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DC Diary: Washington in the 1990s From "Multitudes: An Unauthorized Memoir" by Sam Smith
When I moved my office four blocks closer to downtown I knew I was going to be in a new neighborhood. What I soon found out, however, was that I was also in a new time zone. In my old digs, three blocks of old row buildings north of Dupont Circle on Connecticut Avenue, time functioned much like the tide. The street would come alive in the morning, ebb in the early afternoon, and flood again in the evening. I would often suffer a momentary temporal tic upon leaving my office at seven or eight in the evening and discovering that I had missed the beginning of the party.
Dupont Circle is a border checkpoint between DeeCee and Washington through which you pass to go from community to facility, from experience to ritual, and from the anarchy of engaged life to the order of bloodless systems. Like all stereotypes, there are exceptions and, with the help of Jim Ridgeway of the Village Voice, I found one, a fifth floor garret des refusés, which I now share with Jim, a doctor of alternative medicine, and an African lawyer. On the first floor, a seamstress keeps her door open so you greet her as you approach an elevator so venerable one almost expects to see Joan Crawford leave it. The heavy doors resist your lean as you try to maneuver past them with your box and bag and a little notice etched in the brass reminds you of a forgotten choice: "With Attendant," "Without Attendant." I already feel at home.
Still, as soon as I leave 18th Street and walk around to the rigid, rectangular offices along Connecticut Avenue something happens. The tide now ebbs and flows only once a day. When I go for a snack at 5, most of the delis are locked. Last Friday I was told three times to "have a nice weekend." North of Dupont Circle people rarely said that.
It has to do, I think, with the fact that north of Dupont Circle there are still many places to live. And many small businesses. And many people on the street who have traveled no distance at all; their commute is measured in blocks. They do not come to or leave the place, rather they belong to it. One is less likely to say, "have a nice weekend" on such a block because the person you are saying it to may be, like the retired men at Volare's restaurant, in exactly the same place eating exactly the same thing tomorrow.
There are other people to whom you wouldn't say have a nice weekend either: the conventioneers at the Washington Hilton up the street who weekly change the demographics of the strip. I would just get used to the Congressional Black Caucus when it would be replaced by a fleet of wheel-chaired delegates to a conference on the disabled, followed the next week by the shiny baseball jackets of a union convention. On this block, even diversity was a function of time as well as place.
How much longer it will remain so is hard to tell. I suspect the real estate company which owns hotel chains and casinos and property in the billions and which shoved us out, wants to make north of the Circle part of the same time zone as south of the Circle.
One of their architects came by and measured my room. He left his card, and I noticed he had used four different type fonts on it. The bulimic spirit of the 1990s envelops everything from hotel chains to type faces. I wonder how you decide when you have enough hotels and casinos and row buildings on Connecticut Avenue. There is too much of everything. But that's just a first impression. Then there is too little.
The other evening I came out of my office at 7:15. The street was quiet until I reached Dupont Circle. On my old block the sidewalk bubbled and cars were double-parked as their owners grabbed a magazine at the Newsroom, picked up a friend or waited for someone at a restaurant. And when I walked in, the crowd at La Tomate was noisy and happy because no one had told them that according to city planners, politicians, and office developers it was well past time for the city to have closed up for the night.
From the Progressive Review, 1999
In the last week or so:
- A reader wrote in to describe TPR as rightwing maggots, fuck heads, and pro-fascists.
- Your editor was described on-air by conventional liberal public radio commentator Mark Plotkin as "the bad Smith," in contrast with his historian wife, who was "the good Smith."
- I became the subject of low intensity philosophical debate on a Clinton scandal bulletin board that included these comments:
"If those who began life as Marxist have evolved into more thoughtful individuals, then as far as I'm concerned they are welcome aboard. Would any here consider the 'enemy' even if he chooses to espouse a number of untenable positions, which positions, I suspect in the long run will not prove significant?
Which produced this response from Billy:
"That completely depends on what we're calling 'significant.' Personally, I've lately said in private correspondence that, for a commie, Sam's not a bad sort. He most certainly is to be roundly commended for his stalwart intolerance of The Lying Bastard, that's for sure. However, if not for that particular disaster that happens to bring him and me together, it's clear to me that we could be serious antagonists over other matters."
Just for the record, I read Marx but never enjoyed him. I avoided the fate of Ring Lardner Jr. who became a Marxist because he attended the first weeks of his afternoon Harvard economic classes during which Karl's virtues were explained, but missed the professor's later criticisms because the Boston Red Sox season had begun.
I firmly believe that Groucho Marx revealed more of God's ways than Karl did. The difference was best explained by James Thurber:
You may remember that on one occasion when a suspicious plainclothes man, observing that, whereas only two Marxes were seated at a certain breakfast table, there were nevertheless covers laid for twice as many, said sharply: 'This table is set for four.' Groucho, in no wise confused, replied, 'That's nothing, the alarm clock is set for eight.' If nothing else set off the Marx Brothers from Karl Marx that would. Karl Marx had the sort of mind which, when faced with the suggestion that the stolen painting was hidden in the house next door, would, on learning that there was no house next door, never have thought to build one. Here is where, again, he parts company with the Marx Brothers. The significance of this divergence becomes clear when it is known that the Marx Brothers recovered the painting.
Of melody & melanin
DC Watch recently raised the question of the existence of an official city song. In fact there almost was one. I know, because I wrote it.
Marion Barry sponsored a contest for such a song, which I entered with "Washington, My Home Town." I was later told that the judges liked mine the best but, in the ethnic patois of the time, they wanted to reopen the contest in order to receive a "broader range of submissions." Nothing more was ever heard of the contest. I may be the only person in America who not only lost a gig because of affirmative action but made the gig disappear as well.
The song came from a musical revue of DC history written by my wife Kathy, Becky Denney, and myself. It was performed several times, once with the mayor in attendance, and featured Jim Vance as Frederick Douglass and a beat poet. The Washington Star listed it as one of its "Sure Things" for the weekend.
