Monday, January 15, 2018

DC the 'new' dining metropolis, etc.

The greater Washington area of late has been heralded as a major theater destination - witness the growing number of companies offering live entertainment on stages large and small. This was said to mirror the town as a 'vibrant' arts center, though much of this reputation stems from the existence of such  institutions of merit as the Smithsonian, the Corcoran and the Philips. But wait - look at recent developments : Discovery's plans to relocate from Silver Spring, Md., to New York; the sale of National Geographic's downtown headquarters.  Arts in a broad sense, claiming a local presence, seems to be declining. The Corcoran, of course, shut down years ago and merged uneasily with George Washington University. Few people ever felt pride and even claimed much participation in National Geographic - nothing compared to the loyalty inspired by the Nationals baseball team.

Another trend, often remarked upon, could be the emergence of DC (especially inner city and close-in suburbs) as a dining destination. Chefs are the new celebrities, replacing even politicians in their ability to capture audiences 'voters' competing for places at increasingly upscale tables.  How else explain a January 18, 2018, event called 'Live in D.C. With the New York Times' advertised in a full-length page, focused on current stars of the edible firmament in discussion of  - what else? - 'The Future of Restaurants.'
 Jose Andres (Puerto Rico's helpmate), New York's Danny Meyer (of a soon-to-be Union Square Cafe location), and local-boy-made-good Aaron Silverman. (The latter's empire is growing and who knows where next he might expand - a TV show, a documentary, etc.,  offshore sites beyond three stellar Capitol Hill emporiums that started with fabled Rose's Luxury?)

Notably current, too, in line with this sold-out ninety-minute show is the Women's Voices Theater Festival happening in Washington that has Hollywood's own Allison Janney (she of the Golden Globes win) as honorary chair.  Three cheers for inspirational experiences such as Mosaic's one-woman "Queens Girl in Africa" starring Erika Rose and  Folger Shakespeare's update of the Way of the World.'  Writer-director Theresa Rebeck does a no-holds-barred revision to bring contemporary events into the classic Restoration comedy. (Drinks rather than food play a minor role, featuring celebrity cocktail lure of the moment.)  How curious to see an insert in Folger's program an auxiliary offering on three Friday nights of the Festival hosted by Chef Jamie Leeds after 10 p.m. at Hank's Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle. "Stimulating conversation, drink specials, and appetizers" -  and a chance to "mix and mingle' with Festival casts and crews.
Eat your heart out. That's the new way of Washington's world.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Eve: 2017 sliding into 2018

Of all the improbable encounters, I get into a taxi with a "Cash Preferred" sign strapped to the back of the front seat facing the passenger. A call to arms: independent minded driver here, one with a passion to play word games with strangers.
We have already established a sense of humor between us when, at the airport taxi stand, I hand him my heavy bag and say I will keep the smaller one - containing my laptop - with me.  I don't want to risk having the big one topple onto the smaller. No problem, he replies; your choice.
We move along quite friskily, a bit of small talk about weather conditions and his observation that business is down in spite of the crowded airplanes. Hardly anyone was in line waiting. But he must be bored with the usual chitchat. He drives mercilessly.
What is the meaning of spat? he  calls out suddenly in a heavy accent that may or may not be Italian.
I say that the word has two meanings and  ask which  does he prefer.
Aha, he gloats. You know! (I offer 'argument' and 'article of man's clothing in olden days'.)
He doesn't concede if he knows whether I am right of not. Maybe he is taking a casual vocabulary course, by way of entertaining himself.
What about dissident?
The word comes out sounding slightly dizzy - like indigent. But I guess that he has a personal interest here - that he may have been or even now be one.
Again, his voice lights up in approval.
Nobody knows these words, he says. Nobody ever seems to know them when I ask at random. He is pleased to meet a word fiend. He never has found anyone who has had the right answer.
How about: lucrative?
I tell him he is probably going to find me a lucrative ride since I may honor his request for cash.
He hits his hand on the steering wheel in surprise. I've won the contest. He wins the prize.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Customers' Custom Service

Oh hail the notion of personal service - any kind, anywhere. Motives to provide satisfaction may vary but consider the alternative: no connection with the human being buying your goods, especially in the retail arena.
Retail is suffering mightily in the face of express digital services, the story goes. At the same time, people are again drawn to buying books - clinging to ownership of physical goods for their very ephemeral value. Maybe the seesaw is becoming balanced: more appreciation of such items to make a person feel more grounded, less ephemeral than the slippery act of tapping some keys. And don't forget the value of face-to-face (not with the intolerably impersonal Facebook) - people talking to one another, using our instinctual senses that come out of a different part of the brain. The positive sense of 'making contact' using eye, ear, nose and 'gut.'
The very real value of engaging a very real human. Avatars may have their place - seemingly best for shut-ins.
It's difficult bargaining down a giant such as Comcast using algorithms the company had designed, compared to diligently, patiently discussing that last outrageously high bill..Far better to impress with a stern tone of voice, the voice of reason emphatically expressed so that one's determination can be more instantly understood. Just try it and see the price drop. (Something a friend of mind did recently over two days taking on a Best Buy clerk and then the Customer Service Agent or whatever they are called at Comcast.


