At one time, the neighborhood had been an urban bosque. Portions of it anyway. Maple and oak and ash cupped over Corcoran, Church Street, Riggs Place, providing pockmarked, yet merciful shade during every tropical summer seemingly more unforgiving than its predecessor. Gazing west down P, through the intersections at Sixteenth and Seventeenth and Eighteenth, intersections you couldn’t see but you knew were there, you crossed them all twice a day Monday through Friday on your way to the Red Line at Dupont Circle, you almost thought you were in a fantasy of fall in New England, piles of waxy yellow and cranberry and ochre leaves lay between Saabs and Volvos, a patchwork quilt, like the football field-sized one that had been laid on the Mall last October, burying the differences between the black of the road and the grey of the sidewalk, if only for a few days.
In the next block, to the east, was the Spanish grocery store that sold beer on Sundays and no-name chicken leg quarters for nineteen cents a pound. We lived on the third floor of a brownstone that had been converted by the owners, an elderly Hungarian Jewish couple who lived in Bethesda, refugees from the Nagy government, into apartments. The first- and second-floor inhabitants were both recluses, she a mousy teacher at some private junior high for the ungifted children of diplomats, he a mousy indexer in some obscure Federal agency.
Tim and Charles lived next door, in a grey-with-maroon-trimmed walkup they owned. Tim was thirty-seven and an attorney on the Hill, Charles fifty-five and a freelance photographer. They had two pugs, Nicky and Chester, who humped each other relentlessly. On the other side of Tim and Charles, Moni and Fiona, both foreign-born and architects, exoticisms that trumped Tim and Charles. Moni and Fiona had a daughter, Anna, the most stunning child in the world, keeping close and unrepentant the vibrant Pakistani eyes, lips, and chin of her father and the porcelain Celtic ancestry of her mother, an ethereal Benetton baby.
Late on Saturday afternoons, after a day of wandering aimlessly in and out of Smithsonians with Cheryl to escape the juicy Potomac basin humidity, I would engage in little projects in front of our building, which was named, oddly enough, Château Madrid. On the sidewalk and small patch of grass behind the wrought-iron fence, I would paint flowerpots, sand old finishes off picture frames, rebuild small tables and bookcases, objects I would find abandoned in front of the more luxurious homes closer to Dupont Circle. It was one of the last remaining ties I held to my father’s Depression- and Normandy Beach-era resourcefulness.
A whispery layer of sawdust would mix with the skein of sweat coating my skin, and I would look down at my forearms, wrists, the backs of my hands and not see any of the freckles that were strewn all over my body. I’d lift up a hand and turn it one way, then the other. It was me, that wrist, arm, hand. But then again, they weren’t. Of course, I’d be squinting, from the sun, and I’d tell myself that was why I couldn’t see. The heat. What an idiot I was, to be working outside in ninety-plus degrees and seventy percent humidity. Idiot indeed.
Of course, I’d never blame it on the tears either.
It was mid-July, an aberrantly cool Saturday, a luxury, and I was behind the fence at Château Madrid grilling grade-whatever bone-in chicken breasts in a homemade teriyaki, brown sugar, cumin, cayenne, tomato paste barbecue sauce, Cheryl had fickle food allergies, certain food additives and preservatives being some, sipping beer from a sixteen-ounce Budweiser.
“You’re not doing that right.”
“Sure I am.”
“No. You’re flipping them too much.”
I looked up into the eyes of a homeless man. He was white like me, although his skin was ashen, like some of the briquettes in the resurrected Weber I had repainted the summer before.
“Want a beer?”
I reached over and pulled a Bud out of the brown paper bag beside me and handed it over the fence gate. For the next twenty minutes, Steve told me his life story, he was new to the neighborhood, I had gauged that, his voice nor his volubility I hadn’t encountered, where he had lived with his girlfriend, the social worker who was growing tired of dealing with him, the treacherous Mexican – “You know the guy, the one with the neck tattoo and ponytail?”, “Yeah, I’ve seen him,” “He’s an illegal, you know that?”, “No, I didn’t,” “Should send the wetback back to his grass shack in Mexico” – who stole his bicycle. All the while I continued to play with the chicken. It was done, but I didn’t want to rude.
As the youngest child of four, my curse is to always want to please the unsatisfied.
