First Person: Goodbye, Neighbors

A longtime New Yorker on the highs and lows of living in Washington, why he’s moving on, and what might bring him back.

By: Carey Winfrey

At first, the author called our Metro “the subway” out of loyalty to the Big Apple. Photograph by Klaus Schoenwiese.

In the summer of 2001, I came to Washington to edit Smithsonian magazine. It was a dream job, but as a lifelong New Yorker, the idea of living here filled me with something less than joy.

On summer Saturdays in the early ’60s, my fellow Marine Corps officer candidates and I would get away from Quantico’s screaming drill instructors by checking into DC’s seedy, military-friendly Ambassador hotel, where I once slept for 24 blissfully uninterrupted hours. After journalism school, reporting stints got me a succession of expense-account rooms at the elegant Jefferson on 16th Street.

I’d always return to Manhattan complaining about the hopelessness of Washington’s zone-based taxi system or other indignities. I chuckled when my Time colleague Josie Davis said she could never live in a city where Roger Mudd was considered a celebrity.

None of this prepared me for life in Washington when I got the Smithsonian job. While my wife, Jane, stayed in New York to sell our place, I moved into a Dupont Circle apartment—a pleasant walk to the subway, as I insisted on calling the Metro out of loyalty to the Big Apple.

It wasn’t long before an acquaintance took me aside. “Washington,” he said, “is New York on lithium—they’ve eliminated the highs and the lows.” The more I tested this axiom, the more accurate it seemed. Washington was comfortable, convivial, clean, if a tad . . . bland. Soon I added a corollary. “The older I get,” I’d say, “the more willing I am to give up the highs to avoid the lows.”

The New York apartment sold, we bought a house in Cleveland Park, and Jane and our two retrievers headed south. With no job and missing her New York friends, she found the adjustment jarring. But the dogs and I were rambunctiously at home.

Jane and I were surprised by how few of Washington’s potentates intersected our lives. There was the night at a restaurant when Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sat a few tables away. Once while I was picking up some shirts at the dry cleaner’s, Paul Wolfowitz came in and the proprietor embraced him like a long-lost son. On the Mall, I saw former presidential candidate Dick Gephardt try in vain to hail a cab.

But that was about it. We might as well have been in Cleveland.

Then one day on my way to lunch downtown, I overheard a conversation between two women who were walking ahead of me. One mentioned a meeting with the President. The other referred to a potential scandal involving a Cabinet member. This was it! I quickened my pace—then realized they were talking about The West Wing.

Looking to expand our horizons a couple of years ago, Jane and I sold our place in Cleveland Park and moved into a small rental house in Georgetown. By then, we’d made some nice friends and Jane had reached detente with Washington. She loved Georgetown’s houses, the friendly neighbors, our little garden. She enjoyed walking to Wisconsin Avenue to window-shop or get a cappuccino. Life was good.

But last summer when I completed ten years at Smithsonian, I felt the time had come to give somebody else a chance. My retirement—I prefer the term “self-unemployment”—coincided with the end of our Georgetown lease.

We’re about to try the snowbird shuffle: Key West in winter, New York’s Dutchess County in summer. Our chief concern is that a lifetime of city dwelling has left us susceptible to UWS—urban withdrawal syndrome.

“Well,” Jane said. “If that happens, we’ll just move back to Washington.”

Carey Winfrey (carey.winfrey@gmail.com) spent 44 years as a magazine, newspaper, and TV journalist.

This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.