Monday, June 22, 2009

You Don't Want to Live Inside the Beltway

When this whole blogging phenomenon started (basically when Google bought Blogger and it became easy -- and free) I toyed briefly with a blog about living in the suburbs and working in DC and all the fun, interesting things that happened to me on my soul-sucking commute. I prepared, but never really published, a top 10 list of the reasons I prefer living way out.

Perspective is a persnickety thing, but lucky for me I have gained some. So now I have added reasoning as well as rebuttals to most if not all of them. Some of them are long and involved.

Which makes the whole idea of a Top 10 moot, but allows me to create a new category tag which I shall call "Top 10" but will actually be a running list of reasons I used to delude myself as to why living in suburbs and working in the city is vastly preferable to BOTH living AND working in the city and reasoned arguments debunking them.

So without further adieu, let's examine number 1:

You don't want to live inside the beltway

Now before anyone starts anything let me be perfectly frank: Bitch, please. I grew up in Prince Georges County. In PG County "You don't want to live inside the beltway" was practically a mantra that everyone in my hometown quietly muttered under their breath as they went about their business. Inside the beltway in PG was where the wild things were. They were the stuff of legend and nightmares, names barely uttered aloud for fear of what might happen: District Heights, Suitland and (shudder) Anacostia. Growing up, I heard all the stories.

Personal experience only reinforced the reality of it to me. In the mid 1970s when Metro finally opened, my only experience was riding the Orange line from New Carrollton into the city. The view along that end of the Orange line before one goes below ground is a bleak landscape populated by urban decay. It wasn't much better driving into the city, as anyone who has approached DC using New York Avenue can attest.

I went to high school right outside the beltway and the students who bussed in from inside the beltway told harrowing tales of muggings and gangland rumbles at fast-food joints, a far cry from my John Hughes-style suburban cocoon where families regularly left their houses unlocked when they went for an evening stroll in the neighborhood and 10-year-old children were sent outside to play and left to their own devices.

I attended the University of Maryland at College Park, perhaps the one place inside the beltway that was the exception to the rule. Of course, driving into DC (where I had grandfathered in to drink legally at the age of 18) continued to reinforce my perception of inside the beltway as unsuitable to live.

Perhaps if I had grown up in Montgomery County (where the toniest of neighborhoods reside inside) or even Virginia (where everyone in Fairfax thinks Arlington's streets are paved with gold) I might have a different perspective, but I didn't.

Even after I graduated and started working downtown at the PNP, I faced a constant reminder that the city was unsafe. My MARC-train commute dropped me off at Union Station, leaving me to walk up Massachusetts Avenue to my office. Let me tell you, in the 1990s Massachusetts Avenue, NW was nothing like the condo canyon it is today. Where Buddha Bar will soon be opening, there was a rat-infested tenement high-rise. All along the area now known as Mount Vernon Triangle there were vacant lots and abandoned row-houses. I remember one strip of 4 houses standing by themselves in the middle of nothing, only one occupied by an old Asian couple who would throw their stale rice on the sidewalks to feed the pidgeons and practice their tai chi every morning in the chain-link fence enclosed front yard.

Since then, experience has shown me that there are areas inside the beltway worth living in. I did some time in Virginia, where inside the beltway the violent crime and homicide rates are less than the whole of Montgomery County. And years of taking post-work walks through Georgetown, Rock Creek Park and up Connecticut Avenue, NW, not to mention the newly revitalized Mount Vernon Triangle (which is now devoid of the scary tenement and many of those vacant lots) have shown me a vibrant, exciting city that I want to live in, with an active nightlife, cultural events and throngs of consumer options.

So I recant. I do want to live inside the Beltway. And to anyone who ever utters the mantra "You don't want to live inside the beltway" I say: Bitch please.....get out of Prince Georges County.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sitcom Aborted, Failure to Launch (Part 2)

Now where was I?

In the early 1990s when I first started working for the prestigious non-profit (hence force known as the PNP) 14th street was the red light district. There was still a strip club and an adult peep show down by Franklin Square. I had a view of dayshift prostitutes plying their wares outside my office window (seriously!) and you never went north of Thomas Circle, unless you were dying for some Popeye's fried chicken, then you took your chances. There was even a chinese restaurant ironically named "The Good Ho".

