Washington is a famously transient town. It attracts—and repels—a spinning number of people to its nucleus of power. Local lore inevitably spins quickly, too. Pressing stories gravitate front and center before a regularly refreshed audience, displacing yesterday’s news. So it isn’t surprising how few Washingtonians—a broad term, given how many residents, like myself, enjoy the city for some years before being called to other locales—will likely remember a dog named Ruby.
Ruby’s story is 13 years old, after all, shared in this very magazine with a poignant publishing date of September 2001. The article told the tale of how an elegant English setter was once rescued from a local animal shelter; how she was immediately hit by an SUV on R Street; how she disappeared, gravely injured, for ten agonizing days into nearby Rock Creek Park; how Georgetown residents of all political stripes joined together to search for her; how a real-life pet detective arrived on the scene with tracking dogs to canvass the woods; how former Clinton Cabinet member and current University of Miami President Donna Shalala made hushed phone calls to gain access to locked gates on historic grounds, where Ruby had been spotted; how the late Washington Post doyenne, Katherine Graham, chimed into add pressure; how an animal psychic in San Francisco “astral projected” her very soul to Washington to both locate and “talk” to Ruby, and, after doing so, how she correctly identified my dog’s hiding place, two miles north of Georgetown, near the remote horse stables and beneath the Taft Bridge; and how, remarkably, Ruby was found in that very spot, near dead but finally, blessedly saved.
But Ruby’s story remains half-told. And, now, as my family prepares to scatter her ashes beneath a newly planted butterfly bush in our backyard here in Westchester, New York—Ruby loved butterflies, and I hope it attracts them by the fluttering dozens—it’s time to tell the rest.
What I left out of my original article (because it was too fresh and because we didn’t yet know the ending or whether it would be a good or tragic one) was that my then-31-year-old husband Ben had just been diagnosed with a very rare, almost always fatal, cancer. Married for just 18 months, we hurriedly moved to Washington from Oxford, UK, where he’d been working at the university and where his adrenal carcinoma was first detected.
Only 300 people in the US each year are diagnosed with cancer of the adrenal glands; so few that no one’s bothered to research any therapies, much less a cure. Ben had won the unlucky lottery.
Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, just a 45-minute drive, then offered on staff one of the only experts in the world on the subject, and so the District suddenly became our new home. It was a rude welcome: Ben’s oncologist put my husband’s odds of living another five years at a meager ten percent—ten percent better than a death sentence. For extra emphasis he added with a cynical laugh that discussing treatment options was akin to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
“We need to get a dog,” I insisted to Ben, rather irrationally, desperate not to face what lay before us: the surgeries, the chemotherapy, the limbo of remission. “You’re going to need something else to focus on, something to hold.” What I didn’t say, or even consciously acknowledge at the time, was that it was I who needed these things. It was I who wanted the dog and the emotional rescue.
Ben wouldn’t deny me, of course, although privately he wondered if such a distraction would only complicate matters. And of course she did.
We met Ruby at a no-kill shelter in Northern Virginia on April 2, 2001. After screenings and paperwork, I was allowed to drive her back to our apartment on R Street on April 11. On April 19, spooked by a well-meaning neighbor at our front door, she dashed outside and into the busy road, where—thump—she was hit by a car before dashing off, ironically fueled (despite her massive injuries) by a jolt of adrenaline, the very hormone my husband now lacked and, in short order, would no longer produce for himself.
His chemotherapy had started a few days before. He’d already endured two surgeries and two recoveries and was vomiting in the wastebasket beneath his desk at work at his new job. But Ruby was lost and likely dying in the woods. We had to find her. So his cancer took a back seat.
You may (or may not) remember the so-called ending: how Ben found our dog panting in the tall grass beneath the Taft Bridge, well over a week after the accident, extremely weak and with two mangled legs, just as the animal psychic, procured by the shelter, had foretold. Yet the moment Ruby spotted my husband, she bolted. So fearful of people back then, she ran straight for Rock Creek Parkway, and like a live-action game of “Frogger,” she dashed through speeding traffic, broken bones and all, with my sickly husband giving weak chase, risking life and limb to do so.
What happened after Ben caught her? After Ruby had surgery to add a plate to her front leg, after she’d endured a long stay at the animal hospital, and after a welcome home party with a big cake?
I’m pleased to say that life happened. For both Ruby and my husband.
They each had a very tough summer. Ben’s remaining adrenal gland, gradually poisoned by the daily onslaught of chemo, suddenly burst and nearly killed him that July. Ruby, too, was a jittery mess, skittish to go into the park, afraid to let anyone close, terrified to go near other dogs. Her wrecked body took many months to heal. Ben spent two consecutive days in the Georgetown University ER while they tried and almost failed to properly diagnose him as his body crashed. Finally, as his blood pressure plummeted dangerously low—doctors frantic, nurses beyond frustrated—the medics put two and two together and pumped him full of cortisol and salt, his new elixir for life. He slowly revived and was eventually stabilized. Ruby, meanwhile, snored lightly by my side that night, after I finally returned home, utterly exhausted after almost losing another love.
It took a full year for man and dog to exit the fog of illness. Ben lost 40 pounds. Gaunt, with cheekbones and clavicles sharply honed, he would drag Ruby on her long leash out for a walk and do anything to engage her, to bring her back to life. She’d resist; he’d pull harder. They were both searching for joy, I think—the naïve, youthful joy one exudes before the rough, often random risks of the world issue dark reminders of how quickly everything can go terribly wrong.
Ben feared starting a family. Who could blame him? We faced a five-year window, after all, before we would know with certainty whether or not he was in the clear. The slowest-growing cancers usually return within this time frame, and his was said to be extremely aggressive. Talk of babies would need to wait, maybe be put off forever. I silently mourned: What if I never get the chance to become a mother? I love my husband, I’ll stand by him always, but I was distraught; first I had to face the distinct possibility of losing Ben, and now I would likely lose out on motherhood, too, something I’d always longed to experience.
Still, there was nothing to discuss. Ruby became our child.
“I’d like you to meet the mother of my dog,” is how Ben would jokingly introduce me to his friends and colleagues, and I laughed along, because she was quickly filling a maternal void. Ruby was so needy, so easily startled, so demanding of my attention. She was a tenacious toddler, always pawing at my knee, digging up the flowers or putting things in her mouth—rocks, pencils, even a stray poker chip gobbled at the park—that she shouldn’t eat. She was a full-time job.
