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It was the last day of final exams at my upstate New York college. Someone had posted a handwritten sign on a statue in the middle of campus. The ink was starting to bleed, but the message was still clear: “To whoever stole my biology book 4 hours before the final: FUCK YOU.”
There was, of course, no getting the book or exam back by then. The victim had not even put a name on the paper. But the sign served its purposea whelp of protest in the face of injustice, a child stomping her foot when there’s nothing else left to do.
That’s why anonymous griping is so therapeutic. You get in and out, relieving yourself without picking up any more dirt.
In a Southeast neighborhood near Capitol Hill, the anonymous whine is becoming part of the local soundtrack. First, an unsigned flier showed up in neighborhood mailboxes a few weeks ago protesting barking dogs. The one-page screed snarled at the canines who had interrupted the author’s sleep and their masters who had failed to muzzle them. Then, a few days laterinspired by the anti-dog flierVol. 1, No.1 of the 10th Street Bitcher debuted in mailboxes along 10th Street, Independence Avenue, and North Carolina Avenue SE.
The newsletter thanks the “do-gooder” who circulated the dog flier and lambastes “naughty neighbors” who practice poor trash and tree-box management. “Far too often, trash bags and loose debris show up on curbs and in alleys early on the weekend or too late on the collection days to be picked up,” the Bitcher reads, explaining how premature garbage attracts “wandering trash-pickers” and rats. “This is unhealthyand on warm days, very olfactorily distressing.”
The Bitcher also suggests that two slacker homeowners paint their houses: “You know who you are. Get with it!” The most extensive story in the Bitcher’s premiere issue exhorts the neighbors to tidy up their tree boxes. “Besides a couple of ill-kept homes on the 100 block of 10th Street (see below), the major blight on our neighborhood is the lack of any sort of maintenance of what are known as tree boxes….”
The newsletter, published in two-column newspaper format, does not name any names. Not even of the slackers in question. Nor of the author. “It is not the policy of this publication to cite individual cases of neglect (at least not in the first issue)” reads the publication.
Of course, anonymity is hard to come by in a gossipy enclave like Capitol Hill. Everyone knows who lives in the unkempt 10th Street homes. Everyone knows who neglects their tree boxes. And everyone knows that Rick Zimmerman, the retired reporter down the street, is the kvetcher behind the Bitcher.
Before he retired 10 years ago, Zimmerman spent 17 years as a Washington bureau reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He’s lived on the 100 block of 10th Street for 27 years. “I am the only journalist around here,” he says.
For a seasoned hack like Zimmerman, firing off a tidy, unattributed screed like the Bitcher was second nature. “It was out in half an hour,” he says. “I’m a writer by instinct. I have to get up in the morning to write.” He spends most of his time working on a biography about a former Ohio governor.
Zimmerman says he has not received much criticism for his newsletter. Neighbor Betsy Damos says their little corner of D.C. doesn’t mind that kind of nameless finger-pointing. “We have a strong community policing history,” says Damos, who is block captain for the neighborhood watch organization. “We feel a little freer to do that kind of thing.” The anti-dog flier was a little “angrier,” Damos says, but neither publication offended her.
At least one neighbor thinks Zimmerman should put his name on his work. “This entire flier seems to be only an outlet for this person to complain, but not to offer any opportunity for a response,” says a poster to a Capitol Hill crime listserve. “Certainly, everyone has a right to air their views; however, it is a coward who will not come forward and who hides behind anonymity.”
Zimmerman says he’s written lots of stories without a byline, and he sees no need for one on the Bitcher. “The whole idea was just to scold them, not to get me right up in the middle of it,” Zimmerman says. “But I’ve owned up, whenever I’m asked to. I’m not reticent about it.” He says he recently got a supportive voice mail from a local who pointed out that The Federalist papers were anonymous and no one called their authors cowards.
Another issue of the Bitcher is forthcoming, but Zimmerman won’t say when. “It depends on the flow of the demand,” he says. He’s already getting story suggestions from neighbors. An exposé on parking scofflaws appears imminent. And Zimmerman says it may be his imagination, but those tree boxes are looking better already. CP