VIEWS: 27 PAGES: 49 POSTED ON: 9/3/2012
Rin Con Cito Chapin Breakfast at the Rin Con Cito Chapin is one of those things that makes you feel better about the rest of the day, or would be if it didn't provide more things to worry about. I am not much of a breakfast person, which is not to say that I don't enjoy eating. The evidence of that is plain enough. It is more of a practical thing. The garage under the building where I work is a hazard. Like Big Pink, it does not contain a place for each worker in the building, and some quirk of the construction placed the support pillars for the structure seemingly at random throughout the vast structure. Accordingly, there are some sweet comfy places to put your car, so wide you can open the door and get right out. There are many others- the vast majority- so narrow that sliding is tighter than a Panamax container ship in the Canal locks. You are trapped in the driver's seat, unless you can climb out through the sunroof. I have not worked there long, but I swear I have seen people working on wireless laptops in their cars, unable to escape. Accordingly, an early meeting outside the building means that you are not going to have a shot at the decent sized place, and by the end of the year the side of your car is going to look like it got worked over with the business end of a ball peen hammer. Big Pink has generally comfortable parking, though the garage does not extend fully under the footprint of the towers. Consequently, there are only seventy or eighty spots for the hundreds of units above. Parking inside is a paid premium, and awarded on a waiting list that moves with the glacial pace of The Reaper. I mean, you don't wish anyone ill, but come on. I'm not sure this is what Dwight Eisenhower had in mind when he signed off on the Interstate Highway System, but it seems like this is the Age of Unintended Consequences. A hundred dollars a barrel for oil is turning our little society on its head. But I digress. I was meeting the Buckingham Beat reporter at the Rin Con Cito to talk about what is happening in the neighborhood. It is a big change and profound, since it will affect every one of the 1800 units in the old neighborhood. It is the biggest change since Allie S. Freed broke ground on the original project. If you have a money stake in the place, it gets your attention. Most of the folks who live here don't, of course, and that is the reason that stately Buckingham became a slum. Even as the Spooks were vacating Arlington Hall, oil prices began to fall. The OPEC Boogieman had been accommodated and Stagflation fell away. It was morning in America once more, or at least it was for the developers in Prince William and Fairfax Counties. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and got on with the business of America, which is business. More developments, further out, more cars and much more concrete. Buckingham was left behind, a fly-over neighborhood between the Federal City and the suburbs, cut off to the north by the new Metro and the new interstate to the north, and a widened, high-speed Route 50 to the south. The parts that went private in 1983 stayed in pretty good shape, though it was only a third of the total complex. The formal entrance at George Mason lost any significance, except for the gate-houses, and the traffic hurtling by could hardly be expected to look up at them anyway. I walk along the boulevard in the evening, and the sidewalk is so close to the determined commuters that is makes you flinch as they roar by, only feet from the crumbling curb. A single distraction, cell phone or hiccup, could mean vehicular disaster. The Beat Reporter is named Steve, and he is a pioneer in the new world of journalism. Bluff and hearty, he was listening to his iPod and scanning the brightly-colored menu of tasty Guatemalan favorites. He a young man, or at least young to me, anyway, which is one of those good-news-bad news things. I recognized him instantly as I entered the restaurant, since he was the only other white guy in the place. He is an academic, when he is not pounding the pavement in his pro-bono search for the truth. He represents one of the classic strata of Arlington society: white, well educated, optimistic, committed and progressive. Broke. Like me, he has an investment in the future, and kids to show for his confidence. No one else was covering the increasingly strange activities in the neighborhood, the increase in street crime, the antics of the Zoning Board or the fascinating interplay between the ethnic segments of the new Buckingham demographic. The Hispanic segment is the largest by far, and the Caucasians, second largest, had largely taken themselves out of the mix by segregating themselves in the condo areas that skirt the edges of central Buckingham. The County had designated some of the early construction for subsidy, mostly north of the strip mall at Glebe and Pershing, where Thai, Pakistani, Salvadoran, Guatamalan and Chinese take-out restaurants set up camp. The Rin Con Cito Chapin was one of them, under the second story annex where Frances Freed once had her office, it might have been a diner in the classic American style, back in the day, which is why I felt curiously as though I was in one of the places in the old Canal Zone. It is the latest in a series of eateries on the location that attempts to cater to the needs of a collision of cultures. The fried plantains, eggs and black beans are quite marvelous, by the way, and the coffee is strong enough to get the blood boiling, anticipating the adventures in the parking garages to come. He and his new wife rented an apartment in Buckingham in the bad days, when the grass under the stately trees was being worn away by the feet of the men who cluster around the pupuseria truck that routinely blocks traffic near Buckingham I. The buildings bulged with occupants who split the rent on the little apartments. They lived outside as much as they could, since the crowding was oppressive. They spoke their own language, and kept generally to themselves, even when very drunk. Many of them had to, since any interaction with the Arlington cops could mean deportation. Even with that imperative, there were no public parks in Buckingham and no rest rooms, and the police would not permit soccer or drinking anyway. The neat brick buildings seemed to pulse with internal pressure, and the foundations cracked. Since the once cohesive neighborhood was Balkanized, the components began to go their own ways. Steve bought one of the town-house conversions in the Oaks, holding his breath at the amount that it cost, even then. So close to the Barrio, it was an urban gamble between safety and commitment. Unable to offload the aging blocks, the management cartels maximized profit as best they could. Some of them allowed the buildings to disintegrate and asked no questions about their tenants. Some tired to accommodate the needs of a population that had expanded far beyond anything that the Freeds had envisioned, and provided trash collection in extra ugly dumpsters. Others did not, and the trash bags piled up next to the dumpsters and ripped, spilling the contents and attracting rats. With no votes and no influence, there was little impetus to stop the skid. The Condos at The Oaks stayed neat and tidy. Hyde Park turned its back on the mother colony and looked north, to the Ballston Metro. Big Pink, cut off in its own park, turned inward and became an island of threadbare luxury, a grand dame whose image in the mirror was glamorous, if a little fuzzy. The dream of the low-density garden apartments was dead, even as you could see the bones emerging from the corpse. That is where I come in the story, which could be one of those Phoenix-like risings from the ashes. Of course, it could be more ashes of unintended consequences. Too soon to tell. Steve and I finished our eggs. I was impressed by his civic spirit and reporter's eye for what is happening on the ground. He is the single best-placed journalist source in this micro market. I glanced at my watch, making my apologies, wondering if I was going to have to lower the top on the convertible to clamber out and go to work. Parking, I swear. Almost as bad as the damned commute. 17 November 2007 The Bump I walked through Buckingham last night, away from the vast bulk of Big Pink and into Little Salvador to try to let some of the anger boil off in the cool air. I almost did not bother to lock the door, based on my conversation earlier, but force of habit made me put the key in the door. Force of habit, and exercise helps to focus the mind, and I needed it. I wore my old letter-jacket against the chill. The old comfort of the heavy cloth and leather made the crispness pleasant enough, and the white sleeves might give me some protection against the hurtling commuters. It was so dark, though early, and the tail end of the rush hour through the neighborhood was still screaming by. The high clear light of the late afternoon had drifted off to the West as I read the latest note from the lawyer. The whole thing was preposterous. The events that led me to Big Pink and a presumed safe harbor were actually still very much in play, and the emotion was quite overwhelming. I was replaying the demands in the letter as I walked past the chain link around Buckingham Village III I came out of my reverie. The empty window apertures, blacker than the night, made the sad block into a line of leering skulls. I could see blue, white and red lights flashing from the direction of George Mason Drive. I could not see what the activity might be, though as I neared the intersection I heard a siren kick in, and the sound stretched thinly away, toward the hospital in North Arlington. I got to the end of the block at Pershing and was able to look to the north where the lights flashed. Multiple vehicles were parked akimbo, all flashing white and blue and red. With the fading siren, it had undoubtedly been a personal injury accident. I walked briskly, on the lookout for personal injury lawyers lurking in the bushes. Across the street, two of the looming town-house blocks on the former Buckingham II have fully risen, the first already clad with brick and ready for the locks and hardware to go on the doors. It is going to be a densely populated when they finish the rest, and there are more to come on a parallel demolished block of garden apartments to the east. Yet more will replace the low brick buildings I was walking past on Buckingham III. They are still occupied, the developer wringing the last revenue from them as the demolition proceeds behind them for the two enormous new apartment buildings. They say they will be “in historic context,” which means that they will rise only four stories and have a bogus colonial cupola on the top. I suppose it is all a good thing, these new gentry accommodations that are going to abut the remaining slum. The interaction between those who are staying and those who will come will be interesting to see, and since I read the latest from the lawyers, it is unlikely that I will have the bucks to go anywhere else for a long time. With Arlington Cemetery just down the road, it might very well be eternity in this Zip Code. Walking toward the Barrett School, the cars pass so close to the sidewalk that it makes you flinch when they go by. There are only inches of clearance between the walkers