Reasons American Civilization Will Fail, Part 1

Posted on September 19, 2010


1.  Cheese History

A few years ago I made one of my regular trips to my happy place, Cheesetique.  It smells like either adolescent feet or your ideal Parisian courtyard in there, depending on your perspective.  After quite a bit of sampling (What do you have that’s ripe right now?) I was paying for my purchases (a runny and fragile Belle Etoile, a sweet and sharp cheddar with caramelized onions, and–holy of holies–a smoked blue cheese that tasted like a French cave full of smoking pigs) when the clerk asked me if I had a cheese history.

A what?

A cheese history.  It allows us to track your purchases so that in the future you can remember cheeses that you particularly enjoyed, or avoid ones you didn’t care for.

I hesitated.  The primal part of me knew that this was potentially a matter of survival: when the proletariat rise up, the first people they come after will be the ones with cheese histories at cleverly named specialty food boutiques in Northern Virginia.  I don’t blame them.  Those people are a cancer.  But the pragmatic part of my brain kicked in, as I stood there watching them wrap up $15 worth of ficelle, long skinny sausages that are essentially artisan Slim Jims, and reasoned that it made a lot of sense to start a cheese history so I could keep track of which Spanish sheeps milk cheese was my favorite–I always forget, and had inadvertently bought the wrong one recently and been heartily disappointed. (It’s Istarra; I finally saved it as a memo in my phone.)  Anyway, I figured if I kept eating this much cheese and sausage, I’d likely be dead by the time the revolution began, and if it wasn’t televised I was going to miss it anyway.

I started my history under a fake name.

2.  Gentrifiers and Their Discontents

When my sister and I bought our house in Ward 6, I was all geared up to be the perfect urban homeowner.  I would have carefully tended flower boxes!  I would befriend the neighborhood children!  I would be a community activist, but the beloved kind, not the obnoxious kind!  As part of this resolve, I briefly became a regular at the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) monthly meetings.

ANCs are a hyperlocal form of government wherein elected officials can advise the City on zoning and regulatory matters.  In 2003, the real estate market in DC was screaming hot, and yuppies were swarming my neighborhood near H St. NE.  It was the frontier of where middle class young people were able to buy in the city, paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $250k for 1,000 square foot rowhouses that were cheek by jowl with public housing and the un-retouched homes of grandmas who had lived there for decades.  Open-air drug markets were common; there was one at the end of our little street.  The monthly ANC meetings were about 50/50:  old-timers, nearly all African-American, who had lived in the neighborhood forever and done the hard work of chasing out the worst of the crack houses and violent corner boys; and new homeowners, largely white, who had sunk every last penny and then some into their 100 year old homes and couldn’t even walk to the bar to have a drink and forget about the questionable nature of their investment because there were no bars nearby back then.

The issue of the day was a pending ban on the sale of singles, a notorious bone of contention in changing urban neighborhoods.  To generalize, the newcomers wanted a ban on the sale of individual cans and bottles of booze; no more 40s.  The old-timers, as well as the convenience store owners, thought the ban would unfairly penalize people who only wanted one beer, or could only afford one beer.  The people who habitually bought several singles in a row, threw the empties on the ground, and then pissed on the side of a building weren’t there to defend themselves.

It was a fraught discussion, divided along class lines that in this city are nearly always racial lines, as well.  It was uncomfortable, but in the end the newcomers won out and the ANC members began drafting their recommendation.  Someone suggested adding fortified wine to the list of items that couldn’t be sold, saying, I am sick of picking up MadDog and Wild Irish Rose bottles out of my yard, or worrying about my dogs stepping on the broken glass! Agree, agree, we’ll write it in.

Toward the end, when the basic framework had been hammered out and only word choice was being debated, one of the more vocal newcomers, who’d pushed the singles ban tirelessly for months, had a sudden moment of revelation.  You guys, he said, isn’t port a fortified wine?  There’s a great new wine store opening up right by my place, and if we pass this recommendation I’ll have to go across town to buy port!

Surely, I thought to myself, there’s no way they’re going to be hypocritical enough to–

They struck the ban on fortified wine from the recommendation.

And then I sold my house and moved to a convent where everyone lived under a vow of silence.

(Not really.  Actually, I eventually became block president, but my only real legacy was getting all the new bars to donate gift certificates as door prizes at our block party.  Bartenders like me, which might help when the revolution begins.)

Posted in: DC