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.
It’s the last day of my first semester of college. The temperature has dipped, and the night is icy. The river—the Potomac—gushes wide and bitterly cold, flanking the capital city. It pulses towards the Atlantic; dragging along that West Virginia mountain water so fast it can’t catch its breath long enough to freeze.
Campus is repose, frostbitten. Everyone in Thurston dorm has bolted home except for Sara—a girl I know from class—and me. We both fly out in the morning and find ourselves together in the blazing-hot dorm, stir-crazy and bored. There's a movie playing that neither one of us has seen, so we're off.
The quickest way to the movie theater is to walk down Virginia Avenue and cross over the little bridge that connects us to Georgetown. We walk and chat about the frozen wind blasting our faces. I'm excited to escape my first eastern cold snap and return to the warmth of southern California. Sara is headed back to Florida. We are, neither of us, children built for frozen nights.
We stride in the brisk air and discuss our classes and the final we've both just taken for Introduction to International Affairs, and Sara makes fun of me for being the kid in class whose hand is always up. Looking to the left as we pass the monstrous Watergate Building—so ugly and comatose—we try to remember details about it but come up with only the obvious one. This is before the summer I will spend as a tour guide, before I learn that this part of the Capital used to be the gateway to the city. It was here, long ago, that people arrived by ship. The water’s gate. Sara and I talk of the water, of the beaches where we hope to spend time over vacation, of warmth and family.
Thompson Boat Center occupies that little strip of land east of what's now the Georgetown Waterfront, between the main seam of the Potomac and the tiny spits of Rock Creek and the C&O Canal that feed it. As we cross over the strip of the tributary from the Watergate side to the Thompson's side, I glance down at the cascade of whitewash. The water level is high, and it seems to be rushing at the pace of a rapid. Or perhaps that is only how it seems to me now—after everything that happened.
Below in the darkness, the water appears more vapid gray than midnight blue.
We are nearly across the bridge when I hear the splash. I flinch and look at Sara, whose face shows no alarm. She's talking and I'm listening, but I stop, and she pauses her chatter.
“Did you hear that?” I ask.
“The splash. You didn’t hear the splash?”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
We listen, and it’s so very faint. “Help,” and then a second later, once more, “Help.”
“Did you hear that?” I ask again. It sounds like a person groaning—like a ghost with a raspy sore throat: faint, eerie, distant. “I think someone fell in."
“It’s nothing. Let’s just keep going,” Sara presses.
They say you're less decisive when you're with someone else. The burden, the sense of responsibility to act, is shared and therefore weakened. We feel less brave—less responsible. I know now that they call it the bystander effect.
My mind says someone is in the water. I'm frozen, and all I want to hear from Sara is that I’m not crazy, that she hears it, too.
“Sara,” I start again, “There’s someone in there.”
We both have phones, yet I’m waiting for her to tell me to call 9-1-1. I can’t explain why at the time, but I need her to tell me its okay. She doesn’t, though, and we hear it once more.
“Did you hear that? I think someone is saying 'help.'
Her face is drawn still and pensive. She doesn’t disagree this time.
We stand at the railing looking down into the racing, tumbling water. We are looking for something—anything—any rising hand or flailing limb. We see nothing human in the darkness. The rushing sound of water pulses through my mind as we stand there waiting for movement—from the voice in the water or from each other.
Is it all in my mind? Is it a voice caught in the wind? The ensuing silence is a hush of relief. We are forgiven the need to act, to decide, to participate in a rescue. We don’t hear any voice coming from the water now, a mere ten seconds since the splash. Maybe it was never there, we hope.
We want to think that decisions are made in two speeds: fast and resolute or slow and deliberate. At the game-speed of life, though, it’s never that simple.
“Come on. Let’s go,” Sara says and tries to pick up our conversation again. I'm fighting with myself as we resume our walk, looking for some courage to acknowledge what I know: that someone fell in that water and we should do something about it.
It's eerie turning the corner from the bridge and seeing a police cruiser sitting, pointed at the harbor. Its lights are on, its engine quietly humming, bleeding steam from the hood.