and the motorists, and a stiff curb. George Mason used to end at the school, a “T” intersection marking the northern edge of Buckingham. It was a purely ornamental drive, with fairly radical curves to break up the sight-lines of the village. The speed limit is thirty, though it should be less, and traffic moves at least ten miles faster than that. What with the old people who navigate this way from the Culpepper assisted living center, it can be pretty colorful on George Mason. I crossed Henderson Street at the point that the driveway to the old mansion had been years ago. Just at the edge of the school property I could see the cops and rescue vehicles clustered at the point where Park Street lets traffic out of The Forest and into Little Salvador. There had been a wreck, clearly, and as I approached I could see it was a late model SUV, reflecting the flashing lights in blood crimson. It was crumpled at the base of the stone retaining wall that holds up the playground. I wanted to ask one of the cops just how you can slam a vehicle with that sort of force on what is supposed to be a quiet neighborhood street. Was the driver fleeing a crime? Hooked a tire on the curb and flipped with talking on the cell phone? The door gaped open where they had torn the driver out, and the cops seemed preoccupied and not disposed to talk. Someone had been hurt and on their way to the hospital. They were still alive, if the siren was any indication. At least not pronounced. When they take people away from Big Pink or Culpepper, there are lights, but no sirens and no urgency. I walked up the gentle hill and cut diagonally through the Lubber Run Recreation Center that replaced the Henderson mansion in the middle 1950s. It is pure Arlington, an ugly block brick building that could pass for a cousin of the school across the street. The people from the Village use it extensively, an island of Salvador in the tidy and well-kept Arlington Forest neighborhood. The County wants to knock it down and replace it with something newer, but there is nothing in the budget. I walked across the silent parking lot toward Lubber Run, puzzling out how the SUV had managed to hit with such a bump. I had been here earlier in the day after a trip to the locksmith on Wilson Boulevard. I needed a new key for the mailbox, since the one I have needs a stiff turn to open the little brass door and the brass blade is starting to fail and will undoubtedly shear off one these evenings and leave a desperately needed check on the wrong side of the door. That is what had led me past the scene of the accident. I normally get replacement keys at Ayres Hardware, in Westover Village. It is the only alternative to the Home Depot on Route 50, which scares me a little. Better said, I just can’t deal with the intimidation of all the Chinese screws and tools. It has nothing to do with the fact that the DC Snipers took out a woman in the covered parking lot. When I have to go there, I make a practice of not walking by the parking space where she bled-out. I am not as intimidated by terrorists as I am or all the aisles of possibilities in home improvement. Westover Village is the Bizzarro Universe version of Buckingham. Located just across the concrete moat of I-66, it remains gentile. Residences in the neighborhood are modest, pre-World War II single family homes, though they cost an arm and a leg now, and Westover Apartments are garden-style low-density units built just a few years after Allie Freed’s project. Being in North Arlington, the County Fathers never allowed them to go to seed. Ayres can do a lot for you, but they cannot get me the right blank to cut for the mailbox. I tried twice and failed, which accounts for the week-day afternoon stop at a professional locksmith, who resolutely closes on the weekends. Brian was the little guy behind the counter. He had a ball-cap jammed down on his head and a day’s fine stubble in his cheeks. He moved like a jockey, or at least like a man for whom nimbleness was a stock in trade. The phone on my hip went off as I tried to explain what I wanted, and since I was working, I took the call. I disclosed more than I wanted to Brian, and there was an unnatural air of intimacy established as I explained what I wanted. He handed my key off to his associate, who apparently was new, and stood in front of the impressive array of different key types. Brian told him where to find the right one, and I asked him if they could cut a “bump” key for me. Brian smiled, and said he could. In fact, he could cut me a bump key for just about every lock older than five years for anything in the County. He didn’t mind; he lives out in Reston, and doesn’t bother to lock his door. He figures his best protection is his 90-pound German Shepard. I’m oblivious about a lot of things, just like you. Having professionally spent a lot of years behind locked doors, the news had caught my attention. Some Puerto Rican thieves had been flying into Dallas-Fort Worth for more than a year, knocking off whole apartment complexes for lap-tops and jewelry. The whole thing was a mystery, since the residents would return home from their jobs and find the front doors closed, but not locked. No sign of forced entry. Quite mysterious, and of course the suspicion fell on the maintenance workers first. The local Sheriff happened to be married to one of the apartment complex managers, and knew the staff. He figured it must have been someone using the bump technique, and eventually they busted the Puerto Ricans in the act. That is the good news story, but it masked the worse. With The Bump, only special high-security locks provide any protection at all. Brian told me, matter-of-factly, that all the key-locks in America are worthless. That includes the ones on my doors and yours. It is not a secret- there is a clip on uTube if you want to see how it is done, and locksmiths have known about The Bump attack for years. There really is no need for a pick set anymore. All keys with flat blades are vulnerable. All you need to do is buy a blank and have it cut to the deepest channel at the point where the pins are located in the lock cylinder. Brian said his brother was one of the best at it, and rarely has to use anything else. He just inserts the key into the lock, pulls back two detents, turns slightly to bring tension, and then strikes the back of the key gently with a screwdriver or small hammer. "Voila!" the locks open. I talked to Brian for about a half hour. The Bump does not work on some of the new high-security lock-sets, the ones that have angles cut on the teeth, or groove patterns cut in the side like fancy European car keys. Duplication of those keys is tracked, and the blank keys strictly controlled. You have seen the ones with “DO NOT DUPLICATE’ stamped on the tope, and may have one on your key-ring and feel good about it. Of course, the instant the patent on the design expires, the blanks become available to all comers, and there is nothing in the slightest illegal about it. My jaw dropped in amazement. Brian was presently joined behind the counter by Bob who was wearing an identical ball-cap, but three sizes larger. He lives in Loudoun County, since he can’t afford to rent in Arlington. He was eager to talk about what was happening at the job sites to which he was called, and the Embassies and fancy new condos. No sign of forced entry. The Bump. There is a crime wave in progress, but it is lost in the noise. Gangs are operating out of the District, and they now have free access to just about anything they want, even most of the new construction places. I’ll be interested in the locks they put on the new town homes. I’m betting a high-security lock with a patent more than a few years from expiration is going to be an option. As to Big Pink, the keys for the access doors have not been changed since Speaker Albert lived in the place. That means there is nothing to stop thieves or lawyers from gaining access, and once in, bumping anyone’s front door. The fierce argument that caused Mrs. Hitler to hit Uncle Bill at the pool deck last August over the locked door to the elevator in the garage was all wasted breath. The only people who are going to be stopped by a lock anymore are the residents who forget their obsolete keys. It was an interesting session, very educational, and it almost took my mind off the other crap. Walking back toward Big Pink in the dark, I took the shortcut through Culpepper Gardens rather than walk along George Mason with the hurtling cars at my back. I didn’t want to take a chance on anything else going bump in the night, an crushing me against a wall. Mrs. Hitler and Uncle Bill The slap echoed across the pool deck like the report of a small caliber pistol. It was startling. I was in the water, relishing the coolness against my skin. I looked up to see Mrs. Hitler on her feet in outrage, looking down at Uncle Bill with eyes that bulged in anger. I have seen that look before, often, and not just on her. In fact, that is the root of my current trouble, but that is a separate matter. Uncle Bill is a union official who came up the hard way. He is a wiry guy with round sunglasses and short-cropped hair, short but powerfully built. He is lean from his life outdoors and his bicycling and swimming. He is normally charming, but he doesn't suffer fools and sometimes the work-site survival skills show. We Big Pink Pool People are a tranquil lot. The most energy we expended was organizing a petition drive We do not generally drink during the day unless it is a special occasion, or at least all of us except Grandma, the semi-retired psychiatric nurse who starts in the morning. We mostly bask like seals in the sun. No one does it better than Ms Hamilton, of course, She is in championship form this year, just back from Miami. I sit in her quadrant of the pool, and be in serene and non- threatening proximity to her bronzed, sculpted body. She has a sweet disposition, and I think she likes me around to help fend off the attentions of a few of the geeks who come in the early afternoon and gawk shamelessly at her. Stanley is differently abled, not like Lester the gimp, who we think is a pedophile. Stanely is harmless, I think, a thick man of middle age suffering the onset of diabetes that colors his lower legs purple. He shuffles a bit, but is nice enough. I would find his stare unnerving if I looked up and saw him looking at me with rapt attention, floating with his two long blue foam-rubber noodles. I had been treading water in the deep end near the table where Uncle Bill was reading, I heard them begin to discuss the crucial issue of whether the access door in the garage should be locked, or have the lock removed. There is a rough concrete ramp that has been added over the old step, and the little wire wheelbarrows the residents use to bring groceries up from their cars always halt abruptly at the edge, leaving the outstretched hand and key painfully short of the lock. Uncle Bill's position is that the locks have not been changed since 1975, and thus everyone in Arlington County now has lived here at one time or another, and must have the universal key to get in the many access doors. Accordingly, we should either change the locks or admit that a door inside a secured garage can be left open. Mrs. Hitler had a contrary opinion, as she does of most things. Some would consider her to be