The very next weekend, my exploration of this forgotten frontier continued with passion — my voyage to capture and re-purpose an unfamiliar terrain. From my far and distant childhood, I had always been an adventure-seeker – not just seeking when but wondering how. I yearned for a clearer vision of what existed now and what lay ahead for me, my subtle inhibitions, my forever eternity.
During the week I had filled my foraging hours with intensive homework. I read up voraciously on “Anacostia” or anything vaguely related, past and present…future. I spoke with people in the physical and in the emerging virtual who had known Washington or sown their roots there. And by the week’s end, I had gained invaluable insight into why Anacostia is such the state of mind and decay, yesterday and abundantly today.
When I drove to the eerie wanderland the next weekend, I was deeply aware of the area’s notoriety for drug turf wars on the streets, in the alleyways, in the courtyards and stairways. The drive by shootings for no reason at all, the hold up just for a scrunched up pocket of change. I heard anecdotally from people who knew or professed to know: You were in danger of getting shot at just because you were not from here, or was from a hideaway street just a stone’s throw away. High schools pitted against other schools. Streets versus streets, block versus block, even alley vs alley. That seemed to be the only line of segregation. There was just one race in Anacostia — Black Americans. A white man or any type of man with sane mind or soul would not dare cross. At worst, he would be shot at. At best, the cops would pull him over and inquire whether he was dealing or soliciting, boosting the local crack-whore economy here. I listened intently, showing interest, immersed but tempered with a large grain of salt choking skepticism. I would definitely pay heed to their yearnings and warnings, but once again the explorer in me wanted to see, wanted to visualize, wanted to feel, wanted to dream.
Driving down Martin Luther King Ave, I could see a group of about twenty ruffians with dirty, disheveled appearance, milling around the run-down liquor store at the corner, whiling away their time by staring and yelling at passing cars. In an unexpected move, an elderly man with an unkempt grey beard that fell to his chest, jumped off the sidewalk gesturing wildly. I instinctively stepped on the brakes. “No carryout,” he commented in a jeering tone, referring to the ubiquitous carry-out Chinese food shops all over the nutrition-deprived city. This joke at my expense provoked a wave of derisive laughter from the rest of the men. I shot him a look of pure disgust. The car behind me honked violently, jerking my attention back to the traffic I was holding up. I shrugged off my annoyance at this uncalled for provocation by the street corner drunks, and hesitantly turned right to head down Lebaum Street, unsure of where this would lead. I remembered my trip down memory lane last week and the remnants of gracious living down Alabama Avenue. That seemed a world away as I courageously continued down the rough and pitted Lebaum Street. Neglected, dirty-looking apartment buildings and empty soda bottles appeared to be the signature of the area, as were the formidable-looking ghetto youth who hung out on the sidewalks as if they leased it and in the back alleys doing whatsoever they pleased like it was none of your business. Amidst the squalor and lurking danger of this street, my attention was suddenly captured by a forlorn-looking, worn down, weary-windowed, red-brick house — 500 Lebaum Street.
In this two-story Cape Cod house, the roof sidings were hanging by a thread, waiting for the next puff of wind to blow them away. The weather-beaten roof had layer upon layer of scrambled up tile. The two front windows were boarded up, and shattered glass lay scattered on the unkempt grass next to bottle caps and bottle rockets and traces of hand-rolled joints ditched carelessly in a wreckless foam of unknown. Malicious streaks of graffiti smeared one forgot-about wall and empty beer bottles and crushed soda cans littered the sidewalk. The front yard was cluttered with a worn and loosely scratched dining table and four dirty-looking half-broken chairs tossed about. Close to the retainer wall were boxes overflowing with untidily packed clothes. The very air was filled with desolation and abandon. I was intrigued. Was this house up for sale? Was it an eviction? It had definitely seen better days – that was for sure, but how long ago and how much longer before it would get to know them again. I parked my truck cautiously across the street, and sat stoically, debating the prescient wisdom of leaving the safe confines of my vehicle. I had served in the military for 14 years, and had been deployed to a war zone thrice, but this time the prescribed tasking was of a completely different nature and scope. I carefully felt my side for my sheathed Leatherman hunting knife, reassured to know that it stood rigidly against my body, ready to deploy. With my left hand, I carried my latest CDMA cell phone equipped with a digital camera and 911 smartly pre-programmed that can be activated with a simple push of an emergency button. I opened my car door cautiously, stepped onto the premises hesitantly. The boarded up windows were dirty and eerie-looking. I felt a shiver of apprehension run straight through me but couldn’t opt to escape. As I trod warily to the backyard, I was accosted by more shabby furniture and many more boxes of clothes thrown willy nilly. What was inside, I didn’t seem to want to gander. Perhaps the clothes was just a mischievous, misleading front; buried deep down inside lay a lonely hand, belonging to a body, it no longer knew, a body the world had long abandoned. The 14k gold wedding band that for the majority of its years it became an intimate part of now was hawked at a District corner pawn shop for a dime to buy just a whiff of crack.
It gave me the creeps just imagining, just thinking the perhaps..my inner being revolted, I simply wanted to run and embrace even the worst I could possibly dare to dream. The scary, isolated atmosphere was beginning to penetrate my very being that even the color of my skin started to change. I had turned for a lingering moment to retrace my steps. But incomprehensibly my body didn’t want to move. Rebelling, it no longer responded to split second impulses from my mindless cranial cavity. For some soiled reason, images of some soulful moments in some so-distant past unwittingly came flooding in. Then like a pulled trigger on a perpetually-cocked handgun, I started to remember that forsaken story of forgotten hopes and unforgiven dreams. I could not simply just stop and applaud without being a primary part of it. Could I walk away from indigence and oppression? Could I walk away from wide scale depravity and potential? Then as my mind resurfaced, I turned around to scope my horizons. Could I walk away from some of the most awe-inspiring views of this city that bore my hope. Just moments ago, on another depraved road, I stood among the trees on an incline gazing spellbound at a panoramic view of Washington DC, stretching as far as the eye could see, beyond the Capitol “Hill”, beyond the Washington Monument, over the heads of the rich and the powerful, towards the bleak, wintry skies. It was as if a profound statement was being made by the poor and forgotten rest of us in neighborhood Anacostia.