Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Shut up, all of you. You’ve said enough. Not another word on how Congress keeps our city under its thumb. Or the two centuries of political servitude ordained by the Constitution. Or how the control board can’t solve our problems. Or whether or not we deserve democracy. And whatever you do, don’t mention the guy who has dominated D.C. politics since 1978. We already know too much about him.

Not that we expect you to shut up. You who whine about getting the runaround at the bureau of motor vehicles yet don’t bother to get off your ass on Election Day. You who scream at the meter maid on your street just because she’s doing her job. You who say the city is a dump yet drop your cigarette butts on the sidewalk.

Everybody is on your case: George Will says you don’t deserve democracy, Andrew Brimmer says your elected government is brimming with misfeasance, and Lauch Faircloth says you should move if you don’t like the way things are.

You take all that shit personally, and for good reason: The D.C. bashers are talking about you. You’re why the city won’t soon do all those things Congress has mandated: trim its budget, restore services, reform itself. You’re why the control board has done nothing after two years in office. And you’re why your kids will carry on your destructive legacy.

The District will never kick the habit of you. And as long as you’re around, people like President Clinton will have plenty of reason to diss the city and postpone voting rights, statehood, and other chimeras.

So, as long as people like you are around, the District will have to focus on eliminating other obsessions, like pinning our future on big buildings, romanticizing our crappy mom-and-pop stores, and Balkanizing our neighborhoods. We need to meet 1998 resolutely and get about the important business of driving WrapWorks into bankruptcy and putting George Michael out to pasture.CP

The commuting masses who shlep from Wheaton into downtown D.C. every morning endure a forgettable trek. The numbing half-hour Metro ride is unfailingly dull, punctuated only by fleeting above-ground moments. But the most grueling leg of the journey—the segment where time actually stands still—comes before the train ride, on the escalator.

The Wheaton Metro escalator is the longest escalator in the Western Hemisphere. As you peer down from the edge of the abyss, the escalator’s rolling black crests look harmless enough. They churn drearily away, shepherding all the obedient people of Wheaton into the bowels of the station. As commuters step onto the moving staircase, their faces shift into automatic blankness. After all, the concrete and steel tunnel could not be more boring.

But do not be deceived. The Metro escalator is a fearsome beast that has resisted taming for the past 21 years. No other subway system in the country has so many escalators, just waiting to be fed. We have tossed money, children, and old people into the escalators’ jaws, and they have just sucked them down, sharklike, without a trace.

Just last March, Darryl Jackson was taking the Metro escalator down into the Navy Yard station around 10 o’clock at night, when his T-shirt and coat somehow got sucked into the evil “combplate,” as it’s called, where the moving stairs meet the floor. As his clothing tightened around his neck, Jackson called out for help. A station manager rushed to the scene and cut the power, but Jackson had already been strangled to death. Lining up behind a long queue of plaintiffs, Jackson’s family is now suing the transit agency.

Luckily, fatalities are not everyday occurrences on Metro. Each day, after all, some 275,000 riders shuttle merrily between sidewalk and station. But that doesn’t mean their experience is likely to be a smooth one. Even though Metro currently maintains a squadron of 80 mechanics to tend to the tantrums of the system’s 537 escalators, it’s a rare day when you don’t encounter a broken one. On any given afternoon, 40 of the escalators are shut down for repair, Metro reports.

Face it: It’s time to admit defeat. We simply cannot handle the responsibility of the Metro escalator. Again and again, the beast has outsmarted us, putting our brightest minds and most innocent riders to shame.

Flip the switch. Make the office drones break a sweat for a change. Or send them to the elevators. Put in a ski lift, hook up a rope tow—do whatever it takes. But the massacre must stop.

The summer of ’91 was a particularly grisly time for Metro. Over a two-month period, the escalators mauled seven people—five of them children. When a 2-year-old boy stuck his hand between the step and the side panel, the machine severed tendons and nerves throughout his hand. Another 2-year-old met a similar fate the same month. A 15-year-old Michigan girl—in town for the annual Future Homemakers of America convention—lost a toe at the Smithsonian station when her sneaker got sucked into the escalator.

The list of tragedies goes on and on: men, women, and children of all ages, brought shrieking to their knees. Since Metro opened in ’76, the escalator system has been party to four fatalities and hundreds of injuries. Toddlers, prone to sitting on steps and sticking fingers and Keds into the infamous gap between step and side wall, are dropping like flies. In ’91, a 3-year-old girl got her leg caught in the gap but escaped with a 7-inch gouge in her calf that sliced down to the bone. In ’85, another 3-year-old girl died when the drawstring on the hood of her jacket got sucked into the escalator’s treads.

Granted, hundreds of thousands of Metro riders go their whole lives without experiencing a single noteworthy escalator incident. But tell that to the friends and family of the 187 victims of Metro-escalator injuries last year. Tell that to the 72-year-old woman who, in ’83, fell down a 94-foot-long Metro Center escalator after it stopped abruptly. When she hit the bottom, she had a broken neck, a fractured wrist, shoulder injuries, severe brain damage, and a heart attack.