“I’m going to talk to the cop,” I declare; Sara nods her head and seems to be thinking about what I’m saying. She nods once more, confirming her participation in my decision.
The window is rolled up, and I’m afraid to startle the police officer inside. I bend over and motion for her to roll down her window. She does, with a look of slight hesitation, a look that says, “It’s cold. Please, let this be nothing.”
“Excuse me, officer,” I say. “I just heard something. It sounded like someone fell in the canal there.”
“It sounded like or someone did?” She responds. There's a crease on her forehead that tells me she is trying to decide if this is plausible.
It’s this moment that haunts me.
“I’m not sure,” I begin and look at Sara before looking back at the policewoman. “There was a splash. It sounded like someone asking for help. But it was dark. We never saw anyone.”
“Okay,” she starts, then after a second, “I’ll radio it in.” She reaches for her radio and un-clicks it as we walk on, not waiting to see what happens.
When we walk back after the movie, the police car is gone. There's no ambulance or swift-water rescue team; there's no fire truck or yellow caution tape. There's just the sound of the water and the wind, the noise of the stream surging under the bridge as we cross back onto Virginia Avenue.
“It must have been our imagination,” Sara says. We don’t speak much the rest of our walk back to campus or, for the matter, the rest of our four years at GW.
I check the news each day to see if they've found a body. A few days later I send Sara a message asking if she has seen anything in the news. “It was nothing. I’ve been busy. Have a good break,” her reply says.
On the fifth day, I come across an article: John Doe washes up dead in Maryland. It’s so far, the distance from Georgetown so great, the route so improbable, that it can’t be the same person, I think. But somehow I know it is the person with the faint voice asking me to help him. I don’t tell anyone, but I pick up the phone and call the number in the article that follows a request for information.
I leave a message and hear back a few days later. I talk about the splash and the faint voice and the police car. The person on the other end thanks me. I want to know who he was, this boy who died, what he was doing by the water, how he came to be caught up in it. I want to know why this happened.
The detective calls me again; my information was helpful. The police find a wallet and pants at the edge of the tree line where the hill drops sharply down to the water’s edge. He was walking home, the detective tells me, and he had to urinate.
He died because he was too drunk to see the edge in the dark night, to know his life hung on his balance, to know what a fine line he was walking. His pants around his ankles, he fell down the hill and tumbled into the canal.
I think about him and his family every cold December, as I join my loved ones and open Christmas presents, when we sit in the movie theater and watch the latest big holiday blockbuster. I think of where he'd be now if he'd taken a cab home or even left with a stranger from the bar or peed before leaving his friends there. I think of Sara, too. I wonder if she’s still chased by the shadow of that night.
The detective calls me once more. A few days after I get back, he picks me up in an unmarked car. We talk about the policewoman, and he tells me there is no record of the call we thought she'd made. He meets with Sara as well, separately, and has us each look through a collection of photos—to see if we can identify the officer. Really, we're just looking for someone to blame.
All I remember of the police officer is her skin color, the look of weariness on her face as she rolled down the window, and the final image of her hand un-clicking the radio from its latch.
I don’t know if she made a call or ever got out of her car, walked to the bridge, and looked down. I don’t think it matters if she did or not. There was no way anyone could have survived in that water for more than a minute. It was too cold, too fast, too deep. It was a night when the river would refuse to spit out anything it could have swallowed.
I don’t think we could have done anything to save him. I doubt that the officer's call could have helped. I could have jumped in, as some courageous part of me felt the urge to, but it would've been for nothing.
I grew up in the ocean. I spent my summers at the beach—surfing, swimming, and going to summer camp as a junior lifeguard—but I've always felt fearful of the unchecked power of the water. My inner thirteen-year-old junior lifeguard called out to me to be a hero that night, but I’m not a hero. Somehow I knew I couldn’t jump in and save the man that asked for my help, that the water's power would have caused both of us to drown.
There will always be the guilt of knowing Sara and I were the last people to ever hear that man’s voice, the guilt of hearing a call for help and doing nothing.
His name was Chris. He was 26—not much younger than I am now—and from a beach community in California, too. In truth, he washed up only a mile down the river, not far from the Jefferson Memorial. A jogger found his body two days later.