a cast-iron pain in the ass, but I think it is easier to think of her as a General's daughter who mostly forgets who owns the stars, even though Daddy is long gone. The voices were rising I slowly paddled off in the direction of Ms Hamilton and one of the Sarahs who were cooling their lower bodies in the shallow end of the pool. I had only just arrived there when I heard Uncle Bill call Mrs. Hitler a "fat bitch." The words hung over the pool like balloons filled with toxic gas. I looked around to see if there were any kids, but Grandma's daughter had not shown up with the twins. As I mentioned, we pool people, at least the ones who congregate on the far side of the deck, are tranquil. I tried to turn away, but had to watch in grim fascination as I saw Mrs. Hitler grab the novel that Uncle Bill was reading and hurl it in a lazy arc from the table under the yellow umbrella and into the blue water of the deep end. It landed with a sodden slap, and the cover that was not underwater immediately began to curl up as the pages took on water. "You can't call me that," she said loudly. "You better watch who you hit, Lady, or the cops will take you away. Maybe you have heard that is the law these days," responded Uncle Bill, his lips curled up in contempt. “And you had better replace that book!” "In a pigs eye. And I did not hit you. I pushed you. You are a man," said Mrs. Hitler, as if that explained everything. I have had some experience with that and would have taken issue with her contention. Instead, I turned slowly in the water and pretended I was part of the concrete of the pool deck as and then stormed off toward Andra the Czech lifeguard. His mouth was open in astonishment. She passed through the chain-link gate to the pool enclosure and the last I saw was her Valkerie-like braids disappearing up the walkway in the direction of the side entrance. Even if everyone in Arlington County had a key, I was hoping she happened to have hers on her. That took my mind off things for a moment, and I did not get back to thinking about my own problems for minutes. The sun was too nice to be in a funk for long, and Harry Potter took care of the rest of the lazy afternoon. I actually finished the book, and am now indoctrinated into another set of mysteries. Don't worry, I won't spoil it for you. Hard to believe it is over, since nothing else is, particularly the relations between men and women. Uncle Bill told me later that he thought Mrs. Hitler would be back for more in less than a month. I wouldn't take the bet. I'm hoping she doesn't start talking to me. Even so, I am a tranquil guy by nature, and would avoid saying anything unpleasant regardless if true. I am hoping that is what will keep my novels out of the pool. Big Pink Meatballs I was walking around on eggshells as the Peruvians sawed away merrily on holidays and during quiet hours, as established by Condominium Regulation. I remember living in base housing and having some old by-the-book-bastard call the Shore Patrol on you for infractions of the regulations. Like cutting the lawn before ten in the morning, or worse, not cutting it at all. Anyway, the work is done and the Peruvians have gone back to the mountains and the kitchen gleams, an island of modernity surrounded by dust and bits of padding stuck to the staples that once held the rug to the parquet floor. That is another challenge which must be addressed, but not today. Last night, to commemorate the grand completion, Ms. Hamilton, and Sarah I and Sarah II with whom I have spent the last three years sunning at Big Pink's lovely azure pool stopped by for a house-warming cocktail. Andra the Czech lifeguard seemed to be at loose ends after padlocking the gate for the night, so as he was coiling up the umbilical extension cord that connects his laptop to my outside electrical outlet, I asked him in. In preparation, I did the first cooking in the new kitchen. I went for the old standby, meatballs in that fiery Sweet Baby Ray's BBQ sauce, and had plenty of vodka. The ice-maker works, and the big pass-through window I had pierced in the end wall of the kitchen worked just fine. The leadership of the Cement Workers International thinks I am quite the bee's knees with the young ladies, which is useful in Big Pink's social hierarchy. They are all our age, and being occupied with the International, all have units in the building. In fact, in the hard-knocks labor world, they have risen from the local union halls to the leadership of a vast enterprise. One of them- I won't say who- asked if, given the current circumstances, it would be useful if the Ex could be disappeared. It is useful to be liked, but I stammered that since I used to be "in the business" that would only have the State Patrol at my door as the first prime suspect. "I appreciate the thought,' I said, "but no thanks, please." The girls showed up fashionably late and were dressed to the nines- hot pants on Ms Hamilton, topped by a silk camisole that shimmered in the light. The Sarahs were in Little Black Dresses. They all looked fantastic. Their ages range from late twenties to early thirties, and they were tanned and buff. The point was not to look good for us, I told Andra, but it was that they were going to soak up my vodka and head downtown to look for someone interesting. Sarah I brought some chicken bits in a plastic tub from the Whole Foods, and we inaugurated the new stainless-steel fronted built-in microwave to heat them up. There are metal racks in the thing, and don't ask me how that is supposed to work. I always heard metal and microwaves were bad, like exploding bad, but I am old school about a lot of things. I will stand with my meatballs, tried and true. Recipe: One bag of Italian-style meatballs, frozen 16 oz glass Crushed ice to taste Lime juice, fresh squeezed 1 liter tonic water (Diet Schweppes) 16 oz bottle of Sweet Baby Rays Hot n; Spicey BBQ Sauce 12 oz bottle of Frank's Original Louisiana Hot Sauce 1.7 liter bottle Popov Vodka, decanted into used expensive brand bottle Stand next to stove. Combine vodka, lime, ice and tonic in glass. Take internally. Rip open bag of frozen meatballs and defrost in a Swiss-brand diamond non-stick skillet on medium heat, drinking steadily. Turn occasionally, and the meatballs, too, as the sweet light of the dying season fades. When lightly browned, squeeze the Sweet Baby Ray's BBQ sauce over them to a depth of half way. Take a deep sip of the drink and smell the delicious aroma. Add Frank's hot sauce to liven the palate, until additional cool liquid is needed to put out flames in mouth. Cover. The meatballs, too. Simmer gently until summer is done, and the good-looking girls who are young enough to be your daughter are fashionably late. Look for the goddamn toothpicks in the brand-new empty cabinets. Sometime after eleven we ran out of critical party supplies and the wreckage of an errant meatball had been cleaned from the front of the lovely silk chemise. The Red Top Cab arrived, and Andra wobbled off on his bicycle for his dorm room in Rosslyn. He has the week off before his last two days at poolside next weekend, and will go to Philadelphia to take in the attractions. The Girls were headed for trouble on the newly fashionable U Street Corridor, and I slowly mounted the stairs for the fourth floor, where my real bed waited patiently. The Big Pink Security detail was nowhere in sight, so the Grand Opening came off without a hitch. Today, I think I have to clean up down there, and see if I accounted for all the meatballs. Queen of Concrete It is the end of summer, and the change of the season. I know the Earth does not recognize it, not for another week or so, but the finale came as Andre walked down the concrete steps into the grim sub-basement of Big Pink. He turned a medium-sized wheel in the dusty machinery room to open the “flush” line to the water outlet, and pulled the plug on the underwater lights. I was standing with Montana, County Servant and part-time belly-dancer, still dripping from the last plunge into the cool blue water. We heard the water begin to flood out the pipe and down the asphalt to the sanity sewer and saw the warm beckoning lights wink out. The water turned opaque, with only the glitter of the security lights on the unsettled surface, still agitated by my presence. It was a solemn moment. Andre is on an airplane back to the Czech Republic in the morning, and back in class by the end of the week. He is sad to leave and excited to go. Montana and I are not going anywhere. We will each retreat into our units for the winter with the rest of the pool crowd, all the gossip done. The long months that the pool is closed truncate our information flow. We will not be able to argue about the window replacement issue, or the state capital reserves of the Association, or who is sleeping with whom. The Awards are pretty much set for the 2007 season. I was pretty sure I had "First In, Last Out" locked up, since there is nothing they could do to change the latter, and the former appeared near certain unless someone burst unexpectedly from the building. The "Best Tan" category has been permanently retired by Ms Hamilton; "Most Obnoxious Guest" goes to Lester's the Molester's fat friend who knows everything at the top of his voice; "Cutest Kid" is probably five-year-old Olivia, although the judges are still out on that. The Professor has again secured the "Most Revolting Men's Swimsuit" by acclimation of the ladies for his ancient form-fitting Speedos. "Best Bikini" is still hotly contested between Margaret and Marty II. I'll be interested to see how that duel plays out at the awards banquet. We will have to think of something nice for Stanley, since he is differently-abled, and once we figured that out, the women did not mind him staring at them so intently. Montana is "Queen of the Concrete." She does not swim. I think her season ended with only one full-body immersion. She has retired the trophy for Queen of the Pool Deck, though, best in class. She is brown as a nut, and totally committed to life outdoors. She sets up her camp just after opening time in the morning, and will often stay in her lair on the distant side of the concrete until closing. In the high summer, that is just at dusk. On the last day, it is in the deep gloom of night. The darkness is a cloak as deep as a blanket, and I sometimes worry that she will be asleep back there, and the lifeguard will lock her in, caged like a lioness until morning. Montana is a complex person, as I suppose we all are. Her journey to the far end of the pool is one I have heard in snatches over the five years that the pool deck has been my summer home. There was a marriage that did not work, and a change of life; a commitment to living a healthier and less destructive life. She has an incurable optimism, an aversion to being alone, yet is solitary by circumstance. Now she counts things for the County on a spreadsheet, and rules the pool deck in the season. In the latter, she is the same as the rest of the crew at Big Pink. We all have washed up in the large building by chance, and stayed as a place of refuge. She has her own throne: a long lounge cushion in bright yellow. She has both disc and MP3 players to listen to, with a headset to comply with pool regulation. Mrs. Hitler is quite stern about the enforcement of that from her customary position at the far