Friday, August 28, 2009

Hoya Saxa

I was in line at this place called "Ben's Chili Bowl," which was packed because it's like 1 a.m. and god knows that's when people like to eat fries smothered in meat and melted cheese, and there's a handwritten sign behind the counter. It says:

People Who Eat Here Free:
Bill Cosby
Barack Obama (but he paid!)

This is U St., the hip black neighborhood that birthed Duke Ellington and rivaled Harlem for its cultural dominance. But the assortment of folks that are overflowing out of this diner joint are a multi-colored mix of people at all points in their night. Everyone has resigned to the fact that eventually The Place to Be is always where they make the food delicious and cheap and messy.

While I was in line for my order of chili cheese fries, I saw a stack of a newspaper I have yet to see yet in DC. The Washington Informer is the African-American paper of this city, whose majority population is of course seemingly ignored by the Post. But the Informer certainly isn't the black New York Times. Page One has an article about how Obama is standing up to those who oppose his health care reform bill. How he's silencing critics and laying the smack down. If only. Next to the papers was a poster that immediately caught my eye:

First Annual DC Basketball Charity Game, Georgetown's McDonough Gymnasium, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Sam Cassell, Michael Beasley, Jeff Green, and more!, $20, preceded by the Washington AAU team vs. Baltimore AAU.

I got to the fourth word before I thought to myself, "I'm there."

When they were building the DC Metro system, the people of the Georgetown neighborhood decided they didn't want a subway line running through it. They certainly didn't want their little slice of historic urban chic to be muddled by riff-raff. So, instead I had to take a bus to get to that part of town (how inconvenient!). The "strip" where I got off is Wisconsin Ave., an endless queue of high-end retail, and restaurants with $18 entrées. Between this and the University are several iconic blocks of residential housing. Cute little townhouse after cute little townhouse. Supposedly there are lots of congressman that live here part-time, but because the neighborhood is so expensive some have begun to share rooms with other congressmen. They say politics makes strange bedfellows, we just call that College.

This was my first time back at GU since April 2006. When I was a junior in high school, this campus served as the first stop on a seven-school tour of East Coast higher education. What sticks in my mind the most is the architecture, which is like nothing in California: old, gothic, stately, powerful, and really old.

On a Summer Sunday afternoon, the grounds were pretty empty, except for a trickle of people heading over to the gymnasium on the far side of campus. McDonough gymnasium is the recreational basketball court for the University. The team now plays its real games at the Verizon Center in Downtown DC, but this is still hollowed ground. On the opposite wall, are framed NBA jerseys of all the Hoyas to make it to the Association and the list is stunning: Ewing (Knicks #33), Iverson (76ers #3), Mourning (Hornets #33), Mutumbo (Nuggets #55). This is most certainly Hoya Country, but no one in the crowd looks remotely like a Catholic School Preppie. Almost everyone in the stands, like all the players on the court and the players with their names on the wall, is black. At a school whose student body is just 6.7% African-American, it is mostly people from the other side of the city (54.4% black overall) that came out today to see some basketball.

The first of the two exhibition match-ups was the AAU game. The kids were all around 15 or 16 years old, an age where no one is at the same stage of physical growth. Some were tall and muscular, but still walked around the court like they were renting someone else's body. Some were dwarfed in size by their teammates, but often made themselves the center of attention by motoring under and around the giants. Pretty soon it became apparent that one kid ("Josh" as one screaming woman behind me made quite obvious) had stolen the show. Beating his opponents on the dribble at the perimeter and dodging the outstretched arms of forwards with twisting flourishes, he was scoring almost at will. Then, on one play, he finished with a powerful and-one dunk. The crowd erupted for about five minutes with more hollering than applause, but still impressed nonetheless. At first Josh tried to keep his poker face, the perfect scowl of an athlete in the heat of competition, but eventually a wide smile broke free across his face as he soaked in the waves of adoration coming from the 360-degree audience.

