Washington, DC: Eastern Market and the Virus
You wouldn’t know if Washington, DC, was doing its part to fight a global pandemic had you been in the Eastern Market neighborhood on a recent Sunday afternoon. The sun shone glorious over a cool, bright day, as every plant living, it seemed, flourished its early-spring blossoms. Pedestrians, including locals, stopped to snap photos of the trees and budding bushes at their most beautiful. Women still jogged down Pennsylvania Avenue in needlessly revealing yoga gear, their presence and the exposure of their skin absolutely divorced from the precautions flying around social and traditional media: Avoid public places! Stay indoors!
Others walked, taking in the sunshine, including young families and silver-haired couples. The simple choice to be outside felt like an act of defiance, a show of the American kind of freedom so vaunted, and often misunderstood, from the nation’s capital.
“We’ll stay open as long as it’s legal,” said the kid pulling coffee at Radici, the Italian-style café on 7th Street Northeast—Eastern Market’s beating heart. His sentiment seemed civic enough, if self-interested; but who could blame him or his bosses for that? From a hundred visits there I know the owner, Enrico, who hails from Italy’s north. He wasn’t in to ask whether his family there suffers from the total antiviral lockdown that the country is under. The continuity of Enrico’s business might result despite, or because of, his family’s duress across the Atlantic. Perhaps he needed to keep working, to keep his own lights on, as small businesses here and worldwide take a drubbing. Perhaps he needed to keep his Italian family’s lights on, too.
To cross the avenue—Pennsylvania, again—and pick up 8th Street, known as Barracks Row, is to see another side of the city altogether. Really the neighborhoods are one, and those who live in Barracks Row are prone to describe their address as a part of the other. The strip is a study of gentrification’s unfinished business. Near hipster bars and fancy dog stores, homeless men used to loiter in and outside the Popeye’s Fried Chicken, if not to score a bite then at least to smell the smells for free.
Inside the Popeye’s entrance, the fryers’ odors almost overpowering, a printer-paper notice taped to the register starts with, “Y’all—Our dining room is temporarily closed…” But you knew that much already, because all the tables and chairs are gone. Where are the homeless men going to pass their time now? Around the corner the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library is also closed, where the undomiciled could at least sit at the public computers and watch old Eddie Murphy videos on Youtube, for hours. (And they do—they did—every day.)
The hot chicken is a delicious comfort under the cool sunshine, sitting by the entrance of the Eastern Market underground rail station, which is parked on Pennsylvania exactly between 7th and 8th Streets. The street cleaners loiter by the escalators. In their old Washington accents, which gentrification is helping sweep into history, they complain about being housebound on their days off. One’s good humor is enviable: ‘I looked all around the house. There ain’t nothin’ left to do.’
A friend told me he saw a fight break out in that station. As the train was pulling in a man committed the nowadays-crime of sneezing. A man sitting opposite took offense, or became afraid, which are the same thing in coronavirus times. The latter accosted the first, and each grew quickly more aggressive, and the brawl spilled through the opening doors onto the platform, grown men rolling on the floor. DC police, hands in latex gloves already, arrested both.
Leaving Barracks Row one saw the Marines standing sentry outside the area’s namesake, which Marines have been doing since the living quarters opened in 1801. That was generations before the surrounding houses sold for a million-plus and the idea of a future, yuppified neighborhood here would have made its residents laugh. The Marines hail from Idaho, from Arkansas, from Puerto Rico, some fresh from high school, and they are as American as any local-born soul from the District. We—myself and my family, those for whom one generation in DC counts as a long time—tend to forget that. But neither the Marines’ watchfulness, nor their carefully oiled M-27 rifles, can defend against this peculiar viral threat to the homeland. They, we, burn to safeguard our freedom. And no one knows how.
Even those taking in the sunshine will probably not linger, in a season like this. Doing so would raise another new-normal feeling: guilt over doing the day-to-day things of life. Leaving the neighborhood, a sign at a bus stop scolds passersby that “Staying home saves lives,” as if those who take the bus can afford to turn down paid work. Riders might be guilty of not helping ‘flatten the curve,’ meaning the coronavirus infection rate. Those who want a little air on a Sunday afternoon, in these cooped-up days, feel an impossible duty to flatten it more.
What is one to do?, we have all been asking each other. Keep calm. Wash your hands. Live as you must, but at any cost, carry on living.
William Fleeson is a writer and former business journalist. A native and current inhabitant of Washington, DC, he has lived as a resident alien in Paris, France; Glasgow, Scotland; and Nashville, Tennessee. His travel writing has appeared in Allegory Ridge, Ethnotraveler, Wanderlust-Journal, and World Nomads, among other publications.