A freelance writer, I soon found I couldn’t work without her lying at my feet. Ruby learned to sit there patiently for hours until I finished typing, so we could go outside to enjoy the sunshine together. This reverie was only interrupted when she licked my bare toes in an earnest attempt to spit-bathe them. We developed such a mutual devotion, she and I, that when I did become pregnant in 2003—Ben, beginning to believe he’d live, wanted to try—I actually wondered if it was possible to adore my new baby as much as my beloved canine companion. (I did, of course, and do.)
Two daughters arrived, the second in 2007, and we were complete. After years of highs and lows, of ebbing and waning health, Ben’s strength had miraculously rebounded; he’d beaten those terrible odds. We still don’t know how or why. And our dog found joie de vivre; she assumed the role of oldest sibling, showing our pack how things were done at the park. Our three girls ran together in the grass, Ruby sitting guard at the playground’s fence while her sisters climbed and soared on the swings. They chased the butterflies, too, Ruby’s right front leg stiffening into a sharp point before she pounced.
We were a happy party of five. Once, when I was lured to a storefront palm reader on M Street during a fun night out with a girlfriend, I smiled when the gypsy told me I had three lights encircling me, each representing a child. Yes, I agreed, that’s true.
We reluctantly left Washington in 2008 for a job in Los Angeles. The joke was that Ruby would spend her retirement years playing golf and enjoying the sunshine, and that she deserved both. The latter was indeed the case; we’d leave the French doors open to our bug-less backyard—so amazing after combatting the hordes of mosquitos in DC—and she’d sit outside on the hot stone patio for hours, panting until she couldn’t bear the dry desert heat a moment longer. Then she’d pull herself up, head for the shade indoors, slurp up a quick slosh of water from her bowl and, moments later, return to repeat the process. This was her agenda every cloudless afternoon.
We expected our life in LA to go on like this. But in 2009 Ruby grew a bulbous, bleeding tumor from her knee, seemingly overnight, which was diagnosed as a fast-moving cancer, one that would quickly spread to her lymph nodes. Ben took this news hard; he’d been spared, and he couldn’t bear the notion our dog might not be, as if we somehow owed one life for the other. We held onto her very hard as we waited for the test results; we begged her not to leave us. When she was given the all clear some days later, we considered the reprieve our family’s second miracle. And we gave thanks. We’d caught the cancer and removed it in time. Ruby would live.
And live she did. Limping from her earlier accident, stiff and in pain from encroaching arthritis, the sweet girl could no longer chase butterflies as she had in her youth. But despite the rough start, she curled into our life as we curled into her. And she was always game. Walking back from Starbucks during summer mornings, we’d play “the race.” Five houses from our front door, all three of my girls would line up and wait for me to say: Ready? Set. Go! Then they would take off galloping down the sidewalk, Ruby always lagging behind, but only until my daughters purposely slowed their gaits to allow the dog to catch up and win. She’d reach our door first, kids cheering, her tail wagging like a white flag, believing herself the victor. And it made me smile every time to see it.
We made one final move back to the East Coast last September. Ruby was now 14—at minimum—and I worried terribly about transporting her. When the animal-relocation team finally pulled up to our new house near midnight and let my dog out of her airline-approved crate, I sobbed with relief. So did my oldest daughter, who’d begged to wait up with me. Ruby, meanwhile, excitedly knocked my bathrobe-clad body over as she moved into the house to explore the stacked cardboard boxes filling the otherwise-empty rooms, sniffing out her favorite bed in the den within twenty seconds of her arrival. She was home.
It was a hard winter in New York and in DC—and in much of the country, as well. Ruby’s sharp decline coincided with the escalation of the bitter cold. She stopped eating and dropped six pounds in four months. She slept most of the day. Her eyesight had been faltering for years; her hearing was long gone. But it was the seizures—sometimes as many as six a day—that started up and brought her down. She would fall over stiff as a board onto her side, convulse violently for a minute or sometimes longer as her head strained backward at an awkward angle, her tongue lolling out of her mouth, her eyes glazed and unseeing, her heart racing unnaturally, her breath forced and labored. And each time, her bowels or bladder or both would let loose, and my regal, legendary dog would soil her gorgeous white fur. And there was nothing I could do but stroke her head, do my best to clean her up, kiss her aging snout, tell her not to worry, and encourage her to eat her anti-seizure medicine, hoping it would begin to work. I prayed it would.
But it didn’t. And on April 2, 2014, exactly thirteen years to the day from when we first locked eyes with her in Northern Virginia, Ruby drew her last breath in our home. I held her paw and wept, as guttural sounds issued somewhere from deep within me. We’d lost our first child. Our most constant friend. Our dog.
A few days later we left for Washington. The kids were on spring break, and we’d decided to stop in DC on our way to visit the grandparents down south. We also had a mission: to return a little bit of Ruby’s spirit to the neighborhood whose residents had once joined together to save her life.
And so, on an unseasonably warm April day, ignoring our own transience, or the possible transience of the townspeople strolling in Georgetown on R Street, we ventured into Montrose Park, flowering and green. It was a place Ruby had grown to love, where she’d first learned to play with other dogs and relax into the pleasures of living. And where, so long ago, she’d first vanished amid the cherry blossoms.
There, past the far-back tree line, where the manicured park merges into the wild underbrush of Rock Creek woods, beyond the steep and hilly terrain that leads to a small bridge crossing a rocky creek, where local dogs have claimed the rushing water as their own swimming hole, we took out a covert little bag filled with some of Ruby’s ashes—the bulk of which were saved to grow a butterfly bush back in New York—and scattered a few into a flowering shrub overlooking the dogs splashing below.
And here some of our beautiful dog remains. You’ll find her spirit a few feet removed from foot traffic, fortifying the clovers and crocuses that attract the Cabbage Whites, the Silver-Spotted Skippers, the many Monarchs that swarm to these climes in warmer months. A big part of Ruby’s story belongs to Washington, and while it’s no longer pressing, this final chapter makes her more than just a distant District dog tale or ancient lore once buzzed about but now forgotten. Now she’s a permanent resident, nothing transient about her. Now Ruby is forever yours, too.