corner of the pool. I'm sure she views herself as the Queen, but she would only be a pretender to the throne. For staying power, Montana has a stock of bottled water, sunscreen, sunglasses and several novels in her bag. She has a blanket if necessary to keep the chill off, and an assortment of towels and other support equipment. If she could do this sans the suit, she would. Her body is lean. She is the true Queen of the Concrete. We have struck a deal, the two of us. She stays out of the water, and I stay off her end of the pool deck. I make no protest when she is the last civilian off the concrete for the season, and she permits me to be the last one in the water. I defended my crown successfully once more, the fifth consecutive year as First and Last in the crisp blue waters. It had been a challenge this year, and I remained vigilant until the moment that Andre snapped the padlock shut on the stout chain that secured the black wire gate. Uncle Bill and Tony had displayed what I considered to be an unhealthy interest in my evening schedule. I thought it entirely possible that Uncle Bill would show up at the last moment, rushing past Andre and making his own leap into the water, and in a nightmare scenario, result in a Mexican stand-off in the shallow end, Organized Labor versus Retired Government, neither of us willing to get out of the water first, and let the season die. I would not have put it past him. As it turned out, there was nothing except Montana, and Andre and me, the only one dripping. Goosebumps began to rise on my skin in the chill. The night was silent except for the water rushing from the pool and down the parking lot. No challengers to my streak. Andre wrapped the chain around the gate. “Snick,” went the lock. “Snick,” went the season. The Fallen The key about visitations in Arlington is where to park. I had an official letter I needed to deliver to the widow, and wanted to show my respect. Mardy One confirmed to me that the funeral home was death on illegal parking. It is a symptom of the explosive growth in the Ballston neighborhood north of Buckingham. The County sanctioned the wild building spree with expansive zoning regulations to encourage high-density use along the Metro Orange Line, and the funeral home is just down the street from the station. Mardy 1 has been busy of late, and we did not see much of her at the pool this year. She is a great lady, a Steeler’s fan, and a veteran of a long relationship with a State Department cookie-pusher. The end of that is how she wound up at Big Pink, and was part of the Fifth Floor Crewe when I lived up there. She was always good for a glass of wine and some laughter, along with Mary Margaret, who lived next door. I was renting up there, scheming on how I could become a homeowner, or at least a concrete box owner, again. I hadn’t heard from the lawyers in months, and thought I would be free. It seems like a giddy time, looking back on it, before the Murphy Bed adventure down at poolside and all the other antics. Mardy One was running a dog-walking business, which is a bigger deal than you would think. People are so busy, everyone working, and the nature of relationships being what it is around here, most seem to be banking on pets rather than humans. Thus, it is completely possible to fill up the day walking other people’s dogs. I don’t ask about people’s finances. Mine are scary enough, and I don’t need to trespass in that territory. It may be that she just wanted some additional companionship, beyond that of the dogs and cats and empty houses. She was walking a Mastiff up Fairfax Drive from the condos halfway to Virginia Square when she saw the sign in the window of the mortuary across from the Car Pool bar. The Car Pool used to be an actual dealership, back in the day, and the theme for the layout is purely automotive, with billiard tables where the sales floor and service bays were. It is going to be something else pretty soon, something tall, I imagine. The mortuary wanted some help, and the sign said the hours were flexible. She had time in the evening, since people can walk their own animals when they get home, and she resolved to stop by after she got the Mastiff his daily exercise. The dog tugged her all the way past the Eat N’ Run, almost to where the Flat Top Grill used to be. Once she got things turned around again and took care of the dog’s most pressing concerns, she cut across the parking lot to get to the park beyond the main library. The funeral home has the biggest sweep of black asphalt in the neighborhood, except for the bus yard, and they have a special contract with a tow truck to keep it open for the benefit of the bereaved and not the commuters. Mardy One stuck her head in at the mortuary after she got the dog safely back to the condo. Who would keep a dog that big in a little apartment, I asked her, and she just shook her head. People are strange, and so long as they are willing to pay, she is OK with it. Everyone adapts to what they have to do. There was a woman in black who opened the door for her, solemn, and Mardy One asked who she should talk to about the sign. The woman gestured slowly toward a corridor on the left, past a sign posted for the Schmidt Viewing, and she wound up with an equally solemn Funeral Director named Bob. The mortuary was in the market for a greeter, like the lady in black at the door. Mardy One was in sweats and her Steeler’s hat, but she said she had attended a lot of formal functions when she was married to the State Department and could be quite presentable if the need arose, and had plenty of black outfits. She took off her cap and showed her salt and pepper hair, and it seemed to do the trick. Bob told her that she could have an evening shift, two hours normally, for the evening viewings. The duties were simple, he said, and revolved mostly around opening the door and looking grave for the people that were coming to the visitations. You would think that is a hard fit for someone who has been known to whoop while jumping in the pool in her underwear, but apparently there is a well of sadness in all of us. That is how Mardy One became a professional griever, and how I had the scoop on how to park at the funeral home without getting my car towed away. She has a lot of stories about the grieving business, and it is not as glamorous as you would think. The mortuary is close to Arlington National Cemetery, and is a logical destination for those military members moving to the County until the end of the world. Business in that direction has been brisk of late, though it had swelled with the passing of the heroes of the World Wars. There is a provision in the rules for the cemetery that veterans who have won combat decorations are entitled to internment in the National Cemetery, whether they stayed in the Service for a career or not. We are just about done with the veterans of the First War, but we are at a high point for the hundreds of thousands of vets who are eligible from the Second. Of course, there have been several wars since then, but demographically, the preponderance of eligible candidates are the men and women who beat Hitler and Tojo. I know more about how this works than I want to. I was assigned to the personnel desk at the Navy Annex on Columbia Pike years ago. All of the officers were expected to handle the Death Watch, which was to cover the after-hours issues that came up when the civilians from Casualty Affairs went home for the day. We had one rotation of seven watches stood once a week for seven weeks, plus training. I was on my first one when one of our active duty members passed away in Spain, so the news came in wee hours of the morning, and the Chief woke me up to make some notifications. It turned out that the guy was married to an Australian lady he had met on a port visit there, and his folks were here in Arlington. That involved getting him to Virginia for a viewing at the very same mortuary before getting back on the plane for Sydney. the government was obligated to pay for the cargo fee for the whole trip, but not the hearse from Reagan National to the funeral home and back for the viewing. We had to check the rules carefully. I followed his progress across the once-a-week watches, and made a call to Australia on my last one to confirm the sailor’s arrival. The voice from the outback was tinny and faint, but the woman confirmed that we got him there for burial. The uncomfortable thing about death is that it seems to move in with you if you stick around long enough. I was visiting the mortuary to express condolences and view the remains of a Captain I used to work with. He was a few years older, retiring in the late eighties, but not that old. He did two tours in Vietnam, which was unusual, and was the last American assigned as the First Coastal Zone before the thing fell apart. He was in-country before that, as an liaison officer, which is probably where he was exposed to Agent Orange. He died of complications related to the chemotherapy, and was fighting the VA about the service connected nature of his leukemia. I liked him a lot when I worked with him in the Pentagon after he retired from the Navy. He enjoyed a good cigar in the courtyard, sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs near Ground Zero, and I would join him out there after they banned smoking in the building. I talked to the widow for a while, and some of the family members, though I did not know them and felt awkward, as one does in the face of death. It seems my associate had been in a battle with the Veteran’s Administration, which refused to grant him more than a 60% disability over his illness. They were still evaluating his claim when he died, which you would think would be positive evidence of its worth. Instead, the Department closed the case. In the coffin, the Captain looked serene, but pale, with his arms crossed over his dress blues. The uniform was old enough that the gold braid had that salty look we so prized, and the rows of ribbons over his Joint Staff Identification Badge were slightly faded, but not enough that they needed replacement. The Government would have taken care of that, if asked, as they do for the kids coming home from the wars in the Middle East. I watched the video playing on the flat-screen that had pictures of his life, and saw the man I had known in several of them. When it seemed appropriate, I left. Mardy One had told me that if you gave your license plate number to the Mourner at the door there would be not problems, but I had not taken any chances. I parked at a meter down the block. It was Sunday, and the parking was free. Googie on Glebe I ran into Mardy One at the Staples office store on North Glebe. It was a completely random encounter, and we took a second to register our acquaintance since the context was so alien; I rarely stop there and don’t know what her office supply needs might be. I don’t even see her at Big Pink since she took the second job at the funeral home. I was looking for a memory card-reader to get the pictures of the demolition of Buckingham III off my cell phone without having to transmit them to myself at 25-cents apiece. She was looking for desk calendars to keep her dogs and funerals straight. I thanked her for the parking advice on the visit to the mortuary, and how natural my associate had looked in his coffin. She said it was not a