Capitol Hill is quiet on a Wednesday afternoon. People have been swept off the sidewalks and tucked indoors. I spend this odd, midweek day off renting out a booth for the price of bottomless coffee. Well-dressed men and women filter in and out of Pete’s Diner on lunch breaks, but I remain. I am furniture, passing time, solid and stationary, as others mill about their lives.
It feels indulgent to sit here pacelessly and pointlessly while all else is activity. Today, it feels indulgent just to be alive. As I leave Pete’s Diner, the sun is out and politely shining. The temperature is neither warm nor cool, but precisely continuous with my skin. A block ahead, a school bell rings, and a hundred tiny bodies stream outside. They are searching for their uniquely fit and attractive parents among the assembled microcosm of DC’s generally fit and attractive parents. The children are happy. Their parents are tired, but happy. And I am happy — pleased to be here with them, part of this idyllic scene. I am the smiling passerby who is simply happy for the happiness of these families. Oh, how good families are. How nice the sun and non-temperature feel. It is a Wednesday and I am not working and the leaves will turn soon, but not yet. This must be shared, the perfect poetry of this afternoon.
A woman approaches on the sidewalk. I do not know her, but she is like me, an extra in this happy scene. She will understand. Our eyes will meet, and we will both consent to the joy flooding over us in excited yells and small talk. We're feet away. I look at her and smile a knowing smile, an isn’t-life-just-lovely sort of smile.
The woman avoids my eye contact and does not return my smile. Instead, she issues a guttural noise — the collection of something vicious from the back of her throat — and spits onto the concrete.
The moment shatters. This woman has knocked something precious and irreparable to the ground. But what? Was it a good and pure moment of reality that she ruined? Or was it nothing but a thin veneer, a beautiful artifice? A moment always meant to give way to something more raw, more real?
I go to Capitol Hill most days. It's a three mile trip: down Pennsylvania Avenue where the men from the Nation of Islam sell bean pies at the traffic lights, across the Anacostia River which I'm told is getting cleaner, past Trusty's Bar and Grill which is just gritty enough to be considered a dive, and through an increasingly thick concentration of brownstones, stopping only when you reach the Capitol Building. I come here to run on the Mall and drink thick milkshakes and browse disorderly bookstores. And sometimes, I just come to Capitol Hill because it is beautiful. It is charming, with its porch swings and wind chimes and 50’s style Schwinn bicycles locked around wrought iron gates. The grass is tidy but the flowers are wild, and the trees feel self-assured in their wisdom and age.
I feel a small guilt in coming here. I'm not supposed to like things like this. I am poor — have chosen to be poor. I live in a cramped house "East of the River" (you don’t want to be east of the river), with peeling paint and trash perpetually in the yard. We have no lawn art or porch furniture or air conditioning. It feels like home, but one that has been stripped to its most utilitarian definition. I don't mind it. I prefer it, actually. But sometimes, when the week is long, and the postman skips our house, and trash just keeps blowing into our yard, I need a buffer between myself and the exposure of life. On these days, I drive down Pennsylvania Avenue, across the bridge, and past Trusty's. I park somewhere amidst the brownstones and wander into this world, three miles away but so far from my own.
It is another wandering day. I float around the blocks like a baleen whale, inhaling everything, hoping to sieve some nourishment from the mass intake of urban ocean. What I really want is to be stopped by a prophetic stranger, the voice of one crying out in the concrete with a message of salvation. But what stops me, instead, is a shoe. It is tan, leather, a bit professorial — ordinary in every way but three. One: I have stopped to notice this shoe, and I never notice shoes. I could encounter a thousand people in a day, never really seeing any of their two thousand shoes. Two: the shoe is outside someone’s home, perched upside down on their wrought iron gate, where it should not be. And three: there is just one shoe, which is an unusual number of shoes to find.
A question is demanded here. How has the person lost it? It's not easy to lose just one shoe. I've done it, once in 26 years, outside an Irish pub in a small Missouri town.