And there are all sorts of peripheral casualties: a mechanic crushed while installing a 20-ton escalator, another man electrocuted after falling onto a fluorescent light beside the escalator. It’s too much to bear.

Yet nothing Metro officials do seems to stop the bloodshed. And aside from a spate of falsified inspection records, waste, mismanagement, and some crappy equipment, Metro has done plenty. Motivated in part by a healthy fear of lawsuits, the people at the transit agency are now spending $49 million to replace shoddy escalators with sturdier models. They have installed brighter lights and polyester brushes in the dangerous gap between stairs and wall to warn riders against straying too close.

In case disaster strikes, they have placed emergency stop buttons on the escalators. First, they put the buttons underneath the handrail to prevent frolicking children from playing with them. Then, when the children kept getting eaten alive, they moved them to the top of the handrail, in plain view. Of course, then they had to install signs warning riders not to play with the buttons.

Over the years, Metro officials have spent a lot of time trying to stop idiots from being themselves. In ’91, Metro held a press conference to launch its “Metro Wants You to Be Safe” campaign, featuring public service announcements on radio and TV, colorful posters, and more. Metro has posted signs telling people not to sit down on the escalators. “We, as users of machinery, must use it correctly and responsibly,” says Metro spokesperson Cheryl Johnson, without a trace of irony.

But as Johnson well knows, put people around big, dangerous machinery, and they will immediately begin playing chicken for the highest stakes of all. Metro has compiled pie charts breaking down causes of injuries and graphs detailing quarterly averages. Metro’s injury categories include “falling object,” “pushed/horseplay,” and the ever-treacherous “caught in combplate.” The overwhelming majority of escalator accidents, the charts confirm, are caused by human error.

“We consider escalator safety a two-way partnership,” Johnson says, sounding like a kindergarten teacher. “We have to do what we need to do to make sure our escalators are in safe operation, and we as riders of the escalator must not sit down on the escalator, we must pick our feet up, we must not allow children to play on the steps.”

For a while, Metro contemplated speeding up the escalators so the sloths among us—sensing an opportunity for leisure—wouldn’t be tempted to cop a squat on the steps. But the acceleration would invariably cause some of the same people to pratfall in new and dangerous ways. So, to protect the dumbest among us, Metro eventually decided to slow down the escalators from 120 feet per minute to 90 feet per minute.

This speed, as you must know, is a grueling crawl, just above the rate it would take you to walk the same distance on your hands. Suns set and seasons change while the escalator lopes along. And the average Metro rider takes almost four escalator rides per day at this rate.

At the Woodley Park stop, if you stand still on the mini-escalators as well as on the main event, you spend a total of three and a half minutes barely moving. The Wheaton haul takes almost the same amount of time. Metro recommends that you stand very, very still on these rides. And for God’s sake, don’t sit down.

But it’s all in vain. The glowing signs at Metro stations offering escalator safety tips (“Never ride on the handrail,” “Avoid cases of loose shoe laces”) won’t change our behavior. Just last fall, Johnson reports, a 32-year-old man hopped onto a stairway banister at a Metro station, cruised on down like a punchy preteen, and fell in a heap at the bottom, knocking himself unconscious. Says Johnson, “It does not take but a nanosecond for a terrible accident to occur.”CP

It has become a familiar scene: You walk into a bar, and at first glance the place seems empty. Nobody sitting on the bar stools, nobody standing at the rail. Then you check the walls and get a jolt: Lounging in sunken, retro, big-cushion sofas are a bunch of nose-ringed, baggy-panted puds, sipping their strawberry-blond microbrews and generally sulking. Even a perfectly fine beer joint like Madam’s Organ has succumbed to the trend, installing not only sofas but coffee tables in its once-stark upstairs poolrooms. The advent of couch bars represents the final insult of the theme-bar revolution, turning taverns and pubs into your parent’s and grandparent’s living rooms. Now ain’t that hip? Beyond the implicit “irony” of hanging out in exactly the same posture as you would at home, the kids love the new setup because it lets them really relax and get some rest after a long day of temping. Whether these amateurs like it or not, drinking in a public house is serious business even when it’s enjoyable, but this faux-frumpy furniture tries to make the ancient ritual into a supremely casual affair. It’s the final degradation of the mead halls of old into cozy family dens for Zima lovers. Leave it to our solipsistic youth to hit the town only to retreat to the comfy couch, that symbol of spectator society, that refuge for cowards. What’s next, water-bed bars? Doubly annoying is the simultaneous fad of hookah bars, in which these couch potatoes toke on designer tobacco and pretend they’re catching a buzz. Hey kids, to have an opium den, you’ve got to smoke opium. You dig? And if you can’t be stand-up about your drinking, why not just settle in at home with a 12-pack and a rerun of The Real World? —Eddie Dean

The commuting masses who shlep from Wheaton into downtown D.C. every morning endure a forgettable trek. The numbing half-hour Metro ride is unfailingly dull, punctuated only by fleeting above-ground moments. But the most grueling leg of the journey—the segment where time actually stands still—comes before the train ride, on the escalator.

