election anxiety countdown

38 Days: A Walk

I think of walking as a kind of call and response. Not only in terms of acknowledging those that you pass… I think of that remark that Ralph Waldo Emerson made in his diary, “the ground is all memoranda, and every object covered over with hints.” So, part of walking is trying to find those hints.… I think of that line from the Jamaican poet Kei Miller’s book The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, where he says, “draw me a map of what you see, then I will draw you a map of what you’ll never see, and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose.” And so to walk is to see the memoranda, but also there is the way of walking as a cartographer, to recognize that the public space, the world before us is filled with layers…. By walking you leave yourself open to the many possibilities, the many encounters that could happen. And therefore you leave your own memoranda, and you encounter other memoranda.

—Garnette Cadogan

I set out this cloudy Saturday listening to a conversation between Garnette Cadogan and Paul Holdengräber on walking, which I’d been saving for a quiet day. I know Garnette from a residency in 2018 on writing and walking and in a sense we’ve been walking together since.

Today I walk south towards downtown. I’m often reluctant to push that direction on my walks. The central business district is gray and hard-edged in the best of times. And these are not the best of times. On this morning, tourists trickle out of hotels. Most are not wearing masks.

The luxury shopping mall at the heart of downtown is not busy. A woman carries a small bag with tissue paper spilling out. Perhaps it holds a bracelet that costs eight times my rent. I imagine putting up signs around those shops that read:

Why? Why shop here? 
Why not buy the next cheaper thing instead?
Give the difference to the homeless.

A young white man in blue and yellow athletic wear, a black hoodie and no mask talks hurriedly at close range with the mall’s private security and a Metropolitan Police officer, both black, both masked. Is he asking for directions, or reporting a crime? Maybe someone has already posted my imagined signs on windows of Louis Vuitton.

A red light at H Street. I contemplate the strange old school building at the corner of 10th and H. Brick and boarded-up windows all painted red-brown. I had been told the nondescript shell of a building was a satellite of the nearby FBI headquarters. I imagined expensive surveillance tech behind the unassuming façade, like the ominous NSA facility in AT&T’s concrete tower in NYC. I imagine myself being surveilled as the light turns green. When I return home, I look up the story and realize I’d slightly misunderstood. The Secret Service headquarters is next door. The old brick building has been for sale by the government for years. But it’s a difficult parcel to redevelop because of its neighbor’s extraordinary security requirements.

I pass the flashing lights of a police SUV parked in front of an apartment building. I pass FBI headquarters and an SUV redundantly labeled FBI Police. I keep walking. I walk past the Department of Justice and the security officers at its gates.

My reward, my reason for crossing bleak downtown, is to access the National Mall, green open space, the monuments, waterfront and parkland beyond. I remember that I’d written about the Mall a few days ago and I smile — grateful to be in a better place than I was during the cold, muddy and expensive protest camp of nine years ago.

Unsure which way to head, I recall that the Hirshhorn has reworked its sculpture garden recently, so I walk along the Mall in that direction. There is a stage erected in the opposite direction — near the Washington Monument — and the unmasked tourists I saw downtown are headed that way. There is an conservative Christian vibe in this crowd. Is it the age group? Older, there are fewer young children than usual. Is it their dress? A lot of tucked in collared shirts for a Saturday on the Mall. Women in looser fitting and unrevealing styles. One walker says to the elders that accompany him, “I hear Air and Space is the best museum in this whole city!” I consider interjecting, turning around and walking with them, serving as their tour guide for the afternoon. I would start by directing them away from the popular exhibits glorifying armed conflict, sponsored by military contractors and arms manufacturers. Let’s start with the National Gallery of Art, I would say. I imagine our exchanges of ideas and the contrary opinions we might hash out. But I keep walking. I later confirm that the event is a Christian prayer march.

As I near the Hirshhorn, I hear a whirring sound over my left shoulder. Two U.S. Capitol Police pass me on an electric cart slow and casual, weaving through the crowd on the ruddy gravel path.

