We're up to Chapter Four now in excerpts I'm posting from my upcoming release, Memoirs of a Starving Artist. This week, a look at life in Washington, DC, for a recent college graduate. It is a great place to live, but I can't say I miss it now with all of the acrimony going on there! Still, whenever I see a picture of that capitol dome, I can't help but get a little sentimental...
As soon as I landed at Baltimore-Washington Airport I knew that I didn’t want to go home. This was a brand new world for me, full of excitement and the promise of new experience. I’d been offered a two-week job driving around to drug stores in the area to set up shampoo and skin care product displays. By this point I was ready to do anything I could to dig myself out of the substitute-teaching hell-hole into which I’d sunk. When I flew off to DC for this much needed hiatus, I suspected in the back of my mind that it might turn into something more.
It also just so happened that I’d recently landed my very first book contract. A reference book company hired me to write a book on wilderness preservation, for the princely sum of $500 as an advance against royalties. That meant that it would take me a year to write, and then close to another year to work through their publishing schedule and go on sale. Perhaps in two and a half to three years from the time I started I could expect to begin earning an undetermined amount of money in royalties. At least it was something. My name on the jacket of a published book. By the time I got to DC I already thought I might stick around to work on it there for a while. I ended up renting a room in an apartment on Capitol Hill not too far from the Library of Congress. Where better to do my research than that?
To make ends meet I continued working for the shampoo distributor, driving around to stock the shelves at stores all over the Washington-Baltimore area. Some stores were in nicer, suburban areas. Others were in much rougher neighborhoods. I told some of my new friends on the hill about going to stores on the other side of the Anacostia River. They were shocked that I could be so brave, yet ironically, none of them had ever been there and they never would, so what did they know about it really? I understood that the people in these neighborhoods were mostly just people, like anywhere else, worried about their jobs and their families and other normal, everyday concerns. Sure, many were poor and drugs were a big problem, but it wasn’t the battleground that my sheltered friends on the hill seemed to imagine.
One of the stores I visited regularly had a gorgeous black cashier named Candy, with big metal earrings that spelled out her name. Candy had a raw sexuality and a street-wise attitude. She liked to tease me, being the sole white guy who showed up every week or two in her all-black neighborhood. I always looked forward to seeing her and even thought about asking her out, but the cultural gulf between us seemed so wide that I could never bring myself to do it. Instead I turned the idea into my next writing project, a screenplay about a young white politico falling in love with a poor, uneducated black girl from across the river. Anacostia Bridge was a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, with two lovers struggling to overcome prejudice, distrust and suspicion coming from both sides. When I finished a draft I actually managed to get Beyonce Knowles’ agent to read it. This agent even called me personally to turn me down. It was the closest I would get. I entered the script in all of the major contests and contacted every other agent that I could, but just like my previous efforts, nobody took any interest at all.
To invest so much into a project like this, not just in time and energy, but also heart and soul, only to be roundly ignored… it was hard to take. Each failure chipped away a little bit more at my optimism and my self-esteem. To write, edit and polish a movie script took me four to six months. For a novel it was upwards of a year. When I sent them around to agents it took three or four months more before I heard back, if at all. I desperately wanted one of my projects to save me from this bleak existence but with each failure I was faced with a discouraging reality. Even if I came up with a great idea for my next project, it would take another year of effort just to find out if this was going to be the one. Based on my experience so far, whatever I came up with next was probably not. Even so, after the failure of Anacostia Bridge, I dug into a whole new project. This was a script about a relative of mine who had travelled across China on his own in the 1940’s to join Mao Tse Tung’s group of communist revolutionaries during the Chinese civil war. When the war ended, Sidney Rittenberg rose to a position of power in the new regime. He was the only outsider to eventually head a government ministry and he was known throughout the country. That didn’t save him from being swept up in a purge years later during the Cultural Revolution. He would spend the next sixteen years of his life imprisoned in solitary confinement. This was a story that thrilled me. It had everything I was looking for; politics, intrigue, and personal betrayal. I titled my script Mandate of Heaven. Perhaps this would be the one? I could only hope…
It was said by Albert Einstein that the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Of course each of my writing projects was different from the last. That is always what kept me going. The next idea always seemed like such a good one at the start. I try not to think too much about a monumental effort that lies ahead of me, all with zero guarantees. If I operated on logic instead of hope I would have given up already. I would have thrown in the towel and devoted myself to finding a more traditional career. I did strongly consider it. There are other ways to change the world besides writing after all. I was living in one of the most influential cities in the world. Surely there was a job somewhere here in Washington that would let me feel like I was making a difference. I did my best to find it.
