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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Thing 65: The Old Town Theater

The Boyfriend, his Roommate and I strolled down King Street on a Friday night. It was after dinner but before bedtime, and we weren't quite sure what the next move was. We passed under a brightly lit marquis advertising 3:10 to Yuma, starting in three minutes, and thus we entered the Old Town Theater. What a quirky place to stumble upon!

We bought our tickets at the counter, and were asked if we'd like any refreshments. Beers? On tap? Yes, please. We wondered aloud whether we would be late for the movie, then shrugged it off since we were only a couple minutes behind and all we'd do was miss the previews. "Oh no, not here," said the woman who had sold us our tickets and was now pouring our Red Hook IPAs. She had bright red hair and a Germanic sounding accent. "No commercials, no previews, not here. But don't worry -- they know you're coming and they're holding the movie for you."

Oh, right. How silly of us.

We took our beers and hustled up the stairs to the balcony. No wait, I mean Theater 2. Because clearly this movie house used to be a single screen with a balcony, like the Uptown, but has since been converted into two screens. Which meant that Theater 2 had the feel of a balcony, but with a really close screen. They also seem to have added some homemade stadium seating when they converted it from one screen to two, because the seats were at a really steep incline and my feet didn't touch the ground when I sat back in my seat.

The woman at concessions was not lying. Just as soon as we chose our seats and sat down, the movie started. It started right away, no previews, no advertising. When was the last time you saw a movie without previews? It's been awhile, hasn't it? I don't know if I've ever seen a movie without previews. I'm a fan.

3:10 to Yuma was great -- a completely self-aware Western movie that was satisfying in spite of its conventions and stereotypes. Not satire modern is the only description I have, but I am embarrassed by how pretentious and trendy that makes me sound.

At any rate, during the quiet moments of Yuma, we were treated to Jodi Foster's voice, who's movie was playing downstairs in Theater 1. They apparently neglected to soundproof the two theaters when they split them. If this sounds annoying, it somehow wasn't. It was kind of charming and silly instead.

This theater is weird, but I like it. It has character, a quirky personality. In a sea of identical multiplexes, this theater waits for you to take seat, skips the previews and serves you beer. A satisfying, if slightly offbeat, movie experience all around.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Thing 64: Opera on the Mall

In DC, opera is for the masses.

Last Sunday, the Washington National Opera telecast Puccini's La Boheme on the Mall, at the foot of the Washington Monument. Under a perfectly clear, sunny sky, a couple thousand people gathered with blankets and sunscreen to watch a free performance of the famous opera. A large screen was set up on the north side of the grass and we watched the performers as they performed the show on the Kennedy Center stage just down the road.

It's a really nice idea. Bringing opera outdoors, for free, at the foot of a national symbol like the monument. We all know that I'm a big proponent of outdoor movies and performances. But somehow, this idea falls flat when put into practice. For one, it loses a lot by being broadcast. A free live performance on the Mall might still capture the magic and sparkle of the opera, just by virtue of watching live artists and the give and take between performer and audience. The act of applauding performers who cannot hear you feels futile.

Second, it loses a lot by being outside. Opera is hard to sit through for many of us (as evidenced by the mass exodus of people at the intermission), and it is harder still to sit through when you're sitting on a blanket on the ground, squinting from the glare and afraid of getting sunburned. The mystique of opera is that it is a luxury, to be enjoyed in your finest dress clothes and followed by champagne. On this point however, I am torn. I like the idea of breaking down that mystique and presenting opera as an art form for everyone. I don't think this is the way to accomplish that though.

As for the opera itself, again I think it fell flat between the idea -- an update to the classic, allowing it to reach a larger audience by making it more accessible -- and the realization of that idea. Turn-of-the-19th-century Paris becomes a nondescript, modernish any-city, where the artists shoot footage on a cam corder, but write out their stories by hand, without backing them up on a PC. Mimi hand embroiders delicate flowers, but wears a vinyl trench coat. The Cafe Momus looks like Studio 54 and Mimi's tuberculosis becomes some modern, nondescript illness (AIDS? SARS?). While I understand the director's intention to re-make an opera that was once a near documentary of the time in which it was written back into a near documentary of artistic life today, it doesn't work.

