Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Long Ago Christmas

Many years ago I lived in a big dilapidated house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, across the street from a hospital with constant ambulance traffic, though it seemed no cured patients ever left the place. There was a Chinese carry out restaurant three doors down, and a laundromat where the machines malfunctioned and sent cascades of foamy water into the street.

We had a rotating cast of odd and odder people on the top two floors. The downstairs apartment was rented by a newly married and devout Jewish couple, both attending Georgetown University. She was twice her husband’s size, and he never spoke.  At any given time, up to a dozen youngish men and women rented rooms in the place, with a remarkable lack of sexual activity among them. In fact, I remember the waiter who lived in the floor above mine lamenting that if there was a sexual revolution going on, he had yet to find the front. The people there were nevertheless infused with a spirit of non-conformity, or perhaps total conformity for the times. We smoked a lot of dope, drank sugary wine from gallon bottles of Gallo, brewed potfuls of sour coffee, cooked vast quantities of pasta and tried to define what our futures would be. I drove a little silver Nissan convertible sports car with a loud eight-track cassette stereo and every Dylan song ever recorded, as well as some Moody Blues for lighter moments.

Michael was a photographer working at the Washington Post. I worked there too. Martha was an airline attendant; Christine was trying to break into modeling at a time when black models were a rarity. Narji, who smelled of horse liniment and kept a Western saddle in his bedroom, wanted to be a circus performer. Michael’s younger brother, Bart was going to make a fortune dealing dope, more specifically marijuana and procaine as he was afraid selling cocaine, the real stuff, could get him into serious trouble. Joe, who worked at a nearby Safeway stocking shelves, was perfectly happy to stay there. He had figured out that after 20 years, he’d be making enough to buy a place in Florida where the rest of us could come to vacation. It seemed like a plausible plan at the time, so we were encouraging, even as we urged him to steal food and laundry detergent for us from the Safeway. Musicians came and went and Saturday nights were often a cacophony of electric guitars, bongo drums and harmonicas. The songs Joni Mitchell, Tim Buxley and the Stones were savaged. Candles flickered, the wine flowed and people slept on the floor. It was, in many ways, the best time I had in my life. Until Christmas rolled around.

By December 21, most of the people had taken cars, buses and planes to be with their families and the house on Massachusetts Avenue became a bastion of crushing loneliness.  There were more ambulances and more sirens wailing. I would go to Jenkins’ Hill, a nearby bar owned by an acquaintance, get stupidly drunk on Irish coffees, stagger home in the wee hours and then, blasted by caffeine, lay awake in my bed until it was time to go to work. I would do this for the entire holiday week, surviving on street-vendor half-smokes during the day and Chef Boyardee ravioli at night. It was not a pretty sight. In early January, the room-mates would return with stories of epic meals and dysfunctional families. I would tell them of my adventure with a pot of pasta left to smolder overnight on the stove, which explained the strange smell in the kitchen.

One early spring, the third year I was in the house, it all began to fall apart. Marty announced she was leaving; she’d be moving in with three other flight attendants in a townhouse closer to the airport. Narji got a job at a stable in Maryland and left behind only a faint aroma of leather and saddle soap, though weeks after his departure we found a bag of filthy and reeking laundry in the back of his closet. Bart simply vanished leaving all his belongings behind. We feared he’d been killed in a bad dope deal but Michael wasn’t worried. He told us that was how his brother behaved; sometimes he simply left town.  Christine fell in love with a soul singer and followed him to Detroit. To this day I am still not sure whether Michael seduced the young Jewish woman who lived downstairs, or vice versa, but they ended up in bed together, and the thin, silent husband found out—or perhaps she told him. One morning soon thereafter a regiment of young, wiry men wearing yarmulkes and work gloves converged on their apartment and the couple was gone by late afternoon. Michael was not home that day, so the young husband, in a Lutherite epiphany, Scotch-taped a list of wrongs done him on my room-mate’s door. The waiter moved to New York, and Safeway Joe found a managerial position at a Food Lion in the Virginia suburbs. My Datsun convertible caught on fire while sitting at a red light on Massachusetts Avenue. Smoke poured from the air vents and the car expired with muted hissing and popping sounds.

For a month or two, various people and friends of friends were at the house for a day or a week. One absconded in the middle of the night with the living room curtains and the entire contents of the fridge. In May, the owner of the place sent a letter saying the house had been sold and the tenants had two weeks to leave.  

Seven months after that I drove by and the house was gone. In its place were three small townhouses and a six-car parking area.

Michael died in a car accident six years later. I never did see Bart again.

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