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“Where have all the [parking] meters gone? Have I missed something? Was there a really big Halloween prank?”
So wrote District resident Ed Barron in D.C. Story, an online discussion forum, to complain in mid-November that someone had removed all the parking meters on a section of Massachusetts Avenue.
“They were heavily used meters,” Barron wrote, “and were providing, very likely, a decent amount of revenue to the city each year (not counting the $50 fine for expired meters).”
In any other town, complaining about reduced opportunities to get slapped with a parking ticket would sound ridiculous. But if Washington offers something for folks who appreciate fine museums and charming neighborhoods, it’s also great for people who appreciate potholes, crumbling infrastructure, and any other opportunity to grouse.
And there’s plenty of the latter. Washington has become a haven—in barbershops, lunch counters, and Internet chat rooms—for an all-volunteer army of kvetchers. After government and printing, in fact, griping weighs in as the town’s biggest industry—thanks to the city’s dysfunctional nature.
“There’s frustration—a lot if it,” says Barron, an eight-year D.C. resident, government consultant, and gifted complainer. “A lot of people feel they’re paying some pretty good taxes but don’t get a lot of services. And then there’s the ones we get—the potholes, the plowing….You read about police who have to put the brakes and tires on their cruisers by themselves.”
Nobody wants to be pegged a complainer, including Barron, who contributes more than just grumbling to D.C Story. He has become a pro, nevertheless, at expressing the frustrations many District residents share—but don’t necessarily have time to vent. From week to week, Barron aims his cursor at the District public school system’s poor management, the fiscal morass at the University of the District of Columbia, and at individuals like Councilmember Harold Brazil—who Barron targeted in a recent D.C. Story posting titled “An Empty Suit.”
“He looks great, talks great, but suffers from the same malady that affects all the council members—they don’t really want to make anything good happen in the District,” he wrote.
The District bitcherati don’t just spend time online. Community forums called by any city official are frequently chock-full of complainers. Ditto any open-mike platform on local airwaves, such as WAMU’s The Derek McGinty Show and WDCU’s Crosstalk, both public affairs talk programs. The latter’s Monday session “is usually a bitch session,” says Candy Shannon, WDCU’s program director. “The lines open up at noon, and there’s griping from the start.”
D.C. Story, however, is an especially popular spot for grousing, despite efforts by editor/host Jeffrey Itell to tame the 1,000 subscribers into more constructive dialogue. “If it was just a bitch thing, I’d lose interest in it,” Itell says. However, he admits, “If left to their own devices, people will talk about, ‘I got a ticket’ or ‘I had to wait on line.’ People have a lot on their chests.”
Itell’s efforts often result in D.C. Story attracting a more refined cousin of griping—pundit-style second guessing. Regular contributor Carl Bergman recently gave his take on the D.C. Council’s approval—at Chairman Dave Clarke’s urging—of the allegedly underqualified Anthony Cooper for the position of city auditor.
“Cooper brings an earnest desire to perform to the office and little else,” Bergman wrote. “Giving him the doubt, he may be a competent administrator. The Auditor’s office requires more.” He continued with shots at both Mayor Marion Barry and Clarke. “If I were the suspicious type, I’d say Marion must have cut some kind of deal to get a nullity in the Auditor’s office, but I guess Dave, being ever forthright, loused this one up all on his own.”
Bergman resorts to ordinary griping when it comes to supercans—the city’s hard-to-replace, mandatory trash barrels.
“Normally, I’d do the twelve call tango to track it down, but a sharp neighbor gave up in disgust last year trying to replace one,” he recently wrote. “In short, who do I have to say ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ to?”
The griping also takes numbingly minor turns—like another recent D.C. Story contribution from Art Spitzer adding to thumbs-down reviews of the renovated Uptown Theater’s new seats.
“Add my vote to the grousers,” Spitzer writes. “I am 5’7″ and I left Vertigo with a backache. And it’s not just the seats at the back that don’t recline; the seats in the middle don’t either. And I felt very crowded by the medium-sized guy on my right.”
If many Washingtonians have made griping their sport of choice, Barron says it’s only fair to note that those same folks are often very active in their communities. Barron himself has volunteered his consulting services to the District’s financial control board—most recently on an evaluation of the University of the District of Columbia. He works with neighborhood organizations on local problems. And he takes on the city at every turn possible in an attempt to fix what’s broken in town.
Not that it does much good.
“I write a lot of letters and a lot of e-mails,” he says. “And I don’t see a whole lot of action.”