problem, pleased to have helped. She was in her dog-walking outfit, and I was in formal black, since I have given up on colors. We chatted about the more interesting developments at the funeral parlor where she works when she is not walking other people’s dogs. We had plenty of time, since there was one of those shoppers ahead of us who had a return with the Ethiopian lady behind the counter. It was not going that well. The staff at the Staples is almost all South Asian or from the Horn of Africa, and I get to practice my broken Amarish with them. I had been learning a phrase a week from the ladies at the Starbucks. “Talik buna, effendi-galu” means “I’d like a Vente coffee of the day, if you please.” “Ama Secon alu” means “Thanks a lot” in Ethiopia. I am a hit at all the parking lots, where the attendants seem to appreciate the small courtesy. The ones from somewhere else probably chalk it up to the American experience. The Ethiopian was fine. It was the matron who was confused and disoriented. Everything was changing in the neighborhood and she could not find businesses that operated here for years. There was only the one register open, so it was exactly like the Visa commercial where someone tries to use cash at the register and time stops. Everything that normally moves in well-oiled harmony falls to the ground. One of the other issues is that things are falling apart at the store. There is no particular reason to keep the stock up to date, since the place is not long for life. It is part of the parcel that went to the developers along with the Chevy dealership on the corner. I guess it won’t be that big a deal. Staples is a plain 1980s box, low and unremarkable. It is also a pain in the butt to get to, since the driveway is on the exit lane from Fairfax Boulevard, and you can’t turn left, nor make a u-turn at the light. You have to do turn into the Holiday Inn and finesse it that way, plus the left turn lane is where that homeless guy camps out, using the long light to shake down people for spare change. We aren’t going to have to worry about that, since the store will close as soon as the finance guys put the package together for the new high-rise building that will go up on the corner. I am a little concerned about where to get new print cartridges when tax time comes around, but there are alternatives, just further away from Big Pink. I asked Mardy One if there had been any interesting funerals lately, since I have the same morbid curiosity as everyone else. She said one of the recent civilian funerals had been that of a women whose head had been cut off by an angry son. I didn’t think it was an open casket affair, but you never know. You and I live life on one plane of existence, where people are not jimmying your lock and civilized discourse. Our desperation is manifested discretely. There are other planes going on around us, filled with chaos and mayhem, like life in the low-income slice of Buckingham. Mardy One is in a position to see all kinds of crazy stuff at the mortuary. Some of her other customers are military families, taking care of loved ones returning from Iraq. Because of the improved body armor the troops wear, sometimes there is not much of the body left intact except what was protected. I know the rules, and even if there is only a tooth left, the service member is entitled to the full casket. Mardy One said that one family insisted on an open casket at the viewing, even though only the torso of the young solder had come through intact. She thought it was really strange, and the funeral director had to be really creative in arranging the service dress blouse and medals on what was left, with a gold-covered cloth over the neck-hole of the jacket. I said it sounded a little like Cindy Sheehan. Her son’s death had driven her quite mad. Mardy One said it wasn’t like that. The family was just pissed, not crazy. She said she was considering getting out of the grief business, since there was too much of it. I asked if she had considered car sales, since Ms. Hamilton had recently vacated her position as the receptionist at the Lindsey Cadillac agency, and the position was open for a lithe young woman. She laughed and said she would only consider it if the job was as close as Bob Peck’s Chevy dealership, which was right next door. I laughed, since the cars had all disappeared and the chain link fence had gone up around the properly months ago. The Peck Dealership was a local legend. Bob started out down in Clarendon, back in 1939, the same year the Buckingham project started and just after the streetcar lines shut down. A lot of people from the neighborhood bought their cars there. Bob moved out to the Glebe Road location after the war, and added the dramatic new space-aged façade in 1964. It was intended to make a statement about Arlington and the future, and he engaged architect Anthony Musolleno to build the structure in the “Googie” manner, a style that had swept the nation. The term for the kidney-shaped, glass-walled architecture style was already starting to seem kitchy to the pros, but regular people loved it. Drive-ins and motels all across the country had adopted the style with a vengence, and a term was needed to describe restaurants that looked like space-ships. Googie’s Coffee Shop on the Sunset Strip is the place that gave us the name. It opened in 1949, and was not the first of the breed. A man named John Lautner evolved the look, starting with three Coffee Dan’s shops in LA during the war years. People were working multiple shifts in the aircraft plants and needed their caffeine, just as we need our Starbucks today. Lautner’s style was pronounced by the time Mr. Googie approached him for something with a touch of the surreal. He liked the vaulted roof-lines, bold glass and futuristic angles for his building. Professor Douglas Haskell of Yale was the man who associated the coffee shop with the genre: Googie Architecture. He had been driving down with a photographer buddy at the beginning of the Fifties. He stopped to gawk at the place, and wrote about it in House and Home Magazine. “Googie” soon became a term of derision for serious architects. But we all remember it. Almost all the bowling alleys of the 1950s were Googie-influenced, and there were upswept roofs, domes and boomerang shapes everywhere. Googie was about the future. It was the space age. What Bob Peck commissioned was a remarkable thing, even for construction from the period when cars had fins like jets. His show room resembles a flying saucer hovering over plate glass, the edges rolled over with a pastry wheel. Tony Mussoleno got a fee for the design, but for erecting it, he got something else. Two new Corvettes, a ’64 and a ’65 when the work was done. Around the Jetson’s futuristic diamond motif canopy, letters spelled out B-O-B-P- E-C-K-C-H-E-V-R-O-L-E-T on colored plastic. In the day, Bob moved more than 2,700 cars a year off that lot, and his property became one of the most recognized in the County. His fame increased and he juggled lacrosse balls on his TV commercials. He was elected to the school board and the county council, and chaired them both. The Soviet news agency Tass once ran a picture of the dealership as an icon of capitalism, which is pretty high tribute. Bob stayed in the business until he was almost eighty, and lived until he was 84. He loved his work, and he became in institution. His son Don finally couldn’t resist the price he was offered by the JPG group, one of the anonymous development concerns. The price for the corner amounted to eleven million dollars an acre. JPG is going to develop the crap out of the corner, just as soon as the coming recession is over. I had hoped they might keep the weird showroom and incorporate it into whatever big is going to come next as a historical quotation on old Arlington. The developer made noises about it, but you know as well as I do what is going to happen. When it is gone, Googie will disappear from Arlington. Bob would never have put up with it. He cared about his customers, and got a lot of repeat business from Big Pink. One of the very best customers was a guy named Roy, who lived up on the seventh floor. I don’t know many of the folks up there, or don’t yet, since I think it is my fate to live on all the floors before I depart this mortal coil. I certainly didn’t meet Roy, though people still talk about him. He had been a big-time businessman, a mover and shaker, and had lived in Big Pink since before it went condo. He used to travel a lot, a real high-roller, and knew everyone. As the years passed, though, he seemed to know fewer and fewer and by the time he left the building in the ambulance with lights but no siren, he knew no one at all. The long decline had its moments. He would often misplace his car in the lot below his seventh floor place. His approach was not to wander the lot looking for it, but rather to take a cab over to Bob Peck and buy another car. Bob was happy to oblige. At one point Roy had at least three new cars, haphazardly parked around the sprawling campus, which made at least one of them easy to find at any given time. He also cut Roy a deal on the trade-ins, since there were so many of them, and all came with low, low miles. Big Labor Photo courtesy of the HeraldTriblog all rights reserved. It is not as much work as you would think to transform solid brick into air and rubble. I got a flash update on the computer around two o’clock from Steve, the Buckingham Beat Reporter. The prep work had been complete, and, one by one, the low brown buildings of Buckingham III are being transformed to were being gobbled up by a single In the digital age there is no high drama involved in “stopping the presses.” We are thoroughly post-industrial and no highly paid tradesmen are required to operate big machinery or load huge rolls of newsprint. No linotype operators, or rotogravure master craftsmen required. We can do it all by ourselves, just like Steve can. The destruction itself was accomplished by just a few guys in orange vests. Only two of them are what you might call “skilled labor.” The guy working the big excavator had to know what he was doing, swing the big claw from side to side, cutting down with the clawed bucket through the rafters and brick skin of the building. The guy running the cement crusher probably needed some experience, too, since you could hurt someone with that. But as to the guy with the hose, watering down the debris, or the supervisor standing by with a clipboard, well, those skills you could hire a dime a dozen at the day labor site by the Hispanic market at Glebe and Pershing. When the crew knocked off work, they had leveled an “L”-shaped section of the building at the 4300 block of Pershing. You can see it at his site, http://buckinghamheraldtrib.blogspot.com/ if you want a taste of it. And there actually was a taste of it, molecules of the structure still hanging in the air I could not arrive on the scene until night was beginning to fall. I took some pictures with my cell phone, holding it up over the chain link fence for an unrestricted view. There was a smell of old wallboard and plaster, the interior of the old buildings still wafting around as dust. There will be a new vista in the next few weeks, a clean building site with a few dozen carefully-marked historic trees that they want to incorporate into the new complex. It