It was a Sunday night. We were on I-85 in South Carolina, on our way to visit our son in Atlanta. I wanted to learn how the Redskins had done in the game that day, so I turned the car radio to AM and began searching the dial. I found a sports talk show from Cincinnati and stopped to listen for a little bit, waiting for an update on the football scores. The subject of Washington, DC, happened to come up; both the host and a caller had lived in the DC metropolitan area for a time.
“Man, they won’t give you the time of day in that place. Everybody is just into his own thing,” observed the caller, and the host agreed heartily.
Yes, that is our reputation, and I am here to tell you that it is well-deserved. A native of North Carolina, raised in the rural eastern part of the state, I have lived in suburban Fairfax County, Virginia, since the summer of 1983, commuting into Washington, DC, to work until my retirement in the summer of 2009. I know the area well. I also have some experience with which to compare it. I graduated from Davidson College, just north of Charlotte, and did my graduate work at Chapel Hill. I worked two summers in a pea cannery in Walla Walla, Washington. I taught one year at a prep school in Hendersonville, just south of Asheville. My two years of Army duty were split almost evenly between Tidewater, Virginia, and South Korea. After my first year of graduate school, I worked in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the summer and got married there. Before coming to Washington, I taught six years at North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, NC, and then lived four years in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When it comes to unfriendliness, none of those places begins to compare to the Washington, DC, area.
Now at this point you might be thinking that I really don’t know what unfriendliness is, because New York City is not on the list of places that I have lived. The problem here is with the imprecision of the adjective, “unfriendly.” What New Yorkers are is rude; here they are cold. There’s a big difference.
I do have quite a bit of familiarity with New York City. My wife’s sister lives in Riverdale in the Bronx, and when I worked for Puerto Rico’s Economic Development Administration in San Juan, I had numerous occasions to visit their stateside sub-headquarters in Manhattan. I have witnessed a number of instances of the sort of shocking face-to-face rudeness that only occurs between motorists in our area. New Yorkers don’t even take offense if you tell them that they are rude. They take it almost as a compliment. They see it as a sign of their toughness. If you can’t take it or dish it out like they can, it’s because you’re not Big League like they are. If the brash manner is too much for you, you can just go back to the Podunk where you belong, which is just about every place in the world not nicknamed The Big Apple, as they see it. One of the main reasons that President Donald Trump is so strongly disliked by so many people is that he’s such a New Yorker in his manner.
I could cite instances of that New York rudeness, but that’s not what this article is about. It’s about Washington’s coldness, and, as you will see, my cup runneth over with examples. But first, let’s say a word about our article’s title. I have used it before in the first verse of my paraphrase of Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Chicago.” As Sandburg attempted to capture the essence of that Midwestern colossus, I tried to capture the essence of our nation’s capital. If, as he put it, Chicago was the “City of the Big Shoulders,” then Washington is the “City of the Cold Shoulder.”
Down to cases, that expression, “Won’t give you the time of day,” pretty well captures it. We don’t often think about it literally, but it suggests a situation where you approach a stranger who you see is wearing a watch and you are not, and you ask him what time it is. He ignores you, as if you hadn’t even asked this minor assistance of him. Surely such things don’t happen in real life, you must be thinking. It has to be merely a figure of speech. To the contrary, my guess is that the expression must have originated in the DC area, based upon actual experience.
Long-distance road biking has been a hobby of mine for quite a long time. I am fortunate to live in a place where I can practice it relatively safely. The Washington and Old Dominion Bicycle Trail, named for the former railroad on whose road bed it is laid, runs from inside the Beltway to Purcellville, Virginia, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I can reach it from my house by biking on sidewalks or bike trails that run beside the highway. I used to ride on it almost every weekend when the weather was good, to be joined by bike enthusiasts from around the metropolitan area.
One Saturday afternoon, I discovered that a nice rest area had been built on the trail near Ashburn. There was a drinking fountain, a couple of beverage-vending machines, and a pair of picnic benches, among other amenities. A number of bikers had pulled over to try it out. I joined them, refilled my water bottle, and found a vacant spot at one of the picnic benches. Seated next to me was a man that I judged to be the only person there older than I, in his late 50s or early 60s, I would say. As is not untypical on that bike trail, his fancy bike and his attire I would estimate would have not fallen far short in total price from that of my pickup truck. If I had to guess about his profession, I would say that he was a lawyer, either for the government or for one of the many firms that lobbies the government.
