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City Musings
by Elizabeth Weaver Engel

It was a lovely breezy Thursday afternoon, and I had some time to kill before my DC Hand Dance class. I decided to head over to Dupont Circle, book in hand, to sit under a nice tree and read. I picked my tree, I checked my spot for dog shit and still-warm cig butts, and, finding neither, I settled in. I got maybe 2-3 pages into my current chapter when a homeless guy came up and tried to strike up a conversation. He was dirty, he smelled, he reeked of alcohol. I tried ignoring him, but he kept trying to chat. So, irritated, I looked at my watch, said, "I've got to go," and headed over to the Starbucks on the far side of the Circle.

I was pretty pissed: how dare he invade my space? Hos dare he deny me access to a public park? How dare he force me into buying a cup of coffee I didn't really want just so I could sit in Starbucks' outdoor café area and enjoy the afternoon? What right did he have to make me feel unsafe in my own neighborhood? By the time I actually got a table (I had to stand by the railing and wait for several minutes), I was hopping mad.

Maybe it was the decaf, maybe it was the sunset, maybe it was the fact that a couple of teenage skate dudes gave up their table for me, but I turned reflective. What made me feel so unsafe? Yeah, he was definitely drunk and drunks can be unpredictable. But I was in a public place with lots of people around. He might've had a really interesting story - most people don't end up on the street for dull reasons. Why was I so angry at him for taking up space in "our" park? For God's sake, and thanks to Ronald Regan's oh-so-progressive policies regarding the mentally ill, I was basically invading his living room!

In the end I got kind of sad. Why are we living in a world where I feel like I can't carry on a conversation with someone I meet in a park? Why do some people have no resources for dealing with their problems than alcohol and drugs, and nowhere to go but Dupont Circle?

Sure, every society in the world has disparities in wealth, and corresponding disparities in access to mental and physical health services. But it seems like all we have here in the nation's capital are the extremes. On the one hand, I go through the urban decay neighborhoods around New York Avenue, where I'd probably be a little nervous to walk down the sidewalk in broad daylight, to get to Littiari's on weekends to buy fresh mozerella, bread, and oil cured olives. The young men in the Beemers probably didn't get them because of their law degrees or stock investments. Many of the boarded up and broken into houses host crackheads on a regular basis. Most of the people living there, statistically speaking, have probably been in jail themselves at some point or have had a close friend or relative locked up. The kids there may not know either parent as they are raised by grandparents and aunts, attending schools with no books, no supplies, underpaid teachers, gangs and drugs.

Meanwhile, just a couple of miles to the west, I can walk through Georgetown where the little tiny houses go for ½ a million, the kids go to Sidwell Friends with the children of the famous, and most of the cars cost more than my college education. I know cities aren't representative - the poor can't afford to live anywhere else, because they can't afford to commute. The middle class leaves because they're faced with living in closets in nice neighborhoods or palaces in war zones. The rich stay because they can afford the big houses in the pretty neighborhoods with trees and gas street lights and brick sidewalks and police protection.

What's my point? I'm not sure there is one, other than to say that, on a beautiful afternoon in Dupont Circle, maybe I lost an interesting opportunity to my fears. And who knows what we as a society have lost to the devastating combination of poverty, mental illness, addiction, and poor health?

b i o
Elizabeth Weaver Engel, besides being a budding writer, is a stealth geek, a manager (but NOT the Pointy-Haired Boss) at a non-profit association, a distance runner, a "rabid" Lindy Hopper, and a connoisseur of fine B-grade movies. 

Currently a resident of Washington, DC, Elizabeth grew up outside of Philadelphia and holds a Master's degree in political theory from the University of Virginia.  She fell into working with computers by accident and has since been struggling to pull herself out.  Writing for Mindjack is one of the steps she's taking to do so.

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