will all be done with just a handful of workers, not like the ant-like army or workers who erected the complex after the war. Many of them were skilled craftsmen, Electricians and Plumbers and brothers of the Steam Fitting Guild. There was a good living for men who had those skills, and clout in the ability of the Unions to deliver the right skills to the jobsite in a highly competitive labor market. It is just the luck of the draw that what is coming down is the newest of the garden apartments. The developers are the holders-in-due-course of that slice of Buckingham that was not converted to private ownership, and suffered the worst of the skid, which began with Stagflation and Dick Nixon, and continued right through Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America. That marked the generational transition of Big Pink, which was the first to go private. The original renters were the upscale government executives that Frances Freed aspired to capture in her elegant rose walls. Speaker Carl Albert was one of them. As the empire began to unravel, the new owners wanted to get out from under the requirement to maintain the infrastructure, and the concept of selling the units to people that lived in them became popular. With the conversion, the population abruptly stabilized, and the residents who bought stayed on for years. The Building grayed; the men died, the numbers of widows increased and turn-over was slight, driven not by the economy but by the Grim Reaper. Big Pink was an exceptional value. The market and the declining Buckingham neighborhood kept prices down, even as the Building itself retained a certain Freed-inspired elegance. Owners found it easier to rent their places, and people with seasonal interests in the capital began to appear. A rental unit at Big Pink was perfect for the lobbyist, who could fly away the instant the Congress did. No yard to maintain; no muss, no fuss. That is how the Ornamental Concrete Workers International came to the building, first occupying a one-bedroom by the pool, shared by several members of the leadership. Multiple occupancy is a tradition in Washington, dating back to the earliest days of the national legislature. Housing has never kept pace with the demand of a growing bureaucracy, and the explosion of workers required to manage the War Effort. Even today, freshman legislators short of seniority and means will pool the rent money and share digs in the row-houses on the Hill. That is what the International did at poolside. First there was one, then two, then half a dozen big labor executives rented places, and eventually bought them. At the high-point, the union had six or seven units. Two of them were in prime locations around the pool, and the parties were legendary. There were many nights that entries had to be made in the Red Book at the front desk about the antics of members from the Locals in town for conventions, coming home after the bars closed down and banging on closed doors, sometimes the right ones. The decade of the 1990s was the high-water mark of good times. That is when Big Al and Joey and Uncle Bill and Biggs arrived, and they are still here. Others have come and gone, like the elegant Thadeus and Dan. I moved into the middle of it all when I escaped the Fifth Floor and rejoined the ranks of property owners, gaining a franchise stake in Big Pink. There was a world of work that needed to be done on my little efficiency. The blinds needed replacing to provide some privacy, since I noticed that Mardy Two, the elegant investment broker on the second floor could look down from the second floor balcony and see just about anything she wanted. It made me blush when I realized it, but she was housebound at the time, and it gave her something to do. I was short on cash, but not ideas. Plantation shutters would fit the bill, not that I really minded anyone watching. And maybe a bed that folded down, one of those old ideas whose time has come around again. It would be expensive, but I could shave costs by doing the work myself. The Union guys sitting out on the patio around me seemed to be entertained by the activity, and commented on the relative quality of it over their glasses of white wine as I toiled. Not a problem, I thought. I was working for myself now, no Big Labor required. The Porch Life Big Al has a sign on the tree on his patio that says he is “Living The Porch Life.” It is a state of mind like the corporate motto of the Bliss Manufacturing concern of suburban Detroit, which was founded in 1969. “Bliss Since 1969,” is the way the logo reads, and we adopted it as a mantra in college, I even had it engraved on my Zippo lighter, which was stolen or lost in short order. The thought counted, though. President William McKinley might have been the inspiration for The Porch Life, since he spent the entirety of his 1896 Presidential campaign on the front porch of his solid Victorian house in Canton, OH, sampling dishes that voters brought for his approval. When we didn’t have anything else to say, we would joke that “We don’t think McKinley will last the night,” since the slain President is most famous for getting shot. He was not nearly as colorful as Big Al, who is really the beating heart of Big Pink. He has a hot tub and wrought iron patio furniture, and maintains an impressive array of ornamental foliage and flowers across the expanse of his one- bedroom unit, all the way down to the Queen of the Dog’s unit at the end. Her place is nice, too, though more elegant than Al’s, and she has the “Attention! Le Chien bizarre” marker next to her door. She is the senior unofficial Canine Official in the building, which is pet-friendly and a real plus. Imagine this in a rental situation, where the women could not have their dogs to baby and provide them protection. Of course, the situation really offends Uncle Bill, who considers the dogs to be four-legged nuisances. He has scrutinized the condominium by-laws to find a loophole that will get them out. He considers anything more than one dog in any apartment to be excessive, and a potential violation, and we all know who has two or more. I am pro-dog, of course, since the former marital mutt used to come visit when I was still talking to the ex. He was always on his best behavior at Big Pink, and I got a special pass into the world of the Dog People, and entrée into the canine soiree that the Queen of the Dogs holds with biscuits and treats on the ground floor. I specifically except the psycho strange little dogs who cannot socialize. Some of the old women, the shut-ins, have transferred their madness to the little dogs who are in a state of constant hysteria. I reserve a special place for that angry mutt on the third floor that wakes me up when he gets mad at the young renters in the diplomat’s house across the street, and barks from the time the bars close and the renters get home until my alarm clock goes off. The Queen has the end unit on the west wing, facing north. Those are the choicest one-bedrooms in the building, since they have an extra little space for a real dining room, and windows on that end that really brighten the place up. I was in a death-contest to buy one, once, with hard-edged Betty, the stout butch Commerce Department official on the fifth floor. Her unit was just high enough to see the skyline in Ballston, and the lights were quite spectacular from the new high-rise buildings along the route of the Orange Line. She wanted $425,000 for her two-bedroom, two-bath, and I actually made a pre- offering bid on it when I was living down by the pool, between Big Al and Biggie. He is the longest standing member of the International in residence, and his contributions to the building are legion. I low-balled Betty just a bit on the offer, thinking that she might fall for it, but I was just a stalking horse for her, a chance to see what the market might bear. She turned me down, flat, not knowing that the market was about to fall apart. She should have had taken my offer; it was lower than what she wanted, but when eventually she got her price, she also got a shaky borrower. His offer fell apart at the bank, so given the standards of that moment in the mortgage industry (successful sustained respiration), you can imagine how close to the edge he must have been. He is probably ruined now. When Betty closed on the new place and moved out, I managed to snag her parking space in the garage under the building, so there was a bit of a consolation prize. Big Al is pretty serene. He bought his place fifteen years ago for less than what Betty’s dining room was going for. Even with the market in shambles, he will do just fine when he cashes out. That permits him to have a certain noblesse oblige in his porch life. For example, he permits Jack to use his porch for sitting, whether he is home or not. Jack used to hold court there when it was warm, puffing on his cigar, but the doctors made him give up the habit. We don’t see as much of Jack as we used to, since he has an efficiency unit up on the eighth floor and now no requirement to go outside to smoke. Betty's place had a view to die for. From the dining room she looked directly over the trees and the refurbished "Gates of Ballston,” which was one of the original Freed properties, and site of the Overseer's Cape Cod bungalow that they don't know what to do with. It has historic status and can't be touched, and is completely out of character with the massive tower of the Hyde Park just a block away. There are some real shenanigans that go on with the historic designation. That is how the activists were going to preserve the slum that exists now, which is ironic, if you think about it. Buckingham is not a historic slum; it is a current slum with a history. The "Gates" is owned by the Arlington Housing Corporation, and they have done a fairly nice job of bringing order and a sense of the original tidiness to the garden apartments in that sector of old Buckingham. The slate roofs have been replaced, the plumbing redone, new appliances and decent landscaping to replace the areas worn bare by the groups of men who would stand around drinking beer when it was warm enough, which is most of the time here. There is a cost, though. In fact, they have made it almost a gated community by putting black extruded- steel fences in between the ends of the buildings and made the common areas accessible only by key. I don't know why they put light beige rugs In the places, unless It was to make the twice annual Inspection required by the terms of the lease easier on management. The leases are strict legal documents, and though they permit low-income people rent, also require proof of residence and firm limits on the number of people that can live In the units. The people that lived there before got preference for moving back in when the renovation was complete, but the terms of the lease meant that a lot of them who had Issues with legal status got the boot, and for compliance purposes the ones who did not wound up wrapping everything In the units In plastic, like a visit to Grandma's new couch In 1956. The inspectors also use things like insect infestation to evict people. Bed bugs have been in the fabric of the walls for years and are tough to exterminate, even if the building is completely vacated and bombed all at once. Since the infestation moves from apartment to apartment, there