The tale of this single shoe strikes me as being either whimsical or tragic. The scenario is fun to imagine: the owner of the house, a bachelor in his mid-thirties, had a visitor. His childhood best friend had stopped by on her way to the airport for a month-long, potentially deadly assignment in Nicaragua. Just as she walked out the door, after a charged and lingering farewell, he came to the realization that this woman — the one who raced him on big wheels in second grade, the one who pulled an all-nighter with him before the AP Government exam, the one who coordinated weekly phone calls when he lived in a four-man house in Boston and she a flat in Palo Alto — this woman was his soulmate. The realization came not a moment too soon. He dashed out the door after her cab, hopping and wrestling with his shoes. Abandoning one altogether, he ran down C Street wearing a single untied Oxford. From here, the story goes two ways. Option one: The cab stops. A mutual confession. A passionate embrace. Plans changed, sacrifices made. A defining commitment, two newly creative lives, perhaps a dog, and why not another child. Then there’s a move to the suburbs, another dog, sure, why not, and a joyful, sometimes difficult, til-death. Option two: The cab does not stop. She goes to the airport. In Nicaragua, she falls in love with a fellow journalist on the same assignment. She comes back only to collect her things and move closer to him, in Jersey. She invites the owner of the shoe, still a bachelor, to their wedding, but he seems to have another commitment that weekend. She is disappointed, but not as much as she could be. He throws away the shoes along with the save the date, bitter reminders of the great could-have-been.
Parsed by Occam’s razor, there are simpler, probably more realistic explanations: the man brought a change of clothes to bike to and from work, and a dress shoes fell from his bag as he dismounted his bike. Or maybe he was on his way back from the gym, and the shoe slipped out when he went for his keys. But these explanations are less fun and less telling. I want to believe that this shoe has been sent to me as a sign, a witness to the hidden heart of this city.
Other relics have been left behind on the gates: a doll dress, a beanie, and a draped pair of khakis. I find several baby items: velcro shoes, a giraffe pacifier, and a baseball cap reading “my first season” (I come to know babies as irresponsible beings, always losing things). There are gloves that, worn by the gate post, look like disembodied hands reaching out to passersby. I stop to take pictures of them all and collect them in an album on my phone, titled “Gates of Capitol Hill.” To me, they are art. They say something true about humanity. It may seem that we are individual and contained — retreating to our own homes and our own rooms, drawing our blinds and closing our doors, and feeling, if we allow ourselves to, that we don’t really know anyone and no one really knows us. But in truth, we are leaving bits of ourselves behind wherever we go, like millions of imperceptible dust particles illuminated by the mid-morning sun.
In high school, it became vogue to ask our peers what tattoo they would get. Few of us were eighteen, so the question was purely hypothetical. But it felt important. I meditated upon it while riding the bus, burning my quads around the track, and lying half awake at night. In the end, I came to the conclusion that I could simply never get a tattoo. My reason was not that they are tacky, trashy, expensive, or painful (these reasons, I thought, would be shallow). Neither was it because I could never choose just one thing to live with for the rest of my life (in fact, I craved such a commitment). I just could not make such a public display of identity. I could not bear that some chosen Celtic sign or Hemmingway quote would become who I was to the world.
My college roommate, Marissa, had a tattoo. Two ruffly angel wings inked her back, right where wings would, indeed, sprout. It was the type of tattoo one might get after buying Juicy velour sweatpants or joining an all-female biker gang. When I first saw them, I asked what their significance was, because everyone knows that tattoos mean something. Her answer was maddeningly cryptic. “I like how they look,” she said.
I admired Marissa’s tattoo. It said nothing about her, revealed nothing but some shallow, aesthetic choice. Maybe it said something about how she wasn’t the kind of person to get a meaningful tattoo. But nobody would know that on first glance. Strangers at a beach or water park or summer wedding would see her tattoo and birth some conclusion about who she was. That was the most admirable and unbelievable part. She knew people would think she was The Type of person to get an angel wing tattoo, when that was not the case. And she did not care.
