Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Thirty Years After

“My Year of Living Dangerously”

It was a piece I did two years ago on this date, to commemorate my first day for the Federal government in 1980. Most of what I can show for my life, on my own accord, has happened since that date, in this place of exile from the Midwest. It began with the uncertainty that looms over every young man about to strike out on his own.

You know those times when, out of the blue, you suddenly realize your destiny has been hitting you in the backside? I'm not sure how it happened, only that it did. No, I take that back; I'm sure ... My folks had already suggested I take a job at the post office, and do design work on the side. Had I followed that advice, I'd be a postal worker today. So much for five years of college ... It all added up. I had to either get out, or spend the rest of my life wishing I had.

What has changed since then?

The work of graphic design and publishing has certainly changed. When I came to Washington, we had to do business with typesetters and assorted suppliers who were on the required list. They weren't always the cream of the crop. One foundry handled its deliveries only in the morning; their couriers doubled as typesetters in the afternoon. My amazement at such amateurish practices, unheard of in the private sector, was met with blank stares from people convinced I came from another planet. In those days, such contentment with mediocrity was the best assurance of continued advancement in the public sector. This is still true today, but -- Deo volente! -- not to the same extent.

There are many stories like that one, but they're all in the past. The computer changed everything. By the 1990s, desktop publishing was becoming the norm rather than the exception, as what used to take weeks now only takes days. The advent of direct-to-plate pre-press eliminated most of the labor-intensity from the printing process. A publication that took four to six weeks to print now takes less than two. Finally, the departure of the huge drawing board from my cubicle three years ago was long overdue.

Then there's life outside the office.

It's all the more expensive to live here in 2010, a prospect difficult to imagine even in 1980. My very first apartment was a high-rise efficiency in Rosslyn, a section of Arlington overlooking the Potomac River. I paid $290 per month, plus a $35/month parking fee. The same unit in Cincinnati would have cost just under $200 at the time. Today, that place in Rosslyn now rents for about $1200 to $1400 a month. The complex also has such amenities today, as a convenience store, a fitness center, and an outdoor swimming pool. All this in addition to the same assortment of critters that scurry under the sink when the lights go on.

The house I lived in for seven years when I was married, was a three-bedroom townhouse in a well-manicured development, bought in August 1983 for $86,000, at a time when houses selling for over $100,000 were becoming common inside the Beltway, but were very unusual five hundred miles away. That house was sold as a part of the divorce settlement in April 1991 (seven and a half years later) for $140,000. Less than twenty years after that, and allowing for the housing bust, it could probably sell for just over $300,000.

All told, the price of housing in this area is simply ridiculous, and developers still avoid moderate-priced housing like the plague. It is not hard to understand why the ranks of the homeless now include families with children, whose parents fall just between the cracks into oblivion.

That being said, I am truly blessed. I love the little townhouse where I have lived for the last five years (dubbed “Chez Alexandre”), and I really love my neighborhood. It took me at least twenty years to really think of DC as home, and although I've made some semblance of a life here, I am still, at heart, a small town boy from Ohio, who misses his old friends, the kind who knew what it meant to be friends. President Harry Truman once said, that if you want a friend in Washington, to get a dog. It is harder to get to know people around here. Even the aging trust-fund hippies that populate Takoma Park are cursed by a certain aloofness, and a willingness to embrace just enough capitalist excess, all the while haranguing about "climate change." But recent years have taught the rewards of reaching out, of taking risks. It still isn't like going back home again, but it has proven to be the next best thing. Living in a town like Washington has broadened my horizons, in a way that would not have been possible in Cincinnati.

Lately I've been in touch with an old friend from back home, an Orthodox priest who moonlights as a blues singer, and frontman for a jug band. An eclectic combination, to say the least, but he pulls it off somehow, and you may hear more about him within the confines of this journal, as inroads are made (or remade, one could say?) into the local music scene in the coming year. There will be more remembrances of the past, not as a failure to let go thereof, but with the awareness that “what is past is prologue.”

And so it goes ...


Gail F said...

Maybe it's not Washington at all. I'm a transplant to Cincinnati and it's very, very difficult to make friends here.People make all their friends in elementary school and don't need any more -- I'm not kidding. My sister-in-law live in Chicago and says it is very different.

David L Alexander said...

I think it depends on where in Cincinnati you move. If you live on the West Side, I'm not surprised at all. But the East Side tends to have more transplants, and the area north of the city -- spanning West Chester to Loveland and thereabouts -- is virtually unrecognizable from ten years ago.

Where do you live now?