When I read Nevin Martell’s recent article on District-based photographer John Gossage’s documentation of Kalorama’s oddly creepy streets during the paranoid years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it instantly dredged up my own memories of carefully observing the well-heeled neighborhood during the most depressing days of sectarian warfare in Iraq.
What makes the streets of the District’s diplomatic quarter so nefarious? As Gossage, who lives in Kalorama, told Martell, it had a lot to do with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
While Rumsfeld’s former home on Kalorama Road NW is modest and tiny compared to the palatial French ambassador’s residence across the street and that of the Syrian Embassy behind the property, the defense secretary’s presence loomed in the form of a security detail sitting inside an unmarked SUV or minivan, engines running.
When I lived in Woodley Park, I would regularly walk by Rumsfeld’s home, oftentimes late at night on my way back from evenings out in Dupont Circle. Although the route via 23rd Street NW was longer, a safer route was primarily on my mind. The deserted streets of Kalorama were spooky—complete with aging (and sometimes vacant) diplomatic buildings—but I always knew the U.S. Secret Service patrols and other specialized security details were nearby. The only tradeoff? Yes, I felt safe enough to walk carefree wearing an iPod at 3 a.m., but being watched by Big Brother freaked me out sometimes.
During the three years I regularly walked by Rummy’s house, I would sometimes bring friends and acquaintances who had lived on the ground in Iraq just to see their reaction when they confronted the home of the man creating personal hells for so many.
This group was mainly Western and Iraqi journalists, including a childhood and college journalist friend, David Enders, who had more courage than I ever did starting his own newspaper in a warzone. His reporting adventures—documented in his book, Baghdad Bulletin—seemed glamorous at first, but year after year, my worries about his safety increased as the violence worsened. I thought a lot about this during my walks by Rumsfeld’s house. It was calming to an extent, all the while maddening.
For Iraqi journalist Alaa Majeed, Rumsfeld’s house generated some raw feelings. In an e-mail, she remembers one of my walking tours:
The idea that I could just walk by Rumsfeld’s house, made me shiver out of disgust and frustrating anger for what he has done to my country and people. When I actually passed by his house, I felt there was fire coming out of my eyes and ears thinking about how he lives a peaceful life and doesn’t have to worry about security while people in other parts of the world die everyday for no apparent reason. It made me think that by announcing the war on Iraq, Rumsfeld wanted my people to pay the price of his safety.
Walking by Rumsfeld’s security detail late at night, I sometimes wondered what they were thinking as I approached the SUV on the sidewalk and casually walked by, pretending to not notice their presence on the street.
Could they tell I knew why they were there? Weren’t they trained to read facial expressions? Or did they really not care much, just interested in their laptops, playing mini-golf and watching brainless 1990s Adam Sandler movies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore? (I was able to pick out scenes from those movies playing on the screen inside the darkened SUV while walking by. If I were in their shoes, I guess I would need something mind-numbing to endure the Rumsfeld overnight shift.)
Some nights the security officers were doing nothing at all. But the engines were idling, ready to pounce if anyone did anything brash.
Another journo friend who got my Kalorama tour was Ben Lando, the Baghdad-based editor and publisher of Iraq Oil Report. This weekend, I e-mailed Lando to see if he had recollections of my tour. Writes Lando of approaching Rumsfeld’s house:
I remember I felt at once anxious and nervous. Anxious because this guy has uttered some of the most frightening things and made such decisions that endangered people’s lives, and yet I would have to walk by his house and resist a juvenile instinct to throw a rock. Nervous because if a guy of this stature in U.S. politics lives in a neighborhood I can walk through, how many cameras and eyes (of guys with guns) would be watching me.
And then we walked by, and it looked so plain, so much like an upper-class family home from my hometown [Kalamazoo, Mich.], which thinking about it really creeps me out.
During the course of three years of periodic walks by Rummy’s, I noticed the house grew more foreboding. Globe security cameras were hung from the eaves, reinforcing the carry-on, keep-away vibe, echoed across the street by the spiked fence of the French ambassador’s residence.
While I never saw Rumsfeld in Kalorama itself like Gossage did, I did spot the defense secretary and dinner party guests leaving the now-closed Sake Club in nearby Woodley Park for Baskin Robbins. A plain-clothes security detail attempted to blend in on the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk. Rumsfeld is not known for being totally comfortable settings where he has to deal with the general public, whether it be shopping at Whole Foods (“He appeared to have little familiarity with the store, and was darting back and forth around the aisles, not seeming to gather what he needed with a great deal of efficiency”) or waiting for the No. 42 bus (shocking revelation, no?).
During the winter of 2008, a symbol of peace positioned outside Rumsfeld’s house went missing. The historic firebox in front of Rumsfeld’s neighbor’s house had been restored and adapted for use as part of the neighborhood Art-on-Call public art initiative.
The whole firebox, holding a tablet depicting a monk holding a flower with doves flying around, leaned forward toward the sidewalk. It was hard to pass by without taking a look.
And if you knew who lived next door, the peaceful imagery had a most ironic location—or perhaps the most fitting. Within a few weeks, the monk-dove tablet had returned and the house later went up for sale.
Peace was restored to Rumsfeld’s creepy street in Kalorama.
But the area can still foster its mysteries. On Feb. 7, in the midst of Snowmageddon, I hiked along Wyoming Avenue NW to get to a friend’s place in Adams Morgan. Nothing was getting through Kalorama’s snow-clogged back streets.
But across from the Afghan Embassy, at Wyoming Avenue and 24th Street NW, I spied a burned-out black Land Rover. It looked like combat damage from the evacuation of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. Or perhaps some remote battle-scarred Afghan mountain pass.
And yet, despite the snow, in the span of a few hours, the charred crisp of the Land Rover had vanished, as if it was never there.