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

City Girl's Gardener's Guide

Yes, it exists - a fine commercial-free booklet from Baer's 'Agricultural Almanac & Gardener's Guide,' just what the compensatory would-be outdoors woman needs: all the information required to live a second life indoors as a successful outdoors person. The latest 2018 edition is out in its 193rd year, from its original home in Lancaster, Pa. The tips and blips are more than worth the $6 price. Fine reading, too. Who doesn't want to know the best dates for killing briars (not bears, not a misprint), poison ivy, weeds and pests. How surprising to learn the dates to come of such practical wisdom. Little bits of history and handsome black and white illustrations, who wouldn't love to be distracted by the basics of how to grown Zinnias in space. (Ask Astronaut Mark Kelly, who flew high and wide in 2015.) January Lore includes a weather summary by region. Cold in the East, normal (whatever that is these days) west of the Continental Divide.
A perfect Christmas gift for anyone devoted to distraction in the midst of political pollution. Johnbaer.com

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Hither and Yon

Within less than a half mile of my house, not far from the U.S. Capitol, some memorable scenes  unfold that speak in different ways  to the variety that is the spice of city living. Not always uplifting but always energizing.

A: A disheveled  mentally disturbed woman 'of a certain age' (is a man ever that same age, I wonder) walks out suddenly to a popular street corner near Pennsylvania Avenue SE and begins shedding her clothes. All of them. It is a warm day for sure but one that hardly calls for going naked in the streets. She chooses - of all places - a spot opposite young Marines who are guarding their base, home of the Marine Corps commandant. Two witnesses reported this to me - and how quickly one of them dialed 911 to alert police, or an ambulance. Doubtless, she was quickly hustled into a private space and either taken away for confinement (i.e. an examination) or simply told to dress. These same witnesses now see her frequently roaming the streets - it is autumn now - mostly covered. Freedom from constraining garments must have felt wonderful while it lasted.

B: An Eastern Market vendor  regularly hauls a load of every imaginable sort of goods for sale in his tent along 7th Street SE, closed off to traffic on weekends. On this particular day, he brought used furniture that caught the eye of a strolling shopper (i.e. tourist) who inquired about prices. Savvy vendor saw the chance to bargain - if only to be able to sell off heavy items he would then not have to pack up and take back to storage. His customer, eyes brightening, loved the deal and asked if vendor had more of the same to bring him the next week and possibly deliver the goods to an address on Chain Bridge Road, just the other side of the Potomac River, in Virginia. That section is known for extremely lavish and expensive homes. Lo and behold, a large amount of cash was paid; a personal card produced - exciting the vendor who recognized the place. What he didn't at first realize that the man was likely a Saudi Arabian prince, if not the ambassador himself, whose wife and friends were seen, well covered, farther  up 7th Street.  On delivery day, vendor passed through two gates manned by guards with guns who then escorted him up to the front of the mansion.
Vendor now awaits - perhaps - an invitation to tea.

C: At a recent open house sponsored by my local Firehouse (Truck No. something, I forget), coaches stood outside the open door hailing passersby to learn 'Hands-Only CPR For Witnessed Sudden Collapse." First on the (English and Spanish) printed list of instructions was a warning to 'check the scene' - ie. be careful you, the observer, are not part of some personal feud that might involve bodily harm to yourself. Only then, check the person. Ask/shout 'Are you okay?' after a shoulder tap. Next, if no response, call 9-1-1. (This supposes your own emotional and mental state equips you to do so...) Ask others to help call. The Chest Compression lesson most surprising of all: Remove all clothes from the person, including underclothes Yes, a bra or whatever conceals the center of the chest above the heart. No more offering mouth-to-mouth. Keep arms straight, intertwine fingers and push down hard and fast - at least two inches. At least 100 times a minute. Keep going until the professionals arrive. If the patient shows signs of life and starts breathing, turn him/her over on his side away from you.
 Good luck is you are inebriated yourself when you come across this stricken soul.
Oh, and try to have some disposable gloves handy for the procedure.
Modern living is so very complicated.
IF READER HAS GOT THIS FAR, BEWARE A DELIBERATE SWITCH IN SUBJECT MATTER FOLLOWS.

Famed architect Rem Koolhaaas - a true urbanista (male division),in his perch called Office for Metropolitan Architecture, is as cool as they come. His latest definition posted of the countryside is 'anything that is not the city.' Trendy guy, yes? Seems he has caught up with the populist movement, for better and worse, how small-town America (try defining that one) made such  a difference in the last American election.

Consider another definition: The city is a place where public libraries post Behavior Rules - 10 pages in booklet form - as the DC public library did this past August.  DCPL feels the need to say that no bare feet or bare chests are allowed on the premises. Large bags in excess of 9/14/22 inches are not permitted. And prohibits 'odorous' patrons who annoy others from six feet or more away.