I was also completely saddened to find out that the musical Rent has ruined my enjoyment of La Boheme. I can't help but compare the two as the opera progresses, playing Rent simultaneously in my head. This is no fault of the Washington National Opera's, and frankly, I'm pretty mad about it. La Boheme is an exquisite piece of music, and it does not deserve to have me thinking "this is the 'light my candle' song" as it unfolds.

At intermission, Placido Domingo, the General Director of the Washington Opera, made an appearance to speak to the crowd. He told us how happy he was to see so many people out to enjoy opera, and said he hoped that for some of us, this might be the first opera we've ever seen, and that it might inspire us to see more and learn more about the art form. It is a noble wish, and I hope it comes true, but from where I was sitting, I think it's doubtful.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Thing 63: The Black LUV Festival

Full disclosure: I am not black.

I do, however, recognize that I live in a majority black city. And I also love "black" music (which is now "suburban white" music). So when I got an email about the Black LUV (Love, Unity, Vision) Festival, I marked it on my calendar. Sounds cool!

Also, convenient. It was only a couple blocks from the DC Central Kitchen, on C Street in front of the DMV.

The Black LUV Festival
I arrived just as it was getting started. Meat was going on the grill, sound checks on the mics, and the vendors were settling in.

I took a slow walk up and down C street, looking at the various booths. There were several skin care and beauty products booth, all of which I duly tested, and learned that my natural skin scent is peach. A collection of black-owned businesses including a greeting card shop, DC neighborhood T-shirts, framed art prints and a book shop. And there were advocacy booths -- sensible drug policy, safer sex, voting rights. I chatted with some of the vendors, then followed my nose to the North Carolina BBQ stand. There was also a stand selling BBQ jerk chicken, and another selling giant virgin pina coladas served in hollowed out pineapples, but I wanted a smoked turkey leg and some sweet potatoes. Which I received, in abundance:

My giant smoked turkey leg
I took my tremendous turkey leg over to the small park behind the DMV to listen to the performers, picnicking in the sunshine. Since it was still early in the program they weren't on to the big acts yet, but I got to here some wonderful poetry, along with a singing duet that had a Des'ree/Erykah Badu thing going on that I really enjoyed. And then tiny children took the stage to rap about putting on their seat belts and what would befall a child predator if one came near them.

Sadly, I had to leave too soon. I had hoped to stick around for more hip hop or even go go, but I had to do my girlfriendly duty to ensure the Boyfriend remains well dressed. But I will definitely mark it on the calendar for next year, and stick around for more black LUV.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thing 62: DC Central Kitchen

If you've been paying attention at all, you know I love to cook.

Feeding the people in my life is how I show them I care about them. The process of creating really good food, from scratch and all natural, brings joy to me and the people I share meals with. So it makes sense that when I want to help out in my small corner of this world, that I would choose to do it through food.

Last Sunday, I volunteered for the first time at the DC Central Kitchen (DCCK). What better way to spend an early Sunday morning than preparing food for those who need it most?

DCCK is a remarkable organization. For starters, their kitchens pump out around 4,000 meals a day, every day of the year, for approximately 100 partner agencies, all nonprofit human service organizations for the low-income and homeless populations in the area. Who prepares so many meals? Well, of course there are volunteers like me (and you!), but the majority of the cooks in this kitchen are graduates of a 12 week course that DCCK offers to low income and homeless individuals to train them in the culinary arts. After 12 weeks, these graduates are able to become certified food handlers, and are often placed in working kitchens of local hotels, restaurants and catering companies. DCCK is feeding the homeless and underprivileged, and teaching those same people to feed others, helping them get a fulfilling and well-paid job. In addition, the DCCK runs a catering service that employs people from the program, all proceeds from which are pumped back into the DCCK.

I arrived at the DCCK, located near the courthouse at 2nd and E St, NW, promptly at 9am on Sunday. I was directed to a small waiting room with about a dozen other sleepy-eyed and quiet volunteers. We were given a brief orientation by the executive chef about the history of the program, how the people we'd be working with used to be in jail or on the street. Then he explained that we would go into the kitchen, put on our aprons, put on our hairnets, wash our hands and then put on rubber gloves before being assigned to our work stations.