The Wheaton Metro escalator is the longest escalator in the Western Hemisphere. As you peer down from the edge of the abyss, the escalator’s rolling black crests look harmless enough. They churn drearily away, shepherding all the obedient people of Wheaton into the bowels of the station. As commuters step onto the moving staircase, their faces shift into automatic blankness. After all, the concrete and steel tunnel could not be more boring.

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

But do not be deceived. The Metro escalator is a fearsome beast that has resisted taming for the past 21 years. No other subway system in the country has so many escalators, just waiting to be fed. We have tossed money, children, and old people into the escalators’ jaws, and they have just sucked them down, sharklike, without a trace.

Just last March, Darryl Jackson was taking the Metro escalator down into the Navy Yard station around 10 o’clock at night, when his T-shirt and coat somehow got sucked into the evil “combplate,” as it’s called, where the moving stairs meet the floor. As his clothing tightened around his neck, Jackson called out for help. A station manager rushed to the scene and cut the power, but Jackson had already been strangled to death. Lining up behind a long queue of plaintiffs, Jackson’s family is now suing the transit agency.

Luckily, fatalities are not everyday occurrences on Metro. Each day, after all, some 275,000 riders shuttle merrily between sidewalk and station. But that doesn’t mean their experience is likely to be a smooth one. Even though Metro currently maintains a squadron of 80 mechanics to tend to the tantrums of the system’s 537 escalators, it’s a rare day when you don’t encounter a broken one. On any given afternoon, 40 of the escalators are shut down for repair, Metro reports.

Face it: It’s time to admit defeat. We simply cannot handle the responsibility of the Metro escalator. Again and again, the beast has outsmarted us, putting our brightest minds and most innocent riders to shame.

Flip the switch. Make the office drones break a sweat for a change. Or send them to the elevators. Put in a ski lift, hook up a rope tow—do whatever it takes. But the massacre must stop.

The summer of ’91 was a particularly grisly time for Metro. Over a two-month period, the escalators mauled seven people—five of them children. When a 2-year-old boy stuck his hand between the step and the side panel, the machine severed tendons and nerves throughout his hand. Another 2-year-old met a similar fate the same month. A 15-year-old Michigan girl—in town for the annual Future Homemakers of America convention—lost a toe at the Smithsonian station when her sneaker got sucked into the escalator.

The list of tragedies goes on and on: men, women, and children of all ages, brought shrieking to their knees. Since Metro opened in ’76, the escalator system has been party to four fatalities and hundreds of injuries. Toddlers, prone to sitting on steps and sticking fingers and Keds into the infamous gap between step and side wall, are dropping like flies. In ’91, a 3-year-old girl got her leg caught in the gap but escaped with a 7-inch gouge in her calf that sliced down to the bone. In ’85, another 3-year-old girl died when the drawstring on the hood of her jacket got sucked into the escalator’s treads.

Granted, hundreds of thousands of Metro riders go their whole lives without experiencing a single noteworthy escalator incident. But tell that to the friends and family of the 187 victims of Metro-escalator injuries last year. Tell that to the 72-year-old woman who, in ’83, fell down a 94-foot-long Metro Center escalator after it stopped abruptly. When she hit the bottom, she had a broken neck, a fractured wrist, shoulder injuries, severe brain damage, and a heart attack.

And there are all sorts of peripheral casualties: a mechanic crushed while installing a 20-ton escalator, another man electrocuted after falling onto a fluorescent light beside the escalator. It’s too much to bear.

Yet nothing Metro officials do seems to stop the bloodshed. And aside from a spate of falsified inspection records, waste, mismanagement, and some crappy equipment, Metro has done plenty. Motivated in part by a healthy fear of lawsuits, the people at the transit agency are now spending $49 million to replace shoddy escalators with sturdier models. They have installed brighter lights and polyester brushes in the dangerous gap between stairs and wall to warn riders against straying too close.

In case disaster strikes, they have placed emergency stop buttons on the escalators. First, they put the buttons underneath the handrail to prevent frolicking children from playing with them. Then, when the children kept getting eaten alive, they moved them to the top of the handrail, in plain view. Of course, then they had to install signs warning riders not to play with the buttons.

Over the years, Metro officials have spent a lot of time trying to stop idiots from being themselves. In ’91, Metro held a press conference to launch its “Metro Wants You to Be Safe” campaign, featuring public service announcements on radio and TV, colorful posters, and more. Metro has posted signs telling people not to sit down on the escalators. “We, as users of machinery, must use it correctly and responsibly,” says Metro spokesperson Cheryl Johnson, without a trace of irony.

But as Johnson well knows, put people around big, dangerous machinery, and they will immediately begin playing chicken for the highest stakes of all. Metro has compiled pie charts breaking down causes of injuries and graphs detailing quarterly averages. Metro’s injury categories include “falling object,” “pushed/horseplay,” and the ever-treacherous “caught in combplate.” The overwhelming majority of escalator accidents, the charts confirm, are caused by human error.

