The capital's a funny place, and not just for the obvious reasons most people know about. Consider, for instance, this apparently trivial datum. There is, as far as I know, no book-length history of the 130-year-old National Zoo, despite its importance to the city's tourism-centric economy and the history of conservation and more besides. (The nearest thing is an out-of-print extended pamphlet from 40 years ago, published by the Friends of the National Zoo, or FONZ.)
Or consider this, from the recent book Most of 14th Street Is Gone. According to author-historian J. Samuel Walker's notes on his sources, at publication time in 2018 there were only two books-- not counting his own-- about the April 1968 riots in Washington, D.C. That is, about the events that gutted a lot of the city's economy for decades and that, perhaps more than anything else, shaped life in the national capital we have now. In fifty years, two books.
In his introduction to this brief and absorbing study of the turmoil of April 1968, Walker, an expert on nuclear power and weapons, says himself: "I have been a resident of the Washington, DC suburbs for nearly five decades, but I knew little about the city's long and fascinating history until I started working on this book."
It's impossible not to notice this about the capital if you live in it: it's a city of people who know all about (say) Taiwan and next to nothing about what happened here--and Walker's book is an impressive contribution--or who lives in the next postal code.
So's everywhere, up to a point. Three things, though, make it remarkable here. First, the population's relatively well-educated. Second, the city's middle-sized. Third, it's a city of experts on everything from everywhere. How (I ask because I don't know) how can a place that knows everything about everything have so little notion of itself? Why are the migrant expert's binoculars so often pointed elsewhere, even after he makes the place his home?
From time to time, back when I spent more time downtown than I do now, I occasionally bought copies of Street Sense—Washington’s “street newspaper,” the 16-page one sold and partly written by homeless people. As a freelancer I didn't have a commuter route; I was here and there, and I never got to know any of the individual vendors in the way some customers do. Some of the vendors were forward, others reserved. A few seemed dotty, but then so do a few of everybody. I usually paid the "suggested donation"—now $2—and rarely more.
Though I never went looking for the paper, out of curiosity I’d leaf through it. My impression was always the same: a fair amount of it was poorly written, I want to say authentically poorly written. (I also want to say, given the realities of newspaper writing, lightly edited or unedited.) Given that the topic was often homelessness and, typically with a how-to-slant, allied subjects like jobs, housing, documents, medicine, social work, and criminal justice, I also wondered who Street Sense was written for. Homeless people? Social workers? The general public?
Today, looking over back issues from 2019, I get the same impression. Now as then, the articles (some credited to interns or guest writers, others to “Artist/Vendor”) run the gamut from professional journalism to unedited ranting and raving.
Street Sense appeared in 2003, well into the era of the modern street newspaper. According to the former North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA), which in 2013 merged with the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), the first modern or secular U.S. street papers appeared in the 1970s, though Christian prototypes existed in the 19th Century. The oldest extant one, and the oldest INSP member, is San Francisco’s Street Sheet, which started in 1989—that is, a few years into one relevant American triumph and one relevant American disaster. First, thanks to Apple Computer and Adobe, desktop publishing was being born, incidentally paving the way for the desktop e-publishing that is the Internet. At the same time, the so-called deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill—a process dating to the 1950s but accelerated by the first Reagan Administration—meant that American streets (and prisons and jails) were increasingly filled with the mentally ill who make up a large fraction of the homeless population. By 1990 there were more homeless people…and more and cheaper ways to publish.
According to the masthead, Street Sense—which in 2013 became one product of a venture called Street Sense Media—employs roughly one hundred vendors. As Page 2 of each issue explains, vendors are independent contractors; they buy issues for $0.50 per ($0.25 per every other Friday [Meyer, p. 16]) and resell them for a suggested price of $2 per. Though Street Sense is sold the old-fashioned way, hawkers and pulp, since 2017 customers have been able to pay either with cash or electronically, with a smartphone app. Back issues are available online, for free, at issuu.com.
On its own terms, in entertain-and-inform terms, is this biweekly worth $2? After all the City Paper, which covers a lot of the same ground, is bigger, and it’s free (i.e., ad-supported). So are many of the region's local and hyperlocal periodicals, among them DCist.
The answer will probably depend on one's assessment of the value of what might be called perspective, especially in the first-person storytelling (some of it in verse) that often figures in Street Sense. Can you hear voices here you can’t hear anywhere else, except maybe in a literary magazine? I think so. Does that make the paper worth $2 an issue? Sometimes.
Few writers of any sort—including those lucky enough not to have to cold sell their own writing to strangers on the sidewalk—have the skills to put over extremes of tedium, humiliation, pain, and hope. Too, it’s almost impossible to write well about trouble you’re still in the middle of. For all the authentic venting that goes on in its pages, I find Street Sense best in its straight-up, third-person journalism—for example, a recent brief report (p. 5) about Department of Public Works personnel confronting a one-man “encampment” at 16th & K NW.
But then Street Sense isn’t really in the newspaper business, or not only in the newspaper business. How many readers buy the paper to be entertained and informed? Given the muddle of incentives on the customer side—generosity, guilt, curiosity, sometimes a wish to avoid being pestered—I wonder, how many people sit and read Street Sense as opposed to feeling good about having bought it? But then as a writer, which do you prefer? Three copies of your work sold and read? Or 300 sold and thrown in the trash?
