Unlike a lot of other men who are now parents, I don’t consider the first time I changed a diaper to be the point at which I stopped being cool. And no, it wasn’t when there were no longer any bars where I was a friend of the bartender. It wasn’t even when we moved here to Front Royal and ate, for the first time, at a Cracker Barrel restaurant.
No, I stopped being cool well before I ever set foot in Front Royal. It happened after Heather and I left DC for that townhouse in Alexandria when I, for the first time in my life, mowed a lawn. Having been a city kid, and having lived in either apartments or a narrow row house that had no grass anywhere near it (not even in the back, because that was where you parked your car), mowing the lawn was something I’d never done. Indeed, it was the act which, for me, embodied the abject horrors that were the everyday chores, and—dare I say—duties, of living in the suburbs.
After all, cool is really all in your head. And though there are people who mow lawns and live in the suburbs who are cool, for me, mowing a lawn for the first time was what made me lose it. Gone was that feeling that I was on top on things, that I had a certain kind of presence and charisma, that I could do things with style. And when I first pushed that lawnmower through the overgrown grass behind our townhouse in Alexandria—when the words “wow, the grass is starting to look nice now” went through my head—was when I officially became a suburbanite. No big deal if you’ve lived in suburbs all your life, but dammit, I was a city person.
Growing up in DC, and going to a Catholic grade school in downtown DC, I wasn’t acquainted with anyone from the suburbs. The suburbs, to me, were a big, incomprehensible, and perhaps even cruel place. We’d pass through the suburbs from time to time, and rather than being impressed by the sight of less congested streets with buildings that were spread apart instead of crammed all together like people on a crowded bus, I was appalled and frightened.
But because I grew up during the cold war sixties, one thing the suburbs had going for them was that they were outside the center of the city—which isn’t to say this was something I liked about them. Still, these were the days when seeing when seeing a fallout shelter sign on a building was supposed to make you feel safer—or, at any rate, prepared. If the Russians (who, as we were told, were these scary, godless people on the other side of the world) ever dropped the bomb, Washington would be the primary target and us Washingtonians would be first to go. This sort of made us dare devils or thrill seekers even. And, although we lived in the center of town—our Dupont Circle apartment building was only a mile from the White House—we were, in a way, living on the edge. In other words, this (at least to me) made us kind of cool.
Yet, among the things I prayed for—yes, I did pray in those days before I blossomed into a fallen Catholic—was that the Russians wouldn’t drop the atomic bomb on us. That, and that I’d never get the “waterhead” disease my brother once showed me a picture of in a medical book. And, last but not least, that we’d never move to the suburbs.
My family nearly moved there when we’d outgrown our apartment. I shudder to think what would have become of me had we moved to Beltsville—or whatever suburb it was that had the house, with the lawn surrounded by a white picket fence, which we almost decided to buy. Surely, if we hadn’t just moved a little bit further out from Dupont Circle to DC’s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, I’d never have made it past my depressing, disconnected teen years. Those years when I could easily walk to a bookstore (those days before you could find things “online”) and buy Naked Lunch or On The Road or Invisible Man; a record store where I could easily find Albert Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice and Sun Ra’s Magic City; and the old Circle Theater, where for just a dollar I could see L’Avventura, The Seven Samurai, Black Orpheus, or Murmur of the Heart.
Back then, there was nowhere else where I could easily find these things. Certainly there was nowhere else where I could have come in contact with so many different cultures. From the Filipino barber we went to in Chinatown to the Salvadoran grocer on Mt. Pleasant Street to Ben’s Chili Bowl down on U Street, I saw people who didn’t look like most of the people I saw on TV. And, I saw a lot of them—people who I felt had some concept of my experience with America.
And during these cold war years, nothing happened. Sure, we had the riots in 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated—riots which left 14th Street, just two blocks away from our house, looking like a war zone. But, unlike some people, we stayed—and I doubt that the possibility of leaving even entered our minds. We stayed even though we now had an eight-month old child in our house (my brother, Pat). We stayed because this was home. And, we stayed because being afraid of the riots or the bomb or anything else wasn’t going to do us any good.
So my family survived the cold war without a Russian bomb being dropped on Washington or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter. And we survived the riots, though it took a while before 14th Street was built up again. Nowadays, with a Target department store, new restaurants, and even upscale businesses, 14th Street is a place we hardly recognize. And, if my parents were moving into DC now, there’s not a chance in hell that they’d be able to afford that house off of Mt. Pleasant Street.