is almost always a basis to kick someone out. The language barrier doesn't help, either. Betty also would have been one of the first to see the demolition of the old units where upscale “Buckingham Commons” is going in at the corner of Henderson and George Mason. So far there are just two of the clusters of brick-front four- story town homes standing upright, but there will be another complex of them to the north, on Thomas, and a later phase will fronting George Mason Drive on the west side of the street. Things have a cyclical rhythm here. Buckingham became a slum because the bottom fell out of the condo market in 1981; it came back strong starting just after I moved in. It was strong enough that I thought that my rented unit on the fifth floor would get sold out from under me, leaving me with no where to go. That is why I jumped at the opportunity to buy the efficiency at poolside. It was part of the real estate mass hallucination induced by the low interest rates. I thought I had nearly doubled my money when I was dickering with Betty. I thank my lucky stars that she was a greedy woman, since things turned out badly enough in the credit crunch. Condos are the most fragile component of the housing market, and the downturn has hit Big Pink hard. Betty wanted to be with her girlfriend in the worst way, but everything she was looking at was going up as fast as everything else. She held out for the whole price, and got it just as things were starting to unravel. In fact, that may be the moment that I realized it was all coming unstuck. The guy she had sold to had problems actually getting the loan, and she wound up taking just what I had offered months before. She was lucky to get out. When I bought the two-bedroom unit on the fourth floor, I thought I was making $25 grand with my signature. Actually, I was giving away fifty and just did not know it. I hope it is just fifty. Fifty I can handle, and it might be a lot more. If that is true, I better enjoy myself, since I am never going to get out from under the loan. I am just thankful that I look to the west, over the pool and the churches. Between the free money that came with the efficiency, and the beating I have taken on the two-bedroom, I hope I am somewhere next to even. I expect I will, unless I have to liquidate to meet some court order, and if that is the case, I am screwed but good. I cannot see Ballston, or past the Culpepper Assisted Living Center where they are going to build two huge four-story apartment buildings. They are going to punch Fourth Street through what used to be a service alley, and the big blocks will rise. They say there are going to be three-story underground garages, but the available spaces will amount to .88 per unit, or less than the number of cars that are bound to come. I am no math whiz, but I think that means trouble for our parking lot, and it means that people we don’t know are going to be all over the campus. What with The Bump making all our locks obsolete, our vaunted security is just about worthless. I also wonder who is going to live there. If the rules are as tight as they are in Gates of Ballston, we will some social engineering. I wonder about the County. They have permitted gentrification to happen south of Route 50, and appear to have decided that Buckingham is the logical destination for the poor, concentrating the misery in refurbished dwelling squeezed into higher density quarters, squeezed between luxury townhouses, the condo garden apartments and Big Pink. It is a recipe for trouble, I think. I seem to be pretty much alone on that view. I was talking to Montana about it as she came back from a power-walk. She said she was tired of seeing the MS-13 gang graffiti on the abandoned O&D right of way that the County turned into a bike trail. She is going to be happy when they are all forced to move out. I told her to be careful what she was hoping for. "At least they only prey on each other, so they don't get the Immigration and Customs guys called in. There are other people who don’t care." She said she didn't care about that. She just didn't feel safe walking around the neighborhood, and didn't care who was doing it. She just wanted them gone. The Letter Registered letters are real attention-getters, or at least they are once you have received one. That is what they call “experience,” which is actually the culmination of a lot of mistakes. It enables you to know when you are making one again. They look so official, what with the green sticker and the stamps all over. They carry the full authority of the US Postal Service, who has their own police force to enforce the proper handling of the mail. Ruth-the-Concierge had one for me at the desk in the formal lobby of Big Pink. When the air conditioning is running, it is an elegant way to enter the building, not like the plain concrete steps that lead up from the parking lot. I was coming back from the Harris Tweeter grocery store over in Ballston where I had secured a few supplies to fix a nice lunch for my older boy. He is working the eve shift at the Pentagon this week, and when I can I like to send him off well-fed. I like Ruth a lot, since she is unfailingly sunny in her disposition, but I could see she was concerned. Working at the desk, she has a chance to see just about every form of human emotion. Some are so severe that they have to be entered in the Red Book behind the counter in case follow-up action is required. She handed the letter to me, knowing there was bad news inside, and I put my groceries down on the desk and took it from her. She was eyeing the Red Book just in case. I looked at the address, realizing it was from the Ex, and sighed. We had been fairly cordial of late, and I had hoped some of the bitterness had diminished. The green official return-receipt on the envelope indicated it has not. I could have hurried up to my unit high over the pool to discover the contents, but decided I would get things out of the way. News travels fast in the building, and I thought it was best to get things out of the way by letting Rumor Central get the straight story. The envelope was remarkably thin, which like a letter from a college normally means you did not get in. I slit the end of it and slid the one page out. It started out with a curious salutation; it was addressed to my full Christian name, which only my Mother uses. It went on to say it was very difficult to demand what the last paragraph was going to demand, and then it had a paragraph with some numbers, and concluded by a request for a certified check in the amount of $86,060.13 by return post. There was another demand, for another $20,000 a year until I was dead, but there was no insistence that it be paid by return post, since the first installment is not due until next Wednesday. I took a deep breath and smiled. Attitude is everything, and a positive one is the best medicine. “The Ex is trying to ruin me,” I said brightly, and slid the letter on top of the container of tuna salad I intended to transform into a nice melted sandwich with American cheese on a Kaiser roll. The puffy buns had looked appealing in the bakery section, and I thought my son would like it with some fresh lettuce and a side salad and pickle. A list of numbers flickered through my head. After taxes and deductions, the letter insisted on a year's pay. Ruth looked concerned, and I told her not to worry about it. Then I picked up the groceries and walked to the bank of elevators and pushed the button. The door on the left opened, which was a little surprising. Normally when I have my hands full of groceries, the Service door is the one that responds, the one all the way to the right that closes just as you get to it. The contents, normally the eggs, suffer from the contact with the doors, so this was a bit of good luck. I unloaded the letter first, putting it on top of what I earnestly hoped were the last bills from my younger son's college next to the computer. Then and unpacked the vegetables and tuna salad and fresh rolls. I had a couple nice cucumbers- .69 cents apiece- which I was going to peel and cut into nice rounds to make a nice cucumber vinaigrette. I thought would be refreshing on a hot day. I had to watch what I was doing, since my hands were shaking and I did not want to slice the end of my fingers into the salad. This meant I was going to be in Big Pink the rest of my fucking life. Clear Cut I had intended to watch the Army-Navy Game over some free hot- dogs at the Club, but it was not going to be in the cards. I have had to adjust my membership status due to unforeseen circumstances, and it was probably better not to show my face around there for a while. I wound up feeling sorry for the Black Knights of the Hudson. Six straight years of losing the Big Game! More than half a decade, clear-cut in one direction. Since Michigan is on the same trajectory against the hated Buckeyes, I know how they are feeling. The rivalry is more than a century in the making, though, and there are tides in all the affairs of mankind. The book is supposed to be about the tide that sweeps over us all, viewed through the lens of the minor historical marvel here in Arlington that is the consumer culture writ in brick and concrete. Some hours of research at the central library revealed what happened some 27 years ago to Buckingham, a go-go market and a quick flip of undesirable properties on highly desirable land. The intent was to get in and get out quickly, a clear-cut operation. The Kinghoffer Group did it pretty well, displaying the face capitalism, red in tooth and claw. They managed to flip Big Pink and the Hyde Park over into private ownership, essentially removing any responsibility for the physical infrastructure, and sold a couple blocks of the garden apartments before the market went into a tail- spin. Interest rates were 12.8%- can you imagine it? Kinghoffer got out while the getting was good, and the eventual owners of the properties let them slide. The Vietnamese got out, too, and the rest of the huge campus hit the skids. I have bored you enough with that, but it has been interesting to see how Little Salvador and Guatemarlington came to be tucked in the middle of a resurgent area ripe for gentrification. That is the ticklish bit of the matter that has been simmering for years. There is no question that the actual owner of the land has the right to develop it; we have not slid so far from the Founders that the State is confiscating the property. Rather, there were endless negotiations on how much redevelopment would occur, and on what parts of the land. In exchange for keeping some 300-odd "affordable" rental units (subsidized by the taxpayers) Paragon Properties has been permitted the opportunity to erect high-density town homes "from the mid-$700's" on one third of the three Buckingham Village parcels. There will be perhaps 180 of these, should the market permit, and two large rental blockhouses will go up just across the parking lot from Big Pink. The Salvadorans are out of the equation; those that have papers will be permitted to have priority on the list for leases in the new places, but of course that is nowhere near the majority of the residents of the current gentile slum. The County says the affordable units are intended for our firemen and police and nurses, so they can stay and live here in the community. Of course that is