I ended up under the watch of Chef Bo, a black man in his late thirties who ran around observing and helping out wherever he was needed as a line of us cut vegetables or prepared baked fried chicken for the ovens. I spent about an hour and half trimming the ends and peeling the skins off of about 100 onions -- two huge sacks of yellow onions that Chef Bo slung over his shoulder and deposited at our work station. I was partnered with another volunteer named Sarah, a high school junior from Bethesda, Maryland, whom I had to show how to handle a chef's knife and who gossiped with her two friends about boys and colleges as we chopped and peeled.

After the two sacks of onions were peeled and washed, we were sure the next step would in fact be dicing 100 onions, and Sarah and I were getting ready for the tears that would flow as we cut so many onions. Instead, we were told to take a brief break and return for another job.

Back in the break room, we were met with a selection of Costco muffins and water and coffee. Our fellow volunteers trickled in for their breaks, now more talkative as the early morning had worn off. We introduced ourselves, shared muffins, told our stories. Nearly everyone there was in school -- either high school or college -- except for me and one other married couple. Apparently, altruism dies off a bit once it is no longer required by a professor or a guidance counselor. The woman who was not in school told me that she felt so inconsequential at her job as a government contractor, pushing numbers around all day in Access, that she felt a strong need to do something that she felt actually mattered. Her husband, a bespectacled, mousy Glaswegian, seemed be along to avoid any marital tension.

After coffee and muffins, we went back into the kitchen, re-washed and re-gloved, and got back to work. The second half of the morning I spent packaging food up for distribution. I packed up so many containers of hot, buttery, mixed vegetables, scooped out of a giant (30 gallon maybe) hot pot by another volunteer. After they were covered and packed, one of the workers packed them into catering travel containers - those heavy plastic plastic trunks that fit stacks of trays - for distribution later that day, still piping hot and fairly nutritious.

The final task of the day was unloading five cases of bags of frozen broccoli florets (organic Whole Foods brand), into one of the giant hot pots. Ever wondered what 100 bags of broccoli look like? The little green florets were piled literally as high as I am tall, and the vat needed to be stirred with both hands, with an oar.

At noon we were free to go, and Chef Bo hugged each of us and thanked us sincerely for helping out. I left the fluorescent light of the kitchen behind and emerged into the midday sunshine, happy I could help while doing something I love to do anyway -- feeding others.

If you can find an open time slot, please consider volunteering at the amazing and fun DC Central Kitchen.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Thing 61: Arts on Foot

Arts on Foot Festival 2007

Oh, DC. It is so good to be back. How I’d missed you.

The west coast is nice and all, but you have to drive everywhere and public transportation, if it exists, costs a lot more than Metro. Sure I got to eat at Chez Panisse and the Bi-Rite Creamery, but give me Central or Larry’s Homemade any day of the week. I’ll trade in horses and fig trees for the Capitol dome and my trendy corner of Logan any day.

I hit the DC tarmac running, with a weekend chock full of fun DC activities, which I’ll reveal all in due time. Allow me to start with the Arts on Foot Festival. Food! Music! Visual art! Performing art! Comedy! Drama! Cooking! Cheese! Wine!

Welcome home.

What a joy to walk around Penn Quarter in the September sunshine smelling garlic shrimp and listening to a boisterous gospel choir singing “When The Saints Come Marching In.”

I arrived at the festival near 1:00, after a late and large brunch, which I immediately came to regret because of the all the food booths set up from local restaurants. Cowgirl Creamery had a cheese plate, Rosa Mexicana was dishing out fresh, chunky guacamole, and La Tasca was frying shrimp in garlic olive oil and serving them over paella. All the small plates cost $1 - $5, and while I didn’t sample anything, Jodi was able to make a nice mini meal on the cheap.