I broke the silence by saying to him, “It’s pretty civilized what they’ve done here.” I don’t think I added, “Isn’t it?” to the end of my observation, but it was implied. It was an ice breaker that called for a response. It did not come. I might as well have addressed the man’s showy bicycle. He was right there next to me, I was speaking directly to him, and he ignored me completely.
It is difficult for me to relate to such uncivil behavior, but I have lived and worked in the area long enough to explain it. What he saw as he quickly sized me up was a person who was unlikely to be able to do anything to advance his career. What gain could there be to him by wasting his time talking to me? So, he just averted his gaze as if to say, “Go away, you bother me.” He could have been brushing away a fly, though he made no overt gesture.
I suppressed the urge to hit him, took my time drinking from my water bottle, and stared off into space as I did so. I don’t recall which of us got on our bicycles first and headed on our way.
Now let’s fast forward a few years. Family friends had lived in Laramie, Wyoming, for ten years and all the while they had invited us to come visit with them. They were moving away for the husband’s new job in Independence, Missouri, and it was our last chance for a visit. My wife and I first took the opportunity to see Rocky Mountain National Park, on the way north from Denver to Laramie. To relieve automotive pressure on the park, to get into its central area, you have to park your car in a perimeter lot and be transported in by bus. Before reaching the central parking area, the bus stopped at a small, scenic wayside where a park ranger, in this case a retired science teacher from New York State, took us for a little walking tour around and introduced us to the various plants in the area. Before he did that, he took a survey of our group, asking us to say where we were from. I noticed that four others, a young couple with two young children in tow, were from our area, Alexandria, Virginia, in their case.
About two-thirds away around the walking tour, there was a small bench to sit down on while listening to the ranger and admiring the vista. I noticed that the guy from Alexandria was seated next to me. I attempted small talk by saying to him, “I envy your being able to take your children to a great place like this. I wish I could have done it with mine when they were that age.”
The response? You guessed it. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. The bench, itself, would have been just as responsive.
Relative Age Not Important
In the first instance, perhaps you might say that it was a more important elder dismissing an impertinent younger person attempting to engage him in conversation. Here the situation is reversed, but all I get is the icy cold shoulder. At least this time I’m not so completely taken aback by it, because I had experienced it previously.
In my most recent example, relative age was no factor. The very sophisticated looking, well-dressed gentleman with a neatly trimmed goatee sitting next to me appeared to be of about the same age as me, a little past the standard retirement age. My wife and I had arrived a bit early for a violin performance at the Kennedy Center. Only one other person was seated yet in our row, in the aisle seat right next to mine. My wife announced that she was going to the bathroom, leaving just the other guy and me there and hardly anyone else within earshot. As it happened, the other guy and I were dressed virtually identically, with black pants, a silver-gray colored silk sport coat, white shirt and tie. I seldom take much note of what people are wearing, but it was hard not to notice in this instance; no one else I saw was dressed exactly that way.
“It looks like we buy our clothes at the same place,” I ventured. I think he might have looked at me to see what I meant, but that was the extent of his reaction. He offered not a word in response. Later I saw him reading his program, and I had to suppress the urge to say, “Oh, I see you understand English.”
The three examples I have given are all the more remarkable in that each is in a recreational setting in which the other person is engaging in the same recreation that I am, so one would think that the common interest would draw us together. Instead, all that I encountered was the sort of icy brush-off that I would never even have thought possible had I not experienced it in the flesh.
How a common interest usually draws people together is usually on display in the area of tourism—that young DC-area fellow at Rocky Mountain National Park notwithstanding. My wife and I travel quite a bit, and the fellow tourists we encounter are part of the enriching experience. Almost everyone who lives in the Washington, DC, area comes from somewhere else, and I’m sure that there are a lot of interesting things to be learned from them, but there’s something about the culture of the place that puts a damper on people wanting to open up.
President John F. Kennedy supposedly observed that “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” If he actually said that, he was definitely onto something, but I think that it’s a bit unfair to both regions, and it begs the question as to why it might be so.
