Urban Pioneers on Dupont Circle
In 1971, two months after graduating from college and getting married, Pete and I moved to Washington, DC. Our first address was a basement in Glover Park on a road called Tunlaw, walnut spelled backward. In order to enter our subterranean space, we had to squeeze past a washer and dryer. The apartment was always dark with long firing slot windows near the ceiling. Since Peter was in grad school at Georgetown, we had to live on my miniscule high school teacher salary. Even in the ‘70s. DC was expensive. We were lucky to find our basement.
And we were oh-so happy with each other and with our city. Standing windswept at the base of the Washington Monument or walking the cool marble floors of the National Gallery, we felt as if we had arrived. DC was our destiny. We went to parties all over the city. Even without much money, we enjoyed ourselves.
Once our salaries improved we moved down Wisconsin Avenue to W Place. This apartment was extremely small, but at least it was above ground. Unfortunately it was near a topless bar called The Beef Palace. I was never sure if they actually sold food there. Whatever the Beef Palace did, they were popular on weekend nights when they had a live band. The walls of the place kept in the noise, except when someone entered or left, which happened every other moment. The opening of their door sent a blast of music and raucous voices through the neighborhood. The intermittency of this noise drove us crazy, as did the splashing of urine against the brick wall of our building or the occasional fights in the parking lot of Theodore’s Furniture. The romantic in me said that the guys were fighting over the attentions of a topless dancer, a heart-of-gold girl caught in a sleazy profession.
While we loved being able to walk down the hill to Georgetown, urban pioneering called to us. We started house-hunting with money scraped together from our parents. Our realtor assured us that the apartment building at 1626 19th Street was a wise investment in the emerging Dupont Circle neighborhood. We could live on a floor and rent out the rest once we rehabbed the place.
Our tenants in the basement apartment, a go-go dancer and a bouncer, left in the night, skipping out on the rent and leaving the place a mess. I found myself draining their waterbed and trying to paint over an outer space scene they had created in black oil paint on one wall. Memo to self: do not rent to people in the entertainment industry.
Lessons I learned: waterbeds are not easy to drain. Eventually I gave up, dragged it out back into the alley, stabbed the beast with scissors, and let it bleed out. Another lesson: latex does not cover oil. Every time I coated the wall, the space scene disappeared. But once the latex dried the space men and their far-far away planet peeked through. All night I kept telling myself, “One more coat.” But the next morning I broke down and bought white oil paint that almost did the job.
Meanwhile, Peter and I were living in one of the apartments, while rehabbing it. Peter grew up in New England with an overblown appreciation for all things old. After our day jobs, we scraped umpteen layers of paint off molding using chemicals so as not to harm the precious wood. No matter that we were harming ourselves with the toxic scraping gunk. How many brain cells did I lose working with that noxious stuff? I began to look for excuses not to come home. Happy hour and flirting with other men called to me. Peter and I fought.
The basement apartment flooded. Our new tenants in the basement used the flooding as an excuse not to pay their rent. Memo to self: do not rent to lawyers.
Things got so bad in our marriage that I moved out. I told friends Peter and I lost each other in the plaster dust, but our split was more complicated than that. I learned what the term “irreconcilable differences” mean. Rehabbing the house on 19th Street added oil to the pyre our marriage had become.
In order to divide our property we had to sell it. We used the same realtor, who told us this time that we would be lucky to get out of it what we put into it. Few buyers wanted a project like our building. In the end, the building sold for our asking price. So our realtor was wrong and right. We made a profit, but lost each other.