“We consider escalator safety a two-way partnership,” Johnson says, sounding like a kindergarten teacher. “We have to do what we need to do to make sure our escalators are in safe operation, and we as riders of the escalator must not sit down on the escalator, we must pick our feet up, we must not allow children to play on the steps.”

For a while, Metro contemplated speeding up the escalators so the sloths among us—sensing an opportunity for leisure—wouldn’t be tempted to cop a squat on the steps. But the acceleration would invariably cause some of the same people to pratfall in new and dangerous ways. So, to protect the dumbest among us, Metro eventually decided to slow down the escalators from 120 feet per minute to 90 feet per minute.

This speed, as you must know, is a grueling crawl, just above the rate it would take you to walk the same distance on your hands. Suns set and seasons change while the escalator lopes along. And the average Metro rider takes almost four escalator rides per day at this rate.

At the Woodley Park stop, if you stand still on the mini-escalators as well as on the main event, you spend a total of three and a half minutes barely moving. The Wheaton haul takes almost the same amount of time. Metro recommends that you stand very, very still on these rides. And for God’s sake, don’t sit down.

But it’s all in vain. The glowing signs at Metro stations offering escalator safety tips (“Never ride on the handrail,” “Avoid cases of loose shoe laces”) won’t change our behavior. Just last fall, Johnson reports, a 32-year-old man hopped onto a stairway banister at a Metro station, cruised on down like a punchy preteen, and fell in a heap at the bottom, knocking himself unconscious. Says Johnson, “It does not take but a nanosecond for a terrible accident to occur.”CP

Early evening rush hour at Gallery Place. With a crowd of wet, tired commuters, I’m trudging from Red Line to Green Line, beaten down by the day, ready to go home. On a wall high above the platform is a piece of Metrorail decoration depicting a train rushing beneath the Capitol and the Washington Monument. The text reads, “America’s Subway.”

I’ve seen the sign dozens of times, and it always bothers me. America didn’t just pay for my farecard; I did. And I’m going to take my subway, to my house, and have one of my beers. Not in America’s city. In mine.

And I’m not sharing standard local prickliness about tourists. As far as I’m concerned, America’s tourists are welcome to get lost on the Red Line to their heart’s content. I’ll even give them directions. But the reason I know where I’m going is the same reason the sign bothers me: I live here. I belong to the city, and it to me—and neither of us is the property of some camcorder-wielding visitor from Omaha, or his subsidy-dispensing senator.

In a Washington Post interview last spring, Sen. Lauch Faircloth did a nice job of articulating the “America’s Town” doctrine. “The District of Columbia does not belong to the people who happen to live between its boundaries,” said the senator. “The city belongs to the people of the United States.” Local activists—and not-so-activists—denounced the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the District as anti-democratic.

But it isn’t Faircloth and other latter-day colonialists who do the District the most damage. It’s a local problem. District residents have internalized the very model that Faircloth described: From rhetoric to iconography, Washingtonians of all political stripes are just as addicted to being “America’s City” as Congress is to beating up on the District.

Take a look around: The Metropolitan Police Department seal features the Capitol building—a property the department doesn’t even patrol. The D.C. seal features it, too, in the background—never mind that the seal’s most regular appearance these days seems to be atop letterhead protesting congressional meddling in hometown politics. Away from the heated subject of political prerogatives, local institutions from universities to record labels to TV stations (why is Channel 9 WUSA?) seem utterly unable to cloak the pedestrian stuff of our daily lives in anything but imperial, federal robes. The Wizards may have changed their name, but the Capitals never will.

And our political rhetoric does more to deepen our federal dependence than to sever it. Statehood activists espouse the enclave mentality as convincingly as Congress does, suggesting that the District’s unique federal status is the only reason that denying democratic rights to half a million people is unjust. Instead of cranking on about the absence of a vote in “America’s City,” how about mentioning the fact that we are Americans who don’t get to vote for squat? Even the city’s most ardent defender, Marion Barry, uses the words “nation’s capital” so many times that they have fused into a single term. We aren’t asking for any quarter because the feds happen to live here; we just want what every other city in America has: a hand in our own destiny.

The most absurd examples of the chronic substitution of federal columns for local forest come in efforts to depict D.C.’s decline. This year’s New Republic issue on Washington’s crises featured a cover portraying all of the national capital’s old standbys: Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Capitol.

The symbolism could not have been more wrongheaded. None of the Mall’s icons has crumbled as a result of what’s gone on in D.C. None of them, in fact, bore any of the consequences of the city’s trauma. The memorials are about the only public institutions in town—unlike the schools and municipal services—that are insulated from it all. They exist for a different public, supported by federal money, patrolled by the National Park Service, and visited, by and large, by out-of-town tourists.

A similar piece on a crisis in, say, New York, would almost certainly not feature the Statue of Liberty. The statue is a perfectly pleasant thing to have in the harbor, but New Yorkers know that it is a national symbol—in their city but not really of it. A comparable story on Washington’s crisis wouldn’t even have needed an imaginary drawing to do that. All we needed was a photograph of the District Building. Just as the city’s finances went into the drink, our own city hall was literally falling apart. But that building, symbol of a young city government and an unestablished democracy, isn’t recognizable as a local icon, let alone a national one. No one noticed.

