoid racial issues in moments like that. No matter how shabbily I'm dressed, the owner gives me royal service. I smile, am polite, and quickly finish the transaction. Maybe he remembers more dangerous days. I'm sure I represent an upgrade in clientele.

Recently, two Black teens followed me into that store. When I turned they got right in my face. "Yo man -- you got any money?" asked a kid no older than my son. "Sure," I replied. Dug through my pocket. Felt three loose bills. Pulled one out. It was a dollar. "This good?" The kid took it and said thanks.

The other two were a five and a twenty. But he didn't press for more. The owner went ballistic. "Fuck you! Get out of my store! I'm calling the police!" The teens mocked him in return. "Hey, I thought we was family. You shouldn't talk like that." As the owner screamed obscenities from behind bullet-proof glass, I slipped out and took a long walk.

I don't know if those kids were potentially violent. They could've easily emptied my pockets. But I didn't feel threatened. Maybe my calm disarmed them. Who knows. If I possessed George Zimmerman's paranoia, and his handgun, the situation might have lethally escalated.

Yet I don't think I own my new neighborhood. I still feel like a guest. Hell, I feel like that in much of my life. Guess I always have.