While griping may be knee-jerk to someone who has spent even a few hours in Washington, most devoted gripers are folks who have survived the District’s struggles with absurdity, insolvency, and oblivion. Whether through their own tailored affection or from their hope that the city has already hit—or will soon hit—rock bottom, the die-hard complainers tend to be folks who actually like being here.
“It’s got all of the elements that you want in a city,” says Barron, a native New Yorker who likes Washington’s manageable size. “You can wrap your arms around it.”
But nobody gripes about why they like D.C.
“The biggest problem is that we don’t have any leaders,” says Florence Smith, a 58-year-old lifelong District resident who says she’s had her mouth open the last 30 years pointing out what’s wrong. “The mayor has lost all his power. There’s people who have the power and authority to deal with the problems, and nothing gets done.”
Smith, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 8, says she constantly fields beefs from other residents about the lack of affordable housing, jobs, and a basic level of public safety. She forwards those gripes through the proper channels, but…
“Nothing gets done,” she says. “It remains the same.”
Northeast Washington resident Vicky Leonard-Chambers, a contributor to D.C. Story, has her own stock of complaints, starting with an inane-sounding effort by the city last summer to issue fines to residents in her neighborhood for having flowers exceeding regulation height in the sidewalk tree boxes.
“That is, to me, the perfect example of the problems in this city,” says Chambers, whose District credentials include having done her college thesis on home rule. “You have big problems, and here they’re wasting resources looking at every individual tree box.”
She’s hardly done there, starting a volley of sentences with, “And another thing…” There’s the local water meter reader who shuttles friends around in the city truck and is “goofing off for basically half her time.” There’s the stolen station wagon abandoned—with child seat—on her street for the past month. “The police would rather have the insurance company come and get it.”
“And another thing,” Chambers says, “we have a lot of Howard students parking around here without permits. We tell parking enforcement you can make a lot of money if you come down our street. We’re lucky if we see them once every few days.”
Chambers lets out some of her frustration working with her neighborhood civic association and through other community activities. But she says she and other residents find that complaining has its place, too.
“I guess it’s partly to see if their problems are going on in other parts of the city,” she says. “And I guess misery loves company.”
D.C. Story’s Itell, meanwhile, sees District griping as part of human nature.
“People are more likely to focus on what’s not working than what is working,” he says. “But if you look at the political reality, very few things are working around here.”
To some extent, it’s even arguable that people complain in Washington simply because they can.
“There’s a little catharsis to it,” says Barron, whose personal favorite gripe is about a police report on an incident from this past September that has yet to be filed. He gave it the treatment on a mid-November D.C. Story entry:
“Just one more indication that the city’s processes are turning to glue. I called the Police Dept. and asked if I could get a copy of a police report on a Spring Valley neighborhood incident. I was told that I could get a copy and that one was on file at 300 Indiana Avenue. (Judiciary Sq.). I went down there early this morning and was told (laughingly) that the 500 series reports were not in yet. They were still in the ‘review cycle’ and that they may not be down until next month. The incident, by the way, took place before mid-Sept. I can just picture four or five ‘reviewers’ poring [over] one page police reports. What value does a reviewer add to a police report[?] Folks who have to file insurance claims routinely require police reports. Does this mean they must wait three months to get one? Another sad tale.”
Barron notes that the last time he checked, the report was still not available—but his gripe at least gave other folks on D.C. Story something to talk about for a while.
Whatever their reasoning, most complainers aren’t apologetic about their habit. ANC member Smith, in fact, says she wouldn’t mind hearing some more complaining.
“I want people to speak out,” she says. “It might give [city leaders] a wake-up call.”
They might do well to take a page from one of the best complainers of all—Southeast D.C. resident Cardell Shelton. With 70 years in the District under his belt, Shelton can pick gripes with the best of them: “I don’t need anything from any of them. The leadership is just bad. I can lambaste Marion because he is a loser. And most of the city council are losers. If they had to get off the council and get themselves a real job, they’d starve.”
Shelton, as might be expected, is also active in his community, making special efforts to work with children in the school system. But he has taken the art of complaining to a new level—a griping pioneer—by running twice as a sure-loser Republican candidate for the Ward 8 seat on the council.
“I run as a nuisance candidate,” he says. “They’re not going to elect me. I don’t care if they do. But I want to use the forums to raise hell. If I’m sitting in the audience, I’m not able to say much at all to them. But if I’m on the dais, I can say anything I want.”
Shelton has been around long enough to neatly codify the motivation for seeking elected office in D.C. After all, what could be cushier than a full-time job bitching about the District?