My road to becoming “a woman of a certain age” is decorated with all kinds of experiences that have molded me into who I am today. Some of those life experiences may have seemed insignificant when they happened, but other events or encounters had a more obvious impact leaving an indelible impression on me, clearly visible, even today. I challenge you to take time, in the still of the early morning, to think back over some of your life and times, regardless your age. How many lives have you lived? Recount the myriad experiences you’ve had. The number of nutty, naïve, embarrassing, satisfying, and even morally testing experiences that I’ve had are many. As writer and political activist Anne Lamott says, “Every single thing that happened to you is yours, and you get to tell it”. So I will tell just a few things.
#1 - Getting By with a Little Help from my Friend
It was way more than a little help. It had to be nothing but the good Lord looking out for me and placing the right people in my path when I first moved to Washington, DC. I had packed my old Volkswagen Rabbit to the roof with my belongings shortly after the New Year. The tires were balding, it was the dead cold of winter, the faulty fuel line often caused the smell of gas to overwhelm the interior of the car, and my Ohio driver’s license would soon be expiring.
I was striking out alone from Cleveland to DC for a job that I didn’t even have to interview for. It was a position near Capitol Hill and all I knew was I would be working with the US House of Representatives and US Senate Daily Congressional Records as a Legislative Analyst. That thoroughly excited me. Somehow between the time that I had graduated from The College of Wooster with degrees in Psychology, Music Theory, and Black Studies I became fascinated by the mechanics of government, the ability to make change through legislation, and the raw power of politics. I was being hired based solely on the good word of my former college freshman dorm director, Gary. I often credit him or blame him for why I am still here today.
With nowhere in particular to live, I spent my first few nights in DC staying at a hotel, way up on Georgia Avenue, and I would go to work during the day. After work I would look for rental housing. There are stories that I can tell about the characters that come through and live in hotels long term, but I’ll save those stories for another time.
The first place I checked out to rent was a house that was then owned by a college friend of my Aunt Nancy, uptown on 16th Street NW. This home was once the headquarters for the John Birch Society. Gulp! It was a tiny unfinished attic space that formerly housed this notoriously far right, very racist organization for $850/mo. On my salary? A friend of an aunt couldn’t give me a break on the rent? This was a “uh oh, I’m actually an adult” eye-opening moment. The monthly expense of $850 for rent didn’t include utilities, food, gas, parking, or the mandatory allowance for the parking tickets you WILL get living in DC. My spanking new job, near Capitol Hill, paid a whopping annual salary of $16,500. Needless to say,
I had to keep looking. I looked for roommates on community bulletin boards, asked work colleagues about housing. I walked around neighborhoods on Capitol Hill looking for RENT signs, viewing closets converted into bedrooms costing as much as a mortgage payment in DC. Staying at a hotel got expensive, fast, and was cutting deep into my savings and the money that my mother had given me for my big adventure. Through the grapevine of encounters I had made in the city so far, I learned about a Quaker hostel-style residence, near DuPont Circle. Luckily there was a room available for a couple of nights, but after the second night they couldn’t fit me in. Someone at the hostel told me about a woman who wanted to rent her living room space. That woman was a Socialist-minded activist, named Betty, an older white woman, probably in her late 70’s, who was a Quaker and lived on Capitol Hill directly across the street from the Hart Senate Office Building on Constitution Avenue. Unbelievable score! I called her and she was delighted to meet me. She knew so much about Ohio, about Oberlin College, and a bit about Wooster. She invited me to stay with her in her beautifully appointed classic Capitol Hill brownstone-style home until I found a permanent place, basically in exchange for a weekly fee and if I’d help her prepare her taxes. We developed a routine. I’d wake up in the morning, fold up the convertible sofa, and get ready for work. We’d have a light breakfast, she’d have coffee, I’d go to work, she’d work on community organizing and activist efforts, I’d come home, and we’d watch the then NewsHour with Jim Lerher, now the PBS NewsHour and organize receipts and records for preparation of her taxes. We had many great conversations back then about her son and her "adopted son" from Afghanistan.
Looking back, I now realize that very early in my professional and adult personal development in DC, that 70 year old, Socialist, white woman, Betty, provided a roof over my head, which allowed me the secure time and space to get my affairs sorted before making my next move.
She offered her friendship, introduced me to iconic Washington, DC-based peace, human rights, and social justice activists like the late Joan Drake, now Congressman Jamie Raskin, and Robert Borosage. She took me to my first anti-war rally, and having grown up Baptist all my life, she introduced me to worship at the Quaker House. During my earliest days acclimating to the very unique and wildly diverse Washington, DC culture, Betty provided me with a compass that will always help me locate the kind of people and politics that blend compassion with commitment to my core beliefs and values. May she rest in peace.