I am in Washington for this awesome government fellowship. A bunch of seasoned public speakers are teaching me how to speak in front of audiences. They’re putting me in front of huge camera lenses and telling me, “Talk.” And I am! It’s surprising. I can do this. I can do it largely because I’m sober. Also, they note, because I’m willing to try.
I’m staying in Foggy Bottom. Right around the corner from the Foggy Bottom Whole Foods Market.
Foggy Bottom was always my favorite Metro stop name.
I came to Washington when I first got out of school. Washington was the place a lot of young people who grew up near the east coast went after graduation. It was the mid-1980s and we were in the Great Reaganomics Recession; the steel mills that had hired my uncles and cousins in my childhood had already closed up and other industries were cutting back. It was tough for new grads to get jobs.
So they came to Washington. Because, it was thought, The Government always has jobs.
I came to Washington to see if I could get a job writing. I remember taking the Metro out to Arlington and talking to the people at Gannett, which was starting a newspaper called USAToday. I had set up a bunch of other networking meetings and spent the very hot summer days taking the Metro and learning the layout of Washington.
I stayed with my college friend Angie, who had left school a year ahead of me. She generously let me sleep on her couch. Angie lived on the Hill, in Southeast Washington. It was June and I remember how, when we were walking back from the bars at night (that summer in Washington everyone, it seemed, was drinking Amstel Light; in New York City it was Rolling Rock long-necks), legions of roaches would part like the red sea before our trudging feet. Even the armies of red-backed roaches were exotic and interesting.
Washington is the place where I learned how to ride a subway. I’d come from the country and had never seen a subway before. Yesterday, when I took the train from Foggy Bottom to Gallery Place, I noticed that the Metro stops look the same inside as they did 25 years ago , they smell the same, the maps are the same, the blinking lights at the track-edges are the same, the turnstiles are the same, they take the same kind of tickets they used to 25 years ago. It’s not like the New York City subway, which used to take metal tokens before they switched to paper tickets. The Metro’s consistency was comforting.
The most romantic date I think I’ve ever had in my life took place that summer in Washington, D.C. Angie’s friend Bruce had a crush on me. He was a legislative aide by day and a singer in a band by night. One Saturday he asked me out. We rented bikes and rode all around Washington under a clear blue sky. I remember red and yellow tulips and blue and purple pansies in the roundabouts; I remember the scent of grilled beef at lunchtime; I remember the boulders and the bridges and the water in Rock Creek Park. I remember how we’d hit a red light and we’d stop and Bruce would lean over his bike bars and kiss me. We wound up in Adams-Morgan at twilight, sharing a bowl of pasta.
I liked Bruce but I was scared of him. I was scared of all those legislative-aide dudes who threw back hard liquor and wore Brooks Brothers button-downs and wanted to drive Beemers before they were 30. They looked destined to get thick in the waist too early in life. Bruce wasn’t like that: he was working-class, his ambitions didn’t include the brand-names of cars; but I was still scared of him. I was scared of most men my age. I didn’t know what they wanted from me. I knew what my mother said they wanted. It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t have to believe everything she said. (In fact, I’m still figuring that out on different levels; I suspect every woman is finding that out about her mother.)
I was scared of life.
After those two weeks in Washington, I ended up moving back to Western Pennsylvania and taking a staff-writer job at a small newspaper. Which was probably the best thing I could have done. I sometimes think every college graduate—at least, every writing student—should work at a community newspaper. It teaches you how to write, and a lot more besides. It teaches you about municipal government, about taxes and the ways money moves, about the law, about politics both petty and major; most of all it teaches you how to ask questions.
I rented a house in the country and my roommate and I drank cases of Gennessee beer.
I’ve worked mostly in print, but somehow I’ve always been trailed by chances to speak in front of audiences and to be on camera. Early on, I’d go out on stories as a print reporter and I’d be there grilling the firemen about the destruction of a house or the cops about some shooting or car-crash, and the video guys from the news channels in the city would be shoving their cards at me. “You need to be on camera, honey,” they’d say. “Call me and we’ll shoot some clips of you.” I never called them because what I wanted to do was write. I didn’t want to be on camera.
I was remembering this today when I was on camera. It’s freaky to stand in front of a big camera lens. It’s weird to have hot lights on your face. But also, I was used to it. I’ve been shot for documentary films. I’ve been interviewed for television news. I had hundreds of still shots of me taken for my first book project. I hate seeing my face onscreen or in photos but other people don’t seem to mind it.
I’m ready to go back to work tomorrow. We’re in another recession, The Great Bush-Cheney Recession, which is lingering into Obama’s second term. There are no armies of roaches in Foggy Bottom in December. I’m older and a bit wiser and a lot more experienced. I’m sober. When I got sober four years ago, I had no work at all. Today I get to wake up and go to work in Washington. Tonight I get to text with my son.
Hijito-hijito, I write.
[“Hijito” is Spanish. “Hijo” means “son”; “hijito” means boy.]
Madre, he writes. He is on his own in the house, 250 miles away. Feeling a bit lonely, he writes.
Let’s do some push-ups together, I write.
OK let’s start at 13, he writes.
So over the next 15 minutes we knock out 13 push-ups, then 12, then 11, all the way down to the last one, which he decides we must do military-style, with hands underneath the shoulders and elbows next to sides.
Good job dude, I write. How many was that?
A moment passes. Then the phone buzzes: