We are not going to mix it up with New York here. New York has it all over D.C., got it? It’s New York. The subway runs all night.
D.C. has no such spark and grit. The District, Frank Rich contends in an October New York Times Magazine piece, is an “agglomeration of marble facades,” a “diorama” planted by fiat in a swamp. It is a hollow city, peopled by hollow citizens.
Yup. And Rich, born and raised in the District, is one of ’em. He had to be. Only a Washingtonian would have bothered to write the piece. Civic pride is generally interchangeable (Our [local food product] is the finest grub in the continent! Our [local sports team] has a tradition second to none!), but civic shame is distinctive and telling. And D.C.’s brand of civic shame is this: a painful, adolescent fear of being mocked as a phony.
Well, it’s time to get over the whole Holden CaulfieldñonñtheñPotomac act. If this year has taught the District anything, it’s that authenticity is overrated. Ask Michael Jordan, who turned the Wizards into the NBA’s biggest box-office draw without changing their on-court ineptitude. Heck, ask Rich, who parlayed the teapot tempest of his essay into free publicity and a guest shot on WTOP with Mark Plotkin.
Phoniness can be better than reality. Take the nominating-petition scandal of Mayor Anthony A. Williams. To people ashamed of fakery, it was horrifying: More than 8,000 of the 10,000 signatures on the mayor’s nominating petitions were thrown out, thanks to mass forgery and other acts of dishonesty. Yet what was the fuss? The whole reason the mayor’s campaign came up with 10,000 signatures, rather than the required 2,000, was to show that Williams would be re-elected overwhelmingly. And the mayor was re-elected overwhelmingly. In the end, those 8,000 forgeries gave a truer demonstration of the mayor’s hammerlock on the electorate than 8,000 certified signatures would have.
Stung by the scandal, Williams tried to take his campaign to the people. But the closer the mayor got to reality, the worse he looked. Who needed to see him struggling on the basketball court? How did the sight of him flinching and grimacing while he pressed the flesh make voters feel any better?
No, reality has been a letdown in these parts. Remember the profile of the D.C. Sniper, the white man in the white van who moved invisibly among us, killing swiftly and then slipping through every dragnet? He was a movie supervillain. Then the cops made their bust: two broke drifters in a beat-up Caprice, one just a kid, with a trail of assaults and robberies behind them. Likewise the whole Chandra Levy saga untangled itself, shadowy conspiracies in the corridors of power giving way to a dull, random kill-and-dump job in the park.
Then there was Fire Chief Ronnie Few, scuttling out of town after his resume turned out to include a bogus firefighting award and falsified educational credentials—as if anyone knew, before the scandal, what the real firefighting awards are. This city has a history of padding the facts—why not make it a proud history?
Fakery is at the core of what makes us human. What is consciousness itself but the gap between what you think and what you do? Yes, the District is an artificial construct. That’s to its credit. Other cities chose their locations the way dumb antelopes choose their watering holes, following need and the lay of the land. D.C. was put up by compass and law, not by petty concerns about navigable waters, survivable winters, or drainage. It is the Inauthentic City, raised to embody an unattainable ideal.
So the Washington City Paper rejects the neurotic insistence on the real, to exalt the illusions that make D.C. great. This issue is dedicated to those things that go beyond the limits of mere reality and aim for the unattainable. —Tom Scocca
Year of the Hooter
The District’s Chinese character gets lost in the translation.
By Felix Gillette
Five Chinese characters decorate the front door of the soon-to-be-opened Hooters of Chinatown. To get to the crusty food and busty waitresses, Hooters patrons will have to pass by the set of traditional ideograms and, perhaps, ponder their meaning.
In English, the word “hooters” is a synonym for “owls,” even if that’s not the meaning that resonates with the chain’s target audience. The word works as a sight gag, and it’s a good one—at least in English.
But the Chinese characters in the Hooters Chinatown sign don’t appear to convey the double entendre of the pair of O’s in the Hooters logo. Instead, the collection of swooping lines and slashing dashes looks somber and precise, evoking Confucian scholarship, not cheesecake and chili fries.
On a brisk day in mid-December, I stand in the doorway of the restaurant and transcribe the Chinese characters onto a notepad. After a few minutes, a guy from inside takes notice.
“What does it say?” asks MAM Contracting’s Mike Heideman, who is overseeing the restaurant’s construction.
Heideman says that the guys he hired to stencil on the restaurant’s various logos have already messed up one of the signs—in English. Of their multilingual abilities, Heideman is dubious. “I told them that they had written the Chinese backwards and that the sign says ‘House of the Devil,’” says Heideman. “That got them scared. Obviously, they have no idea.”
Lu Lan, a social worker at the nearby Chinatown Service Center on Massachusetts Avenue, does: “Owl Restaurant,” she says.
So “Hooters” doesn’t translate perfectly into Chinese. Nevertheless, the Chinese characters hanging in the Hooters storefront are more than a failed pun. They are the lifeblood of today’s Chinatown.
Ever since the opening of the MCI Center, in 1997, Chinatown has witnessed a steady influx of national chain stores, including Hooters, Fuddruckers, Ruby Tuesday, and Starbucks. With the exception of the Radio Shack on 7th Street NW, all of these franchises provide some version of “Owl Restaurant.” Each store is decorated with Chinese characters or with banners sporting Chinese designs.
Fuddruckers brags in Chinese of dishing out “world-famous hamburgers.” A few stores down, Ruby Tuesday has dubbed itself the “Stone Building Restaurant.” The new dialect of Chinatown is flat, silent, and loaded with skin-deep symbolism. The strip along 7th Street NW is like Potomac Mills with a trendy tattoo.
For decades, city planners have fretted that downtown growth might overrun Chinatown. How, they wondered, do you maintain the Chinese flavor of the neighborhood while accommodating the inevitable pressures of development?
The solution? Pile on the signs.
Currently, the area employs a variety of tactics designed to create the illusion we call Chinatown. The streetlights look sort of like Oriental lanterns. Sidewalk bricks show off the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Victorian buildings are touched up with Chinese flair.
The conscious effort to create a Chinese identity in Chinatown through superficial changes to the cityscape is no accident. In fact, it’s required by law. Businesses hoping to move into Chinatown must first win the approval of both the Office of Planning and the Chinatown Steering Committee, a volunteer group of Chinese-Americans, who make sure that restaurants such as Hooters try to appear a tad Chinese.
“The Chinese signs and lampposts help create the ambiance of Chinatown,” says John Fondersmith of the Office of Planning. “All the visual clues are designed to make visitors say, ‘Hey, we’re in a different part of the city.’ ‘Education’ is too strong a word, but ideally, people recognize that something special is going on there.”
Perhaps a few more Chinese people would help trigger the association. Today’s Chinatown boasts lots of Chinese characters, but few residents who can read them. According to the 2000 census, there are approximately 700 ethnic Asian residents living in Chinatown and the surrounding neighborhoods—or about 100 less than in 1936.
John Lem, the director of the Chinatown Service Center, says that most of the Chinese immigrants he works with don’t live in Chinatown. They live in public-housing projects in less trendy neighborhoods. Lem says that his job is to “help them assimilate as quickly as possible.”
For most immigrants, assimilation means learning English, finding a job, saving some money, and moving to the suburbs—not walking around and adding to the ambience of Chinatown. “Long ago it ceased to be a Chinatown in the old-fashioned sense of a ghetto,” says Fondersmith. “And I think thankfully so.”
Chinatown now provides the District with its first Potemkin shopping mall. Mistaking it for a genuine Chinese neighborhood is like confusing Bram Stoker’s Dracula with a Let’s Go guide to Cluj-Napoca.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first written use of the word “Chinatown” dates to 1857, when a rag named the Butte Record, in Oroville, Ca., printed: “Chinatown was wild with joy.” From its humble start in a California gold-mining town, “Chinatown” burgeoned in the Western imagination, growing more wild and joyous with age.
Chinatown in D.C. began with a real-life ethnic enclave and departed from there. In 1851, one Chiang Kai moved to Washington and established a foothold for the first Chinese community. By 1884, about a hundred Chinese immigrants had settled in the District. For the most part, they lived on Capitol Hill and worked in the laundry industry, eventually establishing laundries throughout the city.
With time, this Chinatown emerged as an object of fascination for the local press.
“Chinatown, that medley of strange sounds, with its deep mystery suggestive of weird images and resplendent beauty, has found in Washington an abode within the shadow of the Capitol,” wrote the Washington Star in 1927. “‘Seeing Chinatown’ is one of the features in nearly every large American city, and yet it is a fact that few, even though they travel with the open sesame of police protection, ever see more than the outer fringe of the little patch of Asia.”
From the get-go, chroniclers of Chinatown have understood that assimilation isn’t sexy. Secrecy is. The essence of Chinatown was always its mysteriousness, and in those early days, speculative scribes regaled their readers with tales of hatchet men, cat eaters, and opium dens.
In 1931, federal development threatened to displace the Chinese community on Capitol Hill. Newspapers rallied in support of Chinatown. “They have not been bad citizens,” read one editorial from August 1931. “They have lent picturesqueness to the city’s scenes; have done business with strangers desiring Eastern merchandise, and have refrained from too many murders and too much traffic in opium.”
In 1931, the Chinese community relocated from Capitol Hill to H Street NW. Other residents in the area met the arrival of Chinese businessmen with a bout of early-onset NIMBYism. They protested, pointing out that the neighborhood already had both an organizing principle and a nickname—Furniture Row.
But eventually, the Chinese community dismantled Furniture Row—and re-assembled the concept of Chinatown, this time as a marketing tool, a way of luring curious customers into the neighborhood. The second incarnation of Chinatown was both less insular and more festive than its predecessor. Chinatown became a place to eat chop suey, buy fireworks, and watch the Chinese dragon dance through the streets on the Chinese New Year.
During the early ’70s, downtown development threatened to do to Chinatown what Chinatown had done to Furniture Row. Later in that decade, the city began construction on a new convention center at 9th and H Streets NW, displacing a number of Chinese residents. As a concession, the city used federal money to construct the Wah Luck House, an apartment building designed by Alfred Liu, to provide subsidized housing for primarily elderly neighborhood residents, at 6th and H Streets.
As a result, vestiges of the authentic Chinese-American community remain in Chinatown today, however overshadowed. It’s like the difference between the giant fish hanging over the entrance to Legal Seafood and the cans of pickled mudfish lined up in the Dahua Market: The fakery is large and showy; the real culture, small and unassuming. How long until the former swallows the latter?
Duane Wang, the chair of the Chinatown Steering Committee, says that Chinatown will survive. The key, he says, is working with developers to ensure that they follow the design guidelines. “If they do not follow through, we hound the developers,” says Wang. “We make sure they put up the Chinese signs.”
Sometimes new businesses are slow to respond. That 7th Street Radio Shack, for instance, has been open for months, yet its storefront remains Chinese-free. Store manager George Lin says that the signs are coming. “I translated ‘Radio Shack,’ myself,” says Lin. “I wrote it down and faxed it to the headquarters in Fort Worth.”
Lin says that he is waiting to hear back from the Radio Shack pooh-bahs. They still have to decide on traditional vs. simplified characters. “Which do you like?” asks Lin.
When I show Lan the Chinese characters I have copied from the Hooters window, she asks me a question about the “Owl Restaurant.”
“Do they serve food in there?” she asks. “Or just alcohol?”
I’m not sure, I tell her. Until now, I’ve never had an opportunity to visit a Hooters.
“Are you sure you’re an American?” she quips.
For more than a century, Americans have turned to Chinatown for a taste of the unfamiliar. Once, it was the allure of Chinese restaurants. These days, eating Chinese food is like ordering pizza: nothing special. But thanks to the arrival of places like Hooters, District residents can turn to Chinatown, once again, for a taste of the exotic, albeit from outside the Beltway rather than from overseas.
A few days after my visit to Hooters, I stand outside of Ruby Tuesday and copy down the Chinese characters adorning that building. Curiosity gets the better of a Ruby Tuesday staffer, who walks outside and chats me up. “You copying down those Japanese symbols?” he asks.
“That’s right, that’s right. We’re in Chinatown,” he says, looking around.
For a few minutes, we talk about the massive construction site across the street. A shopping mall? McDonald’s? Chipotle? We’ve both heard rumors. “That’s what this city needs,” he says. “More shopping.”
Before returning inside, he takes one more look at the Chinese characters in my notebook. “You work for a tattoo parlor?” he asks. CP
Federal security takes your ID at face value.
By Jason Cherkis
If you’re a car approaching the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, you get quite a shakedown. Security officials use special mirrors to check your undercarriage, your trunk gets popped, and its contents are poked around.
If you’re a person, on the other hand, you get a different treatment: ID, please.
Since Sept. 11, federal workers and tourists have become accustomed to digging out their IDs every time they enter a government building. Just like dumping your change and keys into a plastic dish, the ID flash has become an empty ritual of the federal lobby: You pull it out and show it to a security drone, who checks your face against the one on the ID. The drone nods, and you move on.
The check is supposed to weed out terrorists as well as wash away any fears that you are entering an unprotected building. When I ask one Friday afternoon why I have to produce a piece of plastic with my mug on it, I get this response: “So if you do anything crazy, we’ll know it’s you.”
That’s enough. I show the security guard my ID.
“Am I OK?” I ask. I wonder, Does my driver’s license make me look crazy? I have some stubble and an angry mien, but nothing that makes me look as if I’ve ever had the desire to turn myself into a 5-foot-5 nail bomb.
A second later, the security guard says I’m fine and free to roam about the Ronald Reagan Building.
The security guard doesn’t log my ID in a book. She doesn’t check my name against al Qaeda membership rolls, nor does she cross-check against my Blockbuster card. My getting by the security team—from the Robocop-sounding Coastal International Security—is as easy as a drunk high-schooler’s getting into a Georgetown dance club.
Douglas Avery, the Reagan building’s deputy security manager, sees the ID checks as just another bulwark in the U.S.’s homeland defense. When I mention how easy it is for the average citizen, let along the enterprising international terrorist, to produce official-looking ID, Avery asks me: “How many years’ security experience do you have?”
That’s Avery’s way of telling me that he has no comment on the matter. “We don’t divulge why we do things,” Avery says.
“It’s the policy,” Avery says. CP
In D.C. bars, some ales assume aliases.
By Chris Shott
The proprietors of the Toledo Lounge in Adams Morgan like to play up their Ohio roots. There’s a sign on the wall that says, “So goes Ohio, so goes the nation,” referring to the state’s power in presidential elections.
So it stands to reason that one of the beers that flows from the taps is called “Toledo Amber,” or simply “T.” To unsuspecting customers, it might pass as some house-recipe brew, or perhaps an import from the hometown of owners Mary and Stephanie Abbajay.
But aside from its Midwestern moniker, this beer is nothing special. On the other end of the line, behind the bar, the “Toledo Amber” tap handle draws from an ordinary keg of Old Dominion lager, brewed in Ashburn, Va.
“It’s not brewed specifically for us,” manager Jon Marlow admits, “but we consider it our house beer.” The name, he says, is “just something to catch people’s attention.”
D.C. pubs and taverns commonly sell beers under false identities. At the Capitol Lounge, draft beer dubbed “Capitol Amber” is, in fact, Red Hook ale, containing a little less alcohol than the brewer’s popular India Pale Ale. Anheuser-Busch distributor Capitol Eagle Inc. also supplies it to other bars. Just one block down Pennsylvania Avenue SE, the Hawk and Dove Restaurant sells the same beer but calls it “Hawk Ale.”
“It’s a nice little gimmick,” says P.H. McLaughlin of Premium Distributors, the District’s dominant beer supplier. “Some restaurants and bars really find value in having what they consider a house beer,” McLaughlin says. “It ties the beer to their place.”
The name-changing goes on despite D.C. regulations prohibiting “false or misleading” statements on advertisements for alcoholic beverages: “Any statement concerning a brand or lot of an alcoholic beverage that is inconsistent with any statement on the labeling of the alcoholic beverage shall be prohibited.”
Maria Delaney, director of the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, says the city “will be looking into” the practice to determine whether it violates the law.
Although rebranding may break city rules, it often goes down well with brewers. The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. of Chippewa Falls, Wis., for instance, has crafted a special ale with no distinctive name—a ploy that encourages bars to rename it. “It’s a niche opportunity for the bar to call it their own,” says Leinenkugel spokesperson Lori Barthelemy.
District watering holes have taken Leinenkugel’s cue. Around town, the suds bubble up as “Stetson’s Ale,” “Childe Harold Amber Ale,” “Mr. Smith’s Special Ale,” and “Black Cat Red Room Ale.”
Given the brewer’s backing, Black Cat manager Bernie Wandel sees nothing wrong in selling the reddish suds under the guise of its adopted in-house name. “Since we don’t advertise ourselves as a brew pub, there’s really no deception to it,” he says. “People are usually pretty stoked when they find out it’s Leinie’s.”
Of all the mislabeled malt beverages on draft in D.C. bars, the house beer at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge stands out as perhaps the strangest choice for brand-name appropriation.
Behind the padded bar at the movie house is a rectangular tap handle, labeled in vertical, shadowed script: “Visions Brew.” Ask bartender Adam Bernbach about the beer’s true identity and he’ll confess: “It’s Yuengling.”
It’s highly unusual for bars to rename such a recognizable brand. “It’s not something we encourage,” Premium’s McLaughlin says. “Yuengling is such a great name.”
Bernbach himself suggests that mislabeling the beer might be misguided. “Honestly, I think we’d sell more if we put the Yuengling tap handle back on,” he says.
“And,” adds barmate Sean McGuinness, “probably charge a buck more.” CP
Swing Low, Street Chariot
Ahora si vamanos!
By Sean Daly
As part of its ongoing celebration of Chicano culture, the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building isn’t merely offering tourists a ride through a classic East L.A. barrio. It’s offering them a lowride through a classic East L.A. barrio.
The lowrider simulator is flashed out in French’s-yellow paint and trimmed with bright red flames. It’s supposed to resemble the ultimate lowriding prototype: a shark-finned 1969 Ford LTD. Instead, the museum’s coche has a cartoonish look reminiscent of Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine.
But no worries, muchachos: This would-be badass still has some serious hops. Slightly smaller (but a whole lot meaner) than the similarly shaped PT Cruiser, this “classic bomb”—the centerpiece of the museum’s “Chicano Now: American Expressions” exhibition—shakes and shimmies, lifts and drops, all courtesy of hydraulic cylinders situated under each corner of the carriage.
Built by Los Angeles artist Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, the lowrider simulator might not let you machine-gun faceless baddies like those hi-tech flight gizmos over at Air & Space, but this mechanized staple of Mexican-American urban street life is certainly cooler. The three-minute virtual trip takes you through an East L.A. “cruising zone,” complete with ‘do-ragged toughs head-bobbing through las avenidas in their own souped-up wheels. The climax is the “lowride-off,” where your street rivals put on a spine-rattling display of lifting, dropping, and tilting. You and your ride match every thump and bump.