Soon, a tall, lanky man strolled across the gym, doling out hugs and handshakes to anyone who'd ask and attracting the gaze of nearly everyone. This is Kevin Durant: NBA Rookie of the Year, consensus NCAA Player of the Year, and DC-area native. Of course, by this point word had gotten around through the stands that most of the other superstars had "conflicting engagements." This was Miami Heat forward Michael Beasley's excuse. But no one really seemed to care now that KD was in the building.

The main event itself had a bit of a rough start. This is exhibition summer basketball, so naturally that means that any defense that might have accidently found its way into the arena has evaporated through the air vents. Some people were yelling about how they wanted their 20 bucks back. The teams were made up of mostly local names: "Baby Shaq" from the And1 Streetball Tour, Syracuse's Donte Green. But best of all was the kid from the AAU game, obviously its MVP. Now, just as the crowd's frustration was reaching its peak, this kid Josh got down in a true defensive stance, knees bent, arms out. John Thompson III, the Hoyas renowned head coach, who sat at the far end of the gym, would have been proud. When his opponent made a move to the left, Josh stuck his hand in between the crossover and knocked the ball loose. Recovering the ball, he threw a lob down court to none other than NBA All-Star Kevin Durant, waiting in the open key to throw down a terrific Tomahawk Dunk. Not many 16-year olds get those kind of assists.
The highlight of the game was when Durant (who, for all his pomp and circumstance, played in the same outfit I wore during JV high school ball) and his now-teammate with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Georgetown's own, Jeff Green got into a full-on duel. The other players would clear out and let them go at it one-on-one. Dunk. Dunk. Trey. Trey. The crowd had forgotten its anger and relaxed to enjoy that rare sweet sound of 250 combined points in the heart of basketball's off-season.

Monday, August 17, 2009

24 Hours in NYC: A Lesson in Perfect Timing

I had it all planned out. To the second.
Out of bed at 7:15. To the metro by 8:00. Library of Congress at 8:30, just in time for them to open the doors and me to retrieve my apartment key which I had left at their security checkpoint the day before. Back on the metro by 8:45. Dupont Circle by 9:15 just in time to board the bus for a 5-hour ride to NYC. Off the bus at Penn Station and onto the subway by 3:00. Take the 7 train to Queens' Mets/Willets Point stop in plenty of time for Johan Santana's 4:10 Opening Pitch to my beloved Giants at the brand-new Citi Field.

It was 851 when I found myself in the Library of Congress' Basement Room 40: Office of Police Affairs, home of the library's one Lost and Found (if the building suffered from a kidney stone, this is where it would be lodged) that I could see that First Pitch fade away out of my reach.
"A key?" the officer working the desk said from behind a dixie cup coffee. "If it's anywhere, it's not here. They might have it back up at the front door though."
So it was. From there to my seat in Section 516, Row 11 of New York's National League baseball stadium, 238 miles away, I was a navigating machine; a sweaty, anxious mess of maps and schedules overcoming long-gone busses, aimless tourist masses, and 90-degree temperatures, just in time for... the start of the Fourth Inning.

I had brought the excitement with me though. Matt Cain, the Giants' All-Star starter and Cy Young candidate was working on a shutout when - just as I arrived - he beamed Mets' All-Star third-baseman David Wright in the helmet with a misplaced  fastball. You can bet the Newyawkas went crazy over that one. In a season where it seems every one of the Mets' overpaid "stars" (and there are lots) has gone down to injury, this was just another nail in the team's gaudy blue and orange coffin (I'm NOT kidding).
Aside from the rather hairy, sweaty man seated in front of me, the new stadium is quite nice. It helped that I saw it on such a nice summer evening with a slight, cool breeze taking the edge off the humidity. One thing that struck me was how much the Mets were trying to play off the Brooklyn Dodgers' history (aka not their own). Citi Field's main fan entrance behind home plate is called Jackie Robinson Rotunda, which includes a giant blue number 42 and other images paying homage to the long-time Met- I mean Dodger. Also, the exterior of the stadium is a spitting image of the Dodgers' own Ebbets Field torn down in 1960.
Speaking of stadium destruction. Take a look at this crazy video of people walking around in Shea Stadium in the midst of its four-month long demolition. In the parking lot for the new stadium, there is a spot on the ground marking the old position for each of the bases and home plate from Shea's now-invisible infield.
The rest of the game did not disappoint. With the help of an extra inning and a pair of left field bombs by the Giants' Pablo Sandoval and Bengie Molina (each followed by a sitting ovation of complete silence from the crowd), the G-men overcame some sour relief-pitching to take home the hard-fought victory. Much like my own day's trying adventures, the rewards tasted even sweeter after working so hard for them.

