My Hometown

This weekend I head off to D.C. to serve as a speaker at the American Library Association’s national conference.

I’d be thrilled in any case (I really like libraries and librarians), but this trip has an added bonus. Washington D.C. is my hometown, the place where I was born and where I lived until I set off for college shortly before my eighteenth birthday.

Growing up in D.C. was great. My folks (both born in the Midwest) never lost their delight about living surrounded by landmarks recognizable around the world. My dad worked first for the Department of the Interior, later for the Department of Justice. On those occasions we drove downtown to pick him up from work, Mom would keep us busy looking for various monuments, often telling us snippets about the various founders.

Dad also got into the fun. He took us down to the Mall and the various branches of the Smithsonian often enough that we all came to feel they were “our” museums. We also frequented the National Zoo, visiting Smokey the Bear (who came from my new home state of New Mexico) and the other exotic animals.

The first house I really remember well was a little townhouse in Georgetown. We moved from there when I was seven to an enormous fixer-upper on Brandywine Street between Connecticut Avenue and Rock Creek Park. In addition to the usual fittings, this house had something like seven bedrooms, four full bathrooms (and two half-bathrooms), a library, a dining room large enough to sit fourteen for dinner without a strain, a living room so big it swallowed furniture, and other flourishes (butler’s pantry, servants’ staircase, antique crystal chandeliers).

Upkeep and renovation on that house was a constant work in progress for my folks. I remember it was a hugely expensive to heat, but it was a wonderful place for a high-spirited family.

The proximity to Rock Creek Park was also great. The creek was at the bottom of our street (you had to cross the parkway to get to it, but we’d run fast). We’d go there to splash around, catch crayfish and minnows, and climb the hills. I suppose I should mention that in this area nothing was flat. We all had calf-muscles like professional athletes just from walking in our own neighborhood. Even the driveway was a major workout.

Summers we went out to a little cottage on the Chesapeake, but that location was so important that I’ll save it for another time.

When I went off to college at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY, I got teased a lot for not being a citizen of the United States. The routine went something like this:

“It’s the United States of America, right? And Washington D.C. isn’t a state, right? So you’re not a citizen.”

I got used to explaining the history of the federal city to any and all who would hold still long enough to listen, but the cap for this long comic routine came when I was twenty-six and finally got around to getting a driver’s license.

One of my college roommates (and still friend), Kathy Curran, had been kind enough to drive me to Motor Vehicles. There we stood in this massive room, lines stretching ten or twenty in each direction, people of all shapes, sizes, and colors, speaking dozens of languages all waiting to get their paperwork approved.

When I hit the top of the line and presented my birth certificate, the woman glanced at it and looked puzzled.

Motor Vehicle’s Clerk: “District of Columba? District of Columba? Do we take birth certificates from the District of Columba?”

Me (tentatively): “Ma’am? Uh, Ma’am… That’s Washington, D.C., District of Columbia, nation’s capital…”

Motor Vehicle’s Clerk (ignoring me, or maybe not hearing me): “Hey, Madge! Do we take birth certificates from the District of Columba?”

Well, Madge came over and we worked it out, but not before Kathy (who had taken part in her share of the “not a citizen” routines) nearly doubled over trying not to show how hard she was laughing.

Living in D.C. was wonderful in many ways, but it had its down sides as well. For one, we didn’t have a lot of things that people born in “real” states take for granted – like voting Congressional representation or having the option of “in state” tuition for college.

Here in New Mexico, where the population is so small, I really appreciate both being able to vote and that my vote counts. And I remind those who gripe about our local colleges how lucky they are to have them at all.

And as an ironic closer, I have chosen as my new home a state that many people don’t realize is a part of the United States.

Don’t believe me? Check out New Mexico Magazine’s column, “One of Our Fifty is Missing.” It’s full of anecdotes from New Mexico residents who have suffered through variations on “Do I need a passport to visit you?” or “I’m sorry, ma’am. We don’t ship out of state.”

From a city that made me forever not a citizen to a state that doesn’t exist… There’s an odd synchronicity here or maybe I’m just destined to always be a bit of an outsider.

4 Responses to “My Hometown”

  1. Tori Says:

    The last time I was in DC I was rather surprised by their openly bitter license plates saying “Taxation without representation.” Not so much shocked by the bitterness, but how their dissatisfaction continues to be unresolved.