And then, and then: perhaps we are too often eager to draw lessons from the mix of people and backgrounds that get thrown together in a city. Today (apologies to participants), I had the son of New York cops over for Irish coffee with the emigrant wife of an entrepreneurial El Salvador  husband, sitting together and - in a way - comparing notes. Notes on how to make your way and sustain your goals in a chaotic indeterminate political scene. Patricia, smart and self-effacing, across from Sean,  talented garden expert. What decisions for each of them justify staying on in America? How else would either of them ever have met, since she is in Virginia and he makes a base in Maryland for clients in DC. Her husband's business has been suffering, she says (dump trucks); his choices narrowing by virtue of a deadline for health insurance application. How to move, what to do? Each with barriers in a way.She never would return home to El Salvator where gangs extract   protection money; he thinks moving to Ireland an option. The insecurity is frightening for both. Sean worries about health insurance in the future; Patricia, for the welfare of her grown children.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Leaving And Arriving



This column was supposed to be a piece about a city girl in country mode. Some high minded reactions about leaving an environment populated by some 500,000 souls and finding yourself in a village of  500 people where  roads are too narrow for  traffic. What happens mentally and emotionally with such a change.
Well, self-deception mostly.
What some call vacation, others call escape away from and into other scenes. I chose Greece again for eight glorious September days in retreat from the usual  urban noise. The sun setting in the west over the Aegean from the terrace of the  Lagou Raxi Country Hotel on the Pelion Peninsula becomes  a revelation, an almost unnatural occurrence because of its too rare unobstructed views at home. Awe and wonder. Such  peace. I walk fifteen minutes into Lafkos village and sit in the central square beneath towering cypress trees - nature  overshadowing my minuscule self, putting my selfish wants in proportion. An elderly couple I meet along the way hand me an apple plucked fresh from their front yard orchard. And smile when I  thank them in fractured Greek. They reply as though I can understand their words. Except for delivery vehicles, the narrow streets are closed to traffic so the baker conveniently stacks the wood needed for his oven in giant piles outside. I pass Maria's taverna and see her seated in a cell phone trance beside a folded rack of aprons. These are souvenir gifts from patrons coming from foreign lands.
 I walk 45 minutes down hill on an ancient stone path hundreds of years old and stop briefly to admire the view and drink from a spring blurting pure water from a rocky surface. I've come to Milina village to swim in the salty blue sea and walk  a shoreline lined with small shops and cafes. Signs advertise fishing trips and evening entertainment though clients must be limited this time of year. The tiny tourist office is closed. September is already 'off season.' I banter with the only  tourists I see, a couple seated next to my table where I order a raki. They are  Roumanians  pausing on their  drive south, wide-eyed toddler in tow. Their English is perfect.
So, too, is my swim off a pebbly beach shaded by some wispy pine trees next to a cement wall.
And so should be the  Greek salad I choose for a late lunch at another seaside cafe farther down the road. My waiter, the owner,  is curious, courteous, and direct - Greeks at their best, by right the equal of any man.
"I can tell you were once a beautiful woman," he volunteers, putting before me my plate of juicy well-oiled tomatoes and peppers alongside a loaf of fresh bread. I'm  taken aback,  unsure whether to feel flattered or insulted. What else can I do but thank him?
He walks away before I can reply.
City mouse, country mouse, still the same old face.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Cruising the Anacostia One Fine August Evening

Any Washington DC person might recognize some contradictions here. How 'fine evenings' in August are all relative and even seldom experienced amid the downpours of late. But it was Eclipse Day so perhaps the gods were being merciful sending a breeze and later a delicious fan-shaped pink and blue sunset. Then, too,  who dares suggest a 'cruise' on one of the country's most reviled and, until recently, most polluted rivers - cursed as it is, too, by its reputation as a demographic dividing line. The Native Americans named the river but had nothing to do with that unfortunate sequence. Modern economic forces did. Anacostia is renowned as the 'poor side of town,' its residents perpetually struggling to be accorded their fair share of the city's wealth and services.  Until recently, the word itself was more beautiful than the river that borders the District of Columbia on the west. Now, according to biologist guide Trey Shepard, a reappraisal is taking place, in slow motion, along the waterway.  Climb aboard a free boat tour hosted most of the year by  nonprofit Anacostia Riverkeepers to see  changes and learn about nature's adaptability in the face of humankind's destructibility (largely the form of toxins). One of the most surprising facts: it's possible, except after heavy storms, to swim in the river  again without danger and, second, the DC 'tax' on plastic bags in retail stores that underwrites the tours is working. More funds are being collected at the same time that fewer plastic bags are being discarded.   Trey is a reliable walking/talking wealth of information about urban water issues and their effect on everyday life in burgeoning DC. He drowns his passengers with  information but doesn't forget to point out the wild rice growing on one patch and.  eagles flying overhead. That helps - somewhat - the miserable fact that, in the past, one an a half billion gallons of untreated water flowed into the Anacostia each year. The brown color is natural on this tidal vista that stretches for seven miles through DC territory but becoming more and more clean. (Odd but interesting fact: DC's 69 square miles contains two parks larger than New York's Central Park.)  Check out www.anacostiariverkeeper.org.
at left: sculpture of a heron named either Harry or Henry composed of discarded plastic materials found in the Anacostia River