“There’s nothing beautiful anymore,” says my friend Ellen. We are walking down Lee Highway in Falls Church where we both live. For the past few months, Ellen and I have been hiking once a week, nothing too strenuous, and having breakfast as a reward. Today, the breakfast hole-in-the-wall is closed and we’re looking for an open place other than a Starbucks. It’s slim pickings.
I look around. Ellen’s right. Whatever beauty might once have inhabited the rolling hills of Northern Virginia has been sucked out by six-lane highways, car repair shops, dollar stores, franchise restaurants and two story red brick office buildings erected in the 70s. The sky is low, the color of dead fish; the atmosphere reeks of exhaust fumes. We walk; the rush hour traffic speeds by, cars and SUVs that are mostly grey and black, perhaps reflecting the national mood. There are a lot of honking horns, people are in a hurry.
Ellen is a beautiful woman in her 60s. She’s a prize-winning writer currently working on a novel set in Paris during World War II. I’ve just finished a novel set in Paris at the end of World War I. She talks about her characters and plot, and segues into stories about her son, her adventures on Match.com, her cat Zelda, her upcoming trip to Florida, her accountant, the roses in her yard that need fertilizing. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world,” she says. I envy her life, her cheerfulness, her ever-present smile.
I talk about a recent heartbreak, people here and not here, moving to another place, how much garlic should be applied when cooking shrimp, writers’ groups, getting older, meeting new people and watching friends disappear. I like being with Ellen because she is always positive, always smiling. We gossip about folks we know, who is where and why. We pass an agreeable two or three hours in idle conversation and accumulate steps on our FitBits. We end up eating cold scrambled eggs and not-quite-cooked sausage links in a Harris Teeter.
The issue of vanishing beauty almost always comes back. On a hike along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, we can’t help but see brackish waters filled with trash. There are half-submerged bald tires and traffic cones and milk crates and pizza boxes. It smells bad, and I wonder how the ducks and occasional great blue heron manage to survive. The C & O cuts through Georgetown, home of the $10,000-a-month apartment overlooking the Potomac, the store with the $400 casual plaid shirt, and the $300 tasting menu restaurant. Many years ago I rented a small house that was right on the canal, and the waters were clean back then. What happened?
It’s a strange thing, being in the capital of the free world, less than two miles from the White House, and there’s no money for a clean-up. We talk to a Park Ranger who shakes his head and shrugs, what can you do? I wonder what happened to the Friends of the C&O and suspect that city regulations prevent them from wading into the canal and cleaning it up. You need lawyers and petitions and signed forms and bureaucrats to do pretty much anything around here.
I reflect that where I recently moved won’t win any urban planning prize. There’s not a bookstore or art gallery within walking distance, but this is a millennial hotspot, and they shop Amazon, download, and rarely turn a page. I should have realized something was awry when I noticed the green space where young parents bring their kids to play is Astroturf.
Now Elllen is telling me she has a character in her book named Thierry. I tell her I’ll write a blog about our walks. She smiles and says she has to get home quickly to clean her house. The housekeeper is coming at noon. We get in her new bright red Toyota RAV 4 and drive past the strip malls that will soon give way to more apartment buildings. We speed by eight fast food franchises huddled next to each other, the 7 Eleven, the all-you-can-eat Mexican place and the dealership that specializes in ratty European cars.
Ellen drops me off, says, “Good-bye, my friend,” and the luckiest girl in the world drives off.