Dispatch February 2010

Slip-Sliding Through Georgetown

The rich really are different from you and me ... especially in their snow shoveling habits.

If there’s one thing I've learned from watching all those Merchant Ivory films it's this: The rich really are different from you and me.  They make time for needlework; they send wayward relatives to the colonies; and they don't ever shovel the sidewalks in front of their homes.  Okay, maybe I didn't catch this last one in Remains of the Day, but I do live in Georgetown (in a quaint pied-à-terre affectionately known as an apartment building) and I have just recently had the privilege of slipping on more than one of their elegantly appointed sidewalks.

If your primary mode of transportation is your feet, you know what I'm talking about.  I haven't owned a car since I was a senior in college, when I bought my aunt's Moby-Dick sized station wagon for $200 and drove my friends around to every wing and tater joint in upstate New York. Since then, I've lived in walkable cities—first Manhattan, where having a car was too much of a luxury for an executive trainee at Bloomingdales—and now in Washington, where the summer-smells of Georgetown's roses follow me home from work.

But my walks home since the most recent snow dump have been as intricate as a labyrinth.  No matter which route I take, the terrain underfoot resembles the pitted and bumpy skin of a navel orange.  Patterns begin to emerge—with cleared stretches of sidewalk alternating with icy ones, until the houses start to look as though they’re standing on a giant checkerboard.

Sometimes I see a home where the owner has managed to shovel a bunch of right angles between the front door and the SUV parked in the driveway.   From outer space, a pattern like this must look like a crop circle—a primitive language shouting, "Who cares about you?!" to the heavens.

I have favorite houses in the neighborhood that I like to check in on after a big snow.  Please, I think to the little brick house with the filigreed arch over its front door, please don't have snow on your sidewalk.  When I arrive and see the jagged ice, I take it personally, and feel deeply betrayed. 

Yesterday, while taking P St. over to Wisconsin, another of my fantasy houses had a curious sign hanging off its wrought-iron banister. Printed on the backside of a Cheerios box was a note reading, "Do Not Block Driveway, Please."  It wasn’t clear to whom the sign was addressed, since the only thing blocking the driveway was a gigantic heap of snow. 

Not every home is a disappointment.  After all, Georgetown's more famous showplaces have a reputation to uphold.  Making a check on my mental clipboard, I am pleased to report that the Bradlee/Quinn home passes inspection.  So does DC Council Member Jack Evan's.  And, sited on a nasty corner made up of steep inclines, former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson's sidewalk is completely snowless.

But what is it that keeps so many other Georgetowners from shoveling?  Are they all wintering in Fiji?  Are they playing a game from the comfort of their bay windows, gleefully betting on which pedestrian will faceplant first?

Whatever the reason, I think these sidewalk offenders should be punished.  There’s allegedly some sort of fine for not shoveling, but according to one Georgetown lady I encountered (she was actually out shoveling), "Look around.  You think they enforce it?" 

If I were in charge, I'd print the names and addresses of all the offenders in the newspaper, like they do for tax evaders. The heading would be: Selfish Neighbors. Or maybe instead I’ll just slip citations into their mailboxes:  "You are in violation of sidewalk code 1234.89B. And for that, you must buy me breakfast."

I'm not sure that there really is a solution—other than to commiserate with other carless commuters.  A nodding glance, a wink as you pass by another stumbler—that's what really unites us as a community. 

I had a moment like that just the other night.  As I was struggling through a rocky patch on N St., an older gentleman with a crazy Walt Whitman beard tottered by on a bicycle.  "Yo," he yelled, giving me the thumbs-up as he rode by, "Eat the rich!"

Presented by

Cathy Alter is a Washington, D.C.–based writer whose articles and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Self, Fitness, and McSweeney’s. She is the author of Up For Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over (2008). More

Cathy Alter is a DC-based writer and author. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in local and national newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, Washingtonian, the Huffington Post, Self, and McSweeney's. Her book, Virgin Territory: Stories from the Road to Womanhood (Crown) was released in 2004 and her memoir, Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over (Atria) was released in July 2008 and is now available in paperback.

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