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It was the shit that made me move out of the District. Not the metaphorical shit—the crime and potholes and such—that people always moan about. No, this was real shit, a specific and quite rank pile of turds that some sicko had dumped in the back seat of my car. Instead of taking offense at this indignity, I followed the tradition of ancient soothsayers who studied animal guts for divine guidance. I simply interpreted the dung as an omen: The gods were telling me it was time to leave.
The sordid story began years ago, when the mayor was still getting high without getting harassed by the Man, when the Skins were world champs and Riggins was buying the drinks—back when everyone was feeling dandy.
I was living near the corner of 3rd and H Streets NE, in the shadow of Union Station’s rail yard, across the street from a liquor store and a gas station that served scalding coffee. Down the block was a takeout joint called Your Pizza Home that offered every fried cuisine imaginable—everything, in fact, except pizza.
It was a nice enough neighborhood, the sort of place where someone knocks on your door and politely tries to sell you back a barbecue grill he stole from your back yard a week before. Visitors would nervously mention that it seemed a dangerous area, even though during the period I lived there I encountered little serious trouble. Except for an inexplicable egging by some cruel kids, I was never accosted or mugged or even verbally abused. Once, someone passing through was gunned down for spare change, and the murder made headlines because the victim was a congressional aide. Overall, though, it was a quiet area.
But some time after the mayor’s bust, something changed in the District, or at least in my little corner of it.
A certain rudeness crept into the way people dealt with each other, whether in sidewalk encounters, at bus stops, or on both sides of the discolored bulletproof glass at Your Pizza Home. Mothers pushing baby strollers down H Street made it official by sporting T-shirts that warned, “Don’t Ask Me For SHIT.”
I didn’t ask for any, but I sure got some. There it was—perched on the back seat of my ’74 Gremlin—an artfully arranged pyramid of excrement. The offender had broken into my car only to find nothing worth stealing—and then took a crap in defiant protest. This was too much. Even a dog would have been more discreet.
Soon after, I joined the hordes who have migrated out of the District in search of a better life. I became a resident of Bethesda.
In the Old Testament, Bethesda was a pool of healing; the word means “place of mercy.” I hoped it would be my city of refuge.
For years, I had heard tales of this fabulous realm, and the very mention of the name stirred in me mysterious longings. People who visited there returned flushed and swooning from culinary ecstasies. They described sumptuous meals in exotic restaurants from countries in every corner of the globe. According to these Marco Poloesque adventurer-diners, the streets of Bethesda were paved with biscotti, and angel-hair pasta hung from trees like Spanish moss, swaying in a breeze redolent of holy basil.
I myself had never been to Bethesda. As a naive native Virginian, I cast a cold eye on Maryland—like Yeats’ horseman I saw enough to keep on riding. My uncle, a man I trust in matters of geography, loathed Maryland with the abiding hatred of a Northern Virginian, even though he knows deep in his heart that the metro area’s hyperdevelopment has rendered the former rivals mostly indistinguishable.
He warned that if I ever moved to Maryland he wouldn’t visit me.
I felt the sweet pang of sin as I drove across the District line into Maryland, past the high-rise condo village of Friendship Heights, past the dark, moorlike golf courses of Chevy Chase, the wooded enclave where Ted Kennedy lurks like an inside-the-Beltway Bigfoot.
When I first drove up Wisconsin Avenue into Bethesda it was night, and the downtown glittered like the Emerald City. Its glass skyscrapers blazed with brand names in lights: Wang, the Discovery Channel, the Air Rights Building. The streets were deserted, but unlike my old neighborhood, they were remarkably clean: I did notice a splat of spilled yogurt, but it was promptly scrubbed away by a street cleaner.
I found an apartment at ground zero, in the center of downtown near the Metro. At first, the urban setting seemed comfortably familiar; there was a gas station and takeout pizza joint close at hand. (This one actually offered pizza, so so much the better.)
But my nose and ears told me right off that something was horribly wrong in my new town. Nearby, a French restaurant spewed vile fumes of burned butter, which mixed with the smoke from a funeral parlor’s cremation chamber. The aroma reeked a daily brunch of death and croissants.
I didn’t realize I was trapped until one Friday evening on my way home from work. As I rounded a corner near the Metro, I heard the faint beat of open-air oldies. I saw a throng of happy, successful people huddled on the Metro plaza, bopping to “You Can’t Hurry Love” and snacking on fries and fruit shakes from the nearby food court. Somehow the shit in my Gremlin didn’t smell that bad anymore.
