It’s 9:20 p.m., or, according to the clocks on Jeff Nelson’s shelves, it’s 11:05, 6:20, 12:30, or 7:25.
It’s really 9:20, 20 minutes after the time printed on the invitation, which means the guests should just be trickling in as the host turns on the porch lights. But no. There are already 20-some people in Nelson’s snug Arlington house. As the night wears on, they will be joined by 30 to 40 more neighbors, babies, grandmas, corporate hacks, inspired crusaders, and punk-rock has-beens and are-nows. For, in this town of endless black-tie galas and A-list cocktail fetes, nobody wants to miss its first and maybe last buffalo-warming party.
The buffalo is a bronze monstrosity in miniature, an imposing-looking beast measuring several feet in length, whose majestic bearing is offset by a shiny bunch of Christmas ornaments dangling from its tail. It has a deep brown patina a few shades darker than the “burnable” fake buffalo pie placed under it. Indeed, buffalobilia abounds, with poster-size photographs, pouches, blueprints, articles, and one Mark Trail cartoon scattered around the room.
The artifacts are the result of Nelson’s 11-year obsession, which will culminateearly in the next century, perhapsin a coffee-table book about the Q Street Bridge (which celebrates its 85th anniversary in 2000 and is also called the Dumbarton Bridge). Nelson’s buffalo is an original casting made especially for him by the grandson of Alexander Phimister Proctor, sculptor of the bridge’s four buffaloes. As Nelson puts it, “[This party] is giving insight into exactly what my obsession is all about.”
The house is suffused with frat-house good cheer, with folks planted around the Christmas tree, noshing on tortilla chips and slurping beer out of stemware. Abram Goodrich of Smart Went Crazy, which records for Dischord, the label Nelson helped found, is admiring the sculpture’s sanded wood base, a testament to Nelson’s handiwork and 120 hours’ worth of dedication. Seeing that I’m hesitant to touch the buffalo, Goodrich assures me, “I think Jeff does want you to touch it. He wants you to love it.” Karen Hembrough is slightly less awestruck: “The buffalo on the bridge look like they were much more heavily endowed.”
Past the stereowhich throughout the party churns out gruesome femme-rock odes, Alanis and Madonna and Ace of Baseand the food table covered in treats such as anatomically correct gingerbread buffaloes brought by Nuit Hanskgen and “salmonilla wafers” (chunks of fish perched atop Nilla wafers), I find Jesse Q. “I’m excited because I’m a big Washington history buff,” Q says. “I can appreciate Jeff’s obsession. I was obsessed with Metrobuses a while ago.”
Toni Glickman, niece of the Secretary of Agriculture, feels similarly patriotic and deems the buffalo “a symbol of an American monument.” The naysayer in the crowd is Dave Berman, a towering black-clad commando who trumpets, “It’s a bison, not a buffalo.” Asked if he has broken the news to Nelson, Berman replies, “Jeff hemmed and hawed, but he gave in.” Nobody cares.
At least one partygoer isn’t joining in the exegesis. “I don’t have an emotional response to the buffalo,” says Dischord co-founder Ian MacKaye. “I have an emotional response to Jeff.” So, is Jeff crazy? “I don’t kiss and tell,” MacKaye tersely replies.
Mary Battiata and Bob Birdsong play Scrabble with Nelson on Tuesdays, and they give the definitive opinion of the night. “He’s the only one who would’ve dreamed this up in this city,” says Battiata. “He’s a visionary art patron,” Birdsong agrees. Nelson takes the praise modestly, saying simply, “If I can get just one person to drive over the bridge intentionally, then it’s been worth my while.” Throwing a loving glance toward his statue, he admits, “I’m a very proud father.”Sharada Chidambaram