The simulator is parked next to other stereotype-tweaking displays, including a cheeky celebration of the Taco Bell Chihuahua. It’s all the brainchild of comedian Cheech Marin, who, with partner-in-pot Tommy Chong, hit the streets with similar transpo in such high-times comedies as 1978’s Up in Smoke. Narrating the simulated spin with an extra-oily accent, Marin alternates between Spanish exclamations (“No me toques!”) and English translation (“Don’t touch!”).
Whether the lowrider, revving at Arts and Industries until Jan. 7, teaches us more about Chicano culture or stereotypes, I’m still not sure. What I do know is that the simulator is flat-out fun as hell, and three virtual road trips weren’t nearly enough for this gringo.
“One woman asked to get off, and a couple of kids started to cry,” says gallery assistant Jason Rust, who’s been running the lowrider’s controls since the exhibition’s late-September opening. “But besides them, most everyone loves it. We even had two kids ride it seven straight times. We couldn’t get them out of there.”
Rust, however, couldn’t get bigwig visitor Donald Rumsfeld to take un paseo on the beast: “I tried and tried, but he didn’t want anything to do with it.”
“Que viva los lowriders, ehhh!” CP
Area merchants have no business chasing Georgetown’s cachet.
By Josh Levin
The Capitol Hill Club seems a logical name for the business at 300 1st St. SE. That location, after all, is right in the heart of Capitol Hill. Nearby stand other neighborhood businesses, such as Capitol Hill Dental Group and Capitol Hill Books and Capitol Hill Art & Frame. But there’s one intruder: Georgetown Market & Dry Cleaners, at 201 Massachusetts Ave. NE.
Capitol Hill is just one of the communities that has to put up with Georgetown’s imperialism. While there’s no Capitol Hill Laundromat on Dupont Circle or Capitol Hill Poultry in Friendship Heights, there’s a Georgetown Carpet in Glover Park and a Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda—or as some would call it, Rockville. Georgetown, D.C.’s No. 1 exporter of image, is geographically distinct, wedged between the Potomac and Rock Creek Park. But everywhere you go, merchants find a rationale to stretch its boundaries. CP
Name of business: Georgetown Cab Association
Location: 2145 Queens Chapel Road NE
Real Neighborhood: Langdon
Georgetown Connection: “I had a driver who dropped a customer at National Airport. He’s not supposed to pick up fares, and a guy jumped out of line and said, ‘I want to go with you, because I’m going to Georgetown.’” —Fred Hassani, owner
Name of business: Georgetown Carpet
Location: 2208 Wisconsin Ave. NW
Real Neighborhood: Glover Park
Georgetown Connection: “We call it Upper Georgetown.” —Sharam Bugheri, president
Name of business: Georgetown Dental
Location: 1605 Foxhall Road NW
Real Neighborhood: Foxhall Village
Georgetown Connection: “Dr. Steele is a graduate of Georgetown University.” —Connie Barger, office manager
Name of business: Georgetown Hypnosis Institutes
Location: 2233 Wisconsin Ave. NW
Real Neighborhood: Glover Park
Georgetown Connection: “I think if we called it the Wisconsin Avenue Institute we’d probably have just as much of a response…” —Dr. Peter Wesselton, owner
Name of business: Georgetown Investment Co.
Location: 1801 16th St. NW
Real Neighborhood: Dupont Circle
Georgetown Connection: “At parties with doctors and attorneys, at Christmas parties this time of year, you’ll mention you’re with Georgetown Investment Company and somebody will say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of them.’ Now, we haven’t plastered an advertising campaign, we’re not on TV, but people recognize the name immediately.”—Thomas Patterson, president
Name of business: Georgetown Plating, Polishing & Repair Co.
Location: 2335 Champlain St. NW
Real Neighborhood: Adams Morgan
Georgetown Connection: “I was forced out because the rent was too expensive, and I thought that if I kept the name people would know that it’s the same store that used to be in Georgetown. If I kept the name it means that I was still alive.”—Meir Flaisher, owner
Name of business: Georgetown Seafood Grill
Location: 1200 19th St. NW
Real Neighborhood: Dupont Circle
Georgetown Connection: “Our thought process right now is to reconcept the restaurant and come up with a new name. The Georgetown is the part that should go, because it’s confusing.” — Natalie Juenger, vice president of human resources for Capital Restaurant Concepts
The cathedral’s woodlands get an artificial implant.
By Felix Gillette
More than a decade ago, as a middle-school student at St. Albans, I studied ecology in the patch of woods that sits on a hillside at the base of the Washington National Cathedral. With a team of classmates, I roped off a section of forest and watched it change with the seasons, writing observations in a notebook as winter turned to spring and new leaves emerged from the barren ground.
