Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

February 18, 2004. Barbecue, chapattis, and wire transfers.

Walking through Arlington, the smell of warm barbecue in cold air drifts through the street. I spin back to a different time and place. Itís 1976, I am in Vancouver, at Habitat Forum, the peopleís parallel to a United Nations conference. Arriving in Vancouver in late May, I took a ferry out to the Habitat Forum site, a big open area where abandoned airplane hangars had been converted into airy meeting rooms. The designers took pride in local themes, using local timber, built by local artisans

and workmen, punctuated by totem poles and native motifs. I was very young, still looked like Alice in Wonderland with long wavy blonde hair. I was cold and wet on the ferry. A bear of a man working on the dock took me under his wing, wrapped me in a blanket, kept an eye out for me, became a friend. That place was humming with life, construction still underway to get it ready for the crowds to come, smell of wood smoke and sawdust and grilling meat. Barbecue.

By the time the party began Ė the UN meetings and the Forum Ė the sun came out, the flowers glowed, the air warmed into late spring. That's Vancouver, nine months of rain and then the sun comes out and the city shines. Everyone was equal at the Forum. Thousands of people filled the hangars in huge public discussions of how cities work, housing in the developing world, and the visionary ideas of Buckminster Fuller and Margaret Mead. I donít remember what they talked about. What I do remember is the mingling of people and the openness. I, a twenty-year-old college dropout working as a go-fer could get up and voice my opinions just as could Ė and did Ė Pierre Trudeau, then prime minister of Canada. He wasnít the invited

Photo by Garry45, http://community.webshots.com/user/garry45

speaker, he was in the audience with the rest of the crowd. If you didnít know his face Ė and many in that global audience did not Ė you wouldnít even have known who he was. But the buzz went through the hall, ďover there, the one who just spoke up, yes, the prime minister, thatís him.Ē

It was a heady experience for a twenty-year-old dropout.

The smell of barbecue on a February afternoon in Arlington brought it all back, that spring in Vancouver almost thirty years earlier. Coming back to Arlington is always confusing. In some ways itís the same, but I donít know if I am part of this place any more or not. Walking in the streets I run into people I knew from work with the county, from my favorite coffee house on Columbia Pike, from the gym. Am I back, they ask, or just visiting? Well, neither.

Iím back at Rappahannock Coffee House editing the book. That feels absolutely right, I wrote it there, so spending my mornings there clicking away on my laptop making the final revisions is just what I need to do. My friends there knew I was writing it, it is good to be able to tell them that Iím finishing it off. Even if Brian isnít the owner any more, and everyone liked it better when he was around. Lots of the regulars are still there Ė Gayle with her yoga studio across the street, Anne the para-

legal who works too hard, Brett with his two bowls of ice cream every day but now walking with a cane, the beautiful traffic engineer for the County Department of Public Works, Mr. Saah who owns the eponymous furniture store down the Pike. Itís our neighborhood, after all, the place is ours. A few of the old staff are still around, but they shouldnít stay. They need to move on and do better things with their lives than make sandwiches and cappuccinos in a neighborhood coffee house. Even if I want to see the same faces so I feel Iím returning home.

Can I look at Arlington the way I look at Maputo or Cape Town or even New Brunswick? As an outside observer, or perhaps an inside observer? Maybe. Columbia Pike is drab and homey. Its shops donít have the vibrancy of Ninth Avenue in New York, nor do they have the small town feel of New Brunswick. They are a jumble of ethnic identities. At one corner we have, in a row, a Chinese take-out, a sushi place, a new Thai restaurant, a perpetually empty Chinese restaurant draped in red tablecloths and fake flowers, an Asian market. Across the street another Thai restaurant,

an Ethiopian market and restaurant, an El Salvadoran club. A quarter mile down yet another Thai restaurant, a dilapidated old Indian shop, a Peruvian chicken roastery, an El Salvadoran restaurant. In the middle of all that The Broiler, a local institution that's been there for decades, a spoon so greasy that you taste the fried onions in the air a block away. My friends Marilyn and Riley ride over on their bikes for hamburgers and fries, and Susanna buys soft ice cream there Ė creamies, she calls them. I prefer Thai food and trendy coffee.

One corner is dominated by an auto dealership, two sides of the street, vast showroom, lots full of cars for sale, new on one side of the street and used on the other. The shopping center across from it used to have a great old bakery but it has closed, replaced by an auto parts store. Cars are everywhere, in front of the Broiler, in a lot behind Asian Restaurant Row, surrounding the three chain drug stores within a stoneís throw of where Iím walking, in front of the check-cashing place that used to be a purveyor of pupusas and tamales.

Check-cashing and wire transfers are local specialties here. Some of my neighbors complain about them, consider them slummy and lower class. But they come with the El Salvadorans, Indians, Thais, and Ethiopians who run the shops that give character to our neighborhood. They donít need gourmet coffee house or an overpriced food coop, the immigrants who keep the food shops in business. But they do need payday loans, or to wire their cash earnings back to wives or brothers back home. Itís a package deal.

Perhaps my neighborhood will go the way of Clarendon in North Arlington. The metro runs through Clarendon, and the county had the smarts to require high density development along the route instead of letting a few homeowners reap huge windfalls with little other benefit from the efficient new transportation

system. So the area has filled in with office buildings, luxury apartments, and charming but horribly expensive condos built around new ďurban villageĒ shopping areas filled with upscale chain stores and restaurants. Only a few of the old markets and restaurants remain Ė Japanese Auto Repair, Indian Spice and Appliance, a few Hispanic groceries - on bits of road that havenít been redeveloped. Yet. Iím sure they will get pushed out too. ďLost our leaseĒ is a familiar sign in shop windows in Clarendon.

Itís simple economics. Recent immigrants who buy pupusas or saris or videos in Amharic or Vietnamese live in cheap neighborhoods with bad public transit, where they have long cold waits for the bus to work. Rich people who can afford to pay for proximity to metro donít eat injera or chapattis or tortillas. Iíd rather have injera and chapattis and tortillas, please, pass on the metro. If I even have a choice. In a few years Columbia Pike might be just like Clarendon, if the housing market stays the way it is. I wonít like the loss of character in my neighborhood, but I donít suppose Iíll object to my house doubling in value, either.

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