Two excellent new books—by Todd Purdom and Clay Risen—have been written that seek to explain how the Civil Rights Act passed when most knowledgeable observers thought it would never survive a Southern Democratic filibuster in the Senate. The LBJ Library at the University of Texas held a “summit,” and the JFK Library in Boston held a forum. Its importance has been duly certified at many other events.
What is often missing, however, is a clear expression of why the act was so important. I’ll wager that most celebrants have only the vaguest notion of what the act accomplished and how it truly changed the fabric of American life.
A good way to test this hypothesis is to describe for a teenager or young adult what life was like for almost all African-Americans before the act passed. Those of us who are old enough to recall life before passage can talk about the inability of African-Americans to buy a Coke from Woolworth’s or take their families out for Sunday dinner at a good restaurant or make a trip that involved spending the night somewhere. The most fundamental things—using rest room facilities, eating, and sleeping were off limits.
Your kids or grandkids look at you as if you're crazy. “No way,” I've been told. “Are you making that up?” Or, “That is just terrible. How can that be?”
How do you bring to life that the achievement of dignity and the stamping out of humiliation in everyday life was the act’s great accomplishment?
I worked for Senator Hubert Humphrey back in 1964. Say what you will about Humphrey, but he had an extraordinary capacity to identify and seize the essential truth of a situation. During the floor debate of the Civil Rights Act, he observed: “It is difficult for most of us to comprehend the monstrous humiliations and inconveniences that racial discrimination imposes on our Negro fellow citizens...What is happening is not so much economics, even though it amounts to economic deprivation. It is not so much education, even though we know people have been denied education. What is happening is humiliation, the lack of a sense of dignity which has been imposed upon people.”
It is the reality of humiliation and the absence of dignity that are so hard to explain today. But this also tells me that, despite all the work that remains to be done, the central objectives that drove the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were achieved.
Thanks primarily to the excesses of Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, the nation finally grasped the heinous evil of racial discrimination and segregation. Maybe it took 200 years, but between 1963 and 1964, a significant majority of Americans got it.
Popular support for fixing these wrongs erupted to the degree that almost every conservative Midwest Republican—politicians who had built careers opposing the expansion of federal power—voted to give the US Department of Justice authority tell restaurant and motel owners that refusing service to African Americans and other minorities would no longer be tolerated. And these same senators went even further in supporting federal authority to combat discrimination in employment. Who could have imagined such behavior?
This determination to attack directly the humiliations faced daily by millions of African Americans led the Senate down the path of legislative miracles, at least by today’s standards. The usual scattershot liberals developed a grand strategy, stuck to it, and outsmarted Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, the crafty leader of the Southern Democrats. Bipartisan collaboration to pass the bill was robust and real. The debate was conducted in a fair and accommodating manner, even when it assisted the “enemy,” the Southern Democrats. The limelight was shared by Humphrey, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, and Senator Everett Dirksen, the Minority Leader, who delivered the final votes needed to end the filibuster.
And, at the end of the day, all these miracles were possible because a clear majority of Americans had come to believe that “monstrous humiliations” and denials of personal dignity could no longer be tolerated as elements of American society. The legislation passed; it was signed into law; and it changed America.
That is why we celebrate it fifty years later.
Two good books about the Civil Rights Act:
- Todd Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Henry Holt & Co., 2014
- Clay Risen,The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, Bloomsbury Press, 2014
John G. Stewart was legislative director for Senator Hubert Humphrey when Humphrey was the floor manager of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He stayed with Humphrey from 1965 to 1969, when Humphrey was Vice President. He lived for 10 years on Capitol Hill and for 10 years in Chevy Chase DC. He now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his wife, Nancy.
Last spring, a small observance of Earth Day—that annual declaration and celebration of the sanctity of the Earth—took place at a senior-living community in Tenleytown, Northwest DC, where I live. Our little environmental teach-in was a success, with three invited speakers and good crowds that captured the spirit of the first Earth Day 43 years earlier. As the one who suggested the commemoration, I took satisfaction in revisiting a journey begun when I played a part in that initial launch—before mental illness derailed my career and my life.
I clearly remember the words a US senator said to me in early September 1969: “See what you can do about environmental teach-ins on college campuses around the country...all on the same day next spring.” My boss was Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin democrat and a powerful figure in Congress. From his suite in the Russell Senate Office Building, there was a view of that corridor of world power, Pennsylvania Avenue. I was Nelson’s legislative director, managing all things related to the environment, on which he was building a national reputation.
I would lead the organization of what became Earth Day. Some 20-million people turned out for the first observance the following spring—April 22, 1970—in a massive, peaceful protest against the pollution of our planet. For me, it was a fateful assignment, an opportunity to reach a pinnacle in my young career in Washington and to prove to myself and the world that I was special. I had hungered to do that since childhood, when my parents never gave me much of a sense of self worth.
Environmentalism, though, inspired me. It was no accident that I was in charge of environmental matters for Senator Nelson’s office. I had become interested years earlier, when I saw the bulldozing of the woods and rivers near my home in Georgia. As a reporter in 1967, I started the first environment beat for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A series I wrote about environmental degradation in Minnesota was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Earth Day would be a culmination of my past work and an achievement of greater magnitude.
The senator’s directive in hand, I bolted into a four-month sprint of feverish, 18-hour workdays. I tapped inner resources of energy and creativity that I didn't know I had. In the headiest moments, I felt as if I had been hit by a lightning bolt of genius. My strategies, plans, and decisions seemed golden. I had no fear, and I thought anything was possible. It was time: I would convince everyone that I counted, that I was destined for greatness.
Beginning in September, I was everywhere. Before the convenience of the internet, I was recruiting and organizing a committee to steer the teach-in, setting up a tax-exempt organization, raising seed funds, and helping to recruit a staff director for the day when the rapidly growing project would be too unwieldy to be run out of the senator's office. Telephones rang constantly, inquiring visitors poured in. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know about the teach-in. I remember a secretary looking at me in open-mouthed wonder as I talked back and forth between two telephone receivers.
My most important contribution, however, was to articulate a coherent vision for Senator Nelson’s inspired idea—that the nation, length and breadth, could be committed to environmental protection. Now was the time for action, we believed, and our mass environmental teach-ins would get the ball rolling.
