Notes from DC
At Baltimore, three guys got on the train, probably in their early 30s. One was very heavy and breathing hard and he had a sand-colored goatee and wore a Cubs cap and a t-shirt: Cubs World Champions 2016. His friend was very thin and wore rectangular glasses that gave his face a pinched look. The third guy had a goatee as well and a kind of benevolent blankness in his eyes, as if he were very innocent or very drunk.
Their presence had made me uneasy and I could tell that my wife was uneasy too.
Our five-year-old son had his toy light saber in his lap.
“I like your light saber,” the thin guy said to my son. “I got one too.”
He pushed back a sleeve to reveal a light saber tattooed on his forearm.
The three young men were then talking quietly about drinking, or not drinking too much, or when they should start drinking. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that they fit the profile of Trump voters, and at any minute I expected to hear racism. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they loathed him as I did. But the expectation of public discourse has shifted.
The cab driver was a light-skinned black man with that attenuated Ethiopian look. He was pleasant enough but he had barely spoken to us.
We drove by the mosque on Massachusetts Avenue. Its white marble façade was fading into the dusk, the Moorish arches glowing from within.
“I’ve always liked that building,” I said.
The driver’s shoulders seemed to soften.
“It’s the Islamic Center,” he said. “It’s a famous place. Where are you from?”
That night I dreamed that I was in the hotel room alone, and where was my wife and my son? Two men approached the bed, one with thick glasses that made his eyes look huge and a kind of drooling village idiot’s grin. The other wore overalls and when he smiled at me his teeth were streaked with blood. They wanted to kill me but I would hurt them. I would not make it easy.
My wife woke me up.
“You were screaming,” she said.
The Dupont Circle station, with its steep escalators rising toward an oval of light. My son, afraid of the height, leans into me.
The gay rights demonstration of 1993: I haven’t thought about it in years. When I had asked for the day off, my boss at the time had been very amused, condescending, that I’d take part in such a thing. Fuck him. Rising up on these escalators, thousands of people, cheering, proud, invigorated.
The food court at the Air and Space Museum. A fortyish white man in flannel shirt and khakis explains his vote to a mixed-race couple (white man, Asian woman, perhaps Chinese). “I didn’t vote for him. I didn’t vote for her either. I mean he won’t do such a bad job and anyway I’m an incrementalist. Incremental change, a little at a time, right? I’m not saying she’s a criminal but the Blackberry thing ….”
My wife: “I have to get away from this person immediately.”
The road through Rock Creek Park is wooded on either side, the trees bright with color.
“I could leave tomorrow,” my friend says. “I work for a European company. I could have a job in Canada or Europe with a snap of the fingers. I’m afraid it’s going to start going away soon, freedom of the press, freedom of speech.”
I‘m thinking, wasn’t this where they found Chandra Levy? Then I’m thinking about how many political scandals involve doing things to women, fucking women, leaving women to die, harassing women, killing women.
My friend says, “We’d have to go now. In six months the job won’t be there. Someone else will have taken it.”
We take our kids to Comet Ping-Pong, your basic pizza place, wooden benches, chalkboards and exposed brick. My friend’s wife tells me that the alt-right believes that Comet is a front for a Democratic underage sex ring. To me the only suspicious thing about the place is that when we order juice for the kids, we get lemonade, which strictly speaking is juice but not what we had in mind.
In the back at the ping-pong tables, small children are knocking balls around, except at the middle table, there’s a sixtyish bearded white man having a serious game against a South Asian man. My friend and I wait for them to give up the table so our kids can play, but they’re not budging.
My son wants to know why the grown-ups won’t let them play.
“Beats me,” I tell my son. Then I say to the older white man, “You have two minutes.”
He shoots me a look of white-hot hatred. But then another table opens up, so there’s no point in continuing the confrontation.
In the hotel in the morning there are two women at the table next to ours, I’m guessing middle fifties. One wears all black and has black spiky hair and the other has a short, graying haircut. My guess is they are a lesbian couple.
The latter woman gives us a card for a reduced-price breakfast. It’s a nice gesture, not a big deal, but nice. And I want to tell her that I’m the good kind of middle-aged white man, but I can see no way of presenting that information without the bullshit approach of “some of my best friends are gay.”
The waitress is a zaftig, college-age Latina. We make a point of engaging her in conversation. Then we overtip.
White guilt. Straight guilt. Male guilt. I thought that I had moved beyond such things. I’m reminded of a friend who once said that he was suspicious when whites were really super-nice to black people.
In the hotel elevator, a white man, baseball cap, gray hair: “I’m devastated. I have to do something. I’m going to do something and it’s going to be life-changing. I don’t know what. I’ve been a sportswriter for thirty years.”
After the train, we head home in a taxi. I look at my son, asleep, his head in my wife’s lap. Was there ever a sweeter creature?
I ask my wife, “Where do we fit into all this?”
She says, “We’re Jews. Everybody just sees us as white.”
“But they always drag us into it. And there’s no talk about intersectionality when it comes to Jews.”
Now I look at Midtown, the streaming traffic, the darkened retail stores. There is the usual anticipation, even after a good trip, of returning to one’s home. And yet it doesn’t seem like home, does it? Aren’t you questioning if you still belong? How much of this is still yours?