I’ve always been possessive of my identity. Play it close to the chest. Give little away. No bumper stickers. No social media. The one poster I had in my childhood bedroom (of puppies in Chuck Taylors) was put up by my mom when I was thirteen. Clothes caused a dilemma, as choices must be made. One morning in my senior year of college, I had just dressed in a pink shirt when I annoyingly remembered it was St. Patrick’s Day. The decision that resulted was unbearable. I could stay in the pink shirt, knowing that people would know that I knew it was St. Patrick’s Day and had chosen to wear pink, anyway — because I was an individual, too authentically Irish for such gaudy displays, etc. Or I could change into some lame green t-shirt, making apparent that I had no real devotion to St. Patrick and cared only about assimilating into the drunken green mass. In the end, I don’t remember whether or not I changed, which makes the agony of the choice seem even more insane.
It felt necessary and right to hole up, wall off, and obfuscate. Living among hundreds of fragile others, I felt peace in being so durable and shelled, so impervious to collision. But time and truth have a habit of wearing away all defenses. The shell split open, as it always does and always will. The initial reaction was visceral. My blood oxidized in open air, and my arteries softened with sunlight. My heart froze with the wild stare of a deer in headlights — with the shock of a fleshy mammal realizing, in a flash, its defenselessness against a screeching metal reality.
The shock gave way to tenderness, a transition realized by an encounter with words. “Love is but the heart’s immortal thirst to be all known and completely forgiven,” writes H. Van Dyke. The first time I read this line, I felt the desperate parch of a thirst long denied. Oh, how I thirsted to be known. Like the deer that yearns for running streams, I thirsted. My life was composed of silence and self-containment, and I longed for immolation, explosion. But I was too cautious to approach the chasm in the earth where waters sprung, too timid to go to the well. If human longing is to be known and forgiven, then human fear is to be known and rejected. It seemed impossible, to be at once all known and all forgiven. I suspected that what was hidden would be hideous and wild. It was better to thirst. Safer.
This is the appeal of the gates, with all those items draped over and perched atop them. They reveal the hidden intimacies of domestic life in an accidental and unconscious way. They do not demand the pain of giving up parts of ourselves, but allow us to be known all the same. They are the windows we never meant to built, letting light into places intended for darkness. Oh, happy fault. The rays spilling in the windows give warmth. Because of them, Capitol Hill feels friendly and known. I hope the feeling is mutual. Again, I imagine the owner of the shoe. Walking home from the Metro, he spots something unusual at a distance, and wonders is that my shoe on the gate? As he gets closer, he gives a bemused laugh, realizing that yes, it is. And in a moment teetering between panic and relief, he knows. He knows that he has exposed something without meaning to do so. And he knows that his life has become a little better, perhaps a little less lonely, for it.
The cost of being known is, in some places, higher than in others. Three miles from Capitol Hill, due east of the river, items lost are not normally returned. Vulnerabilities exposed are often exploited. Children play in dark indoors. They are made to learn that outside is unsafe — that trust is a vice. The assumptions here are different. But are they true? If beauty is merely artifice, then this place is certainly real.
It is a Tuesday morning when I pull up to the post office. The window is shattered, and police crowd around a large hole, made by a gun or a rock. I join the crowd forming outside. “Somebody tried to break in,” they say. A revelation. We all hope for some solution. Perhaps the police officers will invite us to crawl through the hole, get our mail, and go. Several people have ridden over thirty minutes on the bus, spending three dollars to get here. Others are waiting on checks and money orders they need to make it through the end of the month. I, less urgently, need the mail to do my work for the day.
One by one, we resign ourselves to the fact that the post office is closed and we cannot crawl through the hole. The crowd dissipates. I slump back to my car, and right by my tire a man is peeing. His pants are half down, and a stream of urine splashes my tire. On a better day, this could have been funny, maybe even welcomed as an honest portrait of the human condition. People are wild and unpredictable. We have wills that are free. Why not pee on my car? On a better day, this may have seemed sad. The man is clearly not sober. He is a victim of circumstance and addiction. He has no control over himself, and no awareness of his public embarrassment. But today is not a better day. I am angry. I am disgusted. This is too much. Vile. Humanity is ugly and dirty and vile. I want us to be open. I want us to be vulnerable. I want lost leather shoes and baby baseball caps — all these fun and quirky windows into people's souls. But I do not want this.
Do I have that choice?