Besides "My Home Town," I wrote a soft shoe number performed by Boss Shepherd and a pair of his henchmen: "I'm the boss, I'm the boss of Washington/I can force anything that I want done./I can plant a tree or pave a road or put a gas lamp up/So what does it matter if I'm a little bit corrupt?. . .
My favorite, however, was the tune I wrote for feminist Alice Paul which, aside from being a foot-stomper, included the immortal bridge: "We don't find it to enrichin' to be switchin' in the kitchen, so if you want us to stop bitchin', you had better start in switchin.'"
DC Watch, which researched the history of the city's songs (or lack thereof), later told a part of the sequel:
Things remained relatively stable until 1985. Then City Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis introduced a bill to name 'This Is My Town,' by Mark A. Williams, as the city's official song. The song didn't pass muster, and the Council failed to act, largely because of discomfort over the open resentment expressed in lyrics like:
"'Oh the tourists and the politicians
Come and go and that's fine by me
As long as they know -
This is my town
My home town!'"
News of this attracted my attention because the song I had earlier submitted to Mayor Barry's contest (as written and performed in 1977) was a tune called "Washington, My Home Town." Among its lyrics:
"Politicians they come and go;
It doesn't get me down
Because I still have my Washington;
It's my home town."
Jarvis' bill crumbled, so I never pursued the matter.
THE DECOLAND BAND WITH SAM SMITH AT THE PIANO, DON ROUSE ON CLARINET, BOB WALTER ON TRUMPET AND PAUL HETTICH ON BASS PLAYING A GIG AT THE WASHINGTON HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
DECOLAND BAND EXCERPT
The October issue was late because your editor was tied up in a six-hour voir dire for a double-robbery case. In the end, I maintained my perfect record of having never sat as a through a full trial. As a Coast Guard officer I was bounced from two courts martial, and I have been dismissed from three jury panels. In the one case in which I was seated, the first two witnesses -- US Park Police officers -- identified the defense counsel as the defendant. The trial was over in 20 minutes.
In the most recent case, the judge's impressive if tedious effort to obtain a fair jury resulted in a long series of bench conferences as citizens told of their connections to crime and law enforcement. For my part I mentioned my USCG background, three house burglaries, one office break-in, one stolen car, being detained at Washington National Airport as a suspected terrorist due to a defective computer-screening machine, and the fact that one of my brother's in-laws had been killed in a drug store robbery.
Then I explained to Judge Michael Rankin that, while I doubted it was relevant in this case, I had been advised that I should reveal my long public advocacy of the right of juries to judge both the law and the facts. I noted that this view had upset some judges. Judge Rankin said it didn't bother him although he didn't mind debating the issue and had done so with Paul Butler, the black lawyer-scholar who has promoted nullification as a form of protest. I told the judge that I didn't think Butler's arguments were effective because they were based on ethnicity rather than history, which offered a much stronger case. I then began a brief spiel the subject citing Learned Hand, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Thomas Jefferson. While previous US Attorneys had expressed hostility towards my views, this one merely asked whether there were any legal principles that I would uphold. I asked for an example and Judge Rankin said, well, you would support the presumption of innocence wouldn't you? I said, of course, and then -- brazenly rapping my hand on the judge's bench to punctuate the point -- said my concern was that the jury remain our last defense against tyranny, the final legislature deciding the law as it pertained to the case under consideration. To my amazement, Judge Rankin said, well, you'll get no argument from me. The judge and both attorneys agreed that the case under consideration did not raise such issues and that was the end of the matter. I was later dismissed on a peremptory challenge.
The incident reminded me of another pleasant surprise I recently stumbled upon in a DC courthouse. Twenty citizens, including myself, are suing the President, Senate, House, and federal control board for the lack of DC self-government. The day before our hearing before a special three-judge panel in US District Court (in the very courtroom of Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Monica fame)someone called the US Marshals and warned that our group might be planning some disruption. Sure enough, when I entered the courthouse with co-plaintiff and black minister Graylan Hagler, there seemed an excess number of surly cops standing outside. A US Marshal approached and asked if he could help us. Rev. Hagler asked for directions to the cafeteria which the Marshal gave and then he looked at Hagler, and said, "I've been to your church, Reverend. In fact, one of my men is on your board of trustees. Let's go and bless him." So the marshal and the reverend left me to find the cafeteria by myself and to recall again something that is easy for activists to forget: not all your friends are out of power.
THE AUTHOR IN DUPONT CIRCLE IN THE LATE 90s
After 23 years at the same address TPR got word that it will have to move by October 1.
A huge developer is buying key portions of the Connecticut Avenue north of Dupont Circle as well as some retail buildings in Woodley Park. TPR, American Friends Service Committee, the Village Voice Washington office, various architects, and the News Room are among the establishments soon to be economically cleansed from their buildings. There are also reports of major purchases along M Street in Georgetown.
Said to be behind the Dupont Circle purchases is the Starwood Financial Group, the largest real estate holding company in the world with $2 billion in assets. It controls, among other things, Caesar's Palace and the Sheraton Hotel chain. All the Connecticut Avenue purchases were made swiftly and shortly thereafter lease terminations and a tripling of rents were announced.
The move means the destruction of one of the funkiest business blocks in the city. At one point, 17 architects found haven in this block as did assorted other livers on the edge. Our landlord, Mike Heller, was often found standing on Connecticut Avenue passing the time of day with tenants and others as he patiently awaited something to fix. When his daughter was younger, he sold Girl Scout cookies throughout his five building complex.
A couple of years before moving into this building, I wrote a book. One of the things I said was this:
"We now comprehend the hazards of blithely pouring DDT over crops, slashing through treelands, or fouling the air. But we still act as thought we can, without penalty, wipe out neighborhoods, force mass migrations, rip out favorite meeting places for people, or tear down centers of communications, culture and commerce that are as important to a community as a marsh is to a flyway."
