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Shaw before condos, Bloomingdale before group houses—the “secret city” in Flying Home’s subtitle refers to the D.C. of yore, forever a city that’s more than monuments. Think Chocolate City, U Street music halls of yesteryear, and aging Washington Grays ballplayers. Picture tough guys who loiter with little red wagons and steal peaches, men at the barbershop gossiping into the evening. Imagine the Lincoln Theatre in its movie-reel prime. In Flying Home, seven stories anchored around LeDroit Park, referred to as the Street, dip and dive across decades and seasons.
Characters in Flying Home weave through the entire volume; read closely to catch a glimpse of one story’s main character appearing in another, 40 years later. People make sacrifices to adapt to their changing circumstances and choose sides for the sake of being loved. A young boy, homesick for the Caribbean, yearns to understand his new environment. A middle-aged man drives with his teenage daughter from their upper Northwest home back to the Street, where he’s from, slipping into his old vernacular from the comfort of his BMW. In Flying Home, Vienna’s David Nicholson, a former editor of the Washington Post’s Book World, conjures myriad ways a person can be in two places at once while occupying neither.
The Street is a changing climate, and in broad strokes, Nicholson employs shifting attitudes toward race and class to shape his characters’ lives. Take the evolution of employment: In one early story, a man who’s worked at a shop for 17 years is given three days’ termination notice. A decade or so later, we meet a black woman who does housekeeping work for a white couple in Cleveland Park—she is dignified and autonomous, but she still suffers pinpricks of inequality. Closer to the present, the BMW driver who now lives in upper Northwest encounters a former acquaintance on the Street. “Shee-it,” she says when she recognizes him. “Probably got some white folks working for you. Now I know you doing good.” This old friend, she’s not doing good. Opportunities for the Street’s black residents improve over the years, but racial injustices persist, and individual lives splinter into different directions. The characters strive to connect across the divides.
Music also marks the passage of time. We start with James Brown and end with Jimi Hendrix, with shout-outs to hip-hop and sexy nightclub numbers in between. “Music’s always contained secrets that could get you killed,” postulates one stunning passage. A spiritual can tell you the location of a camp meeting and time of a runaway’s departure; a love ballad could lead you to court the wrong person. The final story in Flying Home, “Saving Jimi Hendrix,” is the most expository—I read it as an essay. Nicholson describes the power of Hendrix as a black artist who “offered the possibility of a way that was neither black nor white but both.” It’s a fitting final piece for a book that inspires hope without sappiness, that captures pain but celebrates love.
Flying Home will be a swift and gratifying read for anyone who takes pride in calling this mystifying city her home. When I finished, I went for a walk up Florida Avenue in Bloomingdale, blocks I’ve walked countless times before. With these brand-new secret stories reflecting back at me from the Street, their character and history broke through anew.
Nicholson will read at Upshur Street Books on June 28.