If openness is good, it must be objectively good. We are objects of equal mass — all our lives pulling with the same gravity, all of differences like pocket change. If this is good, then let it be good. If a heart and soul are meant to be opened, then let them be opened. All of them. Give me your happy families and your lonely bystanders, your joyful yells and your guttural retches. Give me wind chimes and shattered glass. Give them to me, all of them. If you open them to me, I will embrace them all. I will love them all.
My heart burns for this objective truth. But it is pure sentiment. It is a phantasm, the desire of a desire. There is always the creeping matter of subjectivity, the self-centeredness of personal preference. I want poverty, but I do not want it to be so poor. I can say that I want us to be stripped bare, cut open, letting blood, not counting the cost. But in the end, my heart is small and selective, and I cannot accept this ocean into it. I can only sieve what I think will nourish.
Sometimes I wonder: why do I live here, East of the River, in this small house with all the trash (always the trash) and no air conditioning when the summers are so damn hot and impossibly humid? At the crux of it all is a mystery. I have heard the words “blessed are the poor,” and I have felt the resonance of truth in them. And when you catch a glimmer of truth, a drop of dew on an invisible web, you follow it. There is no where else to go.
Ten of us live in the three houses that occupy one piece of property East of the River. We are the ideal “neighbors,” running next door to borrow eggs or milk, volunteering as last-minute babysitters, or watching movies on a collectively slow night. We share our lives because we share a purpose. Every day, the ten of us go out in pairs to meet the poor as friends and to help them where we can. One of the first women I meet is Dorothy.
I entered Dorothy's life in media res, carrying a lasagna. I hopped the railing and jumped down the three-foot wall to the door of her basement apartment. The scene inside was set in quiet motion. Steady breaths of sleep came from a cot in the corner, a portable television mutely flashed the Redskins game, and a couple slept on the floor with heads propped against the wall. A few renegade sun rays danced into the otherwise dark room.
"Dot?" my roommate Gaby inquired down the hallway. "It's Gaby and Mary-Kate." A woman walked out of the back bedroom. She was an imposing character: six-feet tall, solidly built, high cheekbones, and mahogany skin.
Dorothy's life was, itself, 53 years in media res. She grew up in rural North Carolina before her large family moved to DC and continued to grow. Her current apartment was the most recent successor in a long line of project housing. Many people wandered in and out of its doors. Three were her children. Another was Ronnie, her long-time boyfriend whom she called her husband. She had an actual husband, whom she called Big Gary. Both would die within the year.
Three years ago, Dorothy was blinded by a rare disease. She typically wore sunglasses, but when she didn’t, her eyes were visible, bloodshot and clouded by cataracts, nearly bulging from their sockets. The day I met Dorothy, her eyes were infected, her house had bedbugs, and her toilet was overflowing. We prayed together. “I just want to thank God for waking me up this morning,” she said. No petitions. No anger. Dorothy was just thankful to be alive.
In the inner-city, this rings like something of an aphorism. When I ask how people are, their response is often, “I’m awake so I’m blessed,” or “just grateful to see another day.” At first, it sounds nice. Then, after hearing it the tenth time in a day, I start to wonder if it can be true. Can everyone be so happy just to be alive?
I grew up among New Yorkers, for whom the wrong pizza topping is a tragedy. Gratitude for life feels new to me. But as I get to know people more, I develop a theory that poverty is a bit like blindness. When you lose your sight, the senses that remain become heightened. When you lose everything (or never had it in the first place), the appreciation for what you do have is heightened. When your pantry is bare but for a bag of flour, when both your sons are in prison, when half of your friends have died before age thirty, and the reality of your own death is more than a memento mori — what do you have? You have this day. You have your life. You could have less, but you don’t, and for that you are grateful.
A nun in a plain blue habit told me the story of St. Pius X. He was the second of ten children, and his father was a postman in their Italian village. The family was poor. So Giuseppe, as he was then known, removed his shoes for the six-mile walk to school every day to preserve them as long as he could. He could not hide his poverty. He wore it plainly in the bareness of his feet. He felt it in the rough gravel and thick mud. Poverty's nature is to be exposed. It strips away all facades. It guts everything, leaving only itself. We cannot hide it. We must bare it publicly, in the bareness of our hearts, in our lives stripped and naked before one another. Oh Lord, how we are poor. We are human, and we are poor. God was made man was made poor.