Some years back, actor Edward Woodward speculated that eventually there would be no one living in our cities except corporations. Washington seems to be leading the way.
Three unusual things happened yesterday. (1) I went to church, (2) I did so as a political act, and (3) the church service was held in a synagogue.
The proximate cause of this curious triptych of events was the Rev. Daniel Webster Aldridge, who was launching an all new All People's Congregation. Rev. Aldridge had been minister of Washington's All Soul's Unitarian Church, once a major source of much political and social activism in our city, but more recently divided between those (mostly black) who wished to continue this tradition and those (mostly white) who didn't. In the course of this dispute, deeply reflective of things happening that too few want to address, Aldridge lost his job.
Aldridge and his flock were given shelter in the basement of a church run by another black pastor who had also been threatened with dismissal because of his activism, and subsequently Rabbi Ethan Seidel of Tifereth Israel Congregation offered them space.
And so it was on a spring Sunday afternoon that Rabbi Seidel found himself singing a welcome in Hebrew to a largely black congregation and declaring that the "mixing of traditions is crucial to heal the wounds of this city." A black, latina, and white minister joined in the welcome.
Aldridge told his new congregation that "dreams seem to be getting more difficult to hold on to," and quoted Langston Hughes: "If dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly." And he cited Nelson Mandela as saying that people's biggest fear is that they have power, for with power comes responsibility. We need, the Reverend Graylon Hagler said, "people of faith who will address the needs of the community. What we do not need is a faith that looks only at its navel." This, one speaker said, would be a prophetic ministry, not afraid to address the evil of bombing Belgrade or of social injustice in Washington or of the need for those who consider themselves religious to do something about it all. "Kindness," said Aldridge is the "ultimate act of faith."
The unabashedly socially conscious church has been missing in action for a long time. It is hard to imagine meaningful change without it. As this Seventh Day Agonistic stood singing "This Little Light of Mine," remembering a time when you didn't have to form a whole new church just to get something done, it felt like a long extinguished flame had been relit.
Nov 5, 1998
EDITOR DETAINED AT AIRPORT
The Progressive Review''s editor, Sam Smith, was detained at Washington National Airport for a half hour on Wednesday Nov. 4 as five US Airways security officials, 3 police officers, and one bomb-sniffing dog attempted to determine if he was, as they suspected, a terrorist.
Total evidence for the suspicion came from a defective high tech security machine convinced that the Quaker-educated Smith''s computer and power supply box contained nitroglycerine. Despite admitting that certain brands of computers had been falsely interpreted by the machine, the security officials required former Coast Guard officer Smith to empty everything from his backpack. They also called two passenger service shift managers to the scene who ordered the 60-year-old Smith''s checked bags removed from the aircraft and inspected for traces of explosives. One of the bags carried clothes, the other contained copies of ""Sam Smith''s Great American Political Repair Manual"" (WW Norton, 1997, $14.95) for sale during appearances by Smith. The backpack contained considerable Carefree gum, various paperwork, as well as Richard Sennett''s ""The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism."" In his book, Sennett notes that in all forms of work, people identify with tasks that are difficult, tasks that challenge them. In the new workplace, however, the machine has become ""the only real standard of order. . . By a terrible paradox, when we diminish difficulty and resistance, we create the very conditions for uncritical and indifferent activity on the part of the users.""
By the time the computer had been tested by a second machine, which also thought the Fujitsu laptop might be a bomb, Smith, who has never received even a speeding ticket before, began having intimations of imminent mortality as well as feeling deep humiliation and shock as hundreds of his fellow US Airways passengers walked by observing his plight. Efforts to engage the security personnel in normal human discourse produced but a stream of bureaucratic bromides such as ""I''m just doing my job,"" ""There is nothing I can do,"" and ""I don''t make the rules."" Efforts to stave off physical collapse by sitting on the table, however, brought a rebuke from one of the guards. At no time was any concern expressed for the needs or physical comfort of US Airways frequent flyer Smith.
Said longtime Washington journalist Smith, who was on his way to Kansas City to give several talks and interviews and take part in a conference of Green activists: ""I was trapped in that post-Orwellian synergy of defective technology and incompetent bureaucracy. At a time when our highest public officials ignore the law with impunity, it appears that a citizen a few years shy of Medicare can no longer go about his business without being considered a terrorist. I was told that it was all being done for my own good, but I fail to see how being publicly terrified and humiliated by US Airways because it has bought some crummy techno-toy helps the war against terrorism. Any terrorist watching the incident would have been emboldened rather than chastened.""
In the end, the bomb-sniffing dog happily nosed about the computer, licked the hard drive and quickly returned without complaint to K-9 officer Jim Cox. Smith, who covered his first Washington story in 1957, was permitted to restuff his backpack and board the plane. Said Vietnam era veteran Smith, ""A half dozen living human beings surrendered their will to a dubious creation of the late 20th century marketplace of fear, but the dog was smart enough to trust his own judgment. Officer Cox, to his credit, trusted the dog as well. As Harry Truman said, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.""
Cox was the only one of those involved in the search who expressed more than perfunctory concern to Smith, visiting the plane before takeoff to do so. Flight attendant Brian M. Lindsay, who had observed the bizarre incident as he checked through security, also expressed dismay and checked on Smith''s well-being several times during the flight.
Smith says any legal action will be held in abeyance pending a colloquy he hopes to have with US Airways officials.
I ran into Councilmember Charlene Jarvis at a party. "How are you doing?" she asked.
"Depressed," I replied.
Charlene looked as though she wanted to flee, but she gulped and asked, "Why's that?"
"Look, you've done SW urban renewal, the freeways, the Metro, downtown urban renewal, the convention center, Streets for the People, the Pennsylvania Avenue Plan, the arena and now another convention center. When are you folks going to find something that works?"
I then suggested that the city just skip the second convention center and go right to the third. We could save hundreds of millions of dollars that way. I could see Charlene trying to figure out what might be in it for her, but unable to think of anything to say, she moved on. . .