I wandered over to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which was selling reduced-priced preview tickets for their upcoming season, selling old props and costumes from prior performances, and offering a behind-the-scenes tour of the theater. After perusing through the leftover junk on sale, I decided to wait for the tour. The tour didn’t start for another 20 minutes, The Timeless Cowrieso I popped across the street to check in with the Bead Museum. Although the sitcoms soundtrack wasn’t playing, it was just as odd as ever. A man stationed at the front was offering the new comers to help them “get oriented” to the museum and its one room. They’ve replaced the Shakespearean exhibit with “The Timeless Cowrie” – a collection of various pieces using the small snail shell that is seen in many parts of the world as sacred or as currency. Or around the necks of stoners and frat boys.

The tour of Woolly of led by the artistic director himself, Howard Shalwitz, and he showed us through the scene shop and into the green room and onto the stage. He explained about how Woolly came to inhabit such prime real estate: the condo complex used to be a federal parcel of land, and the requirement for development was that it must include space for a theater. Woolly signed on with a developer from Texas who worked with them to meet the federal requirements as well as their own, and now they have this angular and spare theater space which includes a fairly large scene shop, two hundred seat courtyard-style theater, and rehearsal and workshop space.
Behind the scenes at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company
After the tour, I wandered back over to the main area of the festival. They had a tent set up proclaiming "cooking as art," which was holding demonstrations by local chefs. Jodi and I waited patiently for the next demo to start, watching a sous-chef unwrap about fifty small paper plates covered in plastic wrap with pretty pink and pale green foods on them. Then the chef from D'Aqua arrived, spoke briefly about his Italian-style seafood restaurant and the process by which they cure their own salmon in-house. The demo itself consisted of his assistant putting a couple of layers of seafood into a round mold, and the wrapping it in cucumber. And then the masses crowded to the table to demolish the fifty small plates of samples.

Cooking demo - sort of - by the chef from D'Aqua
Finally, we headed to 9th and G, across from the library to the Flashpoint gallery and theater space to see a free performance by the Washington Improv Theater. In the small black box theater, five improvisers did a 'long form' improvised show, meaning that it wasn't the games and short skits you may be used to if you've seen Who's Line Is It Anyway? It's a more theatrical form of improv that attempts to tell multiple stories that thematically come together. It's pretty difficult and some of the threads succeeded and some of them failed, ultimately weaving together stories of tadpoles, hardware scandals and love on a train.

I stuck around for the free workshop they offered after the performance, in which a dozen of us learned some of the very basics of successful improvising. Although I knew many of the games and lessons already (I did quite a bit of improv acting in high school), it was fun to jump back into it and remember the rush of getting on stage without knowing what the other person is going to suggest and just going along for the ride.

And after all that, it was nearing 5:00 and I headed for home, tired from the day and exhilarated from being back in this city, surrounded by art, theater, music, good food and sunshine.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Book: Dream City

An occasional series on books and movies about DC:

I arrived in DC during the first year of Mayor Anthony Williams’ first term. Of course, I was in college then, focused on my studies and never venturing much further than Dupont Circle. While I was falling in love with my little piece of the city, I was not at all in tune with the political situation. I kept my voter registration in California and couldn’t have told you who represented Foggy Bottom on the City Council. I was still a visitor. It didn’t matter to me.

Now, of course, it matters to me.

So it was with a lot of enthusiasm that I cracked open Dream City while on my vacation this week. This book, published in 1994, is a fascinating study of the District’s modern history, which in 1994 meant one thing: Marion Barry. Even by 2007 DC’s modern history is dominated by that one man. He still holds a seat on the City Council, still inspires the strongest of feelings – either ridicule or admiration. But I had missed the whole thing, arriving in 1999 after Mayor Barry’s fourth and final term as mayor, and I was woefully ignorant of all that came before me.

I knew there had been riots in the late ‘60s. But I didn’t know what had caused them or where they’d been. Now I know that the recent redevelopment of U Street, Chinatown, and the slow resurgence of H St, NE are all legacies of those riots, nearly 40 years ago. The book traces the story of those riots, how they were sparked, how they became out of control, how they were eventually quelled by the military.

I knew that Marion Barry had smoked crack. I am embarrassed to admit I didn’t know much else. This book traces his beginnings in the student civil rights movement, his arrival in DC and his rise to power at a crucial time when the District was first learning to vote and govern itself. It details his original good intentions, his adaptability to every situation, his administration’s corruption and his downfall. How DC fell to drugs and violence on his watch, while he fell to drugs and women.