We ought to make it recognizable—or at least come up with something recognizable in its place. Political freedom requires cultural independence—and cultural independence needs its own symbols.

No one has come up with alternative ways to represent the city, in either word or image. Some folks use a map of the district. Two-thirds of a diamond, it is certainly identifiable, but maps—lets face it—are dorky. Others trot out the D.C. flag, whose two bars and three stars present, at times, an arresting image. Still, few state flags, let alone city banners, can be picked out of a crowd. Yet what else is there? How to highlight what’s mine about my hometown, not what’s ours about our national capital?

I came back to D.C. in June after a year abroad. My plane landed at National Airport, slowly descending before a panorama of downtown’s monumental sights. Yet the homeness of home didn’t really hit me until a certain turn onto a random D.C. street. Houses with front porches. Leafy trees above. Nocturnal silence.

I have always liked living in the federal capital. Political problems aside, it’s got some amenities that can’t be beat. But I didn’t think about the Smithsonian when I was miles away. I thought about this street, these trees, my neighbors, and my neighborhood. And if our civic leaders want to move us—to political action, to civic pride, or even to just not throwing shit in the Metro—they ought to be able to evoke the District without pointing to some giant piece of federal marble.CP

Who is that idiot on TV raving about the Redskins, and why won’t he shut the hell up? If you have to ask, you are one of the fortunate few who live relatively unsullied by the existence of Washington’s favorite sportscaster. You simply turn the channel and go about your business. But for the rest of us, George Michael holds a perverse fascination, and as much as we try, we can’t look away. We are hypnotized by the sheer odiousness of this ultimate sports whore. While fellow Channel 4 clown Arch Campbell is merely pathetic (his celebrity suck-ups can at least be enjoyed as mild camp), Michael is something sinister, a tannery-faced jackass forever flashing his Riddler’s grin and slinging his cliché-ridden, melodramatic spittle. In the ever more adolescent, ever more bush-league world of pro sports—a Circus Maximus of spoiled dickweeds—Michael is the loudest sideshow barker of all, the commentator as psycho-fan. Awed by everything, he expresses the same foaming-at-the-mouth enthusiasm for a dog show as he does for the Super Bowl. With his rote interview opener (“How did it feel…?”), Michael coddles any local bum who happens to be in the headlines—an ego-stroking, talk-show technique that has snagged him a pile of awards and the adulation of his deluded fans. His syndicated program, The Sports Machine, with its ludicrous pseudo-gadgetry, is a truly sick spectacle, as Michael wince-winks at bone-crunching highlights as if they were mere slapstick. His broadcast crimes over the years are legion, but a few stand out: His shameless “interviews” with former Redskin and convicted felon Dexter Manley, brazen ploys to get an uneducated, drug-addicted, overweight dolt to weep for the cameras. His rah-rah “special” on Juwan Howard, celebrating the hoop star’s college graduation as if he’d just won the Nobel Prize. Or his fluffy tribute to Mickey Mantle, during the Hall of Famer’s controversial wait for a transplant to replace his terminally pickled liver. An emotional George—grin momentarily wiped from his mug—wished the Mick a quick recovery from “kidney” replacement. In a town with an overabundance of sports jones—Redskin fever that sees past any and all mediocrity, Oriole lust any time the team gets hot, and Wizard worship that has nothing to do with what happens on the court—Michael’s relentless bombast is the least pardonable of all jock sins. To hell with the First Amendment—this tiresome fool finally needs to be muzzled.

When word spread that the 34-year-old Midtown Pharmacy in Adams Morgan was closing its doors in March this year, Pat Patrick, president of the Adams-Morgan Business and Professional Association, told the Washington Post, “This is like taking one of our limbs away.” Patrick’s comments came in a mushy article bemoaning the decline of the mom-and-pop store and the proliferation of ugly chain outlets. Unfounded rumors circulated that Starbucks planned to open in the Midtown space, and the neighbors were spewing venom. “I hope Starbucks or whoever comes in there goes broke,” octogenarian Josephine Kelly fumed to the Post.

The Midtown’s death came amid citywide hand-wringing over the “Starbucking” of Washington. Palisades residents caused a yearlong uproar over the closing of the MacArthur Boulevard theater and its takeover by yet another CVS, the chain that had already cannibalized the sacred Biograph theater. But all the gnashing over the death of the mom-and-pop store are the froth of mostly well-heeled white people who have the luxury of paying too much for toothpaste in order to maintain a certain neighborhood aesthetic.

What the hand-wringers often fail to mention is the reason many of those mom-and-pop stores are dying out: They suck. It’s time the city faced up to the fact that chain stores are our friends, and that the good ol’ days of mom-and-pop stores are as much a part of urban myth as the Georgetown Metro stop.

