The Space Between
How the pandemic upsets our sense of place in the normally-connected DMV
From the sidewalk on 23rd Street South in Crystal City, Arlington, a person walking by can see through a window into the under-construction Bowlero bowling alley and sports bar. A fallen piece of taped-up butcher paper reveals the space full of freshly installed arcade games lit only by a few neon bulbs overhead. An empty claw machine promises PRIZES to no one, yet. Just around the corner on Crystal Drive, the all-day cafe and cocktail spot The Freshman also lies in wait as creeping vines on pillars out front thrive and stretch toward the sky.
These and other entertainment and dining destinations-to-be are only steps from my apartment in Crystal City. A palpable sense of anticipation (or dread, for many) has hung over my neighborhood since November 2018, when Amazon announced its massive HQ2 would be sited nearby. Businesses like Bowlero and The Freshman have been built based on the assumption that thousands of well-paying jobs are about to arrive.
For more than a year, residents here have witnessed unprecedented development. Buildings are razed and erected in a blink. Electrifying new murals — from artists such as Jay Shogo and those with the No Kings Collective — seem to pop up every day. Signs proclaimed: “Good Things Coming.”
Time was speeding up. Our sense of place was already in flux.
I had just gotten used to thinking, “What will this area be like when Amazon money and cachet arrives?” when I and the world pivoted to, “What will anything be like at some indeterminate time to come?”
I live in Crystal City and don’t take its charms for granted. Here, my “Secret Garden” is a verdant park nearby, now bursting with tulips. It’s here where (pre-pandemic) I could catch a drag show at Freddie’s or hit Kabob Palace at any hour. Here, I could sip a beer while the racket of cyclists bounced from the concrete walls of a parking garage.
But often, I felt like I really lived in D.C. It’s where I’ve had three different jobs and performed in five live storytelling or comedy shows. In D.C. I’ve been nearly crushed by bodies at the March for Our Lives and have been clotheslined by a low-flying Minions kite at the Blossom Kite Festival. I’ve felt my toes nearly freeze off as I wandered through Catharsis on the Mall and have been reprimanded for standing on a chair to get a better view of the High Heel Race. In D.C., I’ve wept myself into a stupor in a packed bar on Election Night.
But now we’re eight weeks into lockdown, and I’ve only driven into D.C. twice since the beginning of March: once to donate blood at Children’s National Hospital and once to make grocery deliveries to seniors as a volunteer for We Are Family DC.
At home in Arlington the unfinished buildings are symbols of an uncertain future. In D.C., the longstanding businesses and familiar locales are relics of my immediate past. I am — as so many of us are — adjusting to living only in the present, unsettled moment in this area where a state, a commonwealth, and a district converge. The borders of our contiguous space can feel nonexistent as we flow from work to home to recreation and back again. You can ride the Blue Line nonstop from Arlington, through D.C., and into Maryland in 35 minutes. As we’ve locked down, though, these borders have hardened. Driving across the Potomac to volunteer what I have most right now — time — is a kind of outreach, a kind of connection-making, that I so crave.
While making grocery deliveries in D.C. on a bright, warm afternoon I saw a group of women walking with cups of iced coffee. My thoughts raced — Should they be walking farther apart even if they’re wearing masks? — and my bones seemed to ache in remembrance of spring Saturdays past. On another timeline, that afternoon would have felt like one of those languorous, prologue-to-summer days when cups start to sweat again and the slap of sandals on pavement creates an exhilarated drumroll anticipating a season’s change.
Waiting for a light on Kalorama Road I stared at The Green Zone, recalling a night sipping a “FUCK TRUMP!” cocktail after a Health’s Angels DC show at Songbyrd. Muzette nearby summoned a fantasy of bites of mandu between rounds of karaoke. My thoughts wandered around town and landed at the Funk Parade on U Street. Last year, I stepped from among the crowd of rain-soaked spectators into The Saloon, where I had a moonshine-soaked single blueberry.
I miss these things, but it’s impossible for me to miss these things in the same way as the people who created them, nurtured them, did the recurring work of bringing them to me — and now, in many cases, have lost their jobs or livelihoods.
Annual events and celebrations were meant to be occurring as the days lengthen and our spirits lighten — how jarring to think of them as existing in the past. If in D.C. there are places that feel like just-buried time capsules, the Crystal City spots haven’t had a chance to be memories yet. The new signs and artist’s renderings are meant to elicit anticipation. Developers and the business improvement district wanted us (despite the realities we might recognize) to be excited for a playground, but little did anyone in this neighborhood or any other know we’d be languishing instead in a waiting room.
When I was young and learning to swim, I was afraid to open my eyes underwater even with goggles. I’d cross from end to end of the lap pool, blindly and furiously propelling myself toward the goal of touching a solid wall. Once, I reached out thinking I’d made it but was farther than I’d imagined — my hand fell through the water with the lurching sensation of missing a step on the staircase.
Right now, it feels as though the best moments and experiences in D.C. are behind me, at the end of the pool I’ve left. Ahead are the promised moments and experiences at home in Arlington that are just out of reach — the signs are up and the plans are drawn but as I surge ahead with my eyes squeezed shut and grasp for something solid, I’m still far away.
Maybe most of the time we feel all we can do is tread water. I try, though, to take tiny strokes forward. They can be victories. All we might do is focus on what’s to be done on any one, single day — even if that’s just staying safe and sane within the four walls of one room at home. For those of us who are able, we might focus on helping others.
If we can manage to feel more at peace with just floating in this unfamiliar water together, buoyed by what we’re able to savor and accomplish here and now, we’ll eventually drift toward the wall. Then we’ll open our eyes, grab on, and climb out.
Check out 730DC’s links for helpers document for ideas on how to give back during COVID-19 lockdown, including new submissions courtesy of the author.