My Own Green Zone
Learning to Leverage the Normal and the Good When Back Among the Denizens of D.C.
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” -Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz.
What’s it like to live in the Washington, DC, area? I don’t mean to visit. Indeed, everyone should visit the nation’s capitol at least once to see the highlights: the Capitol, the White House, the Constitution, the monuments and the memorials.
No, I’m talking about living here. What’s it like to live in the nation’s capitol or its environs?
After living here five times, I tell people it is a known quantity. And I’ll be honest up front: I don’t fit in here. And I never have.
I have written many times before about John Kennedy’s famous observation about Washington, D.C.
“Washington is a city of southern efficiency and northern charm.”
Consider it. He flipped most people’s traditional description of things.
Typically, people think of southern cities as being charming, if inefficient.
For instance, have you ever been to Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans, San Antonio, Knoxville, Louisville, Charlottesville, Wilmington, NC, Biloxi, Fayetteville, or Beaufort — the one in North or South Carolina? They’re charming in their own unique ways, or at least they used to be at one time. But no one in their right mind who has ever been to one of those towns would describe them as efficient.
On the other hand, northern cities have little charm, but are efficiently laid out, for the most part. New York City has a population of nine million, but you can get around it if you educate yourself. Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and certainly Boston are the same.
Perhaps Kennedy was saying that when people think of northern cities, they almost never think of them as being charming. Boston comes close though, in certain areas.
On the other hand, I have to agree that most southern cities are never laid out in an efficient way. They tend to meander, dare I say, sprawl, in various ways and directions, almost like the streets were laid down over the top of ancient horse trails or something that goes off all over the place. You almost never think of “grids” when you think of southern cities.
I’ve not yet been to a southern city I would call efficient.
Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, Austin, Little Rock, Dallas, Memphis, Birmingham, Miami, Charleston, Jackson, and/or Charlotte; you are not efficient.
Bringing it all back to the capitol, JFK meant that DC has neither efficiency, nor charm. A strikeout on both counts.
Having lived here off and on for almost a decade, I would have to agree. Washington sits on some strange fault line, not quite northern; not quite southern. A proverbial no man’s land. A demilitarized zone, if you will. No real quality to call its own.
With my experience of having grown up in Texas, gone to school in Arkansas, and served in uniform in Virginia, Rhode Island, California, North Carolina, Washington state, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina — indeed, having traveled through every state except for Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Alaska, and Vermont — I feel very secure in offering this observation: Washington, although located across the Potomac River from what people would call a southern state — Virginia — is a northern city; it has the feel, look, smell, spirit, and soul of a northern city; a northeastern city. And it has very little efficiency or charm to it.
And then there are the people, the inhabitants of this place, whom I jokingly refer to as its denizens. The word “denizen” is defined as, “an inhabitant or frequenter of a particular city or place, a resident in a neighborhood, a maven of a museum, a regular at a bar.”
Although the following specific observations clearly don’t apply to everyone, the vast majority of people you see drive very fast, are always in a hurry, don’t smile very much, like to honk their horns, like bumper stickers, like vanity plates (pretty ironic), and, as one of my friends once noted, post their CVs on the rear window of their vehicles (usually where they got their undergraduate degree to the left side and their graduate degree to the right).
Yesterday, the driver in the red Prius was the one that passed me doing 50 in a 35 mph zone, swerving in and out of traffic on Columbia Pike, tailgating every vehicle in front of him, and standing on his horn, although he had a “Coexist” bumper sticker on his hybrid.
Ironic. And typical.
The people in the local REI never acknowledged another person’s existence, except the couples who were sniping back and forth at each other. They were looking for “recreational equipment,” but seemed totally put-out to be doing it. No one is happy. And they still behave as though it’s May, 2020.
This morning, when I parallel parked, the guy who owned the car parked behind me ran out and made a big show in front of me of looking at his front bumper to see if I had made contact with it. (That has never happened in thousands of parallel parking situations since I got my license at 16; I’ve never hit the vehicles to the front or rear, and the owners of those vehicles have never run out of the nearby establishment to make sure I didn’t. This was a first, and it happened in D.C.)
“Nobody touched your car man,” I told him as I got out of my own vehicle. He looked shocked and taken aback that I had spoken directly to him. That’s right; nobody messed with your stuff man. Nobody is trying to ruin your day at 7:30 a.m., so why are you acting like it? Why does everyone act like that?
The denizens usually communicate in these kinds of passive-aggressive and indirect methods of projection that absolve them of the inconvenience of speaking or communicating with other persons directly. It’s a strange, weird situation I’ve only witnessed here, and I’ve lived in southern California, Texas, North Carolina, and many other places over the years.
And almost none of these people were born or are from here. They moved here for some reason. And the question becomes, why? What were they all seeking in Washington, DC?
The answer perhaps provides a window into their minds and can help to explain all of the above.