Sometime after 2000 it all changed. I think it was that day when we all woke up and found a Whole Foods and two luxury apartment buildings had magically appeared on the 1400 block of P Street, Northwest. Suddenly all those abandoned car dealerships and warehouses became ripe for gentrification.

So one late spring day in 2004 I decided to take my lunch and go check out the Whole Foods and the new revitalized 14th Street. After grabbing a chicken flauta from the prepared foods section I went for a stroll, passing an old car dealership with a sales center on the first floor (I think it's now a bank). Since I was a kid I loved shopping for real estate, never missing a chance to check out model units, so true to form sauntered in, thinking I could take a tour. Yeah, they were no where near ready, but this being the beginning of the real estate bubble, they were almost sold out. AND THEY WERE LOFTS! DC never had lofts..........

There was one 1BR, Den unit left. This was my 3-5 off suit. They wanted $300K. I did the math. Having recently had an appraisal to get rid of PMI, I knew what my current condo was worth and with the equity I had accumulated, I knew I could make the mortgage payments on that loft easy. I was ready to call. I was ready to see the flop. Then the pot-bully the form of the earnest money deposit.

They wanted a check for 5% of the purchase price. And the kicker? They weren't expecting to deliver units for 18-24 months. So let me get this straight, I asked. "You want me to give you 15 THOUSAND DOLLARS to hold on to for up to 2 years to secure a loft, sight unseen?"

I folded.

Bad idea.

In retrospect, given my recent appraisal, I could have opened a home equity line of credit for the amount they wanted and easily make the monthly payments. But I could have never foreseen what would happen in the market. By the time I realized my mistake, the unit was sold.

Even worse, by the time those units were actually delivered my condo had appreciated so much that it was worth almost what I would have paid for the loft. I could have swapped my current condo (20 miles outside the city) for a loft in the heart of the new Northwest and ended up with a mortgage that was only slightly larger than my current mortgage. We're talking a monthly payment of $800 plus condo fees for a 1BR, Den in Logan. I folded and the flop completed my straight and all I can say is "What was I thinking?"

Sitcom aborted, failure to launch, because I'm a timid poker player.

Never again............

P.S. Those lofts are now reselling for $500K.

Repeat: What was I thinking?

Sitcom Aborted, Failure to Launch (Part 1)

So I'm partcipating in poker night at a bar downtown (I can't be wallowing in self pity all alone every night) and I find myself in a situation that anyone who plays Texas Hold 'Em will find familiar. And it reminds me that this isn't the first time I've considered moving downtown, and could just kick myself.

Cards are dealt and I find myself with two cards that many people would often fold but I tend to find interesting (important information for anyone who plays poker with me about to be revealed). They're low cards, they're not suited and they're not connectors. They are close enough to each other that they could conceivably complete a straight and I'm in the small blind, which means it's only 10 chips for me to call, which is what I was prepared to do..........

Someone at my table either was dealt a pocket pair or decided they wanted to buy the pot before the flop because by the time the bet came around to me it was 300 chips to stay in the game. Did I mention I was the short stack at the table? Calling 300 would leave me with little else, so I would have been forced to go in. I don't know about you, but I did not want to be the guy who went out of the tournament first because he was deluded enough to go all in with a 3-5 off suit.

So I folded.

The flop completed the straight.

The pot-bully had pocket Aces. Betting was fierce.

Had I stayed in I would have more than quadrupled my stack. As it was I only lasted a few more hands before I was out of game and down at the bar tossing back Maker's and coke to numb the agony of defeat.

That's when I started to realize how similar this situation was to that fateful lunchtime walk I took back in 2004, when a potential sitcom was summarily aborted due to lack of funds.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The first rule of sitcoms......

Single characters do not live in the suburbs. I know this isn't a hard and fast rule, but how many sitcoms do you know set in the suburbs where the principle character is single (and not a single parent or a teenager?) No, those sitcoms are always set in a remote location (like Nantucket or Boulder, Colorado) or in a city like New York or Washington, DC.

