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5 p.m.

At 5:20 p.m., my speakers come to life with music. A streaming radio station from Minneapolis, my hometown. It’s an alarm I set three or four years ago, timed for a brief segment of banter between the empathetic DJ and a charming curmudgeon of a newsman I’d known from Twitter. The newsman has since retired, but I keep the 5:20 alarm. The music reminds me to end my work day and transition to something else. I’ve worked from home for years, and so the coronavirus stay-at-home order had not been a huge change for my nine to five. But after five is harder. These days, the music station is often playing songs by musicians who’ve fallen ill or died from the coronavirus. They now interrupt their usual programming with news headlines from NPR and their sister news station. I think of friends and family in far off Minnesota.

The debate in the news today has been over face masks. Preparing for my walk, I’ve dug out a stylish scarf and a black balaclava I once wore under my bike helmet in winter (the bike rides are shorter now and the winters are warmer). But neither of these things will easily and comfortably stay over my nose and mouth. And it’s warm out. Near 70 degrees. I don’t plan to go inside any buildings on today’s walk. I plan to avoid other people, walk less-trafficked streets. So I hang the scarf and the balaclava on my coatrack for another day. I step outside, wondering if this was a mistake.

Outside silence. There are cars. But this is Friday at what would be rush hour. The time between distant vrooms and whooshes can be counted slowly. Tens of seconds filled instead with bird song. Wind rustling blue tarps on the scaffolding of the old school. The squeaking sound of vinyl rubbing against vinyl as a sun-bleached banner relaxes its folds to lay flat against a chain-link fence that clatters on its poles. Somewhere a soft clinking of metal at the same rhythm as a railroad crossing’s warning bell.

“Hey There,” a man shouts. He’s the first person I’ve seen out. But he’s not talking to me. He is in a hurry, taking big strides in black shorts, black sandals, black gloves, black jacket, black sunglasses, black sandals.

The speakerphone in his hand replies to his greeting: “Hi Mr. ———. How are you today?”

I wander further. The sun is out. The flowering trees are all in bloom. Neighbors are talking to each other at a distance across front yards.

I am squinting as I face the low evening sun and fail to spot two athletic men until we are twelve feet apart. They recoil from me, struggling to break step and fall in to a single file line, balancing like schoolchildren at the edge of a garden.

A restaurant on 14th Street has music blaring and perhaps eight people near its tiny outdoor bar, many with drinks in hand. Everything is to-go now, but perhaps if the to-go order takes long enough to prepare, the restaurant can sell two rounds of drinks. I stay on the quieter side of the street. Two women walking their dog notice what I’ve noticed. One says, “I do not understand these people. It makes me so angry!”

Just then my phone vibrates with a New York Times alert: “The C.D.C. advises all Americans to wear non-medical masks, President Trump said. He added: ‘I’m choosing not to do it. It’s only a recommendation.’”

I turn away from the commercial streets. I walk minor residential streets, but even these are busy now. I turn down an alley to avoid crossing paths with more people. I follow the alleys home. At my gate, I wave my touch-less key fob and pull the gate towards me by grabbing a low area of the fence my neighbors are less likely to have touched. Inside the apartment I hang my coat, wondering if it is contaminated. I wash my hands and begin making dinner.


One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, a 2019 collaboration with Katherine Mann and Kristin Hatleberg. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

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Observations In The Time of Coronavirus: 2 p.m.

Note: With this post, I’m picking up where I left off over the winter in a series writing about the hours of the day in a randomized order. The images and poems are observations from 2019. The prose that follows here and in subsequent posts will document the same place and hour under coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

Construction, Stillness and Caffeine Withdrawal

2 p.m. // The construction site outside my window begins to quiet down in the 2 p.m. hour (construction is considered “essential” under Mayor Bowser’s stay-at-home order). The crew shows up between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m., so anyone on site much later than 2:30 or 3 p.m. is likely due overtime pay. The hammers and rebar cutters and beeping trucks slow. Only a few finishing touches and cleanup are left on the day’s big push. No new messes or deliveries. With less noise from the work crew, I open my windows. The sound of birdsong has taken over the empty city. 

