Just in time for summer that Capitol Hill interns and the seasonal flip-flop/business suit combo DC women do so well, MTV has begun shooting its next Real World series a few blocks from my home. Dupont Circle, with a center fountain that draws people even when the water’s not running, doesn’t feel like Real World material. I’m not sure many in Dupont Circle can even find the MTV channel, though a lot can recite a full week’s line-up of CNN programming. MTV’s President of Programming has been quoted as saying, “The charged atmosphere of Washington D.C., the center of our country’s social and political change, will provide an electric setting for this next season of the Real World.” But Real World residents party, hang out around the house for hours and actually have time to feed the fish in the aquarium most of those MTV-provided houses have. DC, charged or not, is a different kind of real world.
Two weeks before filming starts, a tourist reminds me of how the outside world often views DC. I’m sitting in the circle near a Latino band that plays every Sunday. Further around the circle, men place bets on chess games. It’s been fifteen minutes since the last sirens announced a dignitary or fire brigade passing through and the calm is almost unsettling.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you? With my phone?” a man says.
The tourist is perhaps twenty-three years old and his shoulder blades jut out through his shirt. He’s been texting people since he sat down on other side of the tree I’m leaning against. Now he’s craning his neck to see what I’m writing.
“Texting’s pretty quiet work,” I tell him. “I can’t hear a thing.”
“You’re a teacher? Grading papers?” he asks. Before I can answer, he continues. “I’m here from Dubai, interviewing for a job. I love DC. I don’t want to go home.”
He exudes the idealistic zeal that keeps DC humming and he’s dying to share his thoughts. It happens every so often, and particularly in June when the interns arrive. D.C. has just as many curious eavesdroppers as it has idealists ready to save the world. He could be both, but I offer words of encouragement. Yes, his English is great. His credentials are impressive.
“They say DC’s Hollywood for ugly people.” He shifts his legs, as if settling in for a longer, cozy conversation with a resident “ugly” person." “But I love it.”
“So you want to live in an ugly people’s town,” I say. He doesn’t catch the tone in my voice. He’s busy listing all the ways in which DC, despite being ugly, is great and perfect for him. I look around the circle as if really seeing it for the first time.
To call DC Hollywood for ugly people may be a stretch, but there are a lot of do-gooders too busy advancing causes to visit the gym, get a tan or consider the many alternatives to flip-flops. We can’t even slow down long enough to dust off our soapboxes and climb on them to make our points. That would detract from the real work. In the face of such earnestness, who has time to check aging suits for that telltale sheen of overly worn fabric, let alone shop for new ones?
I turn to share this observation and clear up this Hollywood for ugly people nonsense. The idealist has left. He’s hurrying toward someone sitting on a blanket, reading and seemingly unaware of what is coming his way.
“Good luck,” I call out, but he doesn’t hear me. He’s on a mission of some kind. If he moves to DC, he’ll fit right in. Most transplants arrive with a plan and a timeline for achieving their goals. No one intends to drift around the circle or the District.
A boyfriend once told me DC’s circles were a metaphor for all the people who moved to DC, went round and round and never got anywhere. He worked for a government organization formed days after 9/11. He loved to brag about being one of the first twenty employees hired. Then the organization was absorbed by another, and another and rendered essentially defunct. Round and round in the same circle, with few ever quite leaving or advancing. The Sunday before Real World filming begins, I walk Dupont Circle’s outer, narrow band of sidewalk and wonder how best to approach the chess crowd that never leaves.
A boom box blasts music over the circle’s northeastern wedge, the Chess Zone. The players sit at tables, bolted into the concrete years ago, and hit the timer boxes in sync with the beat while the crowd looks on. A sign, five stories high, hangs from a nearby building. “I want the economy to work for everyone,” it reads. Every day, hundreds of dollars are won and lost on games right here.
Walking through the Chess Zone feels like crossing that stretch of the high school parking lot where the cool bad boys hung out. Women don’t sit around here. Those walking through will cut up to the fountain and back, further around the circle, to avoid the whistling and invitations. In a city filled with women complaining about the lack of men, this place could have the best odds possible, but no takers.
I ask one man how you get in the game and he tells me all I need is a little money. He’s sizing me up, trying to determine how long it’d take to beat me and collect the winnings. About three minutes, I imagine. I haven’t played chess since eighth grade. I don’t recall winning.
“You guys ever play anywhere else in the city?” I ask next.
“What color’s your hair? Blonde? Or some kind of berry color?” he asks.
“You’re workin’ it out, baby!” calls a man two tables over. “God bless!”
If the ladies of the Real World house decide to try their luck in the Chess Zone, I want to be there to watch. For now, I move on. The Chess Zone is men-only again.
It’s the night before filming starts and all’s quiet outside the Real World house at 20th and S. Singleton mayhem, DC-style, reigns at the 18th Street Lounge, four blocks south. On a makeshift stage before a large crowd, the Young Democrats of America Date Auction is beginning.
All proceeds go to a worthy cause, and more than thirty people have agreed to offer their time and a date plan. They stand before the crowd as an auctioneer talks of their passion for helping those with disabilities, their involvement in the Obama campaign, their accounting prowess.
An evening out on the town with a rather tall Democrat party player is described to the buzzed crowd as the man waves, smiles, gives a small bow. His looks don’t hurt, but his political accomplishments carry him much further in this crowd. The ladies bid him up to $650. The buyer’s face glows as she walks up to meet her date and settle the tab. $650 is no tiny amount in a town of government employees, laid-off journalists and non-profit crusaders.
A tall blonde in a short skirt takes the stage soon after. The auctioneers do a masterful job promoting her assets and the men in the audience respond with cheers and clapping. When it’s time to bid for a date with her, they quickly drive the price to $300. Then, as if teetering on the edge of some precipice, the collective male hand stops waving its auction stick. The bid closes at $250.
It’s a curious kind of math when the date with the relatively good-looking guy goes for more than double a date with the hot woman. Perhaps the bidder now $650 poorer spent so much because she thought the date would be a good, career-advancing networking opportunity. Networking, in DC, is sometimes valued at least twice as much as falling in love or even getting laid. Sometimes.
A man offers himself for an evening with either a man or a woman. Not a single male hand is raised to bid. Not many more women show interest. Bidding closes out at $35 and people study their feet as the lucky bidder walks up to pose with her date. We’re not always as “out there” as we’d like to be.
I leave 18th Street Lounge with a friend who insists on donning flip-flops before walking anywhere. On the sidewalk, she steps into her flip-flops. Three guys, maybe drunk but also cute and interested in my friend, say hi. One compliments the speed with which she’s changed shoes. He’s trying. My friend doesn’t respond. She’s busy trying to jam her high heels into a purse alongside her wallet, cell phone and hairbrush.
As we approach the circle, these guys are still trying to talk with my friend. She’s slung her laptop bag like she’s headed off on some mission, instead of home. She’s hurrying because she’s got things to do before she can call it a night. They like what she’s about anyway.
Rats run by and dive into one of the thousand holes they’ve dug in the circle. We see them, but don’t slow down or bother to comment on them.
The rats rule Dupont Circle. They have a favorite route that runs through the patios of a Starbucks, a bookstore cafe and an Asian restaurant. Rumor has it the rats have also wrought havoc for the Church of Scientology, a mere block from the Real World house. The tourists are the only ones who squeal. The locals just move their feet to the side and keep talking.
Knowing how to handle rats may not make for good Real World material. It doesn’t hold much sex appeal or potential for high ratings. But it’s saying something about DC and our “real” world all the same.