The book does an admirable job of presenting both sides of the story and the racial implications of each. Why the 8th Ward – so continuously poor, neglected and ignored – keeps voting for Barry, even now. How feelings about Barry are all mixed up in the city’s racist past, a city that was majority black and controlled by a blatantly racist Congress for a hundred years. Was he the stereotype of a black man addicted to crack or a prominent figure of black power systematically persecuted by a racist, white federal government?

The book does make a very strong argument that Barry took a historic moment, full of potential for the capital city, and squandered it in a sea of rhetoric, corruption and drugs. It sure puts into perspective why Mayor Williams, the boring and budget-oriented bureaucrat, was such a breath of fresh air. And it puts Mayor Fenty into an historical context. I knew his winning every precinct in every ward was important, but even more so now that I know a little bit more about the racial overtones of Barry’s rise to power, and his trial.

The city I love has come a long way in a short time. It has changed vastly even since I arrived eight years ago, and in the last 20 and 40 years even more so. For late comers like me, Dream City is an insight into what we missed, and provides the foundation for understanding what lies ahead.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Book: All the Presidents' Pastries

An occasional series on books and movies about DC:

I first heard of this book from this episode of Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me. In the "Not My Job"

segment of the show, Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was asked three questions about the book All the Presidents' Pastries. From this, I learned that Prince Charles had never seen a tea bag until his tea with Ronald Reagan, that Francois Mitterrand is very particular about his toilet seats, and the Clinton family's favorite dessert is Coca Cola flavored jello with glacee cherries. I was intrigued.

Then the next week, they invited the author of All the Presidents' Pastries, Roland Mesnier, to come on the show to play "Not My Job." You must listen to this segment. His French accent is just too outrageous and endearing. His dismissal of the Coca Cola jello ("but usually no one eats it") so dryly disgusted. His overt disgust at the foods in the questions being asked of him ("but who eats this stuff?!") so funny. I bought his book the next week.

So why haven't I written about it until now? Well, it took me this long to finish it because unfortunately, it's not very good. Mesnier writes in a very abrupt style, mentioning everything but not going into detail about anything. Over his long career, he served five presidents in 25 years at the White House. He served desserts to heads of state from almost every country you can think of, large elaborate desserts for state dinners, and small ones for family celebrations. He describes these occasions and desserts in a purely perfunctory way, but leaves out the stuff we really want to know. How did he make them? Did anything go wrong? How long did it take? How was it received?

Instead we get paragraphs like this one:

One year, Mrs. Bush asked me to make a birthday cake evoking their favorite sport. I made a full-sized tennis racquet in chocolate, standing up straight on top of the cake, with slightly slack strings, entwined with roses. Game, set and match! Everyone was delighted.

Or this one:

I discovered another favorite Argentinian specialty, an extraordinarily delicious ice cream known as dulce de leche made from condensed milk, which is boiled for hours until it turns into a kind of caramel. This is what I would serve for the dessert. In addition, I served a dish of pineapples -- an imported Argentinian crop -- cooked in a very special way, then arranged on silver platters topped with a kind of sweet pastry, giving them an agreeable crunchy taste.

By describing everything, we don't get a true sense for the time, effort and craftsmanship that went into each dessert, nor the scale of grandeur of each.

If you are hoping for a little juicy gossip about the presidential families, you won't get it here. In fact, it takes Mesnier nearly 100 pages of the book before he even gets to the White House. Up until then, we learn in detail of every job and opportunity he had until he was offered the job in the White House. And once he is in the White House, he has only the nicest things to say about all the presidents and their families.

The book does have its moments. You get a pretty good sense of how the White House is run behind the scenes, the level of excellence and professionalism that is demanded from everyone. You get a glimpse at what it was like to actually be in the White House on September 11th. You learn some interesting things about how world class pastry chefs become world class, the hard work and sacrifices along the way. And there is a collection of recipes in the back of each of the five presidents' favorite desserts. I haven't tried any out yet, but they all look quite good (especially the orange flourless chocolate cake for the Reagan family).

Rest assured, he leaves out the recipe for Coca Cola jello with glacee cherries.