Inside the apartment, I have a big cooking project going. Chili in the slow-cooker fills the space with the smell of spices that I’ll harvest at dinner time. I give it a stir and then chop an apple and heat some water for herbal tea.

2 p.m. is the hour I long ago set to stop having caffeine. In practice, this alert—when it popped up on my phone—had become a reminder to hurry up and make a final cup of coffee to go with my light afternoon snack (lately an apple with peanut butter or cashews). 

Back in mid-February, when COVID was barely on my radar, I listened to this interview with Michael Pollan about caffeine (and the short Audible story he was promoting). Pollan doesn’t come up with any serious health reasons to avoid caffeine, but a researcher suggests he can’t understand the chemical compound without getting it out of his system for a time. And that’s what Pollan sets out to do. As he tapers his dosage and goes through withdrawal, he finds it harder to write, but his sleep is far better, and his moods more level. As I listened, I realized that I’ve had caffeine in my bloodstream almost continuously since my first barista job in the mid-1990s. Few days off from coffee in 25 years, if any. Maybe this caffeine-tapering experiment is one worth trying? And so I began gradually brewing smaller and smaller doses of caffeine in the morning, and cut out any small amounts of caffeine (green tea, chocolate) from my 2 p.m. snack. 

Making a major change to your daily chemical addictions just as a global pandemic starts might sound ill advised. It might be something you postpone along with the baseball season and St. Patrick’s Day bar crawls. But I was deep in to the experiment by the time stay-at-home became the clear best practice for flattening the curve of COVID’s spread. At least I’m ahead of the game if coffee becomes as scarce as toilet paper. I’m not completely off the drug yet. There is still about 1/4 real coffee mixed in with the decaf I’ve started brewing in the morning (and even decaf has traces of caffeine). I no longer feel a craving for a 2 p.m. dose, and could probably go to all-decaf tomorrow if I wanted (but I’ll wait until I run out of regular). I’m finding that the afternoon is less up and down, steadier. And I’m sleeping well, which is likely not what most people are saying these days.  

Still, I get tired by the end of the 2 p.m. hour. I start my day of screen work and house chores around the same time the construction crew starts their day of building concrete forms and positioning rebar. As the clock nears 3, I remind myself it’s OK to take it slow. I play a guided meditation on my phone instead of clicking on the unread COVID alerts from the Post and the Times. I’ll come back to email later. 


One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, a 2019 collaboration with Katherine Mann and Kristin Hatleberg. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

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One Year Ago Today

10 a.m. // By random lot the next hour in my posting queue happens to include this day one year ago, November 13. And so, please remember that one year ago today the alley reeked of garbage and stale beer. It doesn’t always. Today — the first sustained sub-freezing morning of the winter of 2019 — odors are faint and distant. When the wind picks up, fresh asphalt, perhaps being trucked to a construction site, carries before resistance to the icy air overpowers my ability to focus on the sense of smell.

Also on this day in 2018, a friend and her boyfriend were on their way to the metro and I tried for the first time to explain why I was standing outside in the cold in an inhospitable place with a notebook. The explanation hasn’t gotten easier a year later.

Neither of these facts made it in to our collage for the 10 o’clock hour. Katherine’s lines suggest the cold puddles I’ve written about here, but the text sampled comes from an hour later on a different morning. We’ll encounter “mom with stroller / hey hey hey no jumping” again when it comes time to write about 11 a.m. The more mundane hours easily bleed together, and notes from early in the project were not as diligently set apart. //

I’ve not been posting these notes prompted by the Half/Life collaboration daily as I originally intended. There are 24 to post, and when I began there were about 24 days left before we’d intended to take the paintings off the walls and leave H-Space vacant. But leaving an art space vacant is a sad thing and a waste in a city so starved for such venues. With nothing programmed after us (the space’s parent organization Hamiltonian Artists is going through some restructuring), we’ve left the show up (viewable by appointment, send me a message if you’d like to stop by). Without the urgency of an end date, I’ve been giving each of these posts more time to marinate.

I am posting these writings both on Instagram and on the relaunched FutureCartographic.org. This new version of Future Cartographic will be a home for creative writing, for art engaged with place and time, and for building community with anyone interested in such things, including contemplation of last years’ stale beer puddles. It’s not for everybody. But it might be for you. Stop by, and drop me a note if you do.