The blazing hot day had completely vanished by the time I got into Manhattan, leaving only the blazing hot night to take its place. Standing in Times Square with only my little blue backpack, I walked to a mid-town hotel to meet some friends from my DC program. The Ave' was cooking, as my Dad would say. There were all kinds out there, middling about at the base of the gargantuan buildings. Families of four from Kentucky with necks craning upward, eyes each the size of a bucket of the Colonel's Finest; strung-out homeless guys the shape of puddles leaning up against the steel mountains; teenage city girls overflowing out of their shirts and shorts, talking loudly to slow-moving, flat-brimmed-baseball-cap-wearing boys in gigantic t-shirts. It was 10 at night and there could not have been more people on the street. Even a hardened city slicker such as myself is still shocked by the pure hyperbole that is the billboard/video-screen extravaganza that takes place in Times Square. I cannot imagine what someone must think if they're from Small Town, USA.

I spent the night at my relative's place on 190th. After the most delicious breakfast I've had since I got to this Coast, I puttered around in nearby Fort Tryon Park. A little oasis of flowers on a hillside overlooking a surprisingly green New Jersey across the river on one side and the steaming mass of concrete called the Bronx on the other.

In the afternoon, I worked my way down to Central Park for a free concert of one of my favorite bands, Dinosaur Jr. The city had been putting on free shows in the park all summer and this was the last one. After standing in the direct sunlight for two hours listening to two other, much less talented bands, Dinosaur front man J. Mascis appeared at the side of the stage. There was no grand entrance with booms and whistles and with him running on stage ("Hello, New Yorrrrk!!!!"). Instead, he looked lost almost, like he didn't know where he was or what he was doing there. His long strands of gray hair hiding most of his face, he wandered up to the microphone. "Hey," he said in a deep voice that puts the word "nonchalance" to shame. "How you guys doin?" Cheers erupted from the sun-drenched fan base. There was no doubting his effort once they started rolling though. Hair flying all over the place, he shredded each note  on his guitar with abandon. His voice somehow managing to pour the purest emotion into a veil of total apathy. They played a brilliant set of classic songs and new tracks with equal passion. 
"Thanks," he said and he was gone. I raced back to Penn Station, and this time I made the bus just as it was pulling out and made my way back to DC.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Meeting the Metropolitan PD

I've signed up to do a "ride-along" with DC's Metropolitan Police Department. Later next week, I'll be spending the night riding around in a cop car as a journalistic exercise. I've chosen the Fifth District, which supposedly provides the "most action."
Today, I called the officer who had contacted me about rescheduling my ride-along for another date. His name was Officer Hardy. He told me he was on sick-leave and that I should contact Lt. Thomas. I called Lt. Thomas. He helped me reschedule.
Now, because I have such a budding inquisitive mind, I looked these guys' names up on Google.
Here is what I found.

If this story is any indication. It is bound to be a great night.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Growing Up

Okay okay, so I haven't written anything on here and its been over a week since I've been in The District. I'm going to blame it on the heat. All I will say about the weather is that I have always underappreciated the glory of AC. I now live for that blast of artificial ice that hits you like you're strapped to the tracks in front of the Coors Light train from the commercials.

We went down to this event they call "Screen on the Green." They show classic movies on Monday nights down on the National Mall and there's like a thousand people there with picnics. We saw On the Waterfront last week sitting in the shadow of the Washington Monument and the Capitol, right where presidents get inaugurated. Everybody started cheering when Brando told us he could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what he is. He's just trying to love, but, poor guy, he's been given a fighter's body.
Yesterday we came back for Rebel Without a Cause and the whole time there were these silent flashes of lightning to the north and we all just kept watching the movie which was about halfway done until... it just starts Pouring with a capital P. Some people started yelling (with encouragement from the Rebel Himself: "You're tearing me apart!") but then we all started laughing and crowding back into the Metro, one big soaking wet mess like a dog whose owner just threw a tennis ball into the ocean.