For six years I lived in Woodley Park, a neighborhood with a model blend of residential and commercial zoning. The little shopping strip along Connecticut Avenue had all the things you’d want from a neighborhood: dry cleaners, banks, a stationery store, ethnic restaurants, a drugstore, a liquor store, hair salons, a yoga studio, and even a furrier. What it didn’t have, and desperately needed, was some place where you could grab a cup of coffee and a bagel on the way to work.

For about two years, an empty space next to the NationsBank carried signs promising “Opening Soon: Caffe Northwest.” We waited and waited, and waited. After what seemed like a decade, Caffe Northwest finally did open, with all the trappings of an “independent” coffee house—the requisite local artwork, the used checkerboards. Finally, we could get a latte to go. It wasn’t long, though, before I started dreaming of a “dependent” cafe, like Starbucks.

Caffe Northwest was a great incentive to buy an espresso machine and a breadmaker. Never in any big hurry, the cashiers seemed to turn over daily, and they barely knew how to operate the register, much less steam milk. The thorniest management problem for Caffe Northwest staffers was making change. On any given Sunday morning, people holding bills larger than $5 would be unable to purchase anything in the store. Change wasn’t the only thing they ran out of. Frequently Caffe Northwest would run out of cups. Tourists from the local hotels, many of them foreigners, were completely perplexed by handmade signs with marker-drawn pictures of bagels that were supposed to illustrate the breakfast specials.

In that quaint mom-and-pop way, Caffe Northwest also didn’t seem to have much of a handle on health regulations. They’d leave cream cheese packets out in an arty little basket—unchilled, so when you opened them the cheese would be sweating with who knows what kinds of microbes. Finally, the whole operation collapsed under its own weight and declared bankruptcy in March. The new “Cafe Internationale” that has replaced it is pretty much the same thing, only with a better soda cooler.

On a Monday morning this month, the MacArthur Boulevard CVS sparkles with new carpeting and high ceilings. Curling irons, remote controls, rabbit ears for better reception, salon-quality shampoo, picture frames, and Christmas decorations go on for what seems like miles. A few Hispanic nannies push strollers occupied by towheaded toddlers, checking prices on diapers. An elderly woman shuffles her coupons as she heads toward the checkout counter, where a man dressed like a Kodak box is preparing film for the one-hour photo machine. The store’s general manager says it’s doing “better than expected.”

A guy named Randy who works in the neighborhood says today is his first visit to the store. “It’s just like any other CVS,” he says with a laugh. Not so for the members of the Palisades Civic Association, who are boycotting the outlet because it had the nerve to occupy the now-defunct MacArthur theater. The Palisades activists fret over problems with parking and fear that the giant CVS will sink their beloved 45-year-old MacArthur Care Drugstore, a few doors down.

The shelves at MacArthur Care are classic mom-and-pop, full of dusty items, hand-priced. The place sells granny underwear, a random assortment of medical supplies, and spiral notebooks. It doesn’t sparkle, but it does have a pop, Ron Goldstone, head pharmacist. He is, naturally, a big supporter of the CVS boycott. “CVS doesn’t do UPS. They don’t have house accounts. They don’t do notary,” he says, explaining why customers love his store. “We’ll match any of their prices.” He says the CVS hasn’t affected his business at all; the neighbors are loyal.

MacArthur Care may be able to coexist peacefully next to CVS, but it’s unlikely that people will completely bypass the chain store in favor of MacArthur Care. Thrift tests loyalty. Take a critical item like tampons: Goldstone’s selection is terrible—all supersize—and a dollar more a box than the ones at CVS. Goldstone is a nice guy, but when it comes down to it, who really needs notary services? People go to the drugstore for ordinary essentials. Therein lies the appeal of the chain store: When you need something mundane, the chain store gives you what you want—and then some—at a reasonable price. Store character isn’t that important when you need toilet paper.

Disorganization, inefficiency, and lack of selection are the hallmarks of the nonchain store, but customers are supposed to put up with these things because they give a mom-and-pop store “character.” Maybe it’s a symptom of modern life, but most people aren’t interested in standing around to chat with the bagel lady at Caffe Northwest while she fiddles with the broken toaster. They just want their food, dammit.

There’s also something kind of comforting in the sterile efficiency offered by the chain store. There’s no pressure for small talk, and the anonymity can be a welcome relief. Drugstore shopping, for instance, can be a most intimate exchange. For a teenager buying a pregnancy test, presenting the goods to the interchangeable unfriendly faces in red CVS vests is much easier than offering up the bad news to Ron Goldstone, who probably knows her father. There’s no chance that a CVS clerk is going to inquire after your hemorrhoids in front of a line full of your neighbors, and he won’t look twice at a basket full of Magnum condoms, Fleet enemas, and K-Y jelly.

Let’s face it: The romance of the mom-and-pop store is mainly sentimental shlock that isn’t based on reality. The Midtown Pharmacy died of its own will, not because of any evil chain store. Its aging owner just called it quits. The other independent pharmacies that have disappeared over the past few years are largely failing because of cost-cutting pressure from managed care, not competition from chain stores. And while MacArthur Care may be quaint and friendly, it’s a rarity. The average mom-and-pop store in this city is a small corner grocery with a Class B liquor license. Some independent stores in D.C. sell the things the chains won’t: crack bags, malt liquor, porno movies. Their profits come from pathology: lottery tickets, liquor, cigarettes, and a few items that make the food-stamp list.