It’s 1992. It’s roughly the peak of the Great American Crime Wave (1960-2000). Crack cocaine, which merely jacked up the juvenile end of the already sky-high violent-crime rate, has been on the streets for about ten years. Bill Clinton is about to become the latest president to inherit Nixon’s War on Drugs. Mandatory minimums are filling prisons. American cities are nearly as unlivable as they were in the Al Capone era, when ethanol was the cheap-to-make illegal drug. Gas-station and corner-store cashiers hide in polycarbonate bunkers. Apartment doors have three or four locks on them, sometimes a bar or a jammer. Everyone knows either a mugger or a mugger joke. Suburban moms pack pepper spray or even handguns, just like subway vigilantes. The District's murder rate is almost four times today's (counting the 2018 uptick). 14th St NW, where one day Sotheby’s and West Elm and Trader Joe’s and craft cocktails will live along with a zillion hipsters, is a strip where suburbanites drive in to buy drugs and whores…and get busted by undercover officers.
This is the setting of feature journalist Mike Sager’s first novel, Deviant Behavior (2008).
The book’s central figure, or its most central figure, is an ambitious young journalist, Jonathan Seede. Seede idolizes the seedy William Burroughs and Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski, but he also more or less wants to be the Hemingway of the Kansas City Star, Orwell (Down and Out and Wigan Pier—that Orwell), and Hunter Thompson rolled into one gonzo live-the-story chronicler of life at the margins.
In and around Seede's starter row house on 14th, Sager assembles, and Seede mingles with, an ensemble of neighbors and visitors: a gay house flipper, a gentle-giant beat cop, a pimp, a fugitive prostitute, a guru called The Pope of Pot, a decaying funk star, and more. As the book opens, Seede's wife has just run off, taking their toddler with her and leaving behind only a cryptic note. He's in a bad place.
After years of collecting material on the War on Drugs—and nearly everyone in the book is on drugs, soft or hard—Seede’s got an idea for a book. But he’s drudging away at the Washington Tribune (in real life the Washington Post, where Sager worked in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s) and supporting his wife and baby, who, as Seede tells it, has turned the wife into a scolding hausfrau.
Those last two, especially, have begun to get in the way of his Young Man’s Literary Ambition, of which this novel is, first and foremost, a funny and honest attempt at a portrait. (It’s in the same line as Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Balzac’s Illusions perdues.) Like Orwell’s Gordon Comstock, Seede believes that to become a real writer he must touch the bottom. His head full of THC and the Pope of Pot’s half-baked maxims, he becomes convinced that interviewing junkies isn’t enough to get to the bottom of what's rotten in America. He starts using heroin and crack. (Echoes of Ruben Castaneda, the crack-smoking journalist who, in 1989, was hired by the Washington Post to write about the drug war.)
By then, improbably, though, Seede and the rest of the cast have got mixed up with a parallel story involving a reclusive Georgetown billionaire who’s collecting possibly magical crystal skulls—like the one in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (also 2008).
Although it feels in places as if an Indiana Jones has somehow got spliced into a drug-trade documentary, the book’s structure is clean: fifty-odd short chapters, each dealing with one character or set of characters; several chapters are excerpts from the diary of the billionaire’s adventurer grandfather, which the billionaire’s scanning for clues. Three or four sets of people and threads are interwoven until, near the end, they begin to merge.
Things never go flat, but Sager struggles to find a tone, especially in the uneven final act in which an increasingly messed-up Seede falls between the cracks (he bounces back in an Aspidistra-style upbeat epilogue); the comedy veers from hijinks to farce to black comedy to schmaltz. The implicit parallels between the drugs and the magic skulls feel strained. Indeed, the whole adventure fantasy feels tacked on (and all the impish billionaire needs is a white cat). The book’s at its best in its straightforward and efficient descriptions of street scene, of reporting, of whoring, of shoes and clothes (including a memorable and funny sketch of what a beat policeman wears), of Ghetto English real and fake, of the interiors of cars and houses and jails, and of the mechanics of the use and experience of heroin and crack.
By the time this snapshot of 1992 was published, violent-crime rates in the US had been collapsing for nearly a decade and a half, and builders and investors keen to cash in on the New Urbanistic revival of American urban life were already changing 14th St and H Street NE and Shaw and Navy Yard and other parts of town beyond recognition. Across most of the city, the kind of armed robbery the hapless Seede runs into near the close of the story had already become much rarer than it used to be, just like assault and murder.
Seede, through a big stroke of good fortune, moves on to bigger and better things. So did the capital, which got not just the unexpected federal refuelling after 9/11, but a string of relatively effective mayors. In 1992? Sharon Pratt Kelly was serving out her single term, the one sandwiched between the notorious third and Redemption-Movie fourth terms of Marion Barry.
Answer: Emma (E. D. E. N.) Southworth. She was born in Washington in 1819, back when the city was still little more than a wilderness with four towns in it: Georgetown, Lafayette Square, Capitol Hill, and the Navy Yard. A teacher, she took up writing in 1844 to earn extra money, after her husband left her and their children. Her first novel, published in 1849, sold 200,000 copies; she would write over sixty more. Many of her potboilers were first serialized in large-circulation magazines, a common practice well into the 20th Century.
According to this "multi-media archive" of Stephen Railton, Professor of English at U-Virginia: "In our time she is best known by the novel The Hidden Hand, originally published in The [New York] Ledger in 1859, and reprinted there twice before it was finally issued as a book in 1888."
Southworth's an example of those commercially-minded artists who were wildly successful in their own time but are now all but forgotten. Today's equivalent is probably something like the somewhat more anonymous writers of the teleplays for popular TV dramas, soaps, and telenovelas.
Incidentally, Southworth, who died in 1899 and is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery, lived for years in a Georgetown house (now demolished) that stood in roughly the same spot as the fictional one in The Exorcist (1971).