As for Heather and me, we weren’t in DC anymore. The apartment we had on Connecticut Avenue across from the National Zoo (when we first moved in together this was our neighborhood) seemed far in the past. Now, we weren’t even in the suburbs—we were in Front Royal, Virginia, in the wilds of the Shenandoah Valley, where it felt as if we there were a new cold war going on.
I’m not sure when it finally dawned on us what we were in the middle of. Maybe it was in 2008, when during election season the Obama signs in our front yard kept getting stolen or destroyed. Maybe it was when it we noticed that the cars around us whenever we drove through town had bumper stickers saying things like “Where Guns Are Outlawed, Terrorists Need Only Boxcutters,” “Rebel Pride,” or “Welcome to America, Now Speak English.” Or maybe it was that time, after Obama had already become president, when I was waiting in the car while Heather ran into the post office. That time when, flipping through the dial on the a.m. radio, I discovered that in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, the place we now called home, there were eight different stations that carried the Rush Limbaugh show. That, I thought, was pretty fucking scary.
All this, of course, was when Donald Trump’s most visible achievement had been to become the asshole businessman in residence on a reality TV show. Back when the number one racist goon in American media—or at any rate the one who was running neck and neck with Rush Limbaugh for that title—was Glenn Beck. It was something of a war, with the battles going like this: Limbaugh, in response to President Obama’s idea that 9-11 should perhaps be a day dedicated to community service, proclaiming “Community service is one of the baby steps toward fascism”; followed by Beck topping that by declaring his certainty that Obama had “a deep-seated hatred for white people.”
The message during this new cold war, as with the first, was “Be Afraid.” But this time we weren’t focusing on Russia but on other countries and other people. It was be afraid of these Mexicans, be afraid of these Muslims, hell, it was pretty much be afraid of anyone a little darker than white. Plus, be afraid of this president who, oh-my-God-look-at-him, he’s black! It was a fear that seemed more prevalent the farther you got from the city. It was a call on conservatives, right-wingers, and anyone who just didn’t know what to think to take things one step further and join the 21st Century-hating, illegal-alien-hating, oh-no-we’re-moving-toward-socialism, Tea Party Protest state of mind.
In an attempt to seize the racist moment, Glenn Beck, in his infinite lack of wisdom, came up with what he called his “9-12 Project,” the premise of which was to “take back the control of our country” by returning it to the state of mind it was in on September 12, 2001, the day after the attacks.
And while I agreed that September 11 was a dark day in American history—which, like December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, would live in infamy—shouldn’t August 6, 1945, when the U.S. dropped that quaintly named nuclear bomb, “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima, have similar status? Why wasn’t the day when America immediately snuffed out some 70,000 lives in less than a minute (with as many as another 70,000 deaths to come by the end of the year through radiation related illnesses) commemorated more often on bumper stickers? And why didn’t anyone think like Glenn Beck and call for us to return to the state of mind we were in on August 7, 1945, the day after we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? Oh wait, that’s because we followed Hiroshima with another nuclear weapon, detonated over Nagasaki, on August 9. (Hey, Glenn! Hey, Tea Partiers! What about The August 10 Project? It would, you know, make things fair and balanced?)
It was bad enough that adults were falling for this idiocy, but surely there will be, as they say, a special place in hell, for Beck and Limbaugh and others like them for whatever children may have fallen under their spell. For those kids who, because of what they saw from their Tea Party parents or from Fox News, came to believe that it was all right to fear those who were different. That there wasn’t anything wrong with hating them.
And it was back then, somewhere toward the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. When I was walking down Main Street here in Front Royal and getting one of those sideways glances from some kid, or sitting on my front porch to see some twenty-year old in a pick-up truck sneer at me as he drives by, or paying for something at a store and being the only one who gets asked for ID when he uses a credit card. It was then that I realized there was a party going on and a war. I wasn’t invited to the party, and war, for some Americans, is something that isn’t always fought overseas.
And, as the twenty-first century lurched ahead and Glenn Beck’s 9-12 Project fizzled out like a bad sparkler and Rush Limbaugh lost more and more of his sponsors and found fewer and fewer stations willing to air his radio show, there was an opportunity waiting to be taken. That’s where Donald Trump slipped through—or pried open the door, or found the back entrance. Whatever the case, he’s here now, speaking loudly, his eyes bulging out from their sockets as he makes gestures of terrible significance with his small hands.
Top photograph by Jose Padua