Few people in an inner-city neighborhood would argue that their corner market is an integral part of the neighborhood fabric. They see those stores as blights that attract the criminal element, and the racial tension between Asian merchants and black customers in some of those stores is frighteningly palpable. When the new Safeway opened on Alabama Avenue SE, it was a godsend, not an invasion.

And you can bet if a Red Lobster threatened to annex Yum’s Carry-Out, Anacostia residents would respond by making reservations, not organizing boycotts.CP

In a city of museums and monuments, Washington has always been sorely lacking in that most democratic of public art, the street mural. For years, the only impressive exemplar of this form has been the Marilyn Monroe portrait towering above Calvert Liquors in Woodley Park. Marilyn still looks great, especially lit up at night, and her presence may have helped inspire a graffito across the street shortly after the Clarence Thomas confirmation debacle: “Anita Hill.” Few as they are, even worse is that the typical D.C. mural is nothing more than an artsy billboard, like the infamous cows-on-bikes fresco in Adams Morgan, which advertises not one but two businesses, Ben & Jerry’s and City Bikes. But while this cartoonish, pastel abomination at least inspired a mild community resistance a few years back, not a peep has been heard against the city’s most offensive corporate-sponsored mural. At first glance, there’s nothing objectionable about the Frederick Douglass tribute on the brick side wall of the Swiss Inn on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Douglass is depicted in a nifty portrait, surrounded by scenes from the life of the great abolitionist, author, and statesman. The painting is well done and even features subtle renderings of the graying of Douglass’ famous Afro through the years. Then you notice at the bottom the hallmark of an oppressive institution that Douglass didn’t have a chance to inveigh against: the halo-glow of the Golden Arches. The inscription, “Sponsored by McDonald’s,” makes this so-called public art anything but public. It is a rank appropriation of one of the most hallowed figures in black America, as if the burger barons helped fund not only the mural but Douglass’ extraordinary life itself. Sure to come: Burger King presents “The World of Benjamin Banneker—A Fun-Meal Triptych of the District’s Unheralded Designer.” Even spray paint is better than these shameless wastes of wall space: Where are graffiti guerrillas like Robbie Canal and Disco Dan when you need them most? Maybe they’ve found sponsors for their work as well. —Eddie Dean

This year’s fatal shooting of a motorist by an angry bicyclist in Langley Park wasn’t just a random act but a cataclysmic event in what is now an epidemic: Motorists—those once-mighty kings of the road—have lost the streets and byways of the metropolis to a cadre of brazen and often violent usurpers. Bike couriers, Rollerbladers, moped raiders, skateboarders, joggers, and pedestrians are swarming area roads like some plague of Spandexed locusts. The sidewalks just aren’t good enough for these interlopers, who have been known to curse at, spit on, and now even gun down motorists who offend their sensibilities. Their fanatical hatred for the automobile knows no bounds, and it has found a diabolical outlet in a seemingly innocent diversion: the surging popularity of street festivals. From the suburbs to downtown, these spectacles are public travesties that seem to serve only one purpose: screwing up car traffic. Take the famed Taste of Bethesda, in which all the expensive restaurants set up expensive booths to sell expensive, minuscule morsels on paper plates to the hoi polloi. In Bethesda, it’s not uncommon to have several blocks coned off so a bunch of wealthy punks can play chaperoned street hockey. Police (mounted on 10-speed bikes, of course) haughtily wave cars around the makeshift playground, as if motorists were the outlaws and not these Richie Riches on roller skates. In the District, the street-festival scene is even more despicable because of its multicultural pretensions. Events like Adams Morgan Day and Mount Pleasant Day are overpriced barbecues disguised as celebrations of diversity, as if a bunch of Pepsi-generation lunkheads could unite by simply gorging on kebabs and dancing salsa. The annual Taste of D.C. (along with its beer-tasting spinoffs) is nothing more than a mob of frat boys taking a break from their weekend mountain-bike excursions to spend a Saturday trashing Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s time to pull the plug on these outdoor keggers and give back the streets to the cars. After all, that’s what they were built for.

—Eddie Dean

Hunched over a tall table in a corner of the WrapWorks in Dupont Circle, a young man, maybe 30, is warily cradling a time bomb. This incendiary device, however, does not tick, tick, tick like a sleek nuke in a Bond flick. Instead, it squishes and squirts, perplexing the guy more than it frightens him. He lifts the blob up, checks out its oblong landscape, and peels back the first layer of foil casing like a forensics cop. Soon, a glowing green head emerges from the package—just what I thought: a goddamn Hail Caesar—and everything starts to make sense: The guy’s a newbie, a virgin, a first-time sucker.