Like death, poverty is an inevitable truth of the human condition. It feeds on notions of security and comfort. When we think we can rest, it stops us to pluck us out of anonymity and reveal us. But we have a choice. We can greet it. We can even precede it. We are faster. We go boldly forth, hearts exposed and beating. When retreat seems most wise, we can practice folly.
There is a utility road in the West Bottoms neighborhood of Kansas City. It is lined by vertical slabs of concrete covered with graffiti. Behind the concrete is woods. My friend, Margo, is first to enter the woods. I follow, watching her slip on loose gravel and grab a wiry bramble for support. The ground is covered in broken glass. We amble down a hill, and at the bottom, encounter a heap of trash. The forest floor is hardly visible under discarded bottles, soiled sheets, and burnt scrap metal. We tip-toe through the pile. It is hard to tell if anyone is living under one of the dilapidated tents or tarps strung from the trees.
“Hello,” Margo yells. “Is anyone home? Just wanted to see if you want some coffee?”
We carry coffee carafes and sugar packets in our backpacks. It is a raw spring morning, and coffee is always an enticement. The whole premise of this is, admittedly, odd: a few twenty-somethings venturing into the woods to meet homeless people and just talk with them. No other agenda. Sometimes people are skeptical. But we are simple and pure of heart. We are a bunch of kids, tripping over ourselves and our words so we can show love to people who don’t often receive it. Once this becomes clear, people relax. They tell us to watch out for ourselves, to be safe, to stay away from such-and-such camp. We appear naive, and perhaps we are.
We receive no response from this abandoned camp, so we make our way across the trash heap and through the woods. We descend into another camp, and see two people outside. The man is wheeling around a broken bicycle, while the woman appears to have just woken up.
“Hello!” Margo yells again. They look up and wave us over.
We introduce ourselves, exchanging names. The man is Jared. He is serious and lanky. His Chiefs pajama pants and sweatshirt hang from his frame. The woman is Susie. She wears a lace dress, and a strand of her hair is dyed electric blue. We fill styrofoam cups with coffee and sugar and talk about trains. The whistle of one sounds somewhere in the distance, reminding us of the extension of space beyond these woods. When there is no more to say on the topic, we talk about football. Jared keeps a collection of mini NFL helmets on a stump outside his tent. Despite these and his attire, he doesn’t seem to care much about football. I ask him what team each helmet is for, and he doesn’t know. This conversation, too, dissolves into the air, and silence buzzes in our ears like static. We sip more coffee to warm and occupy ourselves.
Soon, the coffee carafe runs dry and the pittance of conversation has been drained. A vague self-consciousness settles in my bones. It has become apparent that we have nothing else to offer. We do not have The Solution. We bring nothing more than coffee and presence. This nothingness is intentional. It forces us to lead with ourselves alone, because this is what we want to do even when we don’t really want to do it. Our nothingness is the relic of a desire, now unwillingly thrust upon us. I squirm to go back to the car. If there were a desk separating us and a million offers to throw on the table between us, I would hide behind them all. I would continue playing it close to the chest, offering everything but myself. But whatever things I can offer only touch at a solution. What the heart desires is to be known. With ample food, still we hunger. With ample drink, still we thirst. The poverties of isolation, self-reliance, and hopelessness can only be met by another. The most I can offer you, Jared and Susie, is myself. I cannot give you anything, but I can listen to you. I can will, with all my strength, that the love pent up in these bones will radiate unto you. I am here. I am alive. I am burning with the dynamism of life, and I offer you this heat.
The material falls flat. There is no heat. The woods are cool and still, the only movement the particles of dew lingering in the air and squirrels occasionally breaching the gaps between branches. What is there, throbbing and thrumming underneath it all, holding it all in existence, is senseless. But it is real. Love is real. It is the most real thing there is.