My new friends on the hill all had jobs that sounded exciting to me. They worked for members of Congress or various non-governmental organizations. They had regular paychecks as well as the sense that what they were doing mattered somehow. I wanted that, too. After all of my struggles, I was ready to give stability another try. No matter how many jobs I applied for, though, I never got so much as an interview. Nearly all of the people I knew got their start working as unpaid interns for two or three months before they were offered paid positions. I couldn’t afford to work for free, even for a few months.
Working in the drug stores was frustrating, but at least I still found pride in the fact that I was supporting myself in this city. Despite my career disappointments, everything was still exciting and new. Maybe things weren’t working out as I’d hoped, but for the first time I did feel as though my life was wholly my own. That in itself was exhilarating. And besides, even though I wasn’t working in the thick of the political intrigues, I was still surrounded by it all. In some sense that was enough. Washington, DC, was a magnet for eager and intelligent young people looking to make their mark on the world and I quickly cultivated an extensive social network. My roommate was a recent college graduate working at the Federal Reserve. Downstairs were two young women who worked at the White House, monitoring events as they happened in the “Situation Room.” Up the street was a row house filled with more recent grads, all working for various members of congress. It was exciting to hear their insider stories. It was fun going to parties or out on the town with them. I’d planned to stay for three months. When that was up, I opted for three more. Then six more. Here on the opposite side of the country I felt for the first time that I had my own life, away from my parents and expectations and familiar surroundings. It didn’t matter so much that I was working a menial job with no future. I was surviving. I was free.
During summer evenings I sometimes sat outside on our fire escape to watch the world go by two-stories below. We lived in a borderline area between the gentrified section of Capitol Hill and the rougher areas approaching the Anacostia River. It was on one of those lazy summer evenings when I came back inside the kitchen to make dinner that I heard the pop, pop, pop of gunfire. I’d heard it before often enough, but always from a distance. This time it was loud and right across the street.
I peered out the window with my eyes just above the sill, afraid of being hit by a stray bullet. On the opposing corner I saw two scruffy-looking men run out the back door of a small convenience store and take off down the street. Immediately after them came another scruffy guy with a pistol in his hand. He stopped on the corner, held up the gun, and proceeded to fire five or six shots down the street as a terrified woman with a hoe worked in her garden just a few feet away. The man with the gun paused for a moment on the corner and then took off running after the others.
I dashed into our living room to ask my roommate if he had seen what happened. He hadn’t, but handed me the phone.
“Call 911!” he said.
I’d never called 911 before. It seemed a strange thing to do. That was for emergencies. But then what was this? I dialed the number and an operator came on.
“I just witnessed a shooting across the street!” I told her breathlessly. As I explained what had happened, the man with the gun came walking back casually.
“My god, he’s coming back!” I said. “He’s standing right across the street!”
“Does he still have the gun?” she asked.
“Yes, he still has the gun!” I answered. The man held the weapon nonchalantly at his side. Within minutes, it seemed as though half of the cops in Washington were parked across the street. National Park police, city police, Capitol police. They were all there in large numbers. I went down to give an eye-witness account, but the only one who seemed to care was a newspaper reporter. I found out that the man with the gun was an undercover officer. The store had been robbed three times in a matter of weeks and the cops were staking it out, waiting for attempt number four. None of the perpetrators were immediately caught, though one was grazed by a bullet and arrested when he checked himself into a hospital later that night.
In some ways this event marked the end of an era for me. I had lived in the city for over a year at this point, but the shooting was enough to cause one downstairs neighbor to pack up and move away. Several other friends on the street followed soon afterwards. My roommate was next to go, for reasons of his own. I was learning that in a transient town such as this one, it was easy to meet people but just as easy to lose them. One by one, all of the friends I’d made deserted me and moved on. The social network I had spent a year cultivating, and had come to rely on, dissolved before my eyes. I started to feel like my own Washington adventure was drawing to a close. A career in politics still had some appeal, as a backup plan. Maybe if I had a graduate degree I might actually be able to find a decent job? It sounded like a reasonable prospect. Writing was still and always would be my first choice, but to hedge my bets I applied for a graduate program in political science at San Diego State University. It wasn’t long after that I packed up my truck and headed off on the long journey home.