One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, on view at H-Space in Washington, DC (on view indefinitely as of this posting). Contact Erik to schedule a visit. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

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Watching the Detectives

3 a.m. // Often while observing my neighborhood for these writings, I can’t help but observe the cops. They of course also observe, though much more conspicuously. At times I felt an urge to erase these stories from the Half/Life project, to walk to another part of the block, to tell a different story. But on the walks between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. they were so often present, idling at the end of the alley, shaping the psycho-social dynamic of fully a third of the clock hours that this dance of watching the cops watch the street and then watching the street in the place of the cops repeated over and over and became the story.

I found it hard not to feel that my act of observing was cop-like as I stood conspicuously in spots where nobody other than police lingers, writing in my notebook at odd hours. Sometimes, as I waited for observations to strike me, I thought of scenes in detective noir films where the private eye waits under a streetlight. Anything could happen. Will my informant show up at the rendezvous point to whisper secrets? Or did she or he flip, inspiring the mob boss to send thugs speeding this way to spray the corner with machine gun fire? And what exactly does the neighbor peering through the Venetian blinds think when she sees the detective out at random hours again and again? Some passers-by give me a look that seems to question or wonder if I’m up to no good. Do they think I’m a drug dealer, a fence, a pimp? But no, criminals tend not to keep notebooks, or so I would assume. Some kind of undercover agent? If not police then perhaps a city inspector. Bureau of alcohol regulations. Nuisance remediation administration. Vice minding council.

Last night I watched the cops again as I brushed my teeth in my warm apartment with the lights out. A squad car pulled in just then. After scanning the alley it turned around and positioned itself in the familiar spot, hood just barely jutting in to foot traffic. The squad car’s row of rooftop floodlights then lit up U Street with an ugly cold white glare. Antithesis of the sleepy cold November Monday night calm of the scene until that moment. Like florescent lights coming on at a nightclub. A driver innocently stopped at the red light raised his arm and averted his eyes from the painful flood of extreme brightness, his car’s interior suddenly on view to the world. Passengers on a city bus squinted to see what caused the police to activate such hostile tech, but their ride soon moved on. Three officers in black uniforms, METROPOLITAN POLICE in white letters on their backs climbed out of the car. One man lifted plastic bags and set them down on the squad car’s trunk. Another unsheathed steaming boxes and passed them out. A dinner conversation in the cold shadows made invisible by excessive use of light. //


One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, on view at H-Space in Washington, DC (on view indefinitely as of this posting). Contact Erik to schedule a visit. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

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Voyeur

3 p.m. // Caring starts with noticing and acknowledging those around you. This was a big theme of these walks — noticing and acknowledging people and details easily missed.

9 1/2 Street is often a backdrop for photo shoots. Girls change outfits in cars and shoot photo after photo that end up where? On Instagram? In fashion school portfolios? Headshot photographers arrange professionals in confident poses against brick walls in shots destined for LinkedIn. Recently the 2020 Census shot on location here using an athletic bearded white actor to portray a homeless person. These photographers are using this place as a stand-in for the generic idea of a gritty urban environment. Noticing my neighbors, the details of this place, noticing me, noticing actual homeless people is an inconvenient distraction on these kinds of projects.

At the same time, noticing too much can be unwelcome. Part of the draw of cities — and of nightlife districts in particular — is the illusion that it is possible to be lost and anonymous here, to go unnoticed. Crowds, music, darkness, and the unfamiliar grant us permission to experiment with trying on new selves, with release, with finding new people to be alone with, together with, or both. The camera and the scribe with his notebook shatter this illusion. What happens on U Street might not stay on U Street, or so the questioning looks of passers-by seemed to suggest. Then again, those who noticed the scribe were also acknowledging, taking a curious step forward, meeting halfway, towards caring.


One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, on view at H-Space in Washington, DC (on view indefinitely as of this posting). Contact Erik to schedule a visit. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

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If you like posts like this, there are a number of ways you can support Erik and Future Cartographic.

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What Are You In To?

4 a.m. // Four a.m. is the hour I am least likely to be up and out and observing sharply. It is an hour for sleepwalking and hazy minds. To engage the residents of four a.m. with a clear-eyed 10 a.m. voice is to speak nonsense. Better to let the dream state unfold. The sun will rise soon enough.


