First day in DC, Georgetown area. Had never seen the campus. The weather warmed significantly. Skin showed. We got a cheap-ish room across the Potomac – one of the great advantages of traveling with someone. Bought some beers nearby, and met a friendly guy, Moe, who wanted to decide whether he should take his girlfriend on a surprise trip to Jamaica or Hawaii. Since money wasn’t an issue, I recommended the latter. He in turn offered to get us in free at one of DC’s posh clubs, just say we’re on so and so’s guest list.
That evening, despite our fatigue from the previous night, we went. The bouncer at Lima promptly turned us down – our dress shirts and guest list invocations tamed at a glance – no sneakers, however flat, black and tidy. Isn’t it nice to see the world is becoming a better place?
We moved over to another neighborhood, a gentrified street with bars, got a grim beer there, not much activity on a Tuesday.
Short night, unfortunately. Fatigue remains. I’m woken up by the words “back of the car” spoken outside and rush to the window, paranoid as I am about our sheath-roofed car and belongings. Before realizing the car isn’t even parked on this side of the motel (and later realizing that those particular words had no reason to cause such alarm).
Waffle some complimentary breakfast as the breakfast room closes. Checkout – we both have quite some work to catch up on (this / job) and setup in a coffee house near Georgetown. Work there for a good part of the afternoon.
Unsure whether to do the Monument walk today, we end up going to Alexandria – historic town south of D.C. Very pleasant, get a whopping interview from a woman dressed in colonial garb, something about power, wisdom and courage – or face the consequences (dishonor). (we’d learn two days later, from another interviewee, that these are pillars of wicca).
Eat at the always-somewhat-appropriately-named ‘Hard Times’, famed for its chili.
We’re both exhausted – planning to spend another night in the car, which neither of us is looking towards. As we circle more or less aimlessly around the empty streets of Alexandria, Redrik runs through a stop sign – I go off on him rather unpleasantly, he responds with the same nervous fatigue.
Redrik takes off. I crash in the car. Redrik returns later. We sleep.
Awake at 6:00am, a beautiful dawn lurking on the horizon. Red’s fast asleep. Plan to do the Monument walk and get some unoriginal but somewhat necessary shots, both for film and photo project.
End up driving by the Arlington cemetery and figure I might as well try get some shots there. The cemetery opens its gates in another two hours – special visitor passes only. Two guards stand before the gate, one of them asks to see a pass through the closed window.
I give him in return a C-shaped hand, and we are beckoned through the gates, incredulously.
The mauve globe of the sun crests above the horizon, the tombs of fallen heroes, the regiments of shadowed history…
Do the Monument walk, Redrik still catching up on his late night and encounters (his story soon). White House, then Capitol, talk to some activists of sorts. End up behind the Capitol and behind the Library of Congress. The sun is beaming. People flowering, Redrik awakes, we’re amazed at the friendliness of locals here; a large city where people say hi to each other, are all smiles – what share is weather, what share is locattitude?
“Beautiful weather right?” says a woman as she passes a guy dressed in a suit, smoking a cigarette.
“Yeah, beautiful kite weather,” answers the man – Jay, an executive chauffeur who’s done a whole lot (more below).
Another, younger dude, with an Erythrean name, Owate (Victory), comes up to the suited guy with a bright smile. He’s dressed raggedly but his diction is impeccable – more so, literary.
They strike a conversation about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
Owate says about Tom: “He had a sense of morality.”
They talk more.
“The words nigger and redneck sound a lot alike don’t they,” says Owate. Jay chuckles in agreement.
Owate seems like he wants to get to a point, but the topic dies out. Later:
“I think names have a lot to do with who we are. People like the name Jay, it’s easy to remember.”
Jay nods along.
“What’s in a name, right? Nothing and everything.” Owate speaks with unsettling confidence – a glint in his eye.
Jay adds (or was it Owate?): “Take Mabel. I just don’t see a girl named Mabel growing up to be a worldly hot shot.”
Eventually Owate asks what good food could the coffee shop sell. Jay replies something.
“And how much does it cost?”
“Four dollars,” says Jay, with sustained friendliness.
“Four dollars! Just what I need!”
Jay hands Owate the four dollars. The conversation has been all smiles.
I’ve spoken to Jay for a bit, got an interview, and was transferring some pictures to my computer during the previous encounter – while listening intently. I come back to him and ask:
“What do you think? Brilliant? Highly educated anyway?”
“Well, at first I was wondering whether he was stoned or bipolar.”
