Where once we watched the small freebirds fly

WMATA might be among the most beleaguered and benighted agencies in any level of American governance. Torn between two states and the District of Columbia, overcrowded and underfunded, reduced to pitching a PR campaign about how they’re getting “Back To Good” – it’s an awfully big ask and an awfully bad situation.

And yet, descending into that round concrete brutalist tunnel system felt like coming home.

I hadn’t been in the DMV for five and a half years, not since last call for the 4P’s. Since then, time happened. DC was occupied by the Russians, National Geographic was subsumed into the NewsCorp media empire, my best man got divorced and my crew was scattered to the four winds (one, as it turns out, landing in Ireland just in time for me to completely miss him. The one time it would have been helpful to be on Facebook, and neither of us was. But anyway). And most of all, I underwent a complete meltdown at work, my lowest point in California, and found myself in the summer of 2015 realizing that in eleven years, I had found myself right back where I was professionally in 2004 when I left, and without my crew around me at that.

I missed being in the DMV. A lot. My virtual communities – scattered across half a different blogs, sites and apps – never had the immediacy or the reality of that gang that went for coffee at the Mudd House (sadly demolished) or lunch at the Pizza Place (ditto, and I couldn’t tell you its real name with a gun to my head) or Fuddrucker’s (now a Shake Shack) or closed the 4P’s on Saturday nights (again, RIP the best Irish bar in America). I missed the strange poetry of Rappahannock and Chain Bridge and Spout Run, the Virginia license plate which hasn’t changed since I first moved there, the mirrored glass towers rising out of fall-colored rolling hills down the Dulles Toll Road or I-66 or Route 7.

But the other thing is that when my academic career plowed into the earth, I was thrown free of the crash and didn’t stop moving for almost a decade, during which I had a crazy and chaotic life. I took my two political science degrees to the capital of the free world and never meddled in politics again. I latched onto IT at a time when anyone could and spun a career out of it. I drove back and forth to Ohio and New York and learned my way around the Metro and the Delta Shuttle. I embarked on a whirlwind romance on both coasts with JetBlue as my commute option back and forth to see my girlfriend who was almost on a rotator commute between Arlington and Silicon Valley. And when it all came to a head, I moved to California, got a job at Apple and got married. By the time things settled down and finally sank, I had completed ten years of being the most interesting person I could imagine being and achieving things I would never have imagined possible.

I came back to DC four times in the first year after leaving. It was a slow detachment, not least because Courtney at Signature Cigars was still sending me sticks and there was a Cosi in the Macy’s at Valley Fair mall in San Jose. I could almost feel like I was still going back and forth the way my now-wife had. After that last trip, though, it became an every-couple-years sort of thing. Spring 2007, spring 2010, spring 2012 – and then nothing for five and a half years. This was my first trip back in autumn since 2004, the first time I could see the city and its surroundings in a similar way to that first time two decades ago when I started my life over.

Some of the places are the same. Plenty aren’t. Some new things have grown up in their place, and some betray the bones of their predecessors if you stare closely enough. I could close my eyes and see the America restaurant or the Illuminations or the Hecht’s in Tyson’s Corner Center, but when I opened them again, there was the huge new space and theater and three high-rises where the parking decks used to be, complete with outdoor plaza full of Astroturf and fire pits and Starbucks and a platoon of athleisured stroller moms. Ballston Common has been gutted and is being rebuilt. Someone dropped an entire new line on the Metro map that goes all the way out to Reston, which was “here be dragons” territory for transit twenty years ago.

But plenty is the same. Geographic looks the same as it ever did. So does Mario’s Pizza, late night on Wilson Boulevard, and the Silver Diner is still at the corner of Clarendon even if Hard Times Chili isn’t across from the Clarendon Metro. Ranger Surplus is still in the strip mall on 7 for all your paintball needs. The Clarendon Apple Store, where I once tried to FaceTime my sweetheart in the Palo Alto store, is still a going concern. So is the Barnes & Noble that anchors the Market Common, and so is the Crate & Barrel adjacent where I once speculated on what kind of furniture I might want in a notional California residence someday. And walking down into the Metro at Virginia Square looks, sounds and smells like the autumn of 2000 in every way that matters, a strange mechanical aroma that is invariably associated in my mind now with…Disneyland.

And the crew turned out. Some of my dearest friends, some folks I haven’t seen in years (or over a decade in a couple of cases), some of the people with whom I have this avalanche of memories of good times and bad, of struggle and triumph, of shoulder to shoulder in the darkest hours. The old college crew, the Army buddies, the high school championship team, all the cliche stuff that you can’t and won’t and shouldn’t let go – this is what I have. For seven years we were the lords of the Earth, and we had a chance to celebrate us without having to wish we could go back. I was a little worried about how much of an emotional wrench it could have been, and I suspect there are a couple of circumstances where it really would have been, but those did not obtain for better or worse.

As it is, it was fine without being overwhelming, even if I might have liked being overwhelmed (and regretted it later). We were legends – we are legends – but time happened, and life happened, and Centreville and Leesburg and Brooklyn and Cupertino and Kildare happened. And as I stood there in Tyson’s II looking out over a scene of luxury shops that hadn’t budged in 20 years, I thought about what has come since, because I remember standing on that balcony looking around in the spring of 2004 when I knew I might be going away for good.

An Apple staff badge. An iPhone. A new model VW Rabbit and a hybrid Chevrolet. The iPhone. A mortgage with my name on it and a wedding ring on my finger. London, Paris, Tokyo, Galway. The rise of Vanderbilt baseball. Twitter and Facebook and SBNation and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A Metro line running from East Falls Church to Wiehle Road, which in 2004 seemed as futuristic and exotic and unlikely as a black President. The guy standing on that balcony in 2004 had never seen any of that. The one there last Friday has seen all of that and more, and he’s glad he has.

DC and Northern Virginia, for seven years, was where everything happened. It’s great to be reminded of who you were, and in a way reminded of who you are. It’s also a reminder that you can’t go back, you shouldn’t go back, and you should make the next thing happen instead. So let’s get on with that, shall we?

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