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This week I am staying at Paul’s apartment in beautiful Hyattsville, Maryland, just outside of DC. Wait, did I say beautiful? I meant the opposite.
Yesterday morning, I decided to go for a walk. As soon as I announced this, Paul seemed worried.
“Don’t walk that way,” he said, “or that way.” He flung his arms in various directions. “You can go to the University of Maryland campus and walk around,” he said. “That’s fairly safe.”
“Last night I drove by a park,” I said. “I was thinking of going there.”
Paul’s forehead wrinkled. “That park? I don’t know. I never go in that direction. I don’t want to tell you what to do, but I think you’d be safer just walking around on the Maryland campus.”
“It’s nine-thirty in the morning,” I said. “And it’s a park. How bad could it be?”
Paul continued to look at me with concern. “It’s kind of sketchy around here. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
It was a nice sentiment, but being a naturally optimistic and independent person who hates living in fear and loves walking in parks, I declared, “I’m going to the park! See you later.”
Outside it was unseasonably warm and misting rain. The sky was gray, the ground saturated and muddy. My hair immediately went limp in the soggy air, and my cheeks began to feel dewy. I walked out of Paul’s depressing compound of brick apartment buildings and down a trafficky thoroughfare, eventually turning left into the park.
Running through the middle of the park was a creek, and I walked beside it, looking at beer cans submerged in the murky water and soiled underwear and saggy condoms washing up along the muddy banks. A few squirrels chattered among the trees by the creek, picking their way around empty Cheetoh’s bags and other clumps of trash.
Maybe the park wasn’t scary, but it certainly was the most depressing park I had ever been to. A man stood near the playground, smoking pot and staring at me. Perhaps Paul had been partially right. This was not the pleasant morning stroll I had been imagining.
But still, I continued on, through the parking lot, where several cars sat, the people in them staring forlornly at the empty playground. I hurried past them to the paved path around the man-made duck pond. The pond was littered with trash, and its water was sludgy, smelling of sulfur and sewage. A few ducks paddled lethargically near the reeds, and I scanned their little bodies for signs of mutations. It made me sad. This could have been a nice place, but people had thrown their trash all over it, and now the only people who frequented the park were druggies, potential child molesters, and me. I said a soft goodbye to the unfortunate ducks and hurried back to Paul’s basement apartment, with its parking lot views.
* * *
Later in the day, I decided to do a little Christmas shopping. Again, the neighborhood failed to thrill me. The roads were filled with traffic as I drove past strip malls, each shop blaring with neon red signs. I passed institutional-looking apartment complexes and the hulking buildings of Target, Best Buy and Home Depot, each sitting on their own giant parking lot. I stopped at Target and underneath the harsh florescent lights I wound my way through the aisles of stressed-out people, grabbing what I needed and then hurrying back to the car. There was a traffic jam getting out of the parking lot. I was only two and a half miles from Paul’s apartment, but it took me twenty minutes to get back. “Come on, people,” I found myself muttering. I could feel my jaw clenching and my shoulders hunching. Everything here was so ugly and cramped, it was already affecting my mood.
Later, Paul and I drove to dinner and discussed whether or not to go to Zoolights on Friday. This is the event where they string up Christmas lights at the zoo and you walk around drinking hot cider, oohing at the pretty lights and watching the nocturnal animals. It seems appropriate for us to go since we went to the zoo on our first date back in early November. Plus, I love Christmas-time events, and I especially love the zoo.
Sometimes people give me shit for loving the zoo. These are the snooty people who start talking about how zoos are so sad and depressing. And, yes, I acknowledge that zoo cages are not anywhere near as good as nature, and that those wild cats do seem sort of bored and depressed in their small, barren cages. But my love of looking at wild animals usually overrides that sentiment.
As we drove past the ugly strip malls near Paul’s apartment, I asked him, if he ended up getting a permanent position at the place where he now works part-time, would he continue to live here?
“Oh no,” he said, laughing.
“Oh good,” I said. “This place is horrible and depressing.” I kind of couldn’t believe that Paul lived here now. Only one day, and I was already feeling the affects.
Today I took the Metro into the city to have lunch with my friend, Sarah. I met her at her office building in Chinatown, and we walked to Busboys and Poets for sandwiches. As we were walking, I kept noticing the buildings on H Street. Above the first floor restaurants and shops loomed floor after floor of small, depressing apartments, each with their own tiny balconies two feet wide and five feet long. What could you even do on those balconies, I wondered. There was hardly enough room for a chair, and the view was of the street.
Lunch was delightful and delicious. After lunch, Sarah and I walked back to H Street. The wind was kicking up, trying to force us into the busy street while we waited for the walk signal. We stopped in front of the Government Accountability Office, where Sarah works.
“So this is your office building, huh?” I said, looking up at the large, ugly brick building with its slits for windows. If I hadn’t known what it actually was, I might have guessed it a prison, or a low-income public school.
“This beautiful piece of architecture, you mean?” Sarah joked.
“Yeah…That’s exactly what I was going to say.”
“Apparently it was built to store documents,” Sarah said. “Not humans.”
“That entire building was meant for documents?” I asked.
“That’s what people say. It means we don’t have very good heating or air-flow.”
“Well that sucks for the humans who have to work there,” I gazed at the building. It spanned nearly the entire block and was five stories high. Perhaps if I looked into one of those narrow windows I would see a small, poorly-ventilated office with bland, cream-colored walls and a thin, gray carpet. And this was where hundreds of people spent the majority of their day, everyday. Perhaps it was where some people spent the majority of their life.
I said goodbye to Sarah and walked against the wind towards the Metro, riding underneath the city back to beautiful Hyattsville, Maryland.
* * *
As I was driving away from the Metro station, I thought, geez, this is no place to live. It’s overly-crowded and overly-depressing. There’s no place to roam. No place to see the beauty of nature. It makes me wonder: we built these cages, these ugly habitats, and we put ourselves inside of them. Why do so many people stay? The cages aren’t locked.
I guess sometimes I do find these human zoos to be a bit depressing.