Later that evening, I found myself with Jarvis and some other. She called me "everybody's favorite devil's advocate." I replied: "I'm not the devil's advocate; I'm the lord's advocate. Your problem is that you can't tell the difference between heaven and hell."
There were four of us standing together at the party and the subject was Sy Hersh's new book. The man who had once been one of Hersh's colleagues at the New York Times called the book unbelievable; his wife and the other woman agreed. I've known Sy for years, which may make me more of an acquaintance than a friend, but if I had to take someone along to investigate a desert island I'd choose Sy over the journalist in front of me any day. So I asked him what parts of the book he found unbelievable and he told me the part about Marilyn Monroe that had turned out to be a forgery. That part isn't in the book, I said. Besides, did you ever get near the end of a story and find that something you thought was true wasn't? He said he had.
The woman to my left picked up for him, citing the part about buying the 1960 election. That's old stuff, she said with disdain. Besides why would Kennedy have to go to the mob when he could just go to Mayor Daley? I tried briefly to determine why stealing an election with the help of Mayor Daley was more honorable than doing it with the Mafia, but gained little distance. So I asked the question that had been on my mind from the start: how many of us have actually read the book?
None of us had.
It was another typical evening in the Washington market place of ideas.
Everything I learned in the past 60 years
From G. K. Chesterton: Journalism consists largely in saying "Lord Jones died" to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.
From Mae West: When faced with a choice of two evils, always pick the one you haven't tried before.
From Nelson Algren: Never play cards with a man named Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's.
From Mark Twain: Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window, but coaxed down the stairs one step at a time.
From Woody Allen: 80% of success is showing up.
From a southern farmer: Trust everyone but get cash for your cotton.
From Jerry 'Bama' Washington: It's easier to tell the truth than to lie, 'cause then you don't have to remember what you said.
From Satchell Paige: Never look back. Someone might be gaining on you.
From GB Shaw: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
When I met my wife she was working as assistant press secretary to Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Nelson was notable in two regards: good legislation and good stories. For example, he was once delivering a speech when he stopped a few paragraphs in, looked over his glasses at the audience and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first time either you or I have heard this speech and frankly I don't agree with it." His wife Carrie Lee, whom he had met at an Army base in World War II and then were reunited on Okinawa in 1945, was more than his match. She is alleged to have once responded to Lyndon Johnson's request for a dance at a White House function by asking, "Do I have to?" On another occasion, as Nelson was giving a lengthy introduction to Adlai Stevenson at a dinner, Carrie Lee, at the far end of the head table, scribbled a note and passed to her husband via a line of barely contained honored guests. The note read: "Sit down, you shit. Adlai's the speaker."
I never met Nelson and his wife until they were in their 80s. One of my wife'ss college professors had asked to see them when he was in town so we invited them over for dinner. I was out getting something in my car when Nelson drove up to our house and deposited his wife before seeking a parking space. My first sight of Carrie Lee was a woman mounting our steps with a Schweppes tonic water bottle in her hand. And her first remarks were, "Everyone thinks a woman of my age only drinks wine, so I bring my own vodka."
By the end of the evening it was gone after a raucous dinner that included this story told by Senator Nelson:
A farmer had lost his rooster and bought another. He delivered the new rooster a lecture along the lines of, "Just remember you don't have to take care of all of the hens at one go. Learn to pace yourself. That's what did the other fellow in."
The next morning the farmer went out to find the rooster lying prone on the ground, his wings outstretched and not an ounce of movement. Overhead a vulture circled and low and menacingly.
"See," said the farmer. "What did I tell you.? But you wouldn't llsten, would you?"
The rooster lay there prone and still but in a small voice replied, "Shh. If you want to screw a vulture you have to play their game."
Now there was a man who understood Washington.
The Silenced City
In June the soft stillness of southern summer returns to Washington. In the everything-controlled environment of the newer city it's easy to ignore but along the one-syllable, two-syllable, three-syllable blocks of older Washington you can't miss it: the leafy canopy, the human tableaux on porches and stoops, and the sounds -- a siren, a cry, a song -- all the more startling because of the broken quiet. It is during these slow, pregnant green days that Washington becomes most true to itself, and a sweet place still. This year, however, summer's sultry seduction seems almost illicit. Maybe that's why it arrived so hesitantly. Seasons are for places, and DC, we are told by those with the power to tell us, is no longer a place but a problem. The quiet trees, the moist heat, and their spawned reveries lure us away from the real business, which is to reform, reorganize and perhaps even replace ourselves.
The assumption is that by moving around enough bodies, buildings, and budgets, the city will somehow revive.
The faith is that the arbitrary choices of a few men of power and rank can successfully substitute for the consent, cooperation, enthusiasm and affection of a whole people. The argument is that a city can be refashioned using little more than good accounting principles.
The people of the shaded streets know this isn't true, but then they see the city through the lens of place rather than of power. And what they see doesn't matter that much any more. As power has consolidated, place has disintegrated.
It is not just that something terrible has happened; it's also that we're not meant to notice or, if we do, not to say anything about it. It's as if the normal business of revitalization always included abrogating democracy, tearing down schools, slashing health clinics, disassembling our one public university, hauling citizens off in handcuffs for forgetting to renew their licenses; and sending our wayward young to privatized gulags hundreds of miles from family and community. The one comfort of the silenced city is knowing you are not alone. When we meet we hug more, in the manner of those who have lost someone shared deeply.
And we talk more. An African-American accountant working out at my health club says quietly, "They want us out of the city, but I'm not going." A street vendor and I talk of the city's troubles for a while and then I ask, "Why do you bother to stay?" And he sits me down on a low wall of the bitterly named Freedom Plaza, pulls out his wallet and shows me photos of his kids: "This has been a wonderful city to me. I'm staying here for them."
