THE BLOG
03/12/2013 08:44 am ET Updated May 12, 2013

Just When You Think You Know What D.C. Is All About, You Don't

Last week I attended the opening party for the Environmental Film Festival, and the opening party for a new restaurant called Edgar, located in the venerable Mayflower Hotel. At the first event, frumpy, shapeless, smart do-gooders milled around in an overly lit corporate atrium drinking red wine out of plastic cups and standing in a line that stretched the length of the atrium waiting for a taco. Everything was organic, recycled, and recyclable from the chlorine-free disposable cups and napkins, to the farm-raised pork and no-pesticide lettuce, to the electric-powered car displayed out front.

Then I headed over to the Mayflower where I was greeted by a phalanx of tall, stick-thin hostesses in sleek black and white outfits who showed me to the step-and-repeat photo wall for the obligatory hand-on-hip photo op in front of all the corporate logos, then into the swanky new restaurant where champagne flowed and tiny crab cakes sizzled on the serving station fryer. The women wore shapely, sparkly cocktail dresses and the men wore well-fitted suits with nice shoes. I had a hard time telling some of the generically pretty, straight long-haired blonds apart from each other. There was lots of two-cheeked air kissing.

Earlier in the day, I had been working with my intern Kris, who grew up in Southeast D.C. He informed me that people from Southeast call it Southside, never Southeast. He had earned good grades and was allowed to attend a school "out of bounds," or away from Southeast, where the schools have been notoriously terrible for many years. His friends from the neighborhood who went to the in-bounds middle school told stories of kids being thrown out the windows during class and baseball bats hidden under oversize coats. Many of his peers never ventured beyond a ten square blocks radius their entire lives. Kris later went to the Duke Ellington School, and then American University. He took the Metro and a public bus across town with his twin brother to whiter parts of the city every school day and his perspective of the whole world changed.

I gave Kris my credit card last week to retrieve our carryout lunch order from the Thai place around the corner. He asked me to give him some cash, too, in case the restaurant wouldn't let him pay with the card. This possibility stupefied me. I was getting really hungry and just wanted my pad Thai as quickly as possible. Here I thought I was sending a tall, nerdy, funny kid with thick glasses who knows a LOT about all kinds of music, who can draw really well, and who's a little afraid of my cat Louie to pick up lunch. Turns out I was sending him into a minefield of suspicion and condescension, though one he'd learned to navigate long ago. I wondered how many people at the two openings I attended tonight have the skills to navigate Southside.