Whatever its cause, the appalling lack of graciousness in the local character was inadvertently captured by The Washington Post with one of its advertisements that ran inside the subway cars a few years back. Struggling to retain circulation, The Post had a series of appeals listing the various reasons why you should have a subscription. In one, they showed a person apparently deeply immersed in the newspaper while riding the subway, which we call the Metro. I don’t remember the precise wording of the caption, but it was to the effect, “So you won’t be bothered by the person sitting next to you.”
I really can’t imagine that pitch going over anywhere else in the world. A tourist reading that must find it really puzzling, I remember thinking at the time. I saw it only as perfectly fitting.
The Distaff Side
The examples of icy indifference that I have listed so far are all with fellow males. They stood out because they were so shocking to me, and they are so well engraved on my memory that I remember verbatim the failed icebreaking words that I used. Such experiences with females in the area don’t stand out because they are so commonplace. No matter how unlikely they might appear as candidates for such attention, their attitude seems to be that your words must be only the opening sally in an eventual sexual assault, so the safest thing to do is to ignore you. One particular episode does stand out in my mind, though.
It was a couple of weeks before Christmas, and the local post office was a very popular place during the lunch hour. Naturally, though, most of the postal workers picked that same time for their lunch, and only one of more than a half dozen windows were open. Consequently, the line waiting for service was a long one. I was about no. 20 in the line, and after about ten minutes of this I finally spoke in exasperation to no. 19, a woman of unremarkable appearance, to put it politely. “You’d think they would have more people on duty at lunch hour,” I said to my fellow sufferer.
Yep, nothing in response.
In this instance, I think that I did manage to get a small measure of revenge. The weather was cold, and the woman was wearing a top coat. I was carrying a pen and had in my pocket the business card of a fellow from Atlanta with whom I had met in my office that morning; I really had no good reason to retain his card. I wrote on the back of the card, “The rude post office and some of its customers deserve one another,” and surreptitiously dropped it into her coat pocket.
“Just what one might expect from those Southern cads,” she must have thought upon discovering it.
It is a great curiosity to me, but I noticed one outstanding exception to the rule that the local women always respond—or don’t respond, as it were—as though the guy is hitting on them if he tries to initiate a casual conversation. That is the case of a rider on my commuter bus for a time whom I dubbed “the ladies’ man.” Young and hardly better looking than average, the two most noticeable things about him were that he was always neatly dressed, and he reeked of cologne. With dark hair, he also had a bit of the Latin lover air about him. When he embarked on a conversation with a woman, it could hardly have been more obvious that what he was doing was hitting on them. On more than one occasion I watched him leave his seat and go sit beside a new, attractive rider on the bus and begin chatting her up. For some reason, they never seemed to mind, appearing to take his ostentatious attention almost as a compliment.
Since I have seen this phenomenon in other places one might consider this to be a general observation about the strange weakness of the human female and a digression from our main theme, except for my own one brief interaction with the guy. One morning I happened to find myself seated next to him, and, on the off chance that he could just be a gregarious sort, I endeavored to start a conversation with him. I don’t remember if he said anything or not, but I know that he made it abundantly clear that he was not interested in talking to me. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever saw him talk to another man…or to a woman, either, who was not relatively young and more attractive than average. He was “the ladies’ man,” after all.
Generation X Experience
As we noted at the beginning of this essay, observations about the coldness of people in the Washington, DC, area are hardly unique to me. It was the subject of continual banter between two of the young guys in the office where I worked. One of them was a military brat who had spent most of his formative years in the area, so he thought of himself as more or less a native. The other guy was from Richmond, and he regularly gave the military kid a hard time about the inhospitable nature of the locals. One day he came limping to work bearing a tale of ultimate indictment of DC indifference to one’s fellow man.
After work the day before, he had gone for a run on a local trail and had either stepped in a hole or on some obstacle and had turned his ankle, falling in an excruciatingly painful heap. Soon after another runner came along, encountering him writhing in pain on the ground. “Sprain your ankle?” the guy inquired. The Richmond native grunted in the affirmative. “That’s a bummer,” said the guy, and then off he went to continue his run.
I gathered that the pain of the experience was almost worth it for the opportunity to shut the DC-defender’s mouth for all time in his defense of local deportment.