I crafted a pitch to entice the environmental reporters of the nation’s news media to rally around the idea. Almost in concert, the three most important outlets of the day—Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times—picked up the story. Their articles, supplemented by other coverage across the US, established the viability of what soon was to be called Earth Day. The project was launched. I was 31.
In my euphoria during the Earth Day launch, I was blind to the possibility of any obstacles. No problem was unsolvable; nothing could slow me down. But on December 4, 1969, four words interrupted my speeding life and, along with certain genetic predispositions, changed it forever. “John, I feel faint,” my mother said, raising her hand to her forehead. Mother, in the passenger seat of the car I was driving, was having a heart attack. The thin walls of her ailing heart were giving way.
Not knowing CPR, I did the only thing I could, which was to get her to the hospital. Her doctor later told me her heart was too far gone. Aware that I had witnessed Mother’s traumatic death, he said: “You should see a psychiatrist after this.”
I reached home late and wrote a poem through tears: "Momma died tonight./Momma died and took my soul away./Momma./Oh, Momma./Momma died tonight."
That was all the time I could spare to grieve. The next day, I was back in the senator's office. Earth Day deadlines were rushing toward me, and I attacked the project with more energy than ever. A psychiatrist suggested later that, perhaps, after being unable to save my mother, I became doubly committed to saving Mother Earth.
Though I didn't realize it, my work performance declined rapidly after that day. The magic was gone. A fatal obstacle had been met. By Mother’s sputtering heart, I was brought down into the real world—and in the shadows of my mind, a genetic-borne illness was awakened.
In the years since I wrote the poem, people have asked me what “Momma Died Tonight” was about. It wasn't about my real mother—who didn't particularly love or support me and who physically and emotionally abused me at times—it was about the mother I longed for, one who gave me consistent caring and affection. That fantasy mother was the unreal love of my life, and when my actual mother died, my hope that she might become the caring, loving woman I imagined died, too.
That may help explain why December 4 put the brakes on my four-month Earth Day joyride and started a 40-year hell. I was becoming ill, no longer capable of being the star performer to whom my peers had become accustomed. Yet I denied the sad changes taking root in my brain.
The Downward Slide
The first unmistakable sign that my magic touch had faded was the poor “State of the Environment” speech I wrote for Senator Nelson in January 1970. It was billed as a national speech by a Democratic standard bearer for environmental protection, so expectations in Washington were high. Nelson’s political goal was to preempt President Nixon’s looming State of the Union address—expected to focus, opportunistically, on the environment because of the country's burgeoning concern about the issue. But our speech was a miss. The news media yawned, then paid rapt attention when President Nixon claimed the issue a few weeks later. Before the year was out, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.
Instead of seeing the greater good in the outcome, I felt responsible for a fumbled political opportunity. Shortly afterward, another speech I drafted unleashed the ire of the senator's axe man, an administrative assistant whose job it was to criticize, bully, and even tyrannize staffers with whom the senator was unhappy. The AA showed up at my desk one day, my draft in hand, “This is no good,” he said, launching a scathing critique. I was floored.
Burned by his criticism, I responded in a manner that has caused me harrowing difficulties over the years—though it has ultimately helped me survive as well. I rebelled, stubbornly, not by improving my performance, but by engaging in hand-to-hand office combat. I launched a barrage of internal memoranda attacking the senator and his AA for using the senatorial offices in the Capitol and his Wisconsin staff for campaign duties—a common ethical transgression among senators back then and an obvious target for an angry young man.
After my uprising, I was relegated to writing mundane press releases about the teach-in drive, while Senator Nelson gave a new star, Denis Hayes, the job of managing the rollout. (By that time, the Earth Day project had grown too big for the senator’s office; Hayes operated from a downtown office financed by contributions from the United Auto Workers.) The AA later moved me to a no-duties staff position on a Senate subcommittee on poverty. Late in 1974, I was simply let go, my contribution to Earth Day forgotten, bereft of others’ sympathy or curiosity about whether something internally might be wrong. Fired.
At 13,000 feet, I lumber hunchbacked to the hatch, balance in its slender metal frame, and jump.
Growing up, my parents only ever asked that I try new things, give them a chance, and do my best. If I failed, I failed. No biggie. When, as a child, I was disqualified from the breaststroke competition during a swim meet, my parents asked if I knew what “DQ” stood for. Of course I did, I told them. No, they replied, "DQ" stood for “Dairy Queen,” and off we went to get ice cream. Failing need not be fatal, they taught.
So, it was neither a dare nor a death wish that led me to disembark a perfectly good plane mid-flight above southern Pennsylvania. It was just a decision I'd made that, every year, I should try to see the world around me with new eyes courtesy of a new experience. Skydiving seemed a good place to start.
At 12,000 feet, I began the routine I had been taught: Check the altimeter on my left wrist. Check my position over the landing zone. Check for correction signals from the instructor gripping the straps on the jumpsuit fabric around my forearm and thigh. Wait for the instructor's thumbs-up. Exhale. Repeat.
The price of my decision to jump solo—without an instructor connected to me for the entire jump—was that I had to attend a pre-dawn orientation before my first jump to learn the mechanics of balancing and moving myself through space.
“Blue skies,” the jump instructors greeted me as I arrived, their warm and relaxed demeanor a sharp contrast with my own road-worn, over-caffeinated, bleary-eyed, jittery self. My nerves were so taut that you could tune a guitar on them.
The meaning of the greeting was not clear to me, but the words and the tone they were spoken in calmed me and readied me to focus. The instructors would be jumping with me, but at the appointed time, they would let go.
Each new jump came with a new skill to be accomplished during free fall. I made mistakes: On my first jump, I accidentally threw my rip cord into the air after pulling it, despite being forewarned not to. It would chew up the tractors when the farmers working the fields below ran over it, I was told.
I had difficulty remembering that in skydiving parlance, “flare” is not akin to jazz hands but rather a landing command to tug the chute and tuck the legs to slow down to an easy galloping stop.
But I kept my balance in flight and completed each task, and I soon graduated from jumping with two instructors to jumping with one.
At 11,000 feet, I recheck my position. I am falling well, directly over the landing zone, a regional airport surrounded by green farmland—cornfields. It is time to execute this jump’s skills.