On a sunny afternoon in mid-December, I return to the forest with Ray Mims, the cathedral’s director of horticulture and grounds. Mims wants to show me the key to the woodland’s present-day water flow.
He leads me to a field along the forest’s penumbra, not far from my study site of yesteryear. At first glance, the area looks like an alpine meadow—flat, grassy, and treeless—with one exception: A manhole cover sits in the dirt. Using a pickax, Mims pries off the lid.
A few feet below the forest floor, cloaked in shadow, a couple of pipes feed into a standing pool of water. One of the pipes, Mims tells me, leads to a buried storage device called the Rainstore. The Rainstore, made of molded plastic, holds groundwater and regulates its flow into the surrounding aquifer. “It looks kind of like Lego blocks,” Mims says.
Such is the price of keeping “natural” equilibrium. In 1927, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the cathedral’s first landscape architect, designed and landscaped this 5-acre patch of beech and oak trees, later named Olmsted Woods after him. Like his father, who had designed and built the Capitol grounds, New York’s Central Park, and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the younger Olmsted believed that nature, suitably kempt and maintained, had transformative power. He wanted future visitors to traverse the forest before entering the house of God. “The great sweeping branches of the trees seem to brush off…the dust of the city,” he wrote, “so that one at last reaches the Cathedral cleansed in mind and spirit.”
But cleansing souls is a dirty business. Over the years, the woods suffered. As the cathedral close developed, asphalt replaced grass and the runoff from rainstorms wreaked havoc on the forest floor, digging ravines, eroding the soil. Teenagers dumped garbage. Invasive species pushed out the natives.
In 1997, members of the cathedral’s All Hallows Guild initiated a $1.5 million program to overhaul the Olmsted Woods. They raised money, hired consultants, and established a computer database to track changes in the forest.
Mims says that the process of retrofitting the woods is going well. The Rainstore has helped significantly decrease water runoff and has done so in an unobtrusive manner. It may be a pivotal part of the forest’s future, but it does its work like a pacemaker, out of sight and out of mind.
On the way out, Mims shows me the wider pathways that have been added in the forest to keep visitors from running roughshod through the underbrush. I admit to Mims that for years I commando-crawled over every inch of the Olmsted Woods during late-night games of capture the flag.
Mims looks at me as if I were an enemy. “That wouldn’t happen these days,” he says. “A number of times, I’ve caught kids playing around here and dragged them to the principal’s office by their ears.” CP
Gill by Association
Why sell seafood off a boat when it comes inside a truck?
By Annys Shin
The men who stand rearranging the glistening piles of fish at the Maine Avenue Fish Market are a hardy lot. They’re always hoisting boxes of jumbo shrimp or bushels of squirming crabs. Their coveralls are usually flecked with fish scales and bits of ichthyic flesh. They often smell of the sea, and they work on floating stands. It’s easy to imagine them on the roiling waters, netting crabs.
“Kids think we catch [fish] out back,” says Billy, an employee of Jesse Taylor’s Seafood, who has worked on the barges of the fish market on and off for 11 years.
Commercial fishing, however, has never been legal in the District, according to the Fish and Wildlife Division of the D.C. Department of Health. Occasionally, fish get away, forcing Billy and his co-workers to retrieve them from the murky waters of the Potomac. But that’s about as close to fishing as they get.
Try telling this to District residents, who are fiercely loyal to the idea that the fish market is the remnant of a bygone era. Over the years, they’ve helped the seafood vendors fight off attempts by city officials to replace the barges with a modern pavilion.
Fish-market boosters have the story only half right. A fish market of some sort has reportedly existed on the Potomac since 1794, despite the fact that Washington never supported much of a commercial port. Long ago, seafood did reach D.C. shores via boats from the Chesapeake Bay. Starting in 1918, however, the fish market was housed inside a building much like the O Street Market in Shaw.
In 1960, the old market fell to the wrecking ball to make way for the Eisenhower Freeway. Since the ’60s, refrigerated trucks have delivered seafood to the wharf daily from as far away as South Carolina and Georgia. Some items, such as lobster, are flown in. (During the summer, a fresh catch does occasionally arrive by powerboat.)
Over the years, the market owners increased the size of their floating stalls and upped the bling-bling factor to reel in customers. Today, the custom-built barges are 65 feet long and sport awnings and lighted signs, like corner bodegas. Some even have kitchens equipped with sinks and deep-fryers. The Bellagio of the strip is Captain White’s Seafood, which features a huge lighted sign of a salty-looking sea captain.
The market’s ambience has managed to fool even longtime customers. Kevin Perry, 36, who has been coming to the fish market all his life, says he believed the boats brought in seafood every day until about 10 years ago. “Then I looked at them and I said, ‘Those things don’t go out. They just sit here.’” CP
Full of Craps
Even fake casinos debase the human race.