As it turned out, the oldies concerts were a regular event promoted by local businesses and protected by the authorities. This display of corporate promotion masquerading as community spirit was supposed to draw me closer to Bethesda. Instead, these “Hot Bethesda Nights,” as the events are known, grated on me as a public disturbance, a racket that seeped through my closed windows.
For Bethesda’s perky boosters, however, Hot Bethesda Nights are the best thing since the multilevel parking garage. “The downtown is really becoming much more of an entertainment center,” Dee Metz tells me in her Bethesda office.
Dressed in a sweater covered with Christmas trees, Metz is the full-time executive director of the Bethesda Urban Partnership (BUP). The group publishes a wealth of promo fluff, but the main theme is how to find parking: Destination Downtown Bethesda comes with a fold-out map “that guides you to public parking.” Another publication, Upbeat Downtown Bethesda, features a column on parking called “Circling the Block.” And there’s Direct Access, Bethesda’s “Public Parking Newsletter.”
“The demographics are great here,” gushes Gene Smith, chairman of the BUP board. “It’s got all the essential elements of success. But we put a big emphasis on maintenance—that’s really important; it says a lot about an area.” BUP’s “Maintenance Squad” recently planted more than 12,000 pansies and 14,000 tulip bulbs around downtown. Along with events like Hot Bethesda Nights, these are the sorts of touches necessary to take this upscale, instant Mayberry gracefully into the next millennium.
“Bethesda has a real strong community component that typically an edge city doesn’t have,” says Metz. “It’s not a municipality at all, but it definitely has a city’s heart. It’s a 24-hour environment now, and that’s been a real part of the success story for Bethesda. Having so many people downtown keeps it safe.”
“I’ve lived here six or seven years and I think it’s great,” says Smith. “There’s a very high concentration of residential and commercial, and people want an alternative to malls. This is an attractive alternative. Not that I don’t go other places to eat, but why would I when it’s all here?”
And look what’s coming to join the 170 restaurants already squeezed into barely a square mile—a couple of the real big boys: national-chain brew pubs. Not to mention the new Barnes and Noble megabonanza book store. Now, that’s the ticket for a destination city.
Recently, I left a dead battery next to my car overnight. Although I was planning to trade it in at the auto parts store, I found this angry note on the windshield the next morning: “PLEASE BE KIND ENOUGH TO THROW AWAY YOUR UNWANTED BATTERY. IT IS EXTREMELY RUDE OF YOU TO LEAVE IT OUT IN PUBLIC SPACE.” I wondered where this goodnik was when my car was sitting idle with the hood up for a week.
The unsociable neighbors have proved a cold contrast to the Whovillelike joy of Hot Bethesda Nights. For these distracted young professionals, there’s no time for neighborhood chitchat. Not much in the way of hellos, and even less eye contact, but everybody dutifully recycles their newspapers and bottles of zinfandel and apricot-flavored ale.
In Bethesda, the relative absence of street crime (except for the occasional mountain-bike theft) creates the ideal conditions for a modern-day Massachusetts Bay Colony, where smug puritans make sure to reprimand moral stragglers whenever possible.
During an evening stroll, I stubbed out a cigarette on the sidewalk, waiting for a mauve squirrel to snag the butt for his nest. (Local squirrels come in all sorts of odd colors, apparently as a result of experiments at the nearby National Institutes of Health.) A neighbor witnessed my foul deed and screamed at me, demanding that I pick up the cigarette butt. At one point—his voice quivering with rage—he even called me a litterbug. We engaged in a staring match until the squirrel finally did the job for me.
Visitors denounce my adopted city as unbearably pretentious. These are the same people who plunder Bethesda’s restaurants in nighttime raids, clambering over other diners for a glimpse of Cokie Roberts munching Mongolian food. The contradiction doesn’t bother them: They explain that it’s one thing to wine and dine in Bethesda and quite another to actually live there.
I’ve come to understand what they are talking about. Bethesda as an actual “place” doesn’t really exist at all. In fact, it’s merely an “urban district” with no mayor, no architectural identity, and no discernible past. Of all the rootless localities around, this is a real goddamn space station. Nobody seems to be from here, and to paraphrase Aunt Gertrude, there isn’t any “here” here anyway.
For clues to why Bethesda has no heart, just check out the daytime crowd—a parade of dour businessmen, sprightly joggers, and skateboarding, Rollerblading, chain-smoking teen brats with foul mouths right out of Larry Clark’s Kids. The local cops wheel around on bicycles, and the city’s lone homeless man lounges on a bench in front of a sushi restaurant, scowling when he can’t scrounge enough wasabe to his liking.