My jaw and stomach clench, I angle my arms diagonally, smoothly turning myself to the left and then to the right. I push back my shoulder blades, stretching my legs long, and come face to face with my instructor. We grin stupidly at each other, our cheeks flapping. I tuck my legs into my stomach and roll over.
I exhale, exhilarated and relieved. I return to my balancing point, feeling almost still. I relish the moment. I did what I set out to do and am now way past ready to land.
At 10,000 feet, I get a thumbs-up from the one instructor falling beside me, confirming I am well-positioned. I wave her off, opening up air space around me to pull the ripcord and deploy my parachute.
Again and again, I pull. With all my might, I pull, trying not to lose my balanced position. The worst thing would be to start to tumble. But the cord won’t budge.
I look to where my instructor had been. She has not pulled her parachute either. She is falling with me, but farther off. I can’t make out what she is signaling. A sinking feeling inside whispers: It doesn’t matter. Then her shoot deploys, and she disappears above me.
This is not happening. Except it really, really is. I don’t look at my altimeter again. I look into the blue sky around me. And I look down, transfixed by the fast-approaching geometry that I know to be the black roof of a barn, a green lawn, a yellow cornfield.
I think of the kids that sit on the far edges of the landing field watching as the parachutes of the others I jumped with blossom like flowers falling from the sky.
I think of Wile E. Coyote, suspended briefly in the air, having chased the Road Runner off a cliff. He pulls out a sign. “Oops.”
I think back to the moment in the plane when the hatch was thrown open on my first jump and the air rushed in like a Mack truck. I hadn’t been prepared for the enormity of that moment, but I had tucked away my alarm, put my thoughts on mute, hunched over to the hatch, stepped into it, gripped the plane’s shell tightly in my hands, one palm flat on the inside panel, the other palm flat against the outside panel, and then let go. That was the hardest moment—until now.
I stop tugging on the rip cord. I tuck away my thoughts, find my mental balancing point, and let go.
My breath is knocked out of me when my reserve parachute pops, catapulting me upright and back to my senses.
I had completely forgotten to pull my reserve chute. Luckily, it automatically deploys at a certain altitude. The force with which I was yanked upright left me with the sense that the reserve chute had given me a dummy slap: “You idiot. I’m your Plan B. I was here all along.”
I exhale, mortified, relieved, and really scared.
I see Wile E. Coyote scrambling in the air as if searching for a ladder we know isn't there, holding a sign: “Ouch!” This is going to hurt.
How to navigate? Where to land? The drop zone is not in sight. Barn? Grass? Corn field? I think of “amber waves of grain” and aim for a corn field. But a word to the wise, corn doesn’t bend like waves. I bend. But at least I'm on the ground. Phew.
I get up and walk out of the cornfield with an index finger that will heal in six weeks angled in a new direction. I walk out of that corn field with a renewed appreciation for and love of corn. And I walk out of that cornfield with an internal compass that, like my finger, now points in a slightly different direction. I walk out with a mantra strung across my heart like prayer flags that flap in the wind. This one simply says, “Blue skies.”
Author’s note: The events written about happened several years ago; the altitudes may not be exact, and certain details are abridged for space. The parachute I jumped with and instructors were not in any way at fault; I was simply unable to pull my cord on the jump described.
Christine Pulfrey is a writer and editor who works for a Washington-area information service. She lives in Adams Morgan.
My husband Clyde and I spent Christmas in Washington, DC. We treated ourselves to a stay at the renowned Hay Adams Hotel, just up the street from the White House. Our suite's balcony overlooked a Washington landmark, St. John’s Church, the Church of Presidents.
While we were there, I would wake up in the night, go out on the balcony, and look at the church. Bright lights illuminated the exterior of the church, and Christmas wreaths with red bows hung on each side of the double doors. I saw a homeless man wrapped in blankets sleeping on the porch of the church every night.
The last few nights of our visit, the weather was below freezing. I found it unbelievable: Here was a man in such need, and the administrators of the church appeared to have ignored him. At the very least, couldn’t they have invited him in to sleep in the foyer? Parishioners who were attending the Christmas sing-along service passed him by as if he were invisible. It seemed so hypocritical.
On Christmas morning, I got up early, just as the sun was coming up. I opened the door of the room to collect the newspaper and, hanging on the doorknob, was a Christmas gift from the hotel: a velvet bag the color of wine. It was covered in jewels of various colors—fake jewels, of course, but it was pretty. A thin, silk, braided rope gathered and closed the bag at the top. Opening it, I saw that it was filled with gold coins, actually chocolate candies wrapped in gold foil. I liked this gift; it would be a great place to carry my jewelry when I traveled, I thought.
Back in the room, I walked onto the balcony and looked down at the church. The homeless man was still there on the porch.
I had heard on the news the night before that it would be 23 degrees in Washington on Christmas morning. So I went back inside, dressed, careful not to wake Clyde, picked up the red wool cap I’d gotten him for Christmas, grabbed all the cash I had in my wallet—$80—stuffed it in the cap, and took the elevator down to the lobby.
Stepping out of the elevator, I was enveloped by the smell of steaming hot chocolate coming from the silver service. I was tempted to stop and have a quick cup, but instead, I wished the doorman who saw me out a “Merry Christmas” and crossed the street to the church.
The homeless man saw me coming. He looked confused and a little nervous.
He was dressed in layered rags. It was hard to judge his age, late 40's maybe, and when he stood up, I could see he was tall and thin. I walked up close to him, like you would if you were going to shake somebody's hand. Smiling into his face, I handed him the bejeweled bag of chocolates and said, "Good morning! I just wanted to wish you Merry Christmas!"
His voice cracked—not from emotion, but from weariness and exposure—as he answered, "Okay."
Then I opened the top of the red cap just enough so that he could see the cash tucked inside and gave it to him. "I thought you could use this cap," I said. He was looking into the cap. He hesitated, looked up at me: " Okay," he said again, through crooked, mangled teeth.
He sounded confused, not aloof or rude, just confused, submissive, and still dulled by sleep. It wasn't the effusive "Thank you! God bless you! You are a wonderful person!" that I realize now I half expected. It was as if I’d wound up a toy, expecting it to dance for me, but it hadn't worked. It didn't move.
