Heaven is not a farm.
If you spend too much time on the American Rightin either its demotic or romantic-intellectual formsyou might forget this essential truth. You’ll be subjected to paeans to rural community; cities are so soulless! They’re cold, artificial, out of touch with beauty (which explains why cities produce so little great art). City folk exemplify capitalist modernity at its most unnatural.
Well, I’m human, not natural. I like strangers, mostly because I am one. I’m also a resident of one of America’s least-loved cities: her nation’s capital. And my current address is an even harder sell for the conservative mind: the former gay ghetto, Dupont Circle. Here is a neighborhood where nobody’s your neighbor. Yet everybody is.
Dupont in the summer favors one sense onlysight. On Saturday around the fountain, women in bright dresses saunter past men in sherbet-colored suits, giving one another the eye.
The other four senses aren’t so lucky. You can usually placate taste with a Jack Daniel’s chocolate ice cream sundae from Larry’s. Touch is worse, since all you feel is your clothes sticking to your body. Smell, which in a District summer always seems to be shifting from honeysuckle to unhauled garbage, settles down to a one-note hum of sweat. And there are buskers, hiking out their guitars for the treacle of the counterculture: Dylan, Neil Young.
In the summer, God remembers the District and clamps down his palm on it. The city gets slow and flirtatious. We swelter under a low-slung skyline, teasing strangers.
The man next to me calls out to a group of women, “What country y’all from?” The darkest and most statuesque slowly turns her head toward him and, with a hometown voice laden with irony and resignation, replies, “This one.” They laugh and shake their heads at one another and he settles back, foxed for the moment.
I’m told that country life teaches you patience and charity, since you can’t get away from your neighbors or your past. Every day you pass the familiar scenes of your little victories and large heartbreaks.
The city teaches you patience and charity in a different way: You learn to negotiate among strangers. Every region has a different way of managing itpop culture tells me that Midwesterners smile relentlessly, Southerners drink and fight, and Californians drive. D.C. flirts. If you don’t interpret strangers’ actions with charity and good humor, you’ll go crazy here.
The scene is full of small public camaraderies. A man with a stuffed crocodile on his shoulder encourages his little boy to play with a couple’s trained parrots. Two men share a bottle of rum. Their casual illegality is also very D.C.; it’s part of the fatalism bred by our civic helplessness. The bar I sometimes frequented before I turned 21 had a sign above the door, ABOVE THE LAW SINCE 1996. Until then it had been an after-hours speakeasy, which it still was, but the slogan was too good to resist. This is Marion Barry’s city. When the Washington Post ran a contest seeking pickup lines that could only be used in the District, the winner was, “Your beauty renders me as powerless as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.”
Dupont today, like the gay community generally, has gone aggressively bobo (David Brooks’s abbreviation for “bourgeois bohemian,” those who want the perks of living outside the rules as well as the perks of following them). Happiness beat ecstasy, order beat alienation, respectability beat solidarity. I chafe at the new bobo order, but I have to pay respect even to respectability when it is this hard-won. As you ascend the long escalator up from the Dupont Circle subway station you can read lines from Walt Whitman’s “The Wound-Dresser” carved in stone:
I sit by the restless all the dark night some are so young;
Some suffer so much I recall the experience sweet and sad …
Even bobos can offer an exhausted beauty in the wake of the plague years.
In the gay community you meet a lot of the deracinated cosmopolites who populate conservative caricatures of the city (a role once played primarily by Jews). You meet the people who left home, family, and tradition behind. And you learn why: who left whom, the gay son or the mother who won’t speak to him?
But the stronger defense of the deracinated cosmopolite is that he is Everyman. The city is the human condition with the volume on high. The past is always lost, even if you stay right where you left it. The longing for home is never fully satisfied. The most familiar neighborand even your own belovedalways remains a stranger with whom you must negotiate.
“What country y’all from?” Eventually you learn that you don’t know the answer.
Eve Tushnet is a freelancer writer in Washington, D.C.
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