At the sunken sculpture garden, my attention is on the art just out of view over the wall. How has it been rearranged? Can I catch a glimpse of the new works? I approach the entrance I used last year, but I’m turned away by an “exit only” sign. When I look up and turn to walk to the other end of the garden, I realize I’ve wandered next to a black SUV with lights flashing. The officers from the golf cart are arresting a man as two officers in all black uniforms look on. I’m only a few feet away from him when I realize he’s being handcuffed. We make eye contact just then. The man is white. He wears a plain brown baseball cap with no logo and brown and green clothes. He has a bulky backpack with heavy black straps. This makes me look over my shoulder at him a second and third time. His appearance conjures a photo a friend posted to Facebook last week. She’d confronted suspicious “press” at an anti-Nazi protest in Philadelphia. Their stories didn’t add up, she wrote. The men in that picture had been dressed similarly. Neutral colors. Large backpacks. It is the same practiced anonymous look that militias and white supremacists seem to have taught each other to don when infiltrating protests in Minneapolis, Portland, Kenosha. I’m wearing green and black too, I realize. Does my look stand apart from his? How? Skinnier jeans. Louder, shinier black and white sneakers. I’m wearing a slim runner’s fanny pack under my jacket with a snack for later. What if I were caught up in his arrest? What if my apple and energy bar were mistaken for a gun in a holster?

I have no other clues as to why this man was being arrested. Vandalizing sculptures? Shoplifting from the museum gift shop? I watch the cops pat him down. I keep walking.

An antique tractor is hauling a trailer full of Christians down Independence Avenue. If there were hay in the trailer, it would be the classic autumn hay ride setup. But instead there are signs about Jesus and giant speakers blaring evangelical oration. The man piloting the hay ride wears a straw hat. He has trouble stopping the tractor for a red light and ends up blocking the crosswalk in front of me. He has one hand on the bottom of the steering wheel and the other holding his iPhone level, pointed at me. I consider telling him it’s illegal to use your phone while driving. For that matter, I’m not sure his old tractor is street legal either. But I don’t want to give him footage of a confrontation, so I keep walking. The speakers blare something about the souls of white men, black men, yellow men, red men, all being saved by Jesus.

I sit down at a bench at the southwest wharf and scribble some of these notes. A glamorous woman in a simple white top and shredded jeans catches my eye. She walks with a man whose jeans are also torn, also expensive. Luxury purchases, perhaps from the stores I passed earlier. A message from a dating app lights up my phone. A devout Catholic with nun-like photos of herself on a year-long pilgrimage in Jerusalem has liked one of my photos. I consider our life together, consider writing back and telling her I’m an atheist, but one who counts Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew among his favorite films. But where would that lead? I don’t want to be on my phone right now. I keep walking.

I’m nearing Nationals Park now and decide that this is my new destination. It is the last weekend of the baseball season, and for the first time in many seasons I have not made a pilgrimage to a ballpark. No fans have been allowed during the pandemic. I decide I’ll ceremonially lay my hands on its walls, or stick my hand through the gates as a way of demonstrating my faith and devotion to the game for another year.

On my way there, I pass a building marked Metropolitan Police Department / First District Headquarters / at Anthony Bowen School. I’m confused. Is it a police station or a school? A half dozen young people, all black, exit as I approach. They walk ahead of me several paces in the direction of the ballpark. One of them, a young man, is irate. Have his friends bailed him out of jail? Is there a jail in this police station/school? He is talking about injustice. About race. About black men being persecuted, hauled in for no reason. I don’t catch many details, but I’m glad he has these friends he can walk with. They seem like any other group of young people. A mix of fashions. Boys. Girls. One of them has a mylar balloon in the shape of a star. They seem sympathetic but unimpressed with their friend’s rage. They are ready to move on to other concerns of young people on a Saturday afternoon.

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