On Tuesdays I go to a meeting of a task force on the police and justice. The task force has the usual suspects -- someone from the NAACP, the ACLU, the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance -- but, surprisingly, there are also several retired top police officials and they are no less troubled by what is happening than the others.
We meet in a large hall above the offices of the NAACP on U Street. Except for the addition of a few plaques nothing much has changed in that hall for decades. We only need two tables pushed together so there is plenty of room for the ghosts of those who once sat around such tables asking the same questions, seeking the same solutions, striving for some way for decency to get a foothold. Basic legal strategies for the civil rights movement were planned along this street.
Did perhaps Thurgood Marshall or Clarence Mitchell once sit at one end of this hall and also wonder what to do next? Eventually such leaders would destroy the illusory doctrine of separate but equal. What would they advise us decades later in a city where the separate is not only still unequal but being eliminated? If the past is faithful, what has happened will be with us for a long time. This city suffered the twin indignities of segregation and disenfranchisement for nearly a century. To those us who came in at the end of the struggle, in my case catching only the last decade or so, the prospect of recreating both the expectation of justice and the means of achieving it is daunting beyond belief. Yet there is no other choice -- except to leave.
I would much rather live among free people. I would much rather live in a town where the police treated its citizens with tolerance and respect rather than with zero tolerance and disrespect. I would prefer not to live in a place where plenary powers are given those who mistake arrogance for leadership and certitude for wisdom. I would be happier in a town that shared with Jane Jacobs the notion that "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody." I would much rather not retrace long faltering steps that were more easily taken when I still believed progress moved in only one direction.
Every day about 20 more people move out of town than move in. They leave because of opportunity, a better dream, eviction, anger, or the end of endless patience. Yet many more stay and in their willingness to remain a while longer lies Washington's future. It will not be found among the city's princes in their downtown everything-controlled offices trying to figure out why things didn't work out like they did on paper.
It will be found instead along shaded streets where people understand that community does not have a bottom line; there is no balance sheet for friendship; shared history does not depreciate in value, and a decent, humane culture is not for sale. It will be found in the courage of those who, though still unheard, preserve in small places the true values, hopes and ecology of DC as they begin one more Washington summer without justice.
Black and white Washington are deeply divided on such issues as the congressional junta. Most of the pain caused by the occupation of DC does not reach the quiet streets of Ward 3. Even those in four of the wealthiest zip codes in America who might be concerned get to hear little of what's going on thanks to the rampant disinformation of the Washington Post.
To even suggest that the Post mythology might be a bit short on facts is risky these days. For example, our recent report on the true crime facts and on police harassment of citizens for minor offenses was reprinted in DC Story, a Internet bulletin board produced by the estimable Jeff Itell. It brought the west of the park Prig Patrol screaming out of its pews. Our statistics -- culled from government sources incidentally -- were called by one reader an "apologia for rampant crime." The guy was incensed that we had mentioned facts.
Others took umbrage that anyone would think of forgetting their driver's license or when to renew it. They regarded it as a "crime" and apparently were not bothered that the penalty for the failure to complete life's paperwork might include being handcuffed, locked up and having your body inspected with the same gloves just used on a HIV-positive prostitute.
The irony is that the people so outraged at our concern are of the same ilk likely to hire Arnold & Porter to sue the city should they ever have a remotely similar experience. But of course, the beauty of being a prig is that prigs never make mistakes.
In every place we've lived -- including DC until recently -- there has been a noticeable difference in the way the police handled a moving violation and, say, a bank robbery. The disappearance of a rational hierarchy of police responses is bad enough; even worse is when people stand around and applaud. One reader cited a police commander justifying citizen harassment on the grounds that a routine traffic stop had netted Tim McVeigh. The reader and the commander are perhaps unaware that routine police stops also netted quite a few Jews in Nazi Germany.
Meanwhile, the gap between the way people in the city think about these things widens. Not in thirty years have I seen such a split between white and black and rich and poor in Washington. It is sad, it is unnecessary and it is terribly dangerous.
The last time I saw Jo Butler we discussed books. Though burdened with the cold, involuntary appendages of medical technology, Jo spoke with that same enthusiasm she typically applied to the latest political developments.
Or to the oldest. A few years back Jo uncovered some early congressional debates on the city's status which she disseminated as though they were yesterday's news, making you as excited about them as she was.
In fact, there was little -- from earthworms to earth-shaking -- that did not stir Jo's curiosity and, when required, her compassionate and effective concern. Though her heart might be filled with the overwhelming political and social problems of our time, her eye was always on the sparrow.
Although she will rightfully be honored for her great strokes on behalf of the weak and the unfree, I particularly will remember running into Jo on the street -- her bag overflowing with yet to be distributed documents of truth and her hat bedizened with buttons -- those campaign ribbons from the endless battlefields where she had stood on the side of the fair, the decent and the just.
She carried the spirit of the city and the spirit of hope not as a possession or a totem, but as seeds to share with anyone who would stop and talk for a moment or two.
She would, from time to time, show up on my block of Connecticut Avenue, like some angel on a temporal inspection tour. We would talk, and laugh, and worry together and when I left her I would always feel more directed, more responsible for what was going on around me, but happier as well.
I will miss her and yet -- because she always was an angel -- I expect to bump into her spirit often again, at times both unexpected and necessary. And when I do, I will no doubt feel the same gratitude I always did for having known and loved Jo Butler.
City on a Cross
From comments made at a memorial service for Jo Butler, April 19, 1997
Our city on a hill has been turned into a city on a cross.
We don't have a fiscal crisis; we endure a fiscal embargo. DC is being deliberately starved.
Our city is being destroyed, damaged and looted just as surely as it was during the 1968 riots. Only this time the rioters are not the angry and oppressed but the arrogant and the powerful.
If I pick your pocket, you can have me arrested. But what recourse have we against a Congress that picks away at the moneys rightfully owed for our services and land?
If I use a knife against you, I commit a felony. But what about those who slash the hopes of a whole city by destroying its one public university?
