New places excite in their exoticism. But it’s the places we live and return to that hold perhaps the fiercest grip on our psyches, unmooring them when we return to find things not quite like we left them.
I came of age in D.C. The not-quite-a-city taught me hard lessons while I tried desperately to figure out what I stood for and wanted, all while living independently for the first time. My three years there were one bout of crippling self-doubt, made manageable and, at times, enthralling, by new friends, happy hours, and runs in Rock Creek Park.
I’m fortunate to still have many of those friends.
My D.C. nostalgia runs deep. It’s where I was when Obama was elected–a night full of unparalleled celebration; the marching band from Howard University joyously parading down Pennsylvania Ave, citizens of all nations climbing street lamps to wave the stars and stripes; people crying and hugging and in disbelief that we had made it so far as a country.
D.C. is where I first developed a knowledge of and love for wine, while working at the now-defunct Best Cellars in Dupont Circle. It’s also the first place I lived that embraced people identifying as LGBTQ. My first October there, I remember cheering on my friend in the annual High Heel Drag Queen Race, as he, dressed in a black gown and three inch platforms, sprinted down 17th street to a third place finish. We snapped a photo with mayor Adrian Fenty afterward.
(This all happened right next to my first apartment, in a building where I once shimmied up five floors of a fire escape to get inside. But that’s another story.)
My memories of D.C. are so vivid. That’s why it’s so shocking to come back and find so much has changed, has become, in my absence.
In 2008, I worked on 14th Street, known then for its large homeless population and the historic Whitman Walker AIDS Clinic. Now it’s home to SoulCycle and Crate & Barrel, along with restaurants of national acclaim.
Rent was never a “deal” (at least in areas teeming with young professionals), but it’s now an average of $1600 a month for a studio in a coveted neighborhood.
And real estate prices are, of course, astronomical, though you can find homes under a million. Sadly, this qualifies as a steal for us Bay Area residents.
A decade removed, I can better appreciate what DC offers: job opportunities, (relatively) affordable living compared to west coast hubs, and a booming culinary scene, not to mention friends. Perhaps it’ll outgrow the work-dominant culture that drove me away eight years ago; perhaps, one day, it’ll become a place where “what do you do?” needn’t accompany each introduction.
Already I see cultural shifts. A subversive undercurrent pulses through D.C.’s meticulously-mapped arteries, visible in the “Fuck Trump” scrawled on lampposts and street signs around town. Public entities seem in on it, too. The National Portrait Gallery’s newest exhibits celebrate social justice movements, as well as the achievements of African and Latino-Americans (many of them immigrants).
And, of course, there is Kehinde Wiley’s captivating portrait, to remind us of what’s possible in this country.
Perhaps the biggest counter-narrative to what’s currently coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, however, is in this incredible building,
The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened over two years ago. It’s still so popular that tickets book out months in advance. Fortunately, having a husband willing to get up at 6:30 am to go online and snag same-day tickets also works in a pinch.
We got a 3:30 timed entry, and made use of every second of the two hour visit.
We started on the top floor, which features cultural and musical history exhibits. The memorabilia alone was mesmerizing, featuring everything from a psychedelic one-piece bell-bottom suit worn by members of Earth, Wind and Fire to an otherworldly “mothership” designed by George P. Clinton.
The exhibit’s chronological narrative, written on glass cases that display musical instruments and other relics within, weaves a timeline from jazz, country and blues to funk and hip hop. There is even a record collection you can paw through.
From there, we headed down to the special exhibition gallery. We were in for a treat.
What other museum features an entire exhibit on Oprah? Her life and accomplishments–from newscasting to acting to network ownership–are chronicled via narrative, props and TV clips (including one from her famous “car giveaway” episode). I left convinced that there is nothing left on Earth for her to do. Other than run for President, I suppose.
We ended our visit with the main collection. It’s comprised of a winding 2-mile path on the concourse level that begins with the slave trade, and metaphorically rises up as you continue through the eras–Civil War, Reconstruction, Civil Rights–all the way through to the modern day.
There is heavy, powerful narrative of the African-American experience here. But the most compelling parts are those that put you smack into history.
Walking through a full scale model of a railcar, with its “whites” and “coloreds” sections, I felt the patent dishonesty–and destructiveness– of the concept of “separate but equal.” Sitting at the replica of Woolworth’s infamous lunch counter, I wondered how it must feel to enter a place refusing to serve you based on your skin color–and how it must have felt, staying there in protest, knowing you could face imprisonment. Or worse. It was chilling, humbling and awe-inspiring at the same time.
I made my way toward the exit as our time drew to an end, left with a deep impression of perseverance, strength, and brilliance throughout centuries of oppression.
It is not often enough that we are reminded of the scale of what African Americans have faced in America, and of their many achievements. This museum pays thoughtfully-designed tribute to these experiences.
I only wish every American could visit it. To immerse themselves in history, especially now. And be reminded of the greatness–and the evil–of which humanity is capable.
Though so much is new in DC, a few of my favorite haunts remain.
I am grateful Thai-Xing is one of these. Though it inhabits a commercial space now (and is no longer an extension of chef Taw Vigsittaboot’s basement), the premise is the same.
Basically, you show up hungry. And ready to devour the Thai delicacies put on your table (whether you know what they are or not).
My friend Beth and I used to joke that this place was our “test venue” for whomever we’d started dating. If you couldn’t hang with the spontaneity and spice of the menu, you couldn’t hang with us.
Of course, Greg aces this test. We enjoyed seven family style dishes this time, including pumpkin curry, pork ribs, and delicious papaya salad. The meal was rounded out by the signature mango and sticky rice that we managed to polish off despite being full.
Best of all, corkage is $5, meaning you can get a full dining experience here for around $40 a person. If you happen to be in DC and crave Thai, treat yourself and go.
The best part of this trip though (perhaps uncharacteristically) had nothing to do with food. It had everything to do with Bob.
When else do you get a help a friend pick out a cat companion? Greg and I got to live out our dream of pet ownership vicariously through Jamie (who also graciously hosted us).
After “cat tindering” via the local Humane Society’s website, we arrived on a Sunday morning to find that, much like actual dating, none of the candidates quite matched their profiles.
Only the highly affectionate Bob, a 1-year-old tabby, captured our attention. He’d only been there a couple of weeks and therefore had no profile.
We took him back to Jamie’s that day where he’s now happily living out his days, drinking out of the bathroom sink and indulging in catnip-saturated carrots.
As if this wasn’t enough, we also got to meet Mr. Pebbles. He’s the newest addition to the Keroack-Trutko household, and ridiculously adorable.
Thanks to Pebbles’ dad Alex for cooking us a delicious Peruvian dinner as well, on our final night in D.C. We couldn’t have asked for a better or tastier send off.