Single characters in the suburbs are always relegated to the pathetic best friend or sister who can't seem to find/keep a decent relationship. These characters are never principles. The show does not revolved around them. They are a second-string comic relief in the form of a running gag that repeats from show to show.

Single principles should live in the city (unless they are Reba).

Think about it. "Happy Days" was set in the suburbs, but when it came time for a spinoff about two single women living together ("Laverne and Shirley") they whisked them off to the big city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

So, I need to move to the city. DC here I come!

Where's My Sitcom?

How did it all go so horribly wrong?

Twenty years ago, when I graduated college I had my whole life ahead of me and it was going to be an adventure. I had a professional fulltime job at an office in downtown Washington, DC, working for a presitigious non-profit, with a bunch of other young, single, hip professionals (can we still say hip?). Yeah, it was entry-level and the pay was just okay, but it was enough.

In addition to all my new, young, single coworkers and professional colleagues, there were also all my old friends from college, many who hadn't graduated yet and still were in 7-day-a-week party mode.

Despite living at home with my parents (which was standard for Generation X in the 90s, and only temporary in my case) my life was a non-stop succession of lavish business trips (well, lavish for a non-profit), drunken bar crawls, cultural events and happy hours.

I still remember fondly Tuesdays at Sfuzzi with the Capital Hill crowd, drinking the eponymous peach bellini-inspired drinks that came with a free italian buffet. And who could forget the warehouse party scene of the 1990s, desperately searching nightclubs every Friday and Saturday night for that one person who was in the know and could score you the phone number you needed to call the next afternoon to get the location and password to attend that underground party with the coconut-scented chill room and over-amped house music off some back alley under the Whitehurst freeway?

And then there was that beer tasting we all attended for the City Paper personals section. In order to qualify for the door prize (a mixed case of microbrews) we actually had to submit an ad. Everyone in our group, guys and girls alike, wrote eloquent ISOs and submitted them and then, like the adventurous literary crowd that we were, kept everyone up to date on all the disasterous dates using that new technology......what was it? Oh, yes, E-mail! We kept each other laughing for weeks. I still have all the e-mails archived somewhere and go back and read them for a laugh. Who needed Facebook? Who even imagined Facebook?

That was my life. A new entertaining adventure every week, brought to you by a single group of friends living just outside the city. In the age of "Friends" and "Seinfeld" it really was just like being in your own sitcom.


What happened?

Twenty years (and a string of failed relationships) later I find myself single and living by myself in a two bedroom condo that I own 20 miles outside Washington, DC. Five days a week I drag my ass out of bed at the crack of dawn to sit on my oversized sofa eating my Cheerios while watching Matt, Meredith, Al and Ann all trade inane banter between interviews with guests who are ostensibly there to discuss the news of the day but in reality are pushing their latest book/reality TV project. Then its a soul-sucking 60 minute drive/park/walk/subway/walk some more combo commute to the office where I spend the next eight hours forcing myself to get something done so my boss at the prestigious non-profit doesn't think I'm a complete layabout. Afterwards, a little exercise at the gym before enduring another marathon combo commute home, just in time to drown my sorrows in a bottle of wine over "I'm a Celebrity....Get Me Out of Here" before passing out and repeating it all again the next day.

My fabulous collection of single friends that supplied my weekends with a neverending carousel of wine festivals, concerts, hiking trips and Gold Cups, one-by-one exited the single life, trading condos for townhouses and townhouses for single family homes, with all the lawn mowing and other Saturday upkeep they require. My social life on a Saturday night has been reduced to conversations with a three-year-old about Thomas the Train at a suburban California Pizza Kitchen so populated by young families it is nearly indistinguishable from a Chuck E. Cheese (except maybe better food and no games or animatronic characters).

Not only are none of my friends single anymore, they no longer have any single friends to set me up with. There are no singles living in my building. The bars in the mall across the street where all the single folk hang out have closed (probably due to lack of business, I'm sensing a mini-trend here).

My sitcom, in short, has turned into an American tragedy at worst or a prime-time dramedy at best. I'm not quite sure.

What I am sure of is that this is no longer working. I don't want a suburban dramedy. I want an urban sitcom.

Where's my sitcom?