“I’d say the latter. But some of the most insightful thoughts can come from those episodes?”
“Yeah. It’s a double-edged sword.”
“Have you yourself experienced that double-edged sword?”
(Something in Jay’s demeanor, his confident love of the sunny day, of the swelling, lush spring leaves.)
“No, I’m lucky never to have been depressed. I always see the good side of things.”
I return to the transfer of pictures. I’m interested in getting the philosophy from Owate. He eventually steps out of the coffee house – we’d exchanged nods and a few words during his first conversation with Jay.
“May I trouble you for another cigarette?” Jay hands him another.
It’s too easy for him, I think, and later tell him so. He laughs when I do.
His full name, and I’m afraid I didn’t catch its correct spelling, is Haled Owate Igris, or, in its literal (and metaphorical) interpretation: “Victory’s Strength, and the Light Came Through.”
We talk. The pictures are still transferring inside the car. Owate gets uncomfortably close as we talk – deliberately I suspect – he is happy to talk to me, but also playful. I retreat, subconsciously inch a foot into the growing shadow projected by the coffee house.
“Did you see the people walking in the shadow?” he asks.
“Which people? I don’t think I did.”
“You did. You saw them, but you chose not to look,” says Owate.
“Do you believe there’s a difference between them?”
Owate answers yes. He asks me the difference between light and shadow – or rather phrases that question in a more complex manner. In my own simplified and paraphrased interpretation: do I see the difference between them and us?
Yes, I do. No, I don’t. I claim not to understand his question. I’m unsure if what I’m saying, what I believe deep inside, is true or not.
The pictures are still transferring. Just another minute. Suddenly a teal car pulls up. Owate shouts as he rushes into the open car door:
“You gotta ground yourself in light!” I take in the words. He adds for emphasis:
“That’s what you gotta do.”
“I’ll be back.” He leaves a deep impression, one akin to the reaction of light on film – prior to its chemical processing.
Jay himself has quite a life story: dropped out of 9th grade, got a full ride to Georgetown at 42. A self-proclaimed ‘old hippie’, who went through the rite of passage of hitchhiking his way West in those flowery times.
He’s now an executive chauffeur, after some ups and downs: Jay says he was among the organizers of the world’s largest regatta, in New York, in the 70’s, watched by over 7.5 million people live, counting all five boroughs and New Jersey.
He’d bought an $8million piece of land prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“Some good dirt, some reaaal good dirt…” says Jay, without any nostalgia, perhaps even a hint of seemingly unwarranted ecstasy.
The reunification of Germany led banks to hold their loans (not quite clear about this process), and the monetary value of the dirt vanished overnight. Familiar?
He lost his business, his wife. But today he is content with his new vocation. He has resurfaced. He shows me the checks he gets for his commissions, assures me his education and affinity with American culture – as opposed to some of his competitors – will enable him to build up a fleet some time soon. He’s resourceful, still has energy. He’s happy to smoke a cigarette in the sun while the Big Lobbyists he charters from airport to Capitol to restaurant chat around a cigar.
What’s in the air today?
I ‘even’ bought a ‘mega millions’ ticket (world’s historically largest jackpot, a cool half-billion), the second time I ever did (the first time had been coaxed by a nagging and persuasive friend and did it more for his sake – and so he’d leave me alone). Second and last.
We meet another chauffeur, from Brooklyn, possibly of Greek descent, some of his wisdom:
“Keep your parents’ advice. My mom told me: wearing clothes with holes is nothing, as long as you keep them clean”
“And do not mess your clean hands with garbage.”
“Words are also actions and actions are a kind of words.”
We visit the Library of Congress, prompted by Jay. Unfortunately no access to the photo reproduction room, nor to the basement levels where books are supposedly conveyor-belted throughout the complex.
We walk through the cellar (no Dan Brown-esque catacombs – not open to the public anyway) to the Madison extension, sign up for a card, in order to visit the Main Reading Room – where photography is not allowed…(?)
Leave D.C., stop by Mount Vernon, get some rushed shots of the entrance… (it’s late anyway). Drive South, bypass Richmond… no regrets?
Take an unplanned turn towards Williamsburg and Jamestown – the first English settlement in the land that was to become the United States.
Next up: the D.C. Road Video, meet some of the people described here, their life philosophies, then to Virginia and the Carolinas!
PS: We are currently seeking support on Kickstarter for the movie to come true! Thanks for sharing ooamerica / the Kickstarter page (also on Facebook) – and possibly backing the project. Will be posting this reminder regularly, I apologize if it ‘gets old’.