I moved from DC a year ago. I live in a different city now, one without wrought iron gates, where babies are perhaps more responsible. If items are lost here, I do not know where they go. In this new place, everyone feels like a stranger. They are so unknown, so Midwestern. They talk of casseroles, the beauty of flatness and an ocher sunset on the plains, and I cannot understand them.
A compulsion builds up in my limbs, and I walk. Walking is the mysterious panacea to these moments of need. A mile-long path circles Loose Park, which occupies 75 acres of Kansas City with rose gardens and open fields. On long summer evenings, or when the snow melts in spring, or in the one true week of Midwestern fall, Loose Park is crowded with people. They have all emerged from their homes and their lives to appreciate the world together. The city is small, but large enough that I know no one here. It feels silly that we are strangers. We should all be talking and tossing frisbees and falling in love. I smile at everyone I pass on the path, and some of them return the smile. At least no one hocks a loogie (midwesterners are known for their manners).
Our smiles are small and self-conscious. Why is it difficult to give up something as small as a curve of the mouth? It is easier to give ourselves wholly and unwittingly. A young woman strides toward me. Earbuds in, absorbed in conversation, she is oblivious to this half-hearted smile I am trying to give her. As she passes, I hear her thread of conversation trail into the air, “...I woke up this morning thinking, I need to look my best today.” Not much, as far as depth or sentiment go. But with these words, the window opens, the breeze crosses current, and the rays flood in. The world is once again warm and bright. The young woman has unknowingly dropped this snippet of conversation, and I have found it, retrieved it, and polished it off. I feel relief, for she is no longer unknown. I may know little about her, but I know, now, that she is lovely and human. She wakes and she needs. I perch this lost sentence atop her gate. I tilt the sun to shine a spotlight upon it. I want the world to see her. I want her to be all known and completely forgiven, completely loved.
These lost artifacts are everywhere, strewn on the ground, filling the air, waiting to be picked up, dusted off, and cherished. They are so omnipresent that they’ve become habitual, like the thrum of a radiator only noticed when it kicks on or off. Or like furniture, stayed and solid through the motion and commotion of the everyday. They pass by unnoticed until the right chord strikes within us. And then, we tune into the omnipresent; we see the dust particles wafting in the air; we catch a glimpse of the glistening web; and we see that all is grace:
Bare feet on the wide, sloping lawn of Loose Park,
Mini NFL helmets arranged on a stump in the woods,
Words wafting through a Crossroads gallery, “.....your mom’s friend from that notorious spring break trip…”
The woman from church who only speaks Vietnamese, but pleads in broken English for me to pray for her as she hands me pearl rosary beads,
Our histories, leaving trodden paths behind us,
Our loves, bursting in our words and our gestures,
And so much more, an infinity more. We are never as unknown as we feel ourselves to be. The world is brimming with gates, and we are spilling out over them, onto the crossroads where we all intersect. We cannot be contained.
It is a fight against gravity, to keep contained what is meant to spill out. It is insanity to try. Yet, we are not victims of natural law. We do not merely bow to inevitability. We have a choice. We can reveal our poverty before it reveals us. We can arrange bits of ourselves, cockeyed, on the gates outside our homes — curating our lives into works of beauty for others. We can make art. We consume so much, but we can create. Poverty is a natural law, want and need sewn into our make-up. But love is a choice.
Of course it hurts. Love always hurts. It is like extracting a perfectly healthy tooth, to give up a part of yourself that seems useful to hold onto, painful and unwise to let go. But it is our hope and our salvation. It is the ransom from our captivity — the captivity of self to self. We are unknown from the outside, with fleshy barriers separating one from the other. But we can tear down these gates and invite each other into each other. We sink into those places that hurt when pressed: our burns and bruises and wounds. Here are my wounds. Stick your fingers in them. Here is my heart. It is radiant and broken. Have you seen where it splits? Its cracks run down veins of memory and biology and sin. Do you see how it bleeds? It gushes forth blood and water, its salvation. It is for you. It cannot remain within me. A heart kept to itself shatters from its own reverberation. You are necessary. Another is necessary. My heart is here, leaping and pounding to be free. Take it. Please, take it.
By Mary-Kate Burns