01 March 2012

Dupont Circle: the beating heart of my D.C.

If the Washington Monument is the magnetic north of my Washington D.C., Dupont Circle is its beating heart. I metro into D.C. almost solely for evening graduate classes near Dupont Circle. I usually take the Q Street exit; although it makes my walk to class on Massachussetts Avenue longer, I get to walk straight through Dupont Circle right in the middle of rush hour.

Picture by Callie Leuck. Dupot Circle, slightly before rush hour.
Last autumn, while I was waiting at a crosswalk, a man told his female companion that they should “ask a local” about good food in the area. He turned to me and asked for a dinner recommendation. I answered casually and nearly skipped through the circle, buoyed by pleasure at being identified as “a local.”*
*It was flattering, but technically untrue! 
It’s a far cry from June 2010, when I moved to Falls Church, Virginia. I had a free day before starting my new job. I spent it “doing the tourist thing” and donned a dress and heels so I could blend in downtown.**
**When in Rome... 
The map gave me away.

The Dupont Circle neighborhood seemed a knotted mess of streets that throb around a fountain held up by some slightly damp and very stone young women in robes. I bought a map that I was staring at in frustrated puzzlement when a young man with a french accent helpfully sat me down on one of the park benches by the fountain and explained how streets work in D.C. in general and in the Dupont Circle neighborhood in particular.

While talking to the Frenchman (as he indeed turned out to be), a slender black-haired young woman stepped out of my past right in front of me. We stared at each other in disbelief. It was Caaminee. We had been schoolmates from preschool, when our fathers worked together in Kokomo, Indiana, all the way through high school, after which we'd parted ways. She thought I was in Indiana. I thought she was in South Africa.

Today, I wouldn’t be surprised to meet anybody in Washington, D.C. The city has a magnetic attraction. And if I were to run into anybody in D.C. it would be in the pulsing knot of life that is Dupont Circle.
Once you get past the traffic, there is an immediate ring of benches encircling the entire park. Dogs run on this grassy outer circle; solitary people dot the landscape, reading books while lounging; and couples lean against each other. The traffic noise is decently muted already, and when you reach the second, inner ring of benches, the traffic is entirely forgettable. 

Usually somebody is playing music at this time of day, and this mild autumn evening an older man in a straw hat and sunglasses is playing an acoustic guitar. He has a microphone on a stand, hooked up to a portable speaker. I can clearly hear “Sweet home, Chicago” from where I sit on the other side of the inner circle, eating my dinner. 

People jog past in exercise shorts, singly and in pairs; stroll through the circle with dogs; and clip-clip-clip past quickly in business attire. A young man pedals by on a bright red bicycle with “Capital Bikeshare” printed in bright yellow.

A young man in cargo shorts sits beside me. A few minutes later, he’s greeted by another young man with “Hey! Fancy seeing you here!”

Cargo Shorts was waiting for a date. Surprise Friend sits and talks with Cargo Shorts about the young woman in question.

A black boy in cornrows makes the rounds with a box full of candy and cookies. He talks to every person sitting in the inner circle, launching each time into a rote speech about fundraising for a group that keeps young men like him off the streets. “Hi my name is Marcellus.”

“I just bought from you guys a few months ago,” Surprise Friend tells Marcellus, who immediately moves to the next Dupont Circle Inner Circle sitter.

“They were here five days in a row,” Surprise Friend told Cargo Shorts. “So I finally bought some cookies.”

Cargo Shorts spots his date across the circle.

“Is it going to be weird that I’m here?” Surprise Friend asks. The two briefly worry if it will look like Cargo Shorts was having his friend scope out his date. Cargo Shorts explained the situation immediately to his date, to forestall this possibility. They had just run into each other. It was so weird! 

They part ways and fade back into the city, into the surrounding mess of streets.

I wouldn’t mind meeting a friend in Dupont Circle this night, by accident or design. But for now, I also fade back into the city, leaving behind the meeting oasis of calm and falling water, leaving the red sun setting down P Street NW. 

I’ll walk through next week and again join the mass of passing and waiting and meeting that makes Dupont Circle beat.

Now You!
Is there any place where you live that functions as a sort of common waiting-room?