I heard an even stronger story in the same vein from a friend of one of my sons. I think I had told him about the man at the rest area on the bike trail, and he had a topper. As he told it, he was waiting for the commuter bus on a winter morning and a light rain was falling. A half hour or so passed, and the bus didn’t come. He happened to hear on his Sony Walkman that the bus for which they were waiting was detained by an accident on an iced-over bridge on their route. He told that to the other guy waiting for the bus with him. The guy then called his sister to come pick him up by car and take him to the subway station. She arrived in short order, picked the guy up, and left my son’s friend waiting for the detained bus, never offering him a ride.
As luck would have it, the bus did come shortly after the friend had been left behind. The guy who had abandoned him got off at the same subway station that our friend did, and it was there that he discovered that they had actually caught the same train. Upon spotting our friend, the guy said cheerfully, “Oh, I see you made it.”
To which my son’s friend said he responded curtly, “Yeah, no thanks to you.”
Back on the Trail
In retirement, I was able to get out on the bike trail on week days with some regularity when there were few other bikers there. One day I came across another retiree who seemed to be just a regular, normal person. Enjoying the company, we rode along beside one another for a bit, engaging in small talk when the other guy hit me with what would seem to be a most peculiar question. “Do I seem invisible to you?”
I played the straight man and answered, “No,” but I knew where he was going with it and felt that the man I see each morning in the mirror was talking to me. “I don’t think of myself as any sort of extrovert,” he said, “But most of the time people out here act like I’m not even here when I nod my head or speak to them.”
“Man, could I ever tell you some stories about that,” I responded. The readers of this essay might get the impression that I might be some sort of glad-handing extrovert, but I am very much like the man characterized himself, probably a little below a five on a one-to-ten extrovert scale.
We reached my exit point just after the guy broached the subject, and I wasn’t able to share with him any of the anecdotes that I have recounted here. It would be nice if he were to read this to see what he missed.
I also have no doubt that there are lots of similar stories out there that could probably outdo mine. You might want to weigh in with your own experience on the Heresy Central forum. Maybe we could compile them into a book someday.
April 4, 2019
As I was working on this article, I happened to experience what looks to me like another example of Washington-area coldness. My latest exercise routine includes an approximately one-hour hike that requires the fording of four small streams where there are stepping stones and through wooded terrain that has escaped development because it is too steep. I wear my backpack and pick up any litter that I might run across. The last stream fording takes me into a new neighborhood, and in our area, the newer the neighborhood, the bigger the houses. Those “hotel-sized houses” in the Sandburg parody poem are in one of our comparable new neighborhoods.
On the afternoon of Monday, May 1, emerging onto a cul-de-sac after crossing the stream, I noticed an envelope to my right, lying on the grass. Obviously, it had been there for a while because all the adhesive had washed out and it opened everywhere, not just where its intended sender had sealed it. The letter was addressed to TD Bank in Maine, and inside was a check in the sum of $679.00, as I recall. Clearly, though, the payment had not reached its destination. The date on the check was February 20, 2019. I checked the return address and the street sign just one house up from my discovery and saw that the sender was from a house across the intersection on the opposite side of the street from where I found the envelope.
A car was in the driveway and I rang the doorbell, but no one was home. I checked the mailbox and found that it contained one piece of junk mail, so I surmised that the mail had been delivered for the day, so that if I left the envelope in the box the residents should discover it there upon their return from work. I imagine that the failure of the bank to receive the check that they were sure they had mailed might have led to a certain amount of consternation and confusion on the part of the senders.
I was carrying no writing implement and the only thing I had with me as a form of identification was a card with the cover of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation, the book that Hugh Turley and I wrote, on one side and a quote from Merton along with the web address, http://www.themartyrdomofthomasmerton.com, on the other. The web site has a box for one to use for anyone wanting to contact the authors, but there was really no reason for the residents to believe the authors listed on the card had anything to do with the finding of the lost envelope. Unfortunately, it probably just added to the mystery, especially since it happened to be April Fool’s Day.
To end the mystery, I went back on Wednesday morning, April 3, carrying a business card advertising my dcdave.com web site. On the back I wrote, “I am the finder of your errant check,” and followed that with my telephone number. My email address is printed on the other side along with my name. Again, no one was home, and since it was morning, the mail had not yet been delivered. The house lacks a storm door, so I simply wedged the card into the front door where it closes, near the handle, and then I returned home and waited for the phone call.
Nine days have now passed, and I am still waiting. Neither gratitude nor curiosity seems to be sufficient to cut through the natural tendency toward coldness.
April 12, 2019