My last night in Arlington, chilly, portending rain, traffic heavy on Wilson Boulevard. I was doing ribs at Red, Hot, and Blue on the theory that a coronary occlusion was better than saving myself for the tumor. A benefit of life is that you have choices.
RH&B claims to have the “best barbecue you’ll ever eat in a building that hasn’t already been condemned.” That sounds about right. I like condemned buildings. On the lobotomy box a psychologist, expounding on the mental state of a sniper then popular with the press, babbled about self-actualization. I could tell because the closed-captioning said so. Captioning is supposed to be for the deaf, but really it’s for bars.
He was the squishily pretty kind of psychologist with the bikini-line beard and the condescension that comes of infinite understanding. I decided that priss spigots and barbecue don’t go well together. His gestures carried a whiff of closeted heterosexuality. I know. You can’t say that any longer. Heterosexuality, the last taboo. I wanted to brain him, but it appeared likely that someone already had.
I walked up Wilson toward Little Saigon and, beyond, the American Legion post where Honky-Tonk Confidential was playing. Lower Arlington is a ferment of dives, beer chutes, and changing restaurants that pop up every time we lose a war. It’s good juju. Washington is the left ventricle of the heart of darkness, but there are regions with a lively urban feel.
As the years have passed the city’s night life has become more and more a circular swirl around the Beltway. Long ago, people from the suburbs went into the city for music, dancing, drinking. As crime worsened, traffic gummed up, hostile city governments made parking tickets a revenue source, and taxation drove businesses into Virginia and Maryland, night life shriveled downtown. In Rosslyn, Virginia, where Key Bridge crosses the Potomac from Georgetown, you see huge high-rise office buildings. They are Washington’s tax base. It went away.
Life follows money. In the safer outlying states, the amenities of urban life sprang up in enclaves around the Beltway: Arlington, Alexandria, Bethesda. Restaurants, shops, bars, music of all sorts flourished. High-tech business plopped themselves down in exurban parks instead of going downtown. Soon a generation arose who never went to the city. Anything they wanted could be found around the Beltway.
When a city makes itself unlivable, people stop living in it. Now there’s a concept.
In a conurbation that amounts to office parks scattered around a slum, with fern bars specked about, you have to hunt for night spots that have any life to them. There are some: Whitey’s in Arlington, a former biker bar; Cowboy Café South, the Zoo Bar on Connecticut Avenue across the street from the entrance to the Zoo. The latter is narrow, dark, smoky, and has bands consisting of three blacks you’ve never heard of who play good blues. It could be in a real city, Manhattan or Chicago.
The Legion is a little place, a converted house, on a side street. The décor is 1954 institutional cafeteria, unpretentious as an all-night diner. I like it because people aren’t trying to impress you. The crowd is mostly aging. There, and at the VFW, you run into old guys on the way out who remember the Pacific War, far-off days of sun and blood on turret armor and Hellcats screaming off wooden decks. My father was there. There is an honor in these of the leaving that means nothing to conniving lawyers and nominal men with ear rings.
The band was setting up. HTC is a deeply Washington band derived from the major ecosystems of the city – media trash, computer wieners, and Civil Serpents. DC is an odd city. Excepting the underclass, it consists of pols, who live by lying and stealing; bureaucrats who molder pointlessly in offices painted federal-wall green; support troops in the computer trades, and the press, who misreport the others. Washington is a city without a soul. There is no blue-collar presence, few ethnic neighborhoods except black and Latino.
Yet it is the nation’s most educated city, heavy on brains, expertise, and hidden desperation. Sometimes raw talent breaks out for good purposes, usually in the dark of night, like Superman from Lex Luther’s kryptonite jail. HTC is such an eruption, a truly fine country band in the least country city on earth. You can imagine country in New York or LA, but the music of DC is the hum of a paper shredder destroying incriminating documents.
I’ve known them for a decade at least. Diana Quinn, Mike Woods, Geff King. With three lead singers each of whom could carry band him, or in Diana’s case, herself. They write their own distinctive stuff. (“Down in Washington/ You can’t have a gun/ The bad guys all got one?”) They will never make it on MTV because they can sing with their legs together.
At break I went to the whizzenzimmer. In each of the urinals a portrait was pasted, obviously designed for the purpose and impervious to expired beer. It was Jane Fonda. She remains perhaps the most hated human in a country that has never heard of Vidkun Quisling. Lock and load, I thought. I gave her credit for persistence. Three decades after crewing the North Vietnamese antiaircraft site, Hanoi Jane was once again making a splash.
I don’t understand the rich and famous. The woman at the next table was quoting Zsa Zsa Gabor, perhaps correctly, as saying, “All I want is a diamond on my finger and a mink on my back.” As a guy I can relate to a mink on her back, though I’d look funny in diamonds. Washington goes in more for semi-rich but powerful, skip the garishness. These people have $750,000 mortgages in remote McLean on ugly piles set next to each other like those square warts on a waffle iron and called Oglethorpe Mews. I guess Grotesque Box Cluster wouldn’t catch the desired flavor.
They spend their whole lives rising slowly at Housing and Urban Development, like bubbles in pancake syrup, so they can be GS-15s and regarded with awe by other federal termites who don’t do anything worthwhile either. If they had the brains the good Lord gave a claw hammer, they would buy hang-gliders, eat ribs, and listen to bar bands.
But they don’t. It keeps them out of my way.
The Legion had really good Budweiser. I got another as I wanted to pay my respects to Jane again. My mother brought me up to be a gentleman. Diana lit into “I Ain’t No Texas Gal,” and I reflected that an advantage of Washington is that, sometimes, you can almost believe you aren’t there.
*HTC If you like country and wanna risk a whole twelve rapidly devaluing green dollars on music “about loving, cheating, drinking, murdering and dying,” and other matters applicable to daily life, I doubt you’ll be disappointed. I prefer “Honky-Tonk Confidential” to “Your Trailer or Mine,” but what do I know?
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