On this trip's journalism front, which is less of a front and more of a song that I can't get out of my head, we've been writing articles about a fake news story in class. Our teacher has this whole murder-espionage-and-headlines-in-DC narrative planned out and we're supposed to cover it like we write for the Post. It's like you're a little kid who dresses up in a hat and boots because you want to be a cowboy when you grow up. But we also don't stop talking about the death of journalism and how no one can make money at this game anymore. I'm starting to feel like my dreams are just as realistic as that kid, who pulls his hand out of his pocket in the shape of an L and runs around the house going "bang, bang."

Our teacher brought in two guys who play the DC Journalism game's online version: blogging for these guys. One of them talked about graduating college and going off to work for a small-time paper like the Winston-Salem Journal, getting experience on the streets, and writing and writing until you move up the chain, etc. You just don't do that anymore, he said. Now, if you've got a good voice and people on the internet want to hear it, the other guy said, your stuff just rises to the top.
I guess I'm on the fast track then. I mean you're reading this page, right? Awesome. Closer and closer to making a full living wage of theoretical internet dollars.

Meanwhile, I've been spending plenty of real money on the Metro and groceries. Like an adult. Excuse me while I go make my dinner, which looks just like this.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Kicking Ass and Taking Names for Attribution

As foreign as my last journey was (covering the bases from Amsterdam to Zion last summer), the next month in the history of this blog promises to be ripe with the domestic fruits of the good ol' You-Ess-of-Aye. Though my residency here in our Nation's Capital has educational intent, taking daily lessons on how to join that not-so-exclusive club called The Press (The Media, The Fourth Estate, The Quite Persistent Fellows Wearing those Flat-Brimmed Hats with a Little Piece of Paper Sticking Out of the Ribbon That Says "Press"), I promise there will be just as much aimless wondering and purposeless observations to fill this space...

Red-eyeing across our beautiful nation last night, I was reading a special section of the San Francisco Chronicle devoted to the newspaper's 144-year history. It told a 19th century tale of a feud between the paper's publisher and a crooked politician running for mayor of the city. The publisher shot the guy on the streets of SF. But he recovered and went on to win the election. Later on, the mayor's son got revenge by shooting the newspaper man in the face. It goes on and on like that for awhile with more sons, more revenge and more discharged weapons. The moral of the story here is that journalism used to be the epitome of cool. (I'm picturing Maureen Dowd cornering a criminal with a Smith and Wesson: "You gotta ask yourself one question, punk...")
Even as recently as the 1970's, guys that looked like this were catching the country's baddest bad guys with the swift strokes of the keys on their typewriters.

Unfortunately, and mostly due to the introduction of the internet (and it's overwhelming power to make everything so painfully, painfully free), journalists are now permitted to look like this. Where's the style!? Where's the sense of duty to hold the world accountable for all its contemptible actions AND have amazing hair while you're at it!?

Well, that's what I'm here to find out. In Washington D.C.: the one place where God knows we need someone to be the Gadfly on America's great big, smelly, donkey butt (that's a reference to the Capitol. Side note: I went there today and it really is magnificent despite what is said about what goes on inside its walls.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


I've been on American soil for over a week now.
I've eaten cheeseburgers and watched trashy television.
I've driven a car and showered twice in one day.

I tried participating in this thing they call a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
In this baby of a country, they actually elect their leaders. How naive these people are, right?
Despite what you might have heard I can walk outside at night and I haven't heard a single gun shot.

Next week, I'm going to give their public education system a try. We'll see how that goes.


P.S. It's a surprise they let me back in looking like this...

Europe Pictures Redux

Amsterdam Centraal Station

Amsterdam Canal

Dresden Train Station

Prague Castle

Outside Prague's National Museum