I told Steve enough of myself to keep the conversation amicable, but not enough to wager safety. Still, if you happened to be driving down P Street that Saturday July afternoon, you wouldn’t have lingered over us: two disheveled white guys standing around a Weber having a beer, pretending life is normal. I had spent many afternoons like that, being neighborly to our neighborhood’s homeless. Payback. I vaguely hoped someone might be doing the same thing at that very moment in the neighborhood or somewhere else in the city, or in the wider country, like in Boston or Southern California perhaps, to some other Steve.
Cheryl frowned on my enablement. “What message does that send?”
What lesson could Steve, or a Michael or a Patrick or a Tyrone, need from me?
Two beers later, I sent Steve on his way with another beer and two chicken breasts. “I’m the Mayor of the neighborhood,” he said. He had placed the breasts, still warm from the grill, into the front pocket of his dingy Washington Redskins windbreaker, slipping the beer between his thighs as he did so. He hadn’t been homeless long, less than six months I guessed. Mainstreamed, probably, or exiled by exhausted parents. In either case, rotten luck. “And you’re my friend. Anyone gives you trouble, send ‘em to me.”
“Sure thing Steve.” We had two other neighborhood mayors: Jason, whose city hall was the sidewalk in front of the Safeway on Seventeenth, and Grady, who held office beside the entrance to Cairo Liquors. Grady was the saner of the two – “I’m the mayor ‘cause you white folks like to know somebody’s in charge, right?” – although with a real Mayor who had been caught on film smoking a crack pipe, “sane” was a fluid term. Still, I liked Grady: he was about as old as Bobby, my second oldest brother, himself a homeless guy, although Bobby’s mayoralty was the beaches and boardwalk of Santa Monica, where he would die thirteen years later from an exploded liver and it would cost me just as much to fly his cremated remains back to New England in an urn packed in a cardboard box surrounded by white and green Styrofoam peanuts than his embalmed body in a coffin.
“See you next weekend Steve.”
He had already turned the corner and was heading north up Fifteenth. He finished a breast and leaned over and deposited the bones carefully into the storm drain. The city had removed all the garbage cans and Steve was doing his part to keep the streets, his streets, clean.
I didn’t go back inside right away but stood on the little lawn in front of Château Madrid and watched the afternoon slip by. There was a small parking lot across the street that was empty of cars, and the houses down the rest of the block west to Sixteenth Street were silent, some inhabited by people, others were small commercial spaces subdivided for solo-practice lawyers, accountants, psychotherapists. Moni, Fiona, and Anna were in Hartford, Tim and Charles were sequestered, as usual, on their back patio behind their lindens and chokeberries and bougainvillea with a pitcher of martinis and two raw-dicked dogs.
Smoke from the grill floated lazily up into the sky. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an ambulance, two police cars, and a sleek black sedan stop in front of the abandoned brownstone on the southwest corner of Fifteenth and P. There were no sirens, only the soft decelerations of vehicle engines, the openings and closings of trunks and doors. I raised the cooking grate in the Weber so as not to char the chicken, set the domed top back on, and grabbed another beer, then stepped to the edge of the fence and laid a hand on the gate over which I had handed Steve his evening meal and gazed across the Fifteenth and P intersection at the commotion.
The building had been abandoned for years. The entranceway, however, had a door that, miraculously, still swung on its hinges. On the upper floors, most of the windows were intact. Those on the first floor and in the basement were either missing or had slivers of broken glass embedded in the sills. Homeless, prostitutes, drug sellers and addicts alike used the house off and on as a kind of community center, which explained why Cheryl and I never invited our families or college friends to visit: their fears rekindled ours.
After a few minutes, two uniformed policemen descended the stoop and stood in front of a broken-out basement window. They bent over, and out of the dark interior of the house a bright-orange body bag emerged. The two police officers grabbed at the bag, but it slipped through their hands, and the bag slumped over the sill, taking the shape gravity demanded, the thick plastic wrinkling, What would that do to a body? I wondered, then the bag was passed to three other officers, who were dressed in olive drab Army uniforms, Interesting, who then slid the bag into the ambulance. The first two officers then crouched low again, accepting a second orange bag. This one they handled more carefully, all the way and into the ambulance themselves.
A puff of wind blew barbecue smoke up into my face. I ducked my head and turned. Opening my eyes, I stared up P Street, or what looked to be P Street, my vision was cracked, kaleidoscopic, west toward Sixteenth Street, Seventeenth Street, Dupont Circle. Santa Monica. It wasn’t the chicken, or the briquettes, the sun through the trees or the humidity that time either.
The world is too much with us.