In my memory, he had traveled so much further from the spot where we heard his voice. Perhaps this is just how I needed to remember that night and his death: distant, impersonal, remote, miles and miles away.
I’ve walked over that little bridge and others like it too many times to count over the last ten years. And each time I do, some part of my mind drifts to that frozen night. I think of what I would do differently, of what went through Chris's mind, of whether he knew we were there. And then I stop myself. Some things are better to tuck away, to not think about; some things are better left where they lie. Some things we should try not to hold onto forever.
I am the lost generation of Washington baseball fans. I'm still trying to figure out why we can’t start our top pitcher every other day. My dad and I have enjoyed hundreds of Washington Capitals games together since 1974, but we never got to watch a hometown team play baseball—until now. Last October, I took my 76-year-old father, a native Washingtonian, to the city’s first home playoff game since 1933: game three of the Nationals’ playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
My dad was born in 1935, so he just missed the last one. He grew up a loyal Washington Senators fan but never saw his team make the playoffs. And I grew up here in the 70’s and 80’s and never saw any kind of baseball at all.
Instead of worrying about the Nats' early-inning troubles, I tried to get my dad focused on finding our seats safely—my mom would never let me take him again if he stumbled down the aisle to our destination, about twenty rows behind the Nats' dugout. But my dad ignored me; he was more interested in telling me about the beer garden at Griffith Stadium and about Frank Howard.
The inconvenient history of Major League Baseball robbed me of the opportunity to watch a Washington team with my dad growing up, but the sports gods (and Ian Desmond and Stephen Strasburg!) roared back last summer to grant us both this playoff game.
The 8-0 final score didn’t matter. For one magical afternoon, my dad and I focused our gaze on a Washington baseball team in its first round of the playoffs ever. As I turned from the field to watch my dad that Wednesday afternoon, I couldn't tell whether he was watching Bryce Harper try to connect on a Cardinals pitch or seeing Harmon Killebrew battle the Philadelphia Athletics at Griffith Stadium. Maybe a little bit of both.
After that game, the Nats trailed St. Louis two games to one in the best-of-five series. When the following afternoon’s memorable game four rolled around, Dad was safely back in his Northwest Washington home, on his couch, watching Ross Detwiler and the Nats on television—probably a safer spot for someone his age than competing with 45,016 other fans for a drink. So I raced from work to Lafayette Elementary School in Northwest DC to pick up my six-year-old son, Sammy, and head to the ballpark for the late-afternoon start. Sam remembered to wear red to school that morning; I didn’t even need to remind him.
My son knows the Nats starting lineup better than I do. I spent my childhood watching Mike Gartner and Rod Langway pace the Caps to plenty of playoff appearances. And Sam has hockey heroes in this town, too, but he gets to grow up both a Capitals fan and a Nationals fan. Since I missed baseball as a kid, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to appreciate the sport like my father and his generation or my two sons and their friends.
At game four, I was again leading the way through a red-clad crowd. Same ballpark, same teams, same seats, but this time with a companion 70 years younger. Sam was embarrassed as I sang loudly along with Michael Morse’s walk-up song, A-ha’s “Take on Me." My arms remained tired for days from lifting my son to see over the standing crowd as Zimmermann, Clippard, and Storen struck out Cardinals batter after Cardinals batter to keep our season going. And we danced and cheered as Werth knocked that ninth-inning fastball out of the park and rounded the bases. Sammy high-fived everyone around us.
“Look daddy, fireworks!” he yelled, as Nationals Park celebrated the home run with its own aerial show.
Sam is not weighed down by sports history the way his dad and grandpa are; he may even think that all Washington playoff games end this way, though he found out the next night in the winner-take-all game five heartbreaker that they don’t. We stayed ‘til the end and then some—the celebration is the best part—bedtime be damned, I thought, but don’t tell his mom or his first grade teacher.
The week could not have gone any better. My dad and I witnessed history in playoff baseball's returned to Washington. For us, that even being possible trumped the deflating final score. And then my son and I hugged and cheered as Jayson Werth pointed the way to a game-four win and Washington’s baseball future. It's a shame we can’t bring every Washington generation along to witness the city's great sports moment; but for one brief playoff homestand, I tried.