If I burn my business down to collect insurance I commit arson; but what do you call closing some of our best schools so a developer can make money from the land on which they sit?
If I fail to provide proper medical treatment for my child, I am guilty of neglect and abuse; what do you call it when the number of public health workers for the whole city is summarily reduced by nearly a half?
If I steal money from the company pension fund, I have embezzled; what then do you call a president who proposes to drain the city pension fund to zero to make his own budget look better -- leaving only a promise that, well after he has left office, someone else will take care of the matter?
If I beat my son for having committed the foolish acts of the young, I am not fit to be a father; but what if I am an ambitious US Attorney and propose to send our wayward sons to long, unrelieved sentences in the privatized gulags of Texas or Arizona for using marijuana instead of some approved drug such as gin or cigarettes?
If we are robbed on the street we can call 911; but what number do you call to save a whole city?
UNDERNEWS, NOVEMBER 1996 - Just one week after your editor's views on the increasing militarization of America were featured in a column by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, that paper responded with a major paen to "Generals in Command on the Home Front." The subhead ran: "In need of discipline, order, honor, polish? Civil institutions find old soliders pass muster."
The Post momentarily put aside such arduous tasks as defending the CIA and offered a multi-column Style section rebuttal to the notion that there was something wrong with the proliferation of generals in domestic affairs complete with a handsome foot-high photo of Genral Patton pointing his baton in an appropriately imperious fashion.
Although quoting one critic of militarization near the end of the article, the overall tone of the piece was, at best, that these flag officers will shape the country up and, at worse, that they are part of yet another cute social trend for a wise-ass journalist to have some fun with. The idea that democracy might be in peril as a product of the trend was just a jump page after-thought.
Here are some quotes:
From writer Marc Fisher: "A retired general is spit-and-polish. Order and discipline. Expectations and results. Retired general. Two words with such Taoist balance. At once at ease and in charge. Calm yet powerful. Benign yet can-do."
From General Don Scott, deputy librarian of the Library of Congress: "We're proven. We know how to take orders, we know how to do more with less. Society wants more order and more structure."
Charles Moskos, a sociologist who studies the military: "Making the trains run on time is not to be pooh-poohed. In a world of crumbling instituations, the military stands out for its cohesion."
Fisher ends his piece with a quote from a retired general: "Let those in uniform fight the cold and hot wars. Let those who have retired fight the domestic war." Fisher is so enthralled by this that he forgets to ask the general just when and why the American people became the enemy.
Columnist Milloy, one of the last progressive writers at the Post, became interested in my article on militarization after a de facto junta selected by GOP congressional leaders to run DC had named General Julius Becton as school czar and wiped out most of the powers of the elected school board.
Becton got the same sort of fawning treatment from the media (including national publications) that General Barry McCaffrey received when he took over as head of federal anti-drug programs. And as with McCaffrey, there was plenty of the Becton story that didn't come out. Such as the fact that when he was Reagan's head of the Federal Emergency Managment Agency, FEMA concoted an outragous $1.5 billion plan for 600 bomb shelters to be built for state and local officials. The rest of the population was meant to rely on "voluntary self-help programs and emergency public information" such as low cost radiation detectors and instructional materials. States and localities that failed to cooperate in the plan could lose federal funds for non-nuclear disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Not surprisingly, the plan was laughed out of existence.
Even though the scheme was front-page news in the Washington Post when it occurred, the Post failed to tell readers about it in its glowing coverage of Becton. Nor did it mention that Becton had testified on behalf of Clarence Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court, expressing support for Thomas' views on affirmative action and the like.
Finally, in neither its praise of Becton nor its defense of the generic general did the Post point out that what generals are trained for is to kill, defeat and control people in whatever order seems most practical at the moment.
Going for the Gold
WASHINGTON CITY PAPER, 1994: To most spectators of the Lillehammer Olympic opening ceremony, the things that stood out were the skiing fiddlers, unruly reindeer, and kings swathed in GoreTex. But as the parade of nations passed the reviewing stand, Sam Smith, die-hard statehood advocate, full-time rabble rouser, and sometime editor of the Progressive Review, noted that something was amiss. Athletes from American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico strode proudly behind their territorial flags. While these semi-independent US colonies have their own Olympic teams, Washington does not. Once again, Smith realized, the nonvoting citizens of DC had been denied adequate representation.
"Not only are we not part of the Union, we're not even allowed to play with the colonies. We're even discriminated among the non-self-governing territories of the US," Smith growls. "It's all part of the colonial mentality, of accepting things the way they are." . . . The oversight so enraged Smith that, by Monday morning, he had already founded and designed letterhead for the DC Olympic Organizing Committee (quickly renamed the Committee for a DC Team in the Olympics to avoid sounding too official), and appointed himself the "very interim chair." Armed with the slogan "Give Us Liberty or Give Us the Gold," Smith warmed up his fax and fired off a manifesto to local pols and industry bigwigs.
. . . Smith hopes parochial power brokers like [hardware magnate] John Hechinger, Jesse Jackson, and perhaps even [Redskins owner] Jack Kent Cooke will petition the International Olympic Committee to permit DC to compete in the next games. "Tonya Harding's lawyers got the Olympic Committee to roll over -- can you imagine Jesse Jackson and Jack Kent Cooke working in concert? You talk about the morality of Tonya Harding being allowed to compete in the Olympics, how about the immorality of DC not being allowed to compete?" he asks.
EPILOGUE: Jack Kent Cooke never came aboard, but Jesse Jackson did -- long enough to write a supporting letter to Dr. Leroy Walker, President of the US Olympic Committee, right in the middle of the games. Dave Clarke, chair of the city council, also endorsed the idea. Unfortunately, Jackson's attention deficit disorder soon took over and nothing more was heard from him. Even more distressing was the failure of DC activists who, rather than rushing to the cause, bombarded your editor with requests to be on the team -- based on unsubstantiated and archaic claims of athletic prowess. Activist Keith Rutter even assured me that he had friends in Atlanta and so wouldn't burden the team with room and board: "I started working out the minute I heard you on 'Morning Edition.'