    I also like how my vote really does count in this wee swing state! ^_^

  2. Alan Robson Says:

    That taught me a lot I didn’t know. I was completely unaware of the special status of Washington D.C. — I think I knew what the letters DC stood for but I certainly had no idea at all about what they actually meant in practice.

    Gosh, what a fantastic house you lived in; what a wonderful environment you grew up in. Your childhood couldn’t have been more different from mine. I grew up in a very tiny semi-detatched house in a working class area in the industrial north of England (the famous phrase “dark satanic mills” perfectly describes what it was like). As I look back, I remember my childhood in black and white, for often it seemed like there was no colour in it at all. You, I imagine, must have been surrounded by colour both literally and metaphorically.

    What an interesting contrast that makes. Thank you for this article; it was quite fascinating.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    Both comments are interesting to me as the different things people will focus on!

    Alan, you comment about color is SO very true. Except in winter, something was brilliant outside and my folks had a lively interest in pointing out the vivid autumn colors, the lush greens of summer, and the unfolding of the first greens of spring (usually the willows near the National Zoo).

    I hope New Zealand is a pleasant change. But those first memories always resonate, don’t they?

    Any other hometown tales?

  4. Alan Robson Says:

    More hometown tales? Oh yes…

    Every Monday my mother (along with every other woman in the village) would hang out the weekly wash on the line to dry. Everybody did the washing on Monday; I have no idea why, except to note that we are creatures of habit and tradition in Yorkshire and woe betide the raving eccentric who washes clothes on Tuesday…

    Once the washing was pegged out, she would spend the rest of the day anxiously checking for rain and at the first sign that it might be on the way, she would dash out and bring all the washing inside. You see there was so much pollution in the air from the factory chimneys that every raindrop coagulated around a particle of soot and when the rain fell it left black streaks on the washing and she knew that if she didn’t get it off the line quickly, she’d have to do it all over again.

    We lived in a village called Southowram which overlooked Halifax, the town which was the centre of the local heavy industry. The suffix “Owram” (I was told at school) was Anglo-Saxon for “on the top of a hill” – so Southowram was the village on the top of the hill to the south of Halifax. North of Halifax was another hill and it boasted a village called Northowram; the village on the top of the hill to the north of the town. Fortunately there were no hills to the East or West of the town. When it comes to naming things, we don’t have much imagination in Yorkshire…

    It’s an old place — very old. It’s hard for people from young countries like New Zealand (and, to an extent, America) to appreciate just how old it really is. Every day I walked to school past houses with windows that had been bricked up to avoid the window tax that was imposed in the seventeenth century. You could still see the different patterns of the bricks and the families living in the houses were probably direct descendants of the people who originally bricked those windows up! We don’t move around much in Yorkshire either…

    Southowram is on Beacon Hill, so called because fires were lit there as part of the chain of beacons that spread the news of the defeat of the Spanish Armada across the country in 1588. And even then the village was old beyond imagining.

    Nearly five hundred years before the beacon fires were lit, in the year 1068, King William, known as the Conqueror, sent his troops to put down the Northern Rebellion. They put it down particularly viciously; burning the buildings, killing the inhabitants. The area where I grew up is described in the Doomsday Book. The description says simply, “It is Waste”.

    My childhood was full of history and I was very, very conscious of that. We learned about it in a formal sense at school (with particular emphasis on the local implications of larger things like the Norman Conquest and the War of the Roses). And of course it was all around us all the time in the buildings that we saw every day.

    So to me, hometown tales are tales of dirt and smog, of my place in the English class system (*very* influential and important) and also a sense of history that helped define just where I stood in relation to the Universe.

    The dirt and the smog are long gone now. The heavy industry died and the Clean Air Acts of the 1950s slowly had their effect and today there are trees growing on what were once the barren hillsides where I played on scrubby grass as a child. The buildings that I remember as jet black (because they were covered in soot) have all been cleaned and they glow a deep golden colour for they are build from locally quarried sandstone and it is a beautiful stone to build with.

    But the history is still very much there, of course.

    Gosh, I do ramble on, don’t I? I think I’ll stop now…

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