By David Morton
Bruce Liggins has seen games of chance bring out the worst in people. He dealt blackjack at Harrah’s in Reno for three years in the ’70s—the city’s “wild” years, he says. He’s worked under the gaze of closed-circuit cameras, watching for card counters and other lowlifes. Now he works at play gaming tables with play money, but sometimes it still feels like Reno.
Tonight, on a clear, cold Saturday, he’s plying his trade in an art gallery, at an investment firm’s holiday formal. He arrived in a camel-hair overcoat and black double-breasted tuxedo wearing his dressy watch, the one with the blue presidential seal. As always, he sampled a cup of the catered coffee before the gaming began.
With every deal, Liggins “burns” the first card in the shoe, sliding it facedown across the felt to the discard shell. That’s a tradition that dates to the ’50s, meant to fluster counters. He deals with two hands, in ticktock timing, and cascades the cards in a diagonal pattern. (His philosophy: “If you look like you know what you’re doing, they want to play with you.”)
“Around the horn!” one excited player shouts as Liggins deals. The guests have donated $10 each to charity, in exchange for a fake $25,000 bill that the dealers will convert to chips. They can’t wait to risk nothing to get nothing.
The enthusiast is playing with a rookie gambler at his side. She’s clueless at first, not knowing when to hit, when to double down, or when, really, to do anything. But she’s thoughtful; most hands, she bets a single red $5,000 chip at a time. While her coach’s own pile of chips dwindles and he goes off to refill his drink, she plays her $25,000 stake into $100,000—enough, it turns out, to corrupt her.
After quietly amassing her fake fortune, the novice suddenly gets reckless. She puts half her stack out on a single hand, and she busts. When Liggins’ head momentarily turns away, she flicks out her hand and rakes the lost chips back into her pile. A small pillar of civilization falls to dust. With zero at stake, she’s cheating at charity’s expense.
This winter, scores of local businesses are spicing up their special occasions with pretend gaming tables, where all you have to lose are play casino chips and your moral standing. But gambling doesn’t work in the abstract. A railbird may rave about the stride of a thoroughbred, but the real pleasure is in collecting on the exacta. Liggins’ boss, Show Biz Productions President Steve Phillips, calls the business “entertainment” and describes the “magnetism of the green felt.” When the chips start moving, though, the gamers can get ugly. Real ugly. Sometimes rude.
Pilfering chips happens all the time, Liggins says. At a recent bat mitzvah, it took a team of dealers to realize, collectively, that a posse of 13-year-old girls was marking the arrival of womanhood by robbing them blind. Their parents didn’t seem to care.
Liggins, by day an “advertising sales guy,” represents the graceful side of fake gaming. Maybe because he rarely gambles.
Dealers vary more in skill and nuance than players, who by comparison may seem like an undifferentiated collection of louts. Sportsmanship and decorum are not the gambling public’s strong points. At another blackjack table, operated by croupier Daniel Bland, two investment bankers—a player and his drunken cheering section of one—insist on high-fiving on every winning hand as the player approaches, then surpasses, $300,000 in winnings.
Sometimes the player reaches across the table to high-five another player, although a couple of times that friend attempts a knuckle knock and the big winner ends up slapping a fist. When he acquires his third black chip—worth $100,000 in Wonderland—he leans over to his female companion at an adjoining table and rubs two of the black chips together in her face. He turns back and drops a $25,000 chip on the table. He keeps his screwdriver in hand.
“They’re going to give me the Rain Man suite!” he howls.
Because the drunk sidekick isn’t playing, he comes up with a game of his own. He is going to try and guess whom the dealer looks like, because damned if he doesn’t look like somebody. Bland actually has a pretty distinctive appearance: He has a long and fuzzy gray goatee and a 3-inch silver bullet dangling from his neck. He doesn’t talk much.
“Who does he look like? He’s in all those serial-killer movies…” puzzles the sidekick.
“Anthony Williams! Anthony Williams!” The sidekick high-fives someone behind him.
Bland collects and disburses chips.
“Samuel L. Jackson! That’s who he looks like! Samuel L. Jackson!”
Nothing shakes Bland.
