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Reno Road: The Way to Go

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Reno Road NW -- aka 34th Street.

It's just under three miles -- a mere ribbon of a road connecting Chevy Chase to Massachusetts Avenue that embraces Tenleytown along the way -- no office buildings, just homes and an unmarked embassy or two, but for me it registers almost every landmark of my Washington life. This little commuter connector could be in any city in America and has always made me feel like a small town girl. It's not remotely federal or impressive, a canopied lane that makes you feel like you're already home before you even get there. It's prettiest in the rain.

It's named for nearby Fort Reno in honor of Major General Jesse Lee Reno, built in the Civil War to protect Washington from the Confederates -- but I always thought it was named for Reno, Nevada and loved the casual tribute to gambling.

My first memory is of staring out the window as my mother drove me and my older sister back and forth to Cathedral school in her series of Volkswagen Beetles. The route became so familiar so fast that soon I found myself imagining a long sharp-toothed saw extending from the passenger window. As I visually sliced down every tree and wooden phone pole I had to be careful to retract the blade for any metal signposts or streetlights -- hard work requiring a lot of focus and, looking back, an alarming level of both aggression and distraction.

Whenever we had to take the alternate route of Connecticut Avenue it felt like midtown Manhattan to me -- I distinctly remember the new black and white apartment building at the corner of Conn. and Huntington called "The Regency" where I imagined scores of young secretaries clicking their high-heeled way to the bus stop to big downtown jobs. I dreamed of someday being one of them.

There are a few legitimate hills and crests on Reno Road, one dip in particular at the bottom of Porter street where my grandmother would speed up to increase the feeling of taking off into flight as she drove me to our annual birthday lunch at the Cosmos Club. She was a true D.C. Somebody -- and the first to tell you so -- head of the D.C. School Board, acquaintance of Mrs. Roosevelt, married to the Dean of Columbia College at GW University -- we drove in her bronze Cadillac with a creamy white leather seats that she called "the eggshell interior." One year as we flew up the hill she shared the following LBJ joke: "What's in Johnson's ears?" "Johnson's Wax."

In the mid-60s my mother opened a resale dress shop on Macomb Street called Encore. It's still there to this day, above what is now Two Amys. Her route back and forth to work became her mantra as we all learned how to drive. "Take Reno. It's the way to go" She feared the traffic and commotion on parallel Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues, where the cars, she said, could come at you "like bats out of hell."

I'd walk over from NCS and wait until she closed the shop at 5 to drive me home. I'd hang out at Murphy's five and dime store instead of doing my homework, occasionally pilfering malted milk balls from the open candy displays. I also wrote what I thought was a poignant short story about a brusque store clerk (with searing details about her badly dyed hair and polyester jacket) selling me a small plant and not knowing how to pronounce "verbena."

Best of all was when my mother and I would talk all the way home from school. While I'd never say my mother was the most maternal person in the world (more a career girl from New York) she knew every single one of my friends and what they were up to -- all because of our daily Reno Road Review.

When I finally learned to drive the only reason I got my own car (a red Chevrolet Vega) was so I could drive myself and a few other girls from the neighborhood back and forth to school. The only rule -- only Reno Road. I loved driving that car so much and was such a little player that I earned the name "Wheels" because ANYONE, especially any upperclassman, could borrow my car -- I left the key in the ashtray.

Speaking of the ashtray -- I smoked. Larks. And that's when I almost killed myself on Reno Road. I often stayed after school for glee club practice and would drive home with the windows down singing at the top of my lungs while simultaneously destroying them with a smoke. One late afternoon as I sped down the hill between Rodman and Upton Street I dropped the glowing red lighter into my lap. Since I was wearing the school uniform of a short pleated skirt and knee socks the lighter was surely going to burn my bare legs so I jumped up in the seat and madly scrambled to knock the lighter to the floor. For a good 8 seconds I never looked up at the road and to this day I can only say it's a miracle I didn't drive off into the steep drop of woods to my right. It was my first inkling both of my mortality and my careless regard for it which, of course, has haunted me ever since my own children began driving. Even on Reno.

Later, it was the departure route whenever my father drove me to National Airport to fly to college in Boston. My father, a pilot, television news director, documentary producer and world class substance abuser, had an Irish gift of gab and charm that made you feel like you were the luckiest and most important person in the world to be in a car with him. Each and every airport ride was a literal life launch -- he made me feel invincible, gifted and completely capable of conquering the world.

During college summers and again after I graduated I worked at WRC-TV and later NBC News on Nebraska Avenue -- I worked every shift imaginable -- 8 a.m. to 4, 4 to midnight, midnight to 8 a.m. -- and stuck with my Reno Rd route even when I wasn't living at home anymore in Chevy Chase but moved to various sketchy third floor bedrooms in group houses in Georgetown. I remember one night being so sleep-deprived that I went for blocks in the wrong direction to get home -- the problem with extreme familiarity is that you stop noticing where you are.

At NBC I fell in love with John Palmer, the handsomest man in the bureau. I remember he invited me to the White House Correspondents dinner and so I made the left off Reno at Jenifer to get to Lord & Taylor and for the first time in my life spent over $100 on a dress. And when we were married at St. Albans church in 1982 of course rode in the limo down Reno to the reception in Chevy Chase... later that same year, we were making the turn onto Reno from downtown when I felt our first baby girl kick for the first time -- 27 years later we rarely fail to note the moment as we come around that corner.

We moved to New York and lived there for nine years and had two more little girls. I often found myself reciting the streets on Reno to help fall asleep and also to keep some vague homesickness for my hometown alive. First the three syllable names in alphabetic order: Albemarle, Brandywine, Chesapeake, then the two: Newark, Ordway, Porter... It works.

We returned to Washington some 15 years ago and happily found a house just a few blocks away off Tilden Street. It became a school route once again as I ferried a carpool sometimes numbering 11 kids to St. Patrick's and then Maret. I know every shortcut. Every one.

My mother continued to take Reno Road to drive back and forth from Chevy Chase to Encore to work until she was in her 80s. One day she simply failed to turn right onto Macomb and disappeared for the next 11 hours. The police found her driving erratically in Calvert County, Maryland well after midnight and had to blow out her tires with rumble strips to make her stop. She had been driving continuously, mostly on the Beltway, since departing Reno Road. That's when we realized her worrisome forgetfulness had made the leap to full-blown Alzheimer's. She had not only forgotten where she was but who she was.

We slowly took away her car, her business and her home. She lived at the Sunrise assisted living facility on Connecticut Avenue until she died but whenever I took her out we headed two blocks west to Reno and made the drive. Her favorite landmark -- the wild bouquet of azaleas in the spring at Harrison Street that sometimes brought her back to me.

Today I'm 56 years old and realize I've been driving this road for nearly half a century. For several years after my mother died I avoided taking Reno anywhere and became quite the Connecticut Avenue maven, but now of course realize I was faking it.

I often return on Sundays when I go the movies with my sister no matter where the theater and find myself completely lost in a kind of compelling blankness of thought. I just drive and feel it.

I've learned to let the melancholy be a part of the reverie. It's the way to go. I love Reno Road.