"Merry Christmas!" I said again.
"Alrighty then!" I said, turning and walking down the steps and back across the street to my fancy, warm hotel, feeling all good about myself and thinking that that had been the proper way to start Christmas day. Indeed, as they say, there is no such thing as an unselfish act.
After availing myself of the hot chocolate, I returned to our room. Clyde was still asleep. I went to the balcony and looked down at the church. What did I expect to see? The man jumping for glee because an angel of mercy had come down from the sky to help him? He had to have seen me up there on my balcony at some point, hadn’t he? Did I expect to see him packing up his stuff and heading off to have a nice hot breakfast?
He was sitting very still on the floor of the porch, all bundled up, staring at his lap. “Maybe he doesn't know it's Christmas,” I thought.
But he was wearing the red cap.
Kay Smith is a retired mother of two adult children. She lives in Southern California and is a member of the Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective. She spent Christmas in Washington visiting her daughter.
When you sleep on the street, you never fully sleep. If you can make it until around 4 AM, you know you’re okay…at least for that one night. Once the sun begins to rise, your body naturally does the same, and you are back to your daily grind…until the next night.
Even if your eyes are closed, you train your ears to always stay awake and alert. So even now, in my comfortable dormitory bed, I never fully sleep. It’s become second nature for me to always be alert.
My first life goal was to earn a high school diploma. I accomplished that and, at 18, I was working to realize an even greater aspiration: to become a college graduate. I was into my first year at Delaware State University when things began to spiral out of my control. I have dealt with financial and health difficulties my entire life—I've been diagnosed with a heart condition as well as hypertension, asthma, and glaucoma. When my health began to decline and tuition at Delaware State increased, I had to leave school.
When I left DC for school, I was a child. But when I returned, I was considered to be an adult, so I needed to pull my weight as one. I had no clear direction; I could not find employment, so I knew what was next.
I found myself going from house to house, couch to couch. I stayed with my mother here and there, but we never got along and because I was unemployed and over 18, it was clear that I was a burden. In between staying with my mother and sometimes other family members, I realized I didn’t have anywhere else to go. There were plenty of nights when I slept outside, even during the winter. I remember being tired of trying to find ways to survive; I just remembered being really tired. Tired of the cold. Tired of managing all of these issues by myself. Tired of wearing a mask that I was a normal “teenager.” This was not normal.
I reached out to my college advisor Mr. E., from Friendship Public Charter School. He had recently participated in a Sleep Out at Covenant House Washington that encourages business professionals to sleep out for one night to raise awareness about youth homelessness. He referred me to Covenant House, and I called to explain my situation. I felt that they were my last hope. I was referred to the crisis center—an emergency shelter for youth—and I was given a stable place to stay immediately.
I no longer had to worry about where I was going to sleep, but I still had to deal with health and financial instabilities, and for the first two or three weeks, my caseworker could not get me to talk. She would ask me questions and I would meet her with silence. In retrospect, I realize that I was reluctant because, as I understood it, what I said and how I felt didn’t really matter to anyone. Nothing that I said was going to change my situation, so in my mind, sharing my thoughts served no real purpose. When I spoke, people didn’t really listen anyhow.
My caseworker was patient with me. She told me one day that my story was "worth hearing,” and that meant a lot to me. As a resident in the crisis center, I worked with my mentor and the staff at Covenant House Washington to get back on my feet. I was involved with all kinds of community service and volunteer efforts. As a volunteer at Friendship High School, where I graduated, I met a gentleman who was interested in hearing what I had to say. I told him my story and he offered me a job at Friendship Public Charter School in the corporate office. Things started to look up. I guess my caseworker was right. My story was worth hearing. Now that I had a stable environment, I was also ready to receive the moral support that I previously lacked. For the first time I didn’t feel like a burden.
I still keep in contact with a few of the workers from Covenant House Washington. Ms. Freeman from the Crisis Center reaches out and calls every now and then to check up on me. Ms. Alexis and Ms. Keller are important to me as well, always making sure I am okay. Ms. Keller even brought a care package to my dorm.
This experience of being without has made me very sensitive to others who have the same struggle. So when I encounter friends in similar situations, I always encourage them to at least consider Covenant House because I know how much they’ve helped me. As long as you are willing to try, the staff there is willing to help. They help you find your way, create a plan, and reach your goals. Most of all, they respect you and let you know that you count and you have a bright future.
My future is bright. I am currently a student at Bowie State University majoring in Biomedical Engineering. My relationship with my mom has gotten better over time. We have both grown. We understand each other a little better now. I am still working towards my goal of becoming a college graduate and then a biomedical engineer. I guess the rest of my story is to be continued…and I am okay with that.
Not long ago, Donte Davis was homeless youth in the District. He now lives in Bowie and writes to bring attention to National Homelessness Awareness Month, which takes place each November.
Nice Italian girls from New York and New Jersey aren’t supposed to move away from home, like I did when I came to Washington, DC. That makes me somewhat of the family rebel, even though I’ve never put a joint to my lips or a razor to my scalp. Check my body for tattoos; you’ll find none. But move away from all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and paisans? Miss out on mom’s Sunday sauce and meatballs? I’m no better than Fredo Corleone.
But I have to think Fredo would have eventually regretted turning on the family. It did get him whacked, after all.
Maybe that explains an incident not long ago at a Dupont Circle deli that claims to sell “NY-style bagels” and baked goods—a euphemism at best and a bald-faced lie at worst. The man next to me reached across the counter for a clear container filled with Neapolitan cookies, my father's homemade specialty. As a little girl, I called them rainbow cookies: three layers of dense dough that he dyed the colors of the Italian flag, almond-paste bunting that he separated with thin coats of jam and sandwiched between two more layers made of chocolate. These cookies looked nothing like my father’s careful handiwork. I stared at the neon garishness of the food coloring, the unnatural thickness of the chocolate. Globs of sprinkles stuck to the top like shards of glass. Sprinkles! An abomination.
I turned to the man, a stranger whom I had no business judging despite his clear lack of taste. “My dad makes those,” I announced.