Enraptured by yet another of the lucky player’s winning hands, the sidekick looks again to his hero, points his fingers, and pronounces, “I’m investing in this guy!” CP
Maggie’s Place, a new soul-food takeout on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, makes a bold yet irrefutable claim on the space above its entrance: “Martin Luther King would have eaten here.” The words are painted in a neat black cursive outlined in silver on a pink background. They are the work of the son of a previous tenant, Evangeline Cole, who ran a takeout here for three years until 1999, when an out-of-control truck partially destroyed the place. The artist could not be reached, so the small building’s current occupant is asked what she thinks the inspiration for the sign might have been. “Black-owned,” says Maggie McBryde, who says she didn’t notice the counterfactual historic boast in her first nine months of business. Maggie’s cousin William, the takeout’s manager, offers another guess: “I think [it’s] because when Martin Luther King marched on Washington, he traveled down this way. I hope he did. This place is blessed now.” —David Morton
In the men’s room at the Raven, as you take a whiz, you can see it scrawled in black pen just below eye level: “Jason Cherkis Sucks!!!” As the subject of that sentence, I say: Jason Cherkis is proud and humbled. This is my “Clapton Is God.” It also means that the Raven, despite its peeling paint, is officially not a dive bar. Dive bars have diatribes against neighborhood cops and corrupt union bosses—not journalists. Dive bars have enough anger at real things to not ever give a fuck about a reporter at an alt weekly. How angry can you be while a bartender in a Reebok shirt pours you drinks? This is a place where Natalie Merchant purrs on the jukebox while middle-class people smoke their Parliament Lights, cradle their cell phones, and enjoy their slumming. At least we’re not at Bella Roma, you think. But you will be. On a slow Thursday night, I hear a late-20-something speculating on what his mother got him for his birthday: “I think it’s a Foosball table.” The women seated across from him respond: “Coool.”—Jason Cherkis
Show me where to find Klingle Road in the Constitution. Where does it decree that Outback-driving Mount Pleasanters have the right to cross Rock Creek Park on a treacherous, winding path so they can ferry their kids to John Eaton or Sidwell three minutes quicker? Yeah, I know: It’s Woodley Park plutocrats like Tim Russert who want to keep us east-of-the-park riffraff out. Let them. If they want to look out their front windows at a decrepit, pothole-ridden road and pretend it’s a park (rather than, say, a stray piece of late-’80s Beirut), let them. How has this become the litmus test in District politics? I can understand devoting your every waking moment to the fight over abortion or affirmative action or—hey, here’s a crazy idea for local activists—D.C. voting rights, but Klingle Road? It’s an alley, people, not a civil-rights issue. —Elissa Silverman
Hanging high in the rafters of the MCI Center are reminders of Washington’s sporting grandeur: the retired numbers of Wes Unseld and Dale Hunter, banners saluting the Bullets’ 1977ñ1978 NBA title and Georgetown’s 1984 NCAA men’s hoops championship, and four blue-gold-and-white flags celebrating the Washington Mystics as “WNBA Attendance Champions.”
That’s right: attendance. The professional lady ballers—who have made the playoffs just twice in their five years of service—were awarded the honor in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2002. Apparently, we show up well.
“New York edged us out in 2001,” says an official with the Mystics organization. “It was close, but they just got us in the end.” Indeed, the Mystics averaged 15,417 fans per home contest that year, while the New York Liberty averaged 15,660.
The Mystics got a little sweet revenge last season—if not in the win column, then at least in the seats. During a pregame ceremony, the team lifted the latest banner at the penultimate game of the regular season—against New York.
“We wanted to rub it in a little,” the official says. —Sean Daly
There might not be a velvet rope in front of Pasta Mia, but for the sweater-wearing young professionals who walk down a make-believe red carpet on Columbia Road NW, there’s no cooler club. The wait starts 20 minutes before dinnertime, but the centerpiece of queue conversation isn’t gustatory: It’s the line itself. One Thursday evening, two women find a spot at the end at about 6:20, 10 minutes before the opening. “So, this is the line,” says the more experienced one, introducing the cult’s rites. Line-standers recount its lore—the time it stretched clear to Euclid Street, the time it reversed flow and went under the McDonald’s awning in the rain, the time the wait was three hours. When a waiter opens the restaurant’s doors, at precisely 6:30, these two and the rest of the converted swarm in. Inside, the restaurant’s close quarters ensure that the Pasta Mia family stays tightly knit. While the woman at one table describes her first-ever beer bong, the waiter cleaning the next table rests his ass on a customer’s neck. Two hours later, stomach hanging with heavy food, an accomplished exiting diner passes two people engaged in the conversation of the unseated. “It takes forever to get your food.” “But it’s worth it.” —Josh Levin
Kennedy Center Honors
Think the Golden Globes are faint praise? Imagine being Paul Simon, who got tapped for this year’s Kennedy Center Honors list after first choice Paul McCartney said he had another party to go to. Imagine being James Earl Jones, discovering you’ve been inducted into a rarefied fraternity of arts-world titans that includes…Charlton Heston. Imagine being anyone nominated for kudos by an advisory committee that includes such discriminating judges as Debbie Allen, Sharon Stone, and Tom Selleck. (Worse: The final choices are made by the center’s board of trustees, to which noted tastemonger Bo Derek was recently appointed by President Bush the Lesser in return for her partisan loyalty.) Even the audience at the Honors gala isn’t real: The New York Times notes that “the Kennedy Center only allows its biggest donors to buy orchestra seats at $3,000 each.” In other words, what was once the nation’s top arts award is being dumbed down, politically inflected, and milked for as much lucre as the market will bear—which means the only question left is who’ll deliver the next dis. —Trey Graham