My wife, who is much less cynical about human nature than I am, tends to always give everyone the benefit of the doubt, even in the face insurmountable evidence to the contrary. She thinks that the way this city is laid out, the crumbling infrastructure (which is embarrassing for the capital city of the United States of America), the security and surveillance apparatus (there are cameras everywhere), and it being the most over-policed area in the nation (I’ve personally witnessed 10 police cars and 12 uniformed officers respond to a disturbance created by a single homeless man), all combine to put everyone’s fight or flight response on edge. It’s pegged to the maximum setting 24 hours a day. There might very well be some truth to this, especially when people go around viewing every person they don’t know as a possible attacker or enemy because the other person’s politics don’t match their own.
It reminds me of that guy back in 2004 when I was living here who threw a fit when he walked right behind me as I was backing out of a parking space in a grocery store parking lot. He appeared out of nowhere as if he’d done it on purpose. I rolled down my window. “You look like you have something to say to me, “ I said to him. The guy was 40-something — a bit older than I was at the time — and he wore a dark gray suit.
Initially shocked that I had spoken to him, he recovered. “Yeah! You people are always the same!”
Now, I was driving a small SUV, I was wearing normal civilian clothes, and I was wondering what in the world he was talking about. Was he talking about people backing out of grocery store parking lot spaces who are suddenly ambushed by someone else appearing out of nowhere to walk behind them? Perhaps. But I had my own idea. The only possible things identifying me were my plates and the military-affiliation the plates contained.
“What people are you talking about?” I asked him. “People in the military with a plate from a southern state? Because that’s the only thing you could possibly be talking about.”
His face turned a deeper shade of red than it already was, and he stomped off into the grocery store without responding.
To this day, I have no idea what his problem was.
I’ve learned over the years that there are actually very few places that are worth going to in this town. And so I’ve drawn up what I call my own “green zone,” a geographical space that I try at all costs not to venture outside of or beyond while I’m here.
During U.S. military operations in Iraq, the so-called “Green Zone” was the most common name for the International Zone of Baghdad. It was a 10-square-kilometer of central Baghdad, Iraq, that was the governmental center of the Coalition Provisional Authority during the occupation of Iraq after the American-led 2003 invasion and remains the center of the international presence in the city. The contrasting “Red Zone” refers to parts of Baghdad immediately outside the perimeter, but was also loosely applied to all unsecured areas outside the off-site military posts. Both terms originated as military designations.
The Green Zone was a heavily fortified zone in the center of the Iraqi capital that served as the headquarters for U.S. forces and was completely surrounded by high concrete blast walls, T-Walls and barbed wire fences with access only available through a handful of entry control points, all controlled by Coalition troops. It is this security that made the Green Zone the safest area of Baghdad, and gave its name colloquially as “The Bubble.” Anyone who served in Iraq knows how sharply the contrast was between being inside the Green Zone and outside of it. Inside was relative safety and security; normalcy. Outside was constant insecurity, danger, and vulnerability to attack or ambush.
At times, I joke that living here is like some science fiction movie; think Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, Kurt Russell in Escape from New York, or Will Smith in I Am Legend. I think you get the sentiment. Stay in your stronghold unless you must venture out. And if you have to venture out, stay inside the green zone.
I’ve lived here now six times since 2002. And each period has reinforced to me that it never changes, and it is never going to change. As a result, I now I have my own green zone.
My own green zone is a gerrymandered space that mostly stays on the south and west side of the Potomac and extends a few places west and south. There are a few places here I do enjoy, I must confess; “Leverage the normal,” my wife and I say.
The 95 corridor south to Quantico and Quantico itself are within my green zone. The 66 corridor west to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive are within my green zone.
The so-called “Arlington Loop,” the 17-mile cycle ride up Four Mile Run to the Custis Trail, then back down the Mount Vernon Trail and past Reagan National Airport, is within my green zone, as is the 45-mile Washington and Old Dominion Trail out to Purcellville and back.
And the area that includes Pentagon City, Aurora Highlands, Arlandria, and Del Ray, bordered on all sides by 395 to the west and north, Highway 1 to the east, and Alexandria to the south (not a part of the zone), is within my green zone. The folks don’t have their fight or flight response pegged inside this little area, for some reason.
With a few other places, pretty much everywhere else is usually outside and mostly off-limits, a netherworld with ridiculous traffic, loud protestors, and other hazards lurking — like tailgating red Priuses and dudes who will walk behind you on purpose when you are backing out of a grocery store parking lot.
The truth is, I have had a few good times here (almost always in my professional life) and some of the worst experiences of my life here.
I have never missed it when I left. And still, every time I have come back, I’ve started all over again and given the place and its denizens a tabula rosa, a clean slate.
But it usually doesn’t take very long for the slate to start getting dirtied up.
I always try to warm up to them, although they have never warmed up to me. I try to meet the place and the people half-way, as they say, but they’ve never made the same effort.
And so I stick to the green zone and the friends I have here, who just happen to all be in or were at one time in the military. None of us are from this place. And we will not be here when our work is done. But for the time being, we have learned to leverage the few pockets of good. In the green zone.
Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast Welcome to the Machine, available on most podcast platforms. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.