A HISTORY OF WASHINGTON, D.C. IN NINE SCENES
by Nick Kolakowski
My Dear Elizabeth,
This is beautiful country. The hills are a verdant green & the river Potomack bountiful with fish & amenable to navigation & it seems agreeable that the Capitol of our new nation should find itself erected on this spot. Yet the ferryman conveying me across the muddy waters displayed a surly nature worthy of Charon. When I informed him of my intent to survey the boundaries of the federal district, he snorted & spat & declared the area a fetid swamp unfit for Civilized Man. Losing four fingers to a cannonball in our most recent War—so he informed me—seems to have put him off the idea of Governments in general.
Once ashore I found a buzzing legislature of insects awaiting me with each one a hellion anxious to sip my blood. The humid air & my exertions &c. produced sweat copious enough to soak my jacket & fill my boots. Only the thought of my generous fee compelled me to continue my measurements & recordings. A few hours’ journey to the north placed me at the base of a rocky slope, prodigious in height—at the base of it a humble cabin filled with a quantity of miserable wretches. Their Patriarch boasted a white beard worthy of Moses & the blackest eyes mine own have ever seen. I am here to survey land for the Capitol, I informed him. He looked at me queerly, as if I were taking amusement at his expense, & told me he would refuse to part with his tiny farm for less than many times its pitiable worth. The irascibility of the inhabitants here!
They say the Capitol is the only building in Washington worthy of notice. Now it is ablaze. The Library of Congress, with all its wondrous knowledge, is likewise on fire. The inferno flickers golden on the bayonets of the British marching up Pennsylvania Avenue toward this house, intent on setting yet another icon of our fair Republic to the torch.
Mister Madison has fled already; my husband is always quick on his feet, let us say. John Susé, our door-keeper, and Magraw the gardener enter our living quarters, their eyes wide with panic. Susé says I must leave with all due haste, the British are only a square or two away.
Our silver & some furnishings & other goods already await in the carts downstairs. The rest of this wood & stone & plaster & cloth can burn—it will not kill the Dream. But as we pass through the house I see the portrait of Washington—dear George—on the wall in its heavy and ornate frame, and the thought of the British defiling it fires me with rage.
“Take that down,” I tell Susé, pointing at the portrait.
“But Madame,” he protests. “That frame is heavy, and nailed securely to the wall. We would need to find a ladder, and we have not time.”
“Magraw,” I say, and gesture toward the large blade strapped to the man’s belt. “If we cannot remove the frame from the wall, we will remove the painting from the frame.”
Susé begs me to stop, but Magraw hands over the polished steel without a word. I push a chair against the wall beside the painting. “My apologies, George,” I say, standing on the seat, raising the knife above my head. “But it is better this way, trust me.”
Washington is surely the capitol of Hell. It is crowded and it stinks; the mosquitoes and flies outnumber the two-legged citizens; the quarters for rent are in desperate need of amenities and class. I love it so. At Willard’s Hotel my shoes crunch over bits of paper and cigar ends and chunks of glass, all of it discarded without thought by the crowds of men anxious for a word with the senators and congressmen staying in the rooms above. Everyone crowds the bar and drinks to sweaty excess and spits chewing tobacco everywhere, uncaring if the latter should splatter a neighbor; and when a legislator appears they tear after him with the hunger of lions after a fat bit of prey, anxious for a word, a signature, a promise, a position. From the Generals wanting more troops to the small boys needling you for coins, this is a city of desperate wants. A canny man like me could make a fortune here.
But nothing compares to the great frenzy and huzzah that greets our President as he traverses the parlor with his small entourage, doing his best to offer each vulture a pleasant word and handshake. Lincoln, despite his ungainly bearing and reedy voice, carries within him an unmistakable gravitas I only hope is commensurate with the enormous tasks that face our dear nation. I want to buy him a drink, and do my best to elbow through the crowd, but he is already away to his suite. Our sweet Lord protect him.
The Caverns is a tiny space beneath the humble Davis drugstore on 11th, but it looms large in our imagination. It is the place to go in the very early hours, when the whole town sleeps except for us true jazz aficionados, the ones who can’t hear a clattering typewriter without snapping their fingers in time to the keys, and who file into this cave and take their seats and light cigarettes and sip their sneaky liquor and wait for the musicians to step beneath the hot lights (quiet down; listen close) and launch their trumpets or drums into rhythm, erecting that frame of notes on which the other players begin to weave their sound, crafting a force so powerful it shakes apart your outer armor and lifts your soul straight from your body, making you forget the injustices and depravities of the world looming overhead—for a little while, at least.
They’re burning this whole sucker down, man.
Typical weekend: Deon Richardson, 23; Jeremy Smith, 19; Richard Sanders, 27. Richardson a headshot from point-blank range, .38-caliber; Smith shot through the throat from across the street, 9mm; three shots to Sanders’ torso from the other end of the room, .45-caliber—and should I even bother to mention what this trio of upstanding citizens did for a living? Slung minor rock. That makes them bad, yeah, but they didn’t deserve to die.
