Johnny America


Ad­ven­tures in the District


We call it “the nun­nery.” An all-women’s dorm, no booze and no boys un­der threat of im­me­di­ate evic­tion. There are ru­mors that once girl was kicked out while mov­ing in be­cause her fa­ther helped her car­ry her things to her room. Peo­ple al­ways find it strange when any of us who live here de­scribe the place — my fa­vorite re­ac­tion: “Oh! You’re liv­ing at the Vir­gin Vault!” But, it is with­in walk­ing dis­tance of the Metro, and is on­ly $900 a month for room and board — which is un­heard of in the Dis­trict. I ar­rive on a Sat­ur­day evening and strug­gle up the stairs to my new home with all my be­long­ings — one mas­sive suit­case full of clothes, my purse, dul­cimer, and bro­ken camera.

A friend told me about an amaz­ing book­store at the East­ern Mar­ket. I got to work at a de­cent time this morn­ing, so I’ve got time af­ter to check it out and still make it to din­ner at the nunnery.

I walk slow­ly up the stair­case, which is lined with book­shelves. This man wastes no space — if he could have fit any more shelves in the space, he would have found a way. I sus­pect he is re­al­ly good at Tetris. There are shelves floor to ceil­ing on every wall — even in the bath­room, and in the dank, low-ceilinged base­ment. The store own­er does not al­low back­packs in his store, not be­cause of shoplift­ing, but be­cause his store is so cramped that peo­ple with back­packs se­ri­al­ly knock books off the shelves.

“There’s free wine and cheese down­stairs,” an em­ploy­ee says as he pass­es me. When he is gone, and no one is look­ing, I whip out my cell phone to take a pic­ture. I pick up a copy of Heart of Dark­ness, and even­tu­al­ly wan­der down­stairs. There ac­tu­al­ly is free wine and cheese. I thought he was kid­ding. I help my­self to some cheese and crack­ers, and a plas­tic cup of wine, and start ex­plor­ing the low­er lev­el of the store. I re­fill my cup, once, then a few more times.

Af­ter notic­ing it is around 6:00 p.m., I fill my plas­tic cup one more time and hop in the check­out line with my Heart of Dark­ness. The cup falls from my hand and spills on the floor. I fig­ure I should fill it back to where it was be­fore I dropped it — but then de­cide fill­ing it to the top is a bet­ter idea.

I see a copy of Har­ry Pot­ter and the Death­ly Hal­lows on dis­play when I get to the check­out desk, with a book­mark stick­ing out of it read­ing, “Ron dies.” I like this place. As the own­er checks me out, he smirks at my face, which is by now flush red from the wine.

I am sit­ting on the nun­nery porch with Juliya, who is a Ukrain­ian Jew, Shay­nah, who is half Pol­ish Jew, and Evie. Evie is Is­raeli, and no one is more proud of be­ing Jew­ish than she is; her sis­ter is in town to visit.

When she ar­rives, Evie in­tro­duces her to us as such: “This is my sis­ter, Zo­har. Zo­har, this is Shay­nah, she is half Jew; Juliya, she is all Jew; Gab­by, she is not Jew.”

Ac­cord­ing to Evie, I look just like Jew­ish women and would blend in per­fect­ly in Israel.

I’m at a bar or­der­ing a sec­ond round when, in my pe­riph­er­als, I see a man ap­proach and stop about a foot to my left, fac­ing the bar as I am. He asks me what I ordered.

I glance at him and re­spond va­pid­ly, “Um, Amaret­to and Coke,” hop­ing he will pick up on the dis­in­ter­est in my voice.

“Amaret­to? What’s that?”

“What is Amaret­to?” I re­spond. What the hell sort of ques­tion is that?

“Is it strong like tequila?”

“Uh, not really.”

“Well…Do you want some tequila?”

You’ve got to be kid­ding me…

I briefly con­sid­er tak­ing ad­van­tage of him at the prospect of a free shot, but quick­ly de­cide against it. I would have to en­dure at least ten more min­utes of this con­ver­sa­tion; thus far I have hard­ly sur­vived forty-five sec­onds of it.

“No thanks.”

He turns to­ward me and I try my best to re­main com­posed as I see the left side of his face. There is noth­ing in the place where his left eye should be. Noth­ing. No eye patch, no glass eye, noth­ing. I see an emp­ty eye sock­et with shriv­eled eye­lids cav­ing in around a deep bur­gundy hole.

There are fuck­ing Boy Scouts every­where. Forty-thou­sand, ap­par­ent­ly. It is one thing to see a group of peo­ple in match­ing shirts — “clones” as I call them. I see clones in DC every day — so I don’t usu­al­ly give them a sec­ond thought. How­ev­er, see­ing forty-thou­sand peo­ple wear­ing the same shorts is sim­ply fascinating.

I am walk­ing across the Na­tion­al Mall, and there are four in front of me, all hold­ing cam­eras. They slow down, and then stop, look­ing at each oth­er and whis­per­ing something.

“We could ask her,” one says, think­ing he said it qui­et­ly enough that I did not hear him. All four turn around and look my way.

“Could you take our pic­ture?” one fi­nal­ly asks. They seem floored that I of­fer to take one for each of their cameras.

“Hap­py Pi­o­neer Day,” one ex­claims, as I hand their cam­eras back.

“Hap­py Pi­o­neer Day to you, too?”

“It’s a Utah thing.”

My time in the Dis­trict is al­most up — so I am try­ing to take ad­van­tage of it in the re­main­der of my time here. Sat­ur­day morn­ing I step out of the nun­nery, turn my iPod to Pavement’s “Shady Lane,” and head to the Mall for some lame tourist­ing. There is noth­ing in the world like tourist­ing alone. It is the most lib­er­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and one that most will nev­er have. I can spend as much or as lit­tle time as I want any­where, with­out hav­ing to wor­ry about some­one else’s com­fort. This is my fa­vorite part about liv­ing alone in a tourist town.

I stop mid­day to spend some time at my one of my fa­vorite spots — the World War II Memo­r­i­al. I find a good spot for peo­ple watch­ing and sit down, and rest my feet in the wa­ter. There is a fas­ci­nat­ing group to my right that catch­es my eye — a group of five jovial old men, wad­ing in the wa­ter, laugh­ing, and swap­ping cam­eras for pic­tures. I sus­pect they are a group of World War II vet­er­ans, and that they would prob­a­bly love a pic­ture all together.

I stroll over and of­fer to take their pic­ture. I am half right — they did want a pic­ture to­geth­er. How­ev­er, they are not World War II vets. I re­al­ize now that I am clos­er that they are on­ly about six­ty years old, and al­so that speak hard­ly any Eng­lish. I sus­pect they are Turk­ish — though I’m not re­al­ly sure why. I snap a pic­ture with the two cam­eras giv­en to me, and when I hand them back they mo­tion to me with the cameras.

I shake my head, “Oh, no, no, no,” I laugh, “I don’t need a picture.”

“No… you… picture!”

The lan­guage bar­ri­er has me con­fused. I laugh and shake my head pro­fuse­ly, “No, no, no. Thanks…”

Be­fore I know what’s go­ing on, one puts his arm around me and the oth­er snaps a picture.

Filed under Fiction on December 31st, 2010

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