IV. On Becoming a Writer: Tales of Two Cities – D.C.

Two cities. Two different worlds. From the diversity of my Miami neighborhood see Miami post, I moved at the age of 14 into the rarified air of a Washington, D.C. suburb. Arlington, Virginia at the time had the highest per capita education of any county in the United States. I attended a public high school, which during my three years there was named one of the top thirty high schools in the country. My school had the nation’s second highest number of National Merit semi-finalists each year, second only to the Bronx High School of Science and Technology. I went to class with kids whose parents were Pentagon brass or held high-level positions in the Federal government. One classmate’s mother was the Treasurer of the United States. Her mother’s signature was on every dollar bill in my wallet. And although I had some terrific teachers and wonderful experiences with the high school orchestra, the school itself was never a place I felt I belonged.

The city, however, was entirely different. As newcomers, my family enthusiastically took in every museum and monument, places I returned to many times on my own or when friends visited. One poignant afternoon, I took a cousin and my grad school roommate from England to the White House the week after President Kennedy’s assassination. The East Room remained draped in black, the catafalque as it was when Kennedy’s coffin had rested on it.

In those years, D.C. became my city. I researched term papers at the Library of Congress, and during the summers I was in college, worked as a clerk-typist for the Office of Education. Lunch hours those summers were often spent crossing the Mall to the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian, to National Archives and the Botanic Garden. My father had taught me to drive in the Pentagon parking lot and I soon found I could negotiate the often literal “crush” of five o’clock traffic around the Lincoln Memorial and across the city’s bridges. Sometimes my father let me accompany him to Capitol Hill, where I rode the elevator with Senators and Congressmen and sat in on Congressional hearings. Once we sat alone at night in the Senate gallery as a Senator spoke to an almost empty chamber.

It was an extraordinary experience to live in the nation’s Capital, a daily encounter with the art and artifacts of our nation’s history  and its governance. Yet sadly, the bright patriotic innocence I brought to D.C. as a teenager dulled in those years. My father was a lobbyist, a good and honest man, who became all too familiar with  the cash and favors nefariously handed about in politics, how influence is peddled, sometimes even legally, as with the Senator who sent an invitation to his daughter’s wedding to every lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

Even so, I will always love D.C., its monuments and museums, the grassy malls where teenagers toss Frisbees and families picnic. I love to go back. But when I left Arlington to attend college, apart from those summers at home, I never lived there again.

Next up: Appalachia