He cowers lower, his herringbone jacket bunching in back, as he prepares to devour what’s been slammed into his brain as a healthy alternative to all other chain-restaurant fare. But it’s a bomb, plain and simple, a tortilla-wrapped torpedo intent on killing off culinary imagination and bringing eaters back for more, like bloated zombies. He looks foolish posturing for consumption, like a yuppie trying to fly, but then again the rest of us aren’t coming off much cooler. Above his table hovers the restaurant’s cocky motto: “Feeding a discriminating human race.” Welcome to the night of the eating dead. Poor bastard never saw it coming.

Before this guy gets after his wrap like Jaws after a lifeboat, I return my gaze to my own handful of edible apathy: the Kung Pao-Wow, an ugly little circus of chicken, peanuts, water chestnuts, scallions, and ginger rice in a sesame wheat tortilla. What a joke. I feel like a complete asshole every time I order one of these things—those smug little smiles behind the counter so pleased to hear me sing for my supper—yet I’m helpless, a pathetic wrapaholic. I don’t even taste them anymore. I just order, cram the thing into my skull like a primordial wolfboy, and get sleepy within minutes. That’s not healthy; that’s German shepherd.

Sure, wraps are clean, easy, and readily available on every other city block. No mess, no harm, no foul. But wraps are also the remote control of the food world, perfect for folks too tired to get off the culinary couch and sample daring bounty. Wraps require no imagination whatsoever from the average eater but falsely promise to make your existence that much easier and healthier. Get real. This is fast food, folks—maybe not served by a smiling automaton in a Golden Arches visor, but mass-produced chow nonetheless. You know that guilt you suffer for lugging your stomach over the sinful BK threshold? The wrap-minded moneymakers of this town have convinced the masses that the only salvation from junk-food depression is a hearty, healthy wrap. Give me a break. Wraps are a gimmick, a novelty food, a tortilla hula hoop. Two words for those of you who expect to be wrapping well into the millennium: curly fries.

WrapWorks and Wrap & Roll Cafes are infesting our burg quicker than you can say “ubiquitous drugstore chain.” While both restaurants offer similar rolled-up treats, one draws its victims in with a cutesy name (come on, Wrap & Roll?), the other with a cutesy menu (Hail Caesar, Coat & Thai Chicken, Carnitas Way, Ken and Barbecue). And each boasts myriad inappropriate ingredients to wow ’em into a return visit (spinach cheese tortellini, jasmine rice, slow-cooked pork, shrimp scampi). Whatsa Bagel recently cuckolded its chief staple and added a wrap to its menu. The Wall Street Deli calls its creations “street wraps,” while Fuddruckers has just unveiled “Fuddwrappers.” The 9:30 Club issues pre-show wraps (both vegetarian and meaty) from a tight sidestage window. Burrito Brothers, the Burro, and Au Bon Pain can hide behind the exoticism of far-off places, yet they too are playing the wrap game. (How else to explain those gorgeous tomato and spinach blankets nudging out the standard wheat-flour tortilla at BBs?) The wrap war is getting ugly, and the only casualties thus far are the unfairly hypnotized stomachs of District diners.

If you’re wondering how the gospel of the wrap hit D.C. streets with such holy-roller fervor, look no further than the ministers behind the menus. David Castalano, manager of the Dupont Circle WrapWorks, is an unnerving blend of Jim Jones zeal and Dave Thomas charm. His life is one big pep rally for the wrap. When I whorishly mention that his wrap joint is the leader of the packed tortilla, he whoops and hollers and lets out a piercing, “All right!” We obviously share anaddiction, and that scares the hell out of me. Next time, maybe I’ll wash down my Kung Pao-Wow with a big gulp of Kool-Aid.

“We worry [about the influx of competition], but we’re more concerned with offering the highest quality of food,” Castalano chirps. “We have a pretty good idea about what the people want…[so we] provide the consuming public a mobile meal that’s very good for you.”

“Very good” for us? Are you kidding me? Sure, healthy compared to a Filet-O-Fish, large fries, and a Shamrock Shake. But Dave, wrappers have forgotten how to live! They’ve been blinded by packaging, hype, and the health craze! Who so would be a man should not be a wrap eater!

Perhaps most of the blame can be placed on Burrito Brothers, which has seven outlets in the District. “I think we have an overlap with wrap places, but we’ve always been a Mexican restaurant,” BB CEO/founder Eric Sklar says calmly. “We certainly were the first burrito place in town, but I don’t know if we started the wrap craze.”

In Sklar’s mind, Burrito Brothers is a unique experience that won’t be underminded by a bunch of wrap-minded wannabes. “[D.C.’s abundant wrap restaurants] don’t have a great impact on us,” he says defiantly. “We’re not trying to compete with them.” Sklar pauses, then lets slip, “I think wraps are really just a fad. They’re already starting to die out.”

That’s a stretch, considering that the new Wrap & Roll Cafe is opening outlets in Tenleytown and Cleveland Park (and has future plans for three more D.C. locations). Our only hope is that McDonald’s will start offering wraps, exposing them for the limited-time-only fraud they are. Or maybe not. “Will people get sick of wraps?” asks Castalano. “Do you get sick of hamburgers? Do you?”CP