Don Fishman is the Washington Capitals’ assistant general manager and director of legal affairs. He is a graduate of St. Albans School and Harvard College, where he served as the radio voice of Harvard hockey. Growing up in Upper Northwest DC, Don played several years of street hockey for the Lafayette Firebirds but never played a day of little league baseball. He lives in Cleveland Park with his wife and two boys.
When I moved to Washington from Western Montana for a new job, the last thing I expected was to get lost on my first hike inside the District.
As I apartment-hunted from Montana, I used Google Maps to check the location of every place I was considering in Washington. My final decision was based partially on the existence of a green band half a mile from what would become my address. A place called Glover-Archibold Park just one-half mile away: Not bad, I thought, for a city. Still, I doubted the green band could compare to the trailhead the same distance from my apartment in Montana. That route climbed 2,000 feet into mountains before giving way to a national forest—and then a wilderness area, if you hiked far enough. The park in my future neighborhood in the East? I pictured a manicured lawn with swing sets and slides and crowds of people.
I go exploring in Glover-Archibold Park one morning in November, not long after Hurricane Sandy. At the entrance on the street, there's a sign warning of raccoons with “rabies and distemper.” I think of the entry sign at the national forest on my favorite hike in Montana: “Entering bear country. There is no guarantee of your safety.”
Thirty feet into my new backyard park, I pick up a piece of litter on the trail. It’s someone’s receipt from Panera—a breakfast sandwich and coffee three days ago. Doesn’t that just figure? The East, I think, exasperated.
But it’s not long before the scene around me upstages the litter at my feet. A few minutes into my hike, the trail is blocked by a tree trunk four feet in diameter. A rake of long splinters spears the air from its base, like the fibers of an enormous, snapped popsicle stick. The leaves of the downed branches are barely wilted, the exposed wood creamy beige. Sandy was here.
I follow a dip in the trail and find myself under a lid of lemon-lime—a beech ceiling punctuated by sugar maple, crisp and coral. A little farther and I'm in a grotto of Japanese maple, where leafy branches create a perfect scarlet pattern in the sky.
Beech, sugar maple, Japanese maple—these aren't trees I would find on a hike in Montana, where a few species of conifer dominate the forests. I savor the colors of the leaves, the dry fall scent of them in the air. I realize that, in hastily assuming this forest wouldn't hold a candle to those out West, I've forgotten that autumn in the East is really a treat.
After thirty minutes, I stop to think about where I intend to emerge onto the street. But I realize that I can’t hear cars anymore. And I haven’t seen anyone else for a while. Come to think of it, the trail is no longer well-defined. I've been crossing more and more downed trees, which means this route is not frequently maintained. Perhaps most concerning of all, I haven't seen a piece of litter for a long time.
I realize I am remote—somehow. I'm lost—somehow—in a tame tangle of woods just a half mile from my apartment.
I come to the top of an incline, stop under a massive beech tree, and recall the classic advice for people lost in the mountains: Head downhill; eventually you’ll find water and, likely, a road.
I descend a steep slope, slippery with rotting leaves. At the bottom I find a trickling creek. It's lined with down limbs, their gorgeous fall leaves still attached—citrusy tints of beech accented by crimson maple.
If I could teleport my friends from Montana to this spot, they wouldn't believe they were in the District of Columbia. I’ll have to tell them where I've been today, I think, before remembering I actually don’t know where I am.
An abrupt rustle behind me shakes me back to reality. I immediately pictures raccoons—with rabies and distemper. I twist around. It’s a runner. She’s forty feet away, just up the opposite bank of the gully. I climb to discover a clearly defined path, six feet wide. A man walking a dog approaches from the other direction.
A short distance up the path, I reach the street, where I find an intersection that is familiar to me. I am relieved, not to be out of the woods, but to have discovered them in the first place.
Lauren Koshere writes about place, play, and (sometimes) the Packers at floword.wordpress.com. She lives in Northwest DC.