I was a rookie cop the day MLK was assassinated in 1968. Don’t ask me what it takes to fire teargas at your friends and neighbors. For a long time I thought those riots were the worst thing I’d ever live through. Then came crack, and the sons of those friends and neighbors started killing each other like they were soldiers in a war. I don’t think these troubles will last forever. I read a lot of history and things always come full circle, you know? The neighborhoods will come back. They have to come back. Even if they return in a form nobody wants, anything’s better than this slaughter.
One night my uncle and I are eating at El Tamarindo, that Mexican place off U Street. We have a table with a view of the intersection, and we’re digging into our chili nachos when a cop cruiser pulls over this purple hoop-dee with a couple kids inside. Three minutes later those kids are sitting on the curb, hands cuffed behind their backs, the tears streaming down their faces red and blue in the cruiser lights. The cops are talking to each other but we can’t hear anything through the glass.
“You know that white building around the corner there,” my uncle says, pointing at the wall over my shoulder.
“You mean that big one?”
He nods. “Twenty years back, I knew this guy dealt coke out of there, in broad daylight. Nobody touched him.”
“It’s becoming a different kind of neighborhood now,” I say.
He nods again, staring at the cops shoving those kids into the back of the cruiser. “Yes,” he says, “it is.”
“I gotta go,” I say, and stand, and kiss him on the cheek before heading into the night. I live in one of the new condos along U Street, the Madison, which is a steel-and-glass cube with a Thai restaurant on the first floor. Everyone in this building, we’re the first ones to live in it. I was attracted to the symmetry of its design, the cleanliness of its lines, which seemed like some kind of reward after the messiness and stress of my first few years as a lobbyist.
I toss my coat on the couch and walk over to the window and think about my old-school uncle. I’m his favorite niece, but sometimes I worry that he sees me as just another yuppie strip-mining the city he loves. I stare out the window at the street below, packed with crowds filtering out of the bars, and feel something shift in my chest. Maybe I’ll look for another place to live. An actual house, one of those small but cute ones along T or S, with a yard: a place where you can set down real roots.
Email from Baghdad:
You won’t believe how hot it is here. We all stink. You pull off your body armor and there’s this film of gray dead skin all over your body. The wind scrapes your eyes raw. This whole affair is best summed up by a soldier’s experience in the portable crappers. It’s an oven in those things during sunup, but your nose is numb to the odor of rot. There are three things I miss most about home. You can guess the first two. The third on the list is a Ben’s half-smoke with a milkshake. I wasn’t into that place much before I left, but now I think about it once a day at least. For some reason it’s my brain’s symbol for home.
In the back of a new bar off 13th Street I find myself trapped between a coworker nearly comatose after slamming down five microbrew lagers and a loud dude who keeps insisting he’ll never buy a bottle of wine that costs less than a hundred fifty dollars, and I want more than anything the ability to vomit on command, because that would offer me the fastest possible escape from this Halloween party at which maybe three people, tops, have actually shown up in costume.
“Yeah, okay, but what about ordinary table wines?” I ask the loud guy, even as the angry part of me rails at the polite part for continuing this conversation. “If you’re paying that much for something to go with a plate of pasta, isn’t that just idiotic?”
He starts to yell—or yell louder, in any case—and storms away, his elbow swiping a half-full beer off the bar and onto the floor. Bits of glass and micro-brew spatter my legs. The bartender laughs and hands over a couple of paper napkins to soak up the damage. He’s an older dude with a graying beard and 8-ball eyes, tough-looking in a wiry sort of way.
“I saw that coming,” he yells over the music.
“Yeah, right.” I daub at my pants. “Sometimes I hate this place.”
He offers a wide and totally insincere smile. “This place? It just opened.”
“I know. I meant this whole stretch of town here, the clubs and whatnot. Sometimes it’s just annoying as all hell.”
The bartender’s smile wavers a bit. He stares at me, ignoring the increasingly frantic patrons waving their fives and twenties in his direction. “How long you lived in the District?” he asks.
He shakes his head and laughs again. “Whatever. You can’t see the layers yet.”
“Wait, what’s that even mean?”
But he’s already turned away. I head outside, pausing on the sidewalk so a man in a black suit with a Trump mask can scurry past, pursued by figures in ghoul makeup. They’re headed down the avenue toward Capitol Hill, where they can join all the other interns and staffers and politicos who live in their own little world down there. As I start walking in the other direction, I pass an old brick wall on which someone has scrawled a slogan in bright green paint: “RESIST.” When I think about that bartender, that word strikes me as a good motto for this town.
Frequent contributor Nick Kolakowski’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, 7×7.la, Carrier Pigeon, and Shotgun Honey, among other publications. He’s also the author of How to Become an Intellectual, a book of comedic nonfiction, and Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me, a short-story collection. His flash fiction “The Great Wave Carries You Forward” appeared in Issue 5, and “Little Orestes” appeared in Issue No. 8. His story “The Valley” appeared in Issue No. 10 of Cleaver. His poem “Illuminati Dance” appeared in Issue 15. He lives and writes in New York City.
Image: The City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard, 1833 oil painting by George Cooke