One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, which remains on view at H-Space in Washington, DC indefinitely (as of this posting). Contact Erik to schedule a visit. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

Thanks for reading!

If you like posts like this, there are a number of ways you can support Erik and Future Cartographic.

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Life Support

6 a.m. // I’m up and outside more often during the 6 a.m. hour than most people. I like to get a quick walk or a run in early. But I tend to follow familiar routes, tend to be focused internally rather than on the world around me. On my usual early walks, I would have missed most everything recorded in Half/Life’s 6 a.m. observations.

Summer’s 6 a.m. scene held far more drama than I had any right to expect on a Sunday morning just steps from my apartment. But even this I would have missed had I not held awkwardly to space in the middle of the scene.

The 6 a.m. of winter that wound up in our collage was more typical. A Thursday morning. No humans in sight. Just the sound of the machines that keep us going.


One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, which remains on view at H-Space in Washington, DC through October 31, 2019. Contact Erik to schedule a visit. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

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Talk About the Weather

11 p.m. // Often when we were due to step outside for Half/Life the weather was terrible. Many of the randomly appointed hours last winter were wet. A few were absurdly cold. Slowing down and taking notes on the mundane feels especially foolish at times like these. Is it possible to write while holding an umbrella?Turns out it is. Or while hands are slowly going numb. Also, yes. These are also the times when we’re most likely to rush past without observing, focused on getting dry and warm as soon as possible. These are the times when we look outside and decide to postpone our business until it clears up, until the sun is out.

But the weather is not unique to this place. The way the space changes in the rain and in the cold is the thing I started looking for. New sounds. New behaviors. New patterns


One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, which remains on view at H-Space in Washington, DC through October 31, 2019. Contact Erik to schedule a visit. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

Thanks for reading!

If you like posts like this, there are a number of ways you can support Erik and Future Cartographic.

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nonfiction

Sometimes Random Chance Needs Help

Midnight // When I decided to share this quiet year-long project on noisy Instagram, I was several walks in and hadn’t thought to photograph the early walks. I decided to go back and re-do them so there would be a tidy matching set of posts for all 24 hours. Midnight was one of these requiring a do-over. 12 a.m. is an auspicious hour when things both end and begin. It seemed fitting to hold it until the final walk, a schedule that fell on the midnight few can ignore, New Years Eve.

The “three two one” that wound up collaged between Katherine’s line work and Kristin’s movement notation was the final scream of 2018.


One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, which remains on view at H-Space in Washington, DC through October 31, 2019. Contact Erik to schedule a visit. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

Thanks for reading!

If you like posts like this, there are a number of ways you can support Erik and Future Cartographic.

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Random Chance

2 a.m. // No two 2 o’clock hours are the same. If the sequence of hours given by the random number generator I consulted last October had been spit out in a different order, the observations that Katherine, Kristin and I came up with for Half/Life would all have been different. These works are the result of chance encounters. Then again, a brushstroke is always a unique event. Environment, emotion, eye, mind, muscle, brush, ink, paper all in motion at one unique point in time.

I again asked a random number generator to pick the order I will post these paintings and poems a year later. This time, 2 a.m. came out at the top of the list. As it happens, both the 2 a.m. walk in Winter and 2 a.m. walk in Summer were on weekend nights when things are lively on 9 1/2 Street. The man with the cane is often out on nights like this, often has the story of the Metrocard and the hospital. It’s possible there are many 2 o’clocks in the morning when he might have wound up in this story, clipped to a painting labeled 2 a.m. I should have asked his name the second time he approached me (if not the first). We’re neighbors. Connected. Sharing space. Next time. By contrast, I’m certain “I wanna get naked in this alley!” has been shouted exactly once on 9 1/2 Street, and certainly only once with the kind of silly joy I heard during the hour assigned by the random number generator. Another roll of the dice and it would have been escaped documentation. Lost to the ether. Perhaps forgotten even to the woman who shouted it.


One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, which remains on view at H-Space in Washington, DC through October 31, 2019. Contact Erik to schedule a visit. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.

Thanks for reading!

If you like posts like this, there are a number of ways you can support Erik and Future Cartographic.