Still, downtown Bethesda is bustling as never before. Even on weeknights the streets are filled with pleasure-seekers and wandering packs of gourmands.
I walk the streets in a daze as the city I have come to know and hate crumbles. After a half-century of all-you-can eat buffets, the Hot Shoppes was transformed into a concept diner. Bish Thompson’s Seafood, the only restaurant that never preened, has fallen to the bulldozer, its portholes of old staring from the building’s cinder-block shell like empty eye sockets. Meanwhile, a swank new condo high-rise has taken over Bethesda’s ground zero, where residents can tunnel directly to the Metro without surfacing.
My edge city without an edge has become what salivating realtors call a “destination point,” a place for people not just to work and live but, most importantly, to have fun. You know, hang out after dark and spend some moolah.
I finally meet my first native Bethesdan, and he tells me that my Bethesda’s only a few years old. A retired schoolteacher, William Offutt has been living here all his life; he used to have a paper route on my street back in the ’40s. An endlessly amused man with a John Updike grin, Offutt is the author of Bethesda: A Social History, an 800-page tome that only gets as recent as World War II.
“Right now Bethesda’s not a very people-friendly area,” says Offutt. “Too bad it’s grown so fast—things kind of got out of scale.”
My downtown, explains Offutt, actually dates back only to the mid-’80s, when the Metro stop was built. About the only thing left after the development boom is a granite statue of the Madonna of the Trail down by the Post Office: “I think if the developers had their way, she’d be sitting upside down in a dump somewhere—they haven’t left much.”
I rush past the only French video store outside France and Canada and meet the Madonna of the Trail. Built in honor of the “Pioneer Mothers of the Covered Wagon Days,” the Madonna is a bonneted woman—holding a baby with another youngun hanging off her old gingham dress—frozen in a purposeful stride right into the traffic on Wisconsin Avenue.
She’s got nothing to tell me. She’s trying to escape Bethesda.CP
In 1987, my wife and I moved to Beltsville, Md., embarking on a four-year suburban ordeal that would leave Rebecca about half dead. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My father-in-law was helping us move, but I’d given him the wrong directions. I told him to take exit 25A instead of 25B off the Beltway. So instead of bringing a truckload of Rebecca’s stuff up Cherry Hill Road to Townley Apartments, he drove north on Route 1.
Once he was convinced he was lost, he stopped at a convenience store to ask for directions. The girl behind the counter told him he was in Laurel.
“Oh,” he said, “This is where George Wallace was shot.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” she tenderly replied.
On May 15, 1972, 21-year-old Milwaukean Arthur Bremer, clad in red, white, and blue, pumped several shots from a .38 into Alabama governor, bigot, and Democratic presidential hopeful George Wallace. The scene of the crime was Laurel Shopping Center (not to be confused with Laurel Centre, a mall directly to its south, or Laurel Lakes Center, a huge strip just south of that), where Wallace was holding a rally.
Although the center is the most historically significant spot in town, you’d never know it: There’s no marker, no plaque, no outline of the band shell painted on the asphalt. The local history files in the town library are mum on the subject, but they’re filled with records of Laurel’s oldest families, the achievements of its police chiefs and mayors, and tributes to its high schools.
If the town fathers don’t want to capitalize on what Mayor Leo E. Wilson at the time dubbed “Laurel’s tragedy,” they’ve got to find other local landmarks to attract tourists. As a frequent visitor, I figured I’d help them out by assembling a short list of Route 1 highlights:
A couple of weeks ago, I was driving around town after a visit to my Laurel-based doctor (even though we got out of Beltsville, I haven’t strayed so far from my roots). On the stereo, Robert Plant reiterated Dr. Simball’s admonition that I had to change my ways, though only my physician had invoked the L-word: lifestyle. I decided to hit the Tastee-Freez (833 Washington Blvd.) for one last fling. The day was cold, and no Maryland Diane was outside, sitting on Jackie’s lap and sucking on a chili dog. The dining room was cold, too, but I ordered a chocolate shake anyway, from a pleasant waitress wearing red crocheted earrings in the shape of Christmas bells. As my BBQ beef sandwich plopped oily, red globs of minced filling onto its wrapper, I thought about how far I’d taken Rebecca from North Carolina. A piano on the radio played a minor-key instrumental rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” my second-favorite Christmas carol. Glo-o-o-o-o, o-o-o-o-o, o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a, in excelsis Deo.
