A long-time resident of Columbia Heights talks about racial tension, the history of 9th Street, and how you can recognize a reporter.
Columbia Heights has that pleasant schizophrenia of a neighborhood that wants to be better without ceasing to be what it was. The rowhouses wear proud coats of rust-colored and maroon paint on the bricks, though some are more audaciously painted white, mauve, eggshell blue, fern green. Some of the porches are sunk, or overgrown, rimmed with coffee cans that overflow with cigarettes. Others are spruced up with hydrangea and azalea bushes.
Lexuses with the windows rolled up jockey for space with beaters that blast angry music about pussy and guns.
Ivy climbs everywhere.
It’s a beautiful morning.
Lee says if I’m going to Virginia Beach, he’d like to hop in with me.
“Don’t drink too much,” he advises, “but a six pack? At the beach? Ain’t nothing wrong with that.”
I ask Lee and his friend, who wears Ray-Bans and a Berkeley ballcap, if they know how to get to Interstate 97. I know they won’t be able to tell me. Nobody knows but one way to get out of DC, unless perhaps they’re a bus driver, and if they tell you they do, they’re lying. Asking is just a ruse on my part, to get them to talk to me.
Lee’s friend stands up.
“Wait here for a minute. I’ll go and get that information for you.”
Lee reaches out and mutters something. The other man passes him the cigarette he’s been smoking. Lee pinches it between his fingers and drags off the bitter end.
I like this neighborhood, I tell him.
He shakes his head and leans back.
“This the best,” he says.
He was just passing through, he says.
“I was going to New York, but I come back. Married Crazy here.”
He elucidates that this is where met his wife, to whom he makes pointed reference with a jerk of his head toward the door of the house behind him. They were married in Shiloh Baptist Church, he says.
“On 9th Street. You know about 9th Street?”
I don’t spend too much time considering whether some well-known history of the area might register. Instead, I ask him what’s to know about 9th Street?
“It’s where I got married to my wife.”
What happened to New York, I ask him. He gives a slow half-shake of his head.
“The fire of life,” he says. “New York was ready for me, but I wasn’t ready for it.”
There was too much available in the way of drugs and drink. He stayed only a little while, then came back down here.
“I’m not on it, now.”
He came here two days after Martin Luther King, Jr. died. I nose interestedly at that subject, but he just purses his lips and shakes his head.
“I can’t tell you,” he says. “If you weren’t there, I can’t even tell you. It was crazy. We was so prejudiced, we didn’t even know what we was prejudiced for. We got so used to hating, we didn’t even know what it was we hated anymore. It’s better now.”
“Is it really?” I ask him. “You notice a difference?”
He gazes out toward the street, the choked lineup of sensible but expensive cars heading toward 14th Street. One of them is broadcasting fuck-bitches-get-money lyrics directly toward us from its open window.
“It’s so different now,” he says reflectively. “I see it.”
He asks why I’m going to Virginia Beach. I tell him I’m a reporter.
“You look like a reporter!” It’s as if he’s been trying to figure it out. “They always chasing after something.”
His friend comes back out, sans Ray-Bans, and says he couldn’t figure out how to get me to 97. They argue a bit over which way to go…George Street or 14th.
His friend’s name is Jimmy Christmas. If I think that’s bad, Mr. Christmas tells me, I should talk to his two sisters, both of whom are named Mary.