The words must have come out strangled, because it was getting harder and harder to breathe. It felt not unlike the time I had a panic attack at a job interview, when two crusty, veteran Washington reporters asked me to summarize the entire trajectory of my journalism career thus far. In a testament to his fine sense of character, the stranger did not judge me for the intrusion. “He must be a special man,” he said.
He is. But he’s two-hundred miles away.
I left for Washington when I was 18, when I was too young to know what it meant to give up spontaneous family get-togethers, when all I wanted was to get out of my parents’ house. I’ve never looked back until now. The older I get, the more it seems like I’m missing out on a birth, a baptism, a Holy Communion with God that invariably involves a deejay and an open bar. There’s always a meal on the table at mom and dad’s requiring nothing more from me than a fork and a hunk of crusty bread to wipe my plate clean. I would venture to say that after nine years in the District, I've given almost as much of my money to Amtrak as Joe Biden.
At 27, I have an appreciation for my family—especially for my parents—that I lacked when I left home. There's nothing like their camaraderie, their love. But does that mean I should move back? How far away is close enough? Is Manhattan acceptable, or do I actually have to inhabit my childhood bedroom until I find a nice Italian boy who wants to marry me? (Shudder.)
The more I think about it, the more I bristle. Look at all I’ve worked for in nearly a decade away from home—the career, the friends, the decidedly not-Italian boy who maybe wants to marry me. In Washington, I answer to no one but myself. I’ve earned my keep in the halls of the Capitol, notebook in hand. I’ve toasted my youth in neighborhoods with names like Adams Morgan and U Street, Jameson in hand. Often, I've found myself typing and drinking as one day turns into the next. I’ve created a home here, my own life, not the one that seemed preordained. And I’m proud of that.
So is my family, to an extent. My parents never fail to tell everyone from their closest friends (the aforementioned paisans) to the receptionist at my grandfather’s assisted-living facility about my latest achievements. Even so, I’m sure they would still rather have me in shouting distance for supper. Where does their pride end and disappointment set in? Where does mine?
Earlier this year, an online literary journal published my very first personal essay. Shortly thereafter, my mother posted the following loving but grammatically incorrect message to Facebook: “Congratulations Christine ...We are so proud of you xoxoo So when are you moving back home? lolol” Facebook, forgive her, for she does not know what she’s doing in a public forum.
Friends and family began clamoring for my return. “I love you all but hold them horses,” I wrote, completely serious.
“We’ve waited long enough!” my best friend since the fourth grade replied. I couldn’t help myself from clicking the “Like” button, even though I’m not sure how much I would like giving up what I have gained for what I left behind.
Instead of making up my mind, I damn near throw temper tantrums in public like the same little girl who could hardly wait for the rainbow cookies to cool. Maybe there’s a happy medium, but I haven’t found it yet. Whenever I return to Washington with containers of my father’s finest creations, they don’t taste the same as they do back home. They can only stay frozen for so long.
Christine Grimaldi is a writer delayed on the Red Line in Northwest DC. She is pursuing an MA in creative nonfiction from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in Talking Writing magazine and in 140-character bursts on Twitter.
I round the corner of 15th and P determined to make it into and out of Whole Foods in time to get back to my desk for a 1:00 call. And then I see them.
Crap. Look down at your phone. Walk quickly. Whatever you do, don’t make eye contact. I manage to pass by just as the guy in the reflective neon vest catches an unsuspecting victim holding a full bag of groceries.
Don’t get me wrong, I admire what this guy’s doing. It’s not easy to stand on the sidewalk in the blazing sun to promote a cause you probably really believe in, only to be invisible to nine out of every ten people who walk by.
I quickly grab my lunch, make it through the checkout line, and exit the store with ten minutes to spare. But then:
“Hey there, we’re having a smile contest.”
The corners of my lips turn up. Crap.
“Wow, that’s a good one. Mind if I talk to you for a few minutes?”
“I’m sorry. I’m just on my lunch break and need to get back.”
“Well, I can walk and talk.”
I stop. The idea of being stuck with this guy all the way back to my office sounds worse than the look I will get from my boss when I’m a few minutes late to my call.
“No, that’s okay,” I say. “Do you have a paper or something I could take with me?”
“Well, see, I’m out here today to talk about an organization I’m extremely passionate about. Let me ask you something, have you ever seen extreme poverty?” Sneaky.
“Oh really? Where?”
“I actually spent some time in Uganda a few years ago teaching reading and writing at a primary school and doing HIV-prevention education,” I say (a little too proudly).
“Wow, so you’ve probably seen a lot more than other people who look like you.” What’s that supposed to mean?
“So we haven’t yet expanded into Uganda, but we are working in other areas of Africa right now. As you are well aware, so many kids around the world live everyday without basic necessities. They go hungry, they don’t see doctors, and they don’t go to school. But for $1 a day, you can change that.”
“So I’m actually in the process of re-evaluating my charitable giving, and I can’t do anything right now. But do you have a website or a flier I can use to learn more about how to get involved?” It’s true, I had been considering changing-up my one charitable donation.
“One dollar a day. Thirty bucks a month. That’s probably, like, beer money for a weekend.” More like the difference between buying lunch for a week and living off of the free snacks in my office, but okay. Point taken.
“I know. I’m just dealing with student loans and medical expenses, and I need to take a look at this before I make any commitments.”
“I totally understand that, but while you’re worrying about that stuff, there are kids across the world going days without something to eat or drink.”
“I get it," I say. "I appreciate what you’re doing, and I’m definitely going to give this some thought, but I can’t do it today.
“Really?” [Evil glare.] “Well thanks for your time.”
I always walk away from these types of encounters feeling the same way: bad about how little money I donate to charitable organizations, annoyed that someone has just made me feel badly about myself when I actually think I’m a pretty decent person, and pissed-off about the fact that I’m about to be a 25-year-old with a master's degree who still has to ask her parents for grocery money every few months.
It’s not that I don’t want to donate to these organizations. Really, I do. But in a town like Washington, where even a decent-paying entry-level job doesn’t quite cover a monthly student-loan payment comparable to my rent check and medical expenses amassed from a freak jaw infection (among other costs that creep up here and there), it’s hard to find money to donate, even to organizations that are doing great things around the world.
After I get over these initial feelings, I start thinking about the organizations that are doing great work right here in DC. I may not be able to donate significant amounts of money to them, but I'm here—I can donate my time, and that feels pretty good, too.