Like its “Tastee” pal to the north, the Diner near the racetrack that has live entertainment on weekends, the Freez is a throwback to fast food’s pre-industrialized past. Management hasn’t eliminated product variability or streamlined menu offerings. When I came in, my bell-lobed waitress patiently stuffed napkin dispensers, knowing that the dozens of choices and my imaginings of the different meals they could comprise would have me lost in reverie.
Once, in a vain attempt to win a Laurel Centre (14828 Baltimore-Washington Blvd.) shopping spree, Rebecca and I entered a contest to name the mall’s new food court. We sat out in the car with a stack of entry blanks, writing down everything we thought up. My own favorite was “Ring O’ Eats.” The winner was “The Fountain Cafe.” I think we could have thought of that if we’d only known the design called for a fountain. They’ve got a Roy Rogers and a Master Wok there now. Sounds like a cafe to me.
Occasionally, a small fair sets up in the mall parking lot. A couple of months ago, my wife was away on business, and I found myself at the fair. The slogan of the company that provided the rides and carnies was “Our name says it all!” but I can’t remember what that name was. I rode 1001 Nachts, a German ride that propelled all the riders around in a vertical circle in one large car balanced by a counterweight. On the road of life there are sandbags and there are drivers. Sandbags wanted.
I ate a costly funnel cake, and the powdered sugar on my coat made me look not only particularly clumsy, which I am, but like a coke addict, which I am not. Despite familiarity with Italian engineering, I rode the imported Ferris wheel, whose notable trait was not its stability or safety, but its collapsibility—it could be broken down to fit in a single semi trailer, apparently a first for a wheel its size. Hardly a selling point, but I got on anyway. I was the only solitary rider on a wheel filled with families and lovers. I got held at the top for a long time, and could see the lights on Route 1 burning, all the way down to the Bennigan’s and up past the Red Lobster to the Budweiser sign perched above the Goodyear Tire Center. Hanging up there, I peered down into the parking lot and watched a couple out on a date. They had obviously attended the carnival on impulse and were brushing the sugar on their dress clothes into a garbage can.
Cheaper amusement in much the same vein is to be found at the Marlo Furniture Warehouse & Showroom (13450 Baltimore Ave.). Rebecca and I went for the grand opening several years ago. A puppet in a fake hot-air balloon hovered above our heads, calling out to us as we walked through the warehouse. Just inside the showroom, we were serenaded by the Marlo Furniture Band, comprised not of musicians but of smiling, singing robots shaped like a clock, a chest, and other household articles. We also met Peter Posturepedic, a 4-foot-tall dancing, singing mattress that had been deemed so attractive (and possibly so dangerous) to children that he delivered his patter from inside a Plexiglas box. More recently Marlo was pushing modular furniture. Remember those sectional couches from the ’70s? Marlo’s came with a special appendage, a sort of puffy chaise courte that sits you upright and provides far too much space for your feet. We imagine some couples refer to this as the “head chair.”
We went back a couple of weeks ago. The balloon was in tatters, and the guy in the basket was silent. His finger had been snapped off. Peter Posturepedic had defected—now he’s Peter Perfect Sleeper. Maybe that’s what it takes to make it at Marlo. A talking easy chair had been decapitated. The “head chair” must’ve been a fad; the new thing in sectionals is wooden panels set into the puffy upholstery for holding drinks. “Everything here looks like a tumor,” said Rebecca. We waited around a while, but the Marlo Furniture Band didn’t make a sound.
Driving back down Route 1, on into Beltsville, you pass Veteran’s Liquors (11622 Baltimore Ave.), a shop that seems to have known, after some war or another, just what America’s returning soldiers needed. At one time it would have been a convenient stop for southbound Laurelites on the way to Sidney Lust’s porno drive-in. Oddly enough, the theater’s moniker was no sleazy marketing gimmick. As photos in the old Greenbelt cinema attest, the drive-in was named long before economics forced it to go blue. The theater shut down shortly after Rebecca and I moved to Beltsville. Now it has been replaced by a store or shopping center, the Price Club, I think.
At least you can still get some sauce. The liquor store’s painted metal and neon sign, which shortens the place’s name to “Vet’s Liquor,” pays homage to the brave soldier. Highlighted by the lettering’s glowing gas, he gazes skyward, slack-jawed, his eyes two small, white incandescent bulbs. Though he always looks shellshocked, invariably one bulb will expire before the other, leaving him half blind.
I cannot pass the sign without the vet recalling to me a verse of high-school Blake that might as easily be addressed to Laurel itself:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?