Mr. Noble Goes to Washington
By Richard E. Noble
I was in Washington D.C. once in my life. I was a teenager, so I am rather amazed that I can remember anything at all about the whole experience. But strangely enough, I have vivid memories that have lodged in my mind and for some reason they have never gone away.
It is my opinion as a wannabe writer for most of my adult life that when and if memories won’t disappear that is because somebody “up there” wants me to write about them. [I think sometimes I have been watching too much Oprah.]
My older sister was a rather daring young woman. She ran off, in her early twenties, with her coat and hat, a couple of five dollar suitcases, a 55 Mercury with a smashed in driver’s side door - compliments of her little brother - and got herself a job in Washington D.C.
She had been there for a few years and the only way we knew that she was alive was via her weekly letters home and the small regular check she sent to help out at home. She had been doing well; in fact, she was now an executive secretary for some big-shot in a newspaper. She had moved out of the YWCA and into some fancy apartment up on the tenth floor of this big apartment complex in one of the better parts of town. She was very proud of herself and she begged me and my older brother to come for a visit.
Neither my brother nor I had a pot to pee in and he had this old clunker of a car - but we decided to go anyway. It might be the only chance that either of us would ever get to go to the nation’s capital.
It was a beautiful apartment building with elevators, carpeting in the halls - the whole works. Everything on the inside of the apartment was the latest stuff - new refrigerator and stove, fancy sink, spiffy bathroom, a dinning room table; my sister had bought all the furniture and the whole place looked like something out of a slick decorator magazine. It was a far cry from what we had back home or anything that we had grown up with.
But my first big memory came that evening at bedtime. My sister rolled this fold-up bed out of one of the closets and proceeded to set up this make-shift contraption in the efficiency kitchen. My brother and I both looked at one another. My sister had spent her whole life on a hide-a-bed in our tiny parlor back home in Lawrence. My brother and I had a room with one big bed off the kitchen but my sister never had her own room. Now here we were visiting her in her fancy upscale apartment in Washington D.C. and she was going to sleep on a pull-out bed in the efficiency kitchen. Immediately my brother stepped forward.
“This will be perfect,” he said. “But where is Richard going to sleep?”
“No, no, no!” my sister said laughing. “You guys are the guests - you get the bedroom.”
We went round and round but my sister would have none of it. We would sleep in her new deluxe king-sized bed with the designer bedspread and all the big city fancy things.
So that is the first memory that I can’t get out of my mind - my sister in her million dollar apartment sleeping in the “pantry” or whatever.
My next memory has several facets.
We went to see Charlie Byrd, the famous jazz guitarist and June Christy, a great ex-vocalist for the Stan Kenton orchestra. The show was taking place at some famous jazz club in the D.C. area - naturally the jazz club was smack-dab in the middle of a section of town that looked like downtown Baghdad circa 2007. We had met one of my big brother’s college buddies and he drove. He had rented a new model car for the weekend.
The show was unbelievable. To this day I can still picture both Charlie Byrd and June Christy up on that tiny stage in this rather cozy, low rent nightclub. When I looked up at June Christy standing there, so beautiful and so talented, on that inadequate stage in this back-street dive - I thought of my sister sleeping in the pantry.
Why was this phenomenal talent, here, in the country that gave birth to this super-creative music, standing up there in the latter years of her career, in a beautiful presidential gown singing her heart out in a back room speakeasy down in the combat zone of Washington D.C.?
When we left the show and returned to our rented car, the side window had been shattered and the glove compartment ransacked.
So that’s memory number two.
Memory number three was a curious happenstance. We were downtown seeing the sites. Being about eighteen, I was in love at every street corner. I never saw so many beautiful young women in all my life. There was a crowd of what appeared to me to be movie starlets waiting at every crosswalk. And they were speaking and talking to me as if I was actually alive and on their level of existence. I felt like The Great Impostor - a book I had just finished that was written by this guy from my hometown.
One of these beautiful starlets dressed in a women’s business suit looked me right in the eye and asked me how to get someplace.
All that I could see was this lovely, smooth complicated face draped in auburn curls and these two, big, brown eyes fluttering at me. My brother saw my dilemma and began speaking on my behalf. I wanted to start signing something at her with my hands so that she wouldn’t think that I was some kind of idiot.
But that is not the third memory.
We were standing in front the White House or the Capital Building or whatever and I wanted to take a picture of one or the other of those buildings. I had a little Kodak view finder type camera and I couldn’t get the entire building in my site thing-a-ma-gig. So I began hiking up Pennsylvania Ave. - every now and then stopping to take a peek into my view finder.
Finally I had the whole building in my sights. Just as I was about to snap my picture I heard a clatter off to the right of me. I turned with a start and there in an alley besides an abandoned boarded-up building was a small colony of tramps. One guy, in his Salvation Army, give-away overcoat was holding up the lid to a garbage can and foraging. Another guy was sitting on the ground with his back up against the building finishing off the last swallow of a bottle of whiskey, or wine or rubbing alcohol or something. There were several others guys just laying around on the ground sleeping it off. There were two other equally destitute guys sitting on the cement steps in front of the boarded up building.
I had been to Skid Row once in New York City. This scene was reminiscent of any number of the visions I had been privileged to on that occasion. But what I could never forget was this skid-row vision on Pennsylvania Ave. which was a modest number of paces from the center of the “Greatest Nation in the Modern World.”
That picture of the Capital of the United States of America has never left my mind.
In later readings I stumbled onto the historical fact that the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson, Ellen Louise Axson, had taken it upon herself - as the “project” for the first lady - to clean up the embarrassing streets and neighborhood surrounding the White House. That was in 1914. Then I think Eleanor Roosevelt started a similar project in the 1940’s. And then in the late sixties or early seventies there was a story on the nightly news about a group of Vietnam Veterans who had set up a homeless shelter in an abandoned building right around the corner on down the road from the White House. It seems that the government was trying to have them evicted but they refused to leave without the government promising them a space to set up their operations elsewhere.
I haven’t been back to Washington D.C. but I have always wondered if they ever got that disgraceful business cleaned up.
I’ve got the Lawrence, Massachusetts curse – I see slums everywhere I go. I see the garbage in the alleys, the paint chipping and peeling on the dwellings and businesses, the desperate people. I see poverty. I see poverty everywhere. I see broken windows and abandoned buildings. I see unkempt parks and deserted playgrounds. But most of all I see people struggling, scrounging, selling themselves for nickels and dimes. It is like something out of Kafka. One day I woke up in Lawrence and realized that I was living in a slum. Now I see slums everywhere. And the slums are filled with slum dwellers … millions of them.