Last winter, I volunteered at Thrive DC, which fights homelessness in the District by providing vulnerable individuals services that help stabilize their lives. A co-worker and I cooked Thrive’s annual holiday lunch alongside Chef Terrence, and then we served up over 200 plates full of lamb chops, roasted chicken, green beans, stuffing, warm rolls, salad, and strawberry shortcake. I left Thrive that day feeling the way I usually do after volunteering: happy to have spent the day making someone’s life a little better, but also sad, since I know there is so much more to be done.
Increasingly, when someone soliciting donations asks to talk to me, I try to take this approach, which I suggest you try, too: Stop and listen. Learn something new. Donate if you can, but even if you don't, don’t walk away feeling bad about yourself. Instead, sign up to volunteer somewhere in DC doing something you care about. And yes, there will always be more to do, but let the moments when you're making a difference in someone’s life (even if it’s just for one day) carry you to your next volunteer opportunity and then the next one after that. There is no “best” way to donate. Whether it's time or money, do what you can. That’s all anyone can really ask for.
Elizabeth Ritonia has degrees in management and writing from Gettysburg College and a masters in public communication from American University. She lives and works in Northwest DC.
For a girl from Minnesota, Caribou Coffee is a taste of home away from home. One day this past spring, I walked into the Crystal City branch eager to order a black mango iced tea and move on with my day. But this Caribou run was unlike all others: It would be the last. My Caribou Coffee was closing, just like the other two-dozen-some in the Washington area and 168 others across the country. About half are becoming Peet's Coffee and Tea.
I've lived many places where Caribou wasn't ubiquitous or accessible. So when I moved to Washington in 2010, I was delighted to find my favorite java joint just blocks from my office in Arlington.
It's easy to shrug off the Minneapolis-based chain's demise as a casualty of the post-recession era or consumers’ desire for non-chain coffee or the dominance of Starbucks. But I was heartbroken. As a kid who grew up just miles away from the chain’s Minneapolis home base, setting foot in a Caribou Coffee anywhere else in the country has felt as comforting as a care package.
It seems strange to feel this way about a chain, as consumer demand for independent coffee grows by the day. But my relationship with the ‘Bou predates my caffeine addiction. I’d walk there with middle school classmates after the last bell rang—no parents or permission slip required. My little corner of suburban Minneapolis had no indie coffee shops. But Caribou, with its Northern Exposure decor, soothing soundtrack, and chocolate-covered espresso beans placed gratis atop of every espresso drink, always felt cozy in a way that’s much like the Upper Midwest: It didn’t try to be something it wasn’t. It afforded the average suburban teen like me an ounce of coolness and independence. The popular kids, jocks, and goths alike lined up for strawberry-banana smoothies and vanilla coffee coolers.
At some point during this time, my parents warned that “hanging out” for too long outside the 'Bou constituted "loitering." But a weekday afternoon or weekend evening spent there provided respite from after-school sports and homework: For a good girl from the 'burbs, this "loitering" was as sublimely subversive as it was gonna get.
At one point, Caribou sold these cute panini sandwiches, before paninis were everywhere. I can still taste the triangular-cut bread with turkey, lettuce, and garlic aioli. It came packaged in Saran wrap—clearly from an outside vendor—the sort of item that would make today’s natural-food nuts cringe. I craved this sandwich often. My mother once surprised me with it at school after a particularly bad argument, the sort of fight 13-year-old girls have with their mothers. We were at peace for at least another week.
Back home, my father has become quite the frequent customer of our local Caribou. He stops for a paper and a small-coffee-but-in-a-medium cup each morning after walking the dog. He shared in my excitement that there was not just a Starbucks, but a Caribou near my new office in DC. He's loaded a gift card with lots of ‘Bou Bucks for my Christmas stocking each year since I moved, covering my coffees and lattes for months. I converted a few Starbucks loyalists this way: “Let’s walk this way to Caribou instead. I’m buying.”
If anyone asks me to go to Peet’s, they’re buying.
Amanda Palleschi is a writer who lives in Northwest DC. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the National Journal, and USA Today. She tweets at @APalleschi.
The sale of the Post saddens me, as owner of a Washington-based family media company. Like most people, I understand the business reasons. But emotionally, it is a very tough pill to swallow. In many ways, the Post will be better off in private hands, without Wall Street peering down on a daily basis. But without a local owner, it’s hard to imagine the Post maintaining the same stewardship for the Washington community.
The Merrill and Graham families have been friends through three generations. For four decades, my father published five newspapers in Maryland, including the Annapolis Capital, nipping at the heels of the Post. And in the 1970s, we bought Washingtonian in its own backyard. While we competed, Kay Graham became my father’s great mentor and friend. He, in turn, became one of her large shareholders and dedicated a page in the magazine each month to the latest gossip and news from inside the Post, serving for many years as its own local watchdog.
Like the Grahams and the Allbrittons—who own Politico and once owned the Washington Star—I have to face the people everyday who we write about and hear the things they liked and didn't. Unlike the chain owners who run most of the nation’s newspapers, we know we will hear directly if we don’t “get it right.” Will an owner get that from far away in that other Washington?
To me, the people who work at Washingtonian are not “employees;” they are not part of an 88,000-person organization like Amazon. Our employees are family. With every hiring and firing decision, I feel the responsibility for their mortgages, their families, their livelihoods. I know their stories. I’m not saying Bezos doesn’t care about his employees—I’m sure he does—but there is a extra-heavy weight on the shoulders of local business owners. We see our people regularly in our community, our readers and our story subjects.
When my father passed away in 2006 and I took over Washingtonian, Don Graham was one of the first people to reach out to me. Our fathers shared similar and dramatic deaths. Don’s kindness is legendary, and it was a blessing to talk with him about it. What I most remember from our conversation was the first-class business advice I got. He told me: “You don’t necessarily need to hire the smartest person, but you need to hire someone all the smart people really want to work for.” With Bezos, the Post now has both: an obviously brilliant individual, but also someone who will attract talent and cutting-edge thought leadership.
I just wish he lived in our Washington.
Cathy Merrill Williams is the president and publisher of Washingtonian Media. She lives in Northwest DC with her husband, Paul, and their two sons.