Washington Post, May 1993
John Wilson was chair of the DC City Council who commited suicide in 1993.
The reason so many of us still feel like crying is not just because John Wilson showed how politics could be an honorable trade. It's not just because you could learn more in an elevator ride with John than you could from an average politician over a whole day. It isn't just because John's wisdom, diligence and knowledge were so powerful, yet applied with such moral gentleness. And it isn't because John was given to telling the truth -- in Washington pure evidence of eccentricity.
Such things are important and help explain why our town is going to be hurting for a long time. They explain why Eleanor Holmes Norton said that John was "as close to indispensable" as you could find in DC. But they don't really explain the tears.
What may explain them, though, is that there was only one sort of relationship you could have with John Wilson, and that was a personal one. Some politicians can't even have a personal relationship with their own families. For John, there are hundreds who can share the thought of a 14-year-old neighbor: "We were kind of like pals and stuff." They range from Jack Kent Cooke to the radio listeners with whom John talked all one New Year's Eve because the callers didn't have any place to go.
Many politicians only speak in the tongues of jargon and abstraction. If anyone ever had an abstract discussion of any length with John Wilson, I never heard about it. Rather than calling us to causes greater than ourselves, John placed even the most complex issues in our own backyard. Teenage pregnancy, for example, was not a statistic but a woman who had just had a newborn baby who would "come out, put it in a chair, take a quarter and go call a taxi to come and pick her up."
The silent message was that while the issue of teenage pregnancy might seem daunting, the support that one woman needed was well within our capability.
Politics had little to do with how I felt about John. Sometimes I was with him, sometimes against, and in the end it didn't matter because he never let politics get in the way of life.
Which may be why he was such a good politician. I remember seeing him one day in Dupont Circle as he was walking his ward. He was talking to two older men as they sat on a park bench clutching their brown paper bags. After the conversation I joined John for a few blocks of his tour. Our talk was as languid as the day. At one point he stopped and said, "You know which of my constituents I really like?" His ward then ran from the West End to Southwest to Shaw, the most polyglot in the city. I wasn't about to guess. So he told me, "I like those folks in Foggy Bottom."
"'Cause they don't go nowhere. People up on 14th Street, no sooner you get to know them then they're out of there. But Foggy Bottom just stays put."
The dumbest things they ever did was to put this shit on TV so they could see how stupid we are - John Wilson talking about city council meetings
That was a real politician speaking. Not judging people by skin color or money or ideology, but by the thing that really counts: electoral reliability. So I nudged him again about running for council chair and he said something sort of dumb and self-deprecating like the time he told me, well before Barry started crashing, that "You know any government that's got me and Marion in it has gotta be screwed up."
I did know that there was this bleak side to John that kept doing battle with the crusader, the clever pol and the stand-up comic. I figured it had to do with having watched civil rights contemporaries with more chutzpah and more mouth march right out of the 1960s and onto larger stages -- leaving Wilson back in Ward Two. Despite his put-downs, Wilson knew he was smarter, more substantive, and more sincere than many who had made it a lot further. It must have hurt. Just like it must have hurt trying year after year to move the beached whales of DC government back into the water.
Yet like most everyone else, I figured that John could handle it. After all, that's what John did best: handle things. With skill, style and humor. That's why we loved him. And voted for him.
Now some of us are sitting wondering what we might have done or said over the past decades or few days that could have changed things. The health people say it doesn't work like that; his wife says it was inherited. Still I wish I had tried to convince him that personal witness is an existential act independent of its chance of success, that while the witness may be an obligation, the triumph is often little more than good luck and timing. John, to his torment, felt personally responsible for both.
John Wilson made politics fun and good, he made us smile, and he gave us the truth. He was not only the chairman of the council but the chairman of the streets. He was a rare human link between Washington the city and Washington the government. The former was troubled and the latter feeble and it turned out to be too big a job for one person and it finally broke his heart.
Now there'll be a lot of talk about how to honor John. In truth, there's probably only one way:
Tell the truth, be kind, speak plainly, have a laugh, and, above all, get it done.
Nothing but usefulness
Eugene Talmadge used to campaign through Georgia saying, "Y'all got only three friends in the world. You got the Lord God Almighty, you got the Sears Roebuck catalog, and you got Eugene Talmadge. And you can only vote for one of them."
Eugene Talmadge died long ago and this week Sears Roebuck announced its was ceasing publication of what was, for many decades, America's most important publication. I hope God can handle it alone.
I know it's going to be tough on me. Not only has Sears dumped its catalog, it's going to close its store on Wisconsin Avenue with rooftop parking so practical and inviting that the company has to warn away those who would use it for ancillary purposes such as automobile repairs. During World War II, the Sears on Wisconsin was where my father would start coasting as much of the way to Georgetown as possible, an exercise encouraged by gas rationing. The Indians used Wisconsin Avenue in much the same way, a "rolling road" down which they tumbled barrels of tobacco.
Like millions of other Americans, I came to believe in Sears. It was not so much quality that drew us, but consistency and utility. As recently as this fall, when my wife and I decided it was time to replace our 30-year-old gas stove, I discovered that only Sears had a model in the right color and a drip pan under the burners that prevented wok splatterings and overboiled soup from congealing in inaccessible recesses. It wasn't the prettiest stove, just the one that worked best.
When I read David Oglivie's Confessions of an Advertising Man and learned that this sophisticated Britisher bought his suits from Sears, I followed his example until my friends and relatives ridiculed me towards "at least Raleigh's for chrissake." I still went to Sears for slacks because Sears sold clothes designed for the classic American male -- a man who actually performed physical labor -- rather than for thighless pencil-necked geeks whose greatest exertion was hefting a law brief. If the store did not have my size, I could peruse the catalog and choose in the privacy of my own home between the regular and the full-fit. the tall and the big, without enduring the disdain the proportionally impaired sense upon entering a traditional menswear store.