disingenuous. What is actually happening is that the County is relocating the hard- core poor who are being displaced from other areas by gentrification elsewhere, mostly in South Arlington. I am curious about the interaction that will occur with the "mid- $700's" who will live at the back of the property line to the projects, since what is changing is the sheer density of the population. Of course, we have not dealt with the realities of the market. Some the steam has come out of the developing in Ballston, and I do not know if the new town houses will actually be built in this market. The Hyde Park, for example, is only half the structure that was intended to be constructed, and was never completed. If you walk around the back of the Harris Teeter market you can see where the concrete of the garage was intended to marry up with an identical mirror-image structure. It could be that the vacant lots will stay that way until the economy turns around again. The projects will come, though, since the busy workers have and the part of Buckingham that has been designated as "historic," which is a code word for preventing the property owner from knocking them down, which is what this is really all about, from the County perspective. I was walking in the darkness this week, an unavoidable feature of the season and gainful employment when I passed an old woman who is presumably a resident of the subsidized assisted living facility at Culpepper Gardens, which looms just outside my windows. I stepped off the concrete to let her pass unmolested, and as she did, she said: "Aren't you the brave soul." I blinked in the darkness, realizing that the frail woman has felt the change in the streets around Big Pink. The new rich are not here yet, and the property where the buildings will be constructed are still bare and fenced. They will be strident in their demand for security around their investments. The historic conversions of the old garden apartments up the road, beyond the current section being razed, are only now filling up with Arlington's underclass. But already an ominous difference is felt by those least able to deal with it. The rumble of the dump-trucks hauling away the remains of the old slum start at 0700, and the noise will go on for years. They are going to delve three stories deep in the earth to create garages, and the pile-drivers will be the next act in this story. Arlington is known as the city of trees. As the old low buildings emptied out and the chain link fences went up, the stately trees had numbers spray-painted on their trunks. I assumed, optimistically, that the trees were to be spared, and incorporated into the grounds of the big new buildings. Yesterday, I saw they had all been sawed down and piled up for the dump- trucks. The property is clear-cut, and the numbers must have been only to ensure that they got them all. The County will now determine who our neighbors will be. I am following the situation with a fair amount of interest, since the market means I cannot sell, and unlike the other residents of the Buckinghams, will be here for the foreseeable future. Big Pink is a nice campus. We shall see if we have to erect fences around the perimeter. Let's Talk Friday night on a holiday weekend. Big times in Big Pink. I wondered if I could stay awake to watch Ghost Whisperer and make it all the way through Moonlight. I like the Vampires on the latter show, since they are exceptionally well groomed and live so much better than the real-life versions. Apparently if you are actually immortal, the compound interest thing works out pretty well, and can get you through unsettled times. I could use some of that. I sat down in the brown chair, my legs aching, and the next thing I knew it was midnight. I traded the chair for bed, and the realm of dreams. I had taken a walk up 50, east, along the traffic headed out to the County. There is so little daylight now that despite the early hour the sun was directly in the eyes of the drivers. I limped under the Blessing Jesus that towers over the road at the Thomas Moore Cathedral. The prow of his retaining wall had created a wind shadow against the chill gales of the last few days, and the leaves were piled thick and crackling under my shoes and Christ's benediction. I passed the site of the new McDonalds restaurant and looked over at the pawn shop on the east side of Glebe, wondering if I should stop and see if there was a market for any of my junk. There was cash available there, and the Good Will two blocks south, where you can get tax credit for giving your stuff away free. I have been on both sides of that, cash and tax deductions, and it is nice to have that sort of flexibility right in the neighborhood. I crossed Glebe with the light, and lumbered down the gentle hill to the rise at the Columbia Gardens cemetery. This is the buttress end of Buckingham, where the garden apartments end and the little houses begin. It is virtually across the street from where the Army Spooks worked at Arlington Hall. With the leaves down, you can see the stately colonial lines of the main building across the eight lanes of concrete. Route 50 slices the County in half just as effectively as a gigantic paper- cutter. It is a moat at this point, slashed deep in the earth to permit surface traffic on Glebe, and the hurtling cars give it a sizzling sound like frying bacon. If it had not been widened, the suburbs would never have been possible. Nothing for a pedestrian to mess with, certainly. I thought about the dead man in front of Big Pink, and wondered what it was like for Rene Vaquez to live with the snarling road at his elbow, in his camp down at the bottom of the retaining wall, and what his plans had been for when the weather turned cold. Didn't matter now, of course. I wondered if they had ever found his family, and what the County had done with his remains. Back in the day, Route 50 was only two lanes, one east and one west, and there were traffic lights at the intersections. Cars stopped obediently where George Mason entered the formal entrance to the Buckingham neighborhood, and pedestrians could walk to work at the Hall without having a mad scramble across fifty yards of high-speed desolation. I was puffing a bit as I got to the driveway to the cemetery. I had only been there once before, by car, when I was surveying the area for a place to live. I decided to walk that way and see if the monuments would take my mind off the ache radiating from my knees. Columbia Gardens is thoroughly civilian, which is a change for me. Most of the dead with whom I interact regularly are military, and either reside, or are en route, Arlington. That is the Big League for eternity, and filled with more notables than you can shake a stick at. I am on that route as well, or at least that is the half-assed plan for what remains of me, eventually. I wonder if I should spray paint something on the wall of my bedroom as a reminder to the Arlington County workers who will wind up carting me away. I made a mental note, and then shrugged. Who cares? But all around me was the evidence that people do. There were some wild and futuristic monuments near the sales office of the Thomas & Thomas Monument Company. They have a clear fashion sense in the funerary market, having operated out of the Gardens since the year that construction started on Big Pink. The sign said that the Thomas's were graduates of the of the Elberton Granite Institute in Georgia, and specialized in both the latest technology and reverence for tradition. They are the only memorial company in the area that specializes in the art of “hand-cut, V-tooled lettering,” with on-site diamond etching. That was an impressive capability to have within walking distance of Big Pink, and there was a poster that showed their work for the notables at Arlington, which includes the Matthew Henson memorial that is now prominently placed in front of Admiral Peary on the bluff across from the Navy Annex side of the national cemetery. Their handiwork was also clearly evident in the newer memorials at Columbia Gardens. I looked around for a while, noting that the older graves, near the office were mostly rugged Anglo-Saxon names. Towards the back are Germans and Hungarians, and then a wild mixture of South Asian, Muslim, Vietnamese and Ethiopian graves that register the waves of immigration. I saw the work that the Thomas Company did for Francis Eugene Worley (1908-1974), born at Lone Wolf, OK. He served as the member of Congress for the 18th district of Texas, 1941-50, He resigned abruptly for reasons lost to stone, and died in Naples, FL. Why he is here, I don't know. The other Congressman I could find on a cursory look was Charles Noel Crosby (1876-1951), who represented Pennsylvania's 29th District in the years they were building Buckingham. Ditto on the honorable Crosby; why not a plot in PA? The light was dying and my knees hurt. The Gardens is a much smaller venue than Arlington, a neighborhood place, though large enough to occupy an hour's time when the sun is lowering and the leaves are heaped on the rippling ground. I was looking for an exit that did not take me back to the whizzing traffic and came across an odd monument, a boulder, really, rough-hewn. It had a sort of ledge knocked into one end, and the name “Flynn” on the side. Small letters on the ledge spelled out “Sit down, Let's talk.” I took him up on his offer, though kept my thoughts to myself. Mr. Flynn's bolder was cold, but it was good to get the weight off the legs. From his plot I was surprised to see the number of Japanese graves, with the characters in Kanji. I have never met any Japanese people in the immediate area, but then I slapped my head. The dates on the stones- in western numbers- were just right for them owners to have been alive during the big Japanese language project at Arlington Hall, 1942-45, and there were many stones with Russian names inscriptions in Cyrillic. They worked on many other projects at the Hall that required the skills of native Russian speakers and Eastern European language skills. I realized that this section of the cemetery was populated with fellow Spooks. It made me feel at home, a little like Arlington. In time, I thanked Mr. Flynn for his hospitality. I briefly considered if I should contact Thomas & Thomas and make arrangements to provide a future service for visitors to the cemetery and put it aside. The newer graves toward the back gate are largely Hispanic, and some of the markers are not of hard granite, but wood. Some are nicely crafted, and others rudely carved. It seems as though the churches with their Spanish-speaking evening congregations must be providing a communal burial service for the indigent members of their community. I was too tired to look, but it is entirely possible that Rene Vaquez is in the Gardens somewhere, under a narrow wooden cross that simply that says: “In Ri.” I gave way to a sedan filled with Indian women at the little circle at the back gate, and they waved with grave courtesy. Outside the gate, the houses are modest brick, but with individual character, unlike the identical boxes of the ones in Arlington Forest on the west side of Big Pink. Trudging up the hill past the tunnel under Route 50, and the moon and the wind began to rise at my back. It was cold, but not bitter.
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