Above all there were the tools. Even the name, Craftsman, made a weekend project seem more appealing. Further, you knew as you adjusted the nut on your Craftsman Skill saw that throughout this great land, millions of others were asking the same probing question, "Is that tight enough?" Sears was what America was meant to be all about: a place that gave you the right tools to do what you wanted .
Beginning in the 1980s, Sears found itself in trouble. The country was no longer interested in utilitarianism. It wanted style, prestige and designer labels. People found me odd when I suggested that if you couldn't find it at Sears or Hechingers you probably didn't need it. Over the course of the next decade Sears laid off close to 100,000 workers, the last 50,000 just announced.
Sears, it was said, had gotten out of step with the times, although times that require the layoff of 100,000 employees because their firm has the sole attribute of being useful may be a bit out of step themselves.
This Christmas I gave one of my sons a Sears rechargeable flashlight and my other son a Craftsman portable screwdriver complete with mounting rack and the requisite mounting screws. I don't know if they'll use them, but now at least they have a souvenir of those times when a firm like Sears hired a lot of people to sell a lot of items that helped other people do a lot of things.
The experts quoted in the papers the past few days say that our economy isn't about that anymore. I saw some of these experts on television. They were fashionably dressed and quite self-assured about the failings of Sears, perhaps because they understand that our new economy is much kinder to experts on Sears than it is to people who work there.
People like the red-vested man who worked the tool section as if it were his own hardware store, the woman who didn't mind telling which answering machine was really best, and the grandmother who never could quite get the optical scanner to work right. The Tenley Sears was -- like the gravity that allowed cars and barrels to roll down Wisconsin Ave -- part of the unobtrusive necessity of life, indispensable but unmarketable.
As I drive the extra half hour to the Sears at Montgomery Mall, I shall undoubtedly come to accept the omnipotence of the marketplace. But I'll be damned if I'll be grateful for it. --Washington Post, February 1993
This spring, when homeless activist Mitch Snyder announced he was going to retreat to a monastery for awhile for reflection and renewal, I felt pulled to drop him a note thanking him for his witness, for the good it had done, for the wisdom and encouragmeent it had given others. In the note I quoted Emerson.
"The voyage of the best ship" said Emerson, "is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency."
I can not comprehend Mitch's last tack that ended in suicide. But the average tendency of his life has been as inspiring as any I have known. At times humbling, at times guilt-provoking, at times incredibly catalytic and at times -- yes -- aggravating, this one scruffy amalgem of love and anger, intensity and gentleness led us to care far more about what it was easier to ignore -- the homeless refugees of the puerile, avaricious American dream of the 80s.
Lately we've been falling back to easier ways. The DC city council has just ordered a cruel retreat from the decency towards the homeless we overwhelmingly supported in Inititiative 17. In San Francisco, on the very day Mitch died, Mayor Agnos ordered the arrest of homeless people sleeping in public places.
What effect this had on Mitch I don't know. I do know that in his last days he was organizing a massive drive for a referendum on the council action. As he met in the shelter to discuss the referendum last week, he patiently explained to a man reciting some of the new cyncism towards the homeless that no one in that 1400-bed shelter wanted to be there. Not even Mitch Snyder.
And I do know that we talked on the phone on Monday. He told me enthusiastically of the law suit being filed against the council and of the lawyers who were working on the case and would I be one of the plaintiffs. I said, sure, and he said -- as he did so often to so many people he had pulled to the cause in that soft gentle voice -- he said: "Thank you, my friend."
But I also know that Mitch lived a life in painful proximity to modern society's cruelest results and carried a terrible trusteeship for its victims. In recent months, there were voices -- most sadly among those in power and in the media -- indicating that we no longer needed to care.
For me, Mitch -- controversial, blunt and irrascible as he was on occasion -- fit the best definition of a saint, which is to say that Mitch Snyder was a sinner who kept trying. I suspect the only eulogy he would want is a commitment to nothing more than the simple decency he espoused. Oh yes, and perhaps his own soft, gentle benediction: "Thank you, my friend."
--WAMU, Washington, July 6, 1990
Our band was playing at a wedding reception when a woman came up to me and asked for a waltz. I said okay and hoped she would forget about it because my memory has suddenly gone blank and I can't remember any waltzes.
The woman returns so I say to the trumpet player, "Follow me." It takes me a couple of choruses to write a waltz. Bob Walter, the trumpet player, was good enough that he could pretend to be providing fills instead of wondering what the hell I was up to.
We finally got it down and people began twirling happily. When we were finished the crowd applauded and a bearded man asked me for my card.
We were happily back into 4/4 time when a woman came up and asked for another waltz and I replied, "Okay in a little bit."
"No we need it now. The mother of the bride wants to waltz.
So I told Bob to do the waltz again. This time we did it with more gusto and the dancers responded in kind.
The bearded man spun by, stopped and said, "That's great. What's the name of that waltz."
Without hesitation I replied, "Sam's Waltz."
Copyright 1998 The Progressive Review
M U L T I T U D E S
An Unauthorized Memoir
by Sam Smith
GEORGETOWN: A child of contradictions
GHOSTS: The ubiquitous past
BECOMING: Playing with and putting away childish things
FRIENDS A Quaker education
MAGNA CUM PROBATION: Falling from grace at Harvard U
THE CANARIES IN STUDIO A in which a young radio reporter learns a lot about the media and Washington in a short time.
HOOLIGAN DAYS: A memoir of the Coast Guard
SEEDS The 60s before they became the 60s; in which your editor discovers the civil rights and anti-war movements.
HOW THE TROUBLE BEGAN: A long adventure in alternative journalism began in the mid-sixties
FIRE: The Washington riots and other suspensions of hope
PLACE: The battle for local power
THE LONELIEST MILE IN TOWN: Adventures in apostasy
GROWING GREEN The birth of a movement
The Progressive Review