It is rare to walk through empty streets in downtown Washington, DC, in broad daylight. Yet this past spring, when it seemed as if every living thing had leapt into a void, I learned that what you see and how you see it changes in a relatively unpeopled urban environment. Desolation—whether physical or spiritual—transfigures the senses. A public space devoid of human activity alters one’s perception in ways that force the eye to focus on what remains rather than what has been lost.
Seeking out what remains is one of the ways I tend to cope in moments of loss. The COVID-19 pandemic left me feeling especially bereft, due in no small part to the suddenness with which it struck. In a two-week period, Washington had morphed from its bustling seasonal drift toward spring (the cherry blossoms, the revelers strolling to and from the bars, the music of voices at outdoor cafés) to empty streets and boarded-up windows on shops and restaurants. It was as if the city had instantly entered a new cultural epoch of desolation. I was unprepared to find only remnants of an atmosphere I’d known and am still uncertain if it can ever be regained. How long would this pandemic last? And would it return? It seemed that Albert Camus was right: Pestilences have a way of recurring in the world. And yet, as he also reminds us, we often find it hard to believe in plagues that crash down out of a clear blue sky. But that is exactly what this one did.
With the crashing down of this particular plague, war became the metaphor of choice among the political class. Meanwhile, the feeling of the city was something closer to grieving, since grief in many ways is also fear. Grief forces us to confront our own mortality.
Where, then, is solace found? Walking these empty streets, I was reminded of the ways in which literature, as both an intimate ritual and a larger occasion for community, helps us navigate any number of emotional turns, helps us confront both grief and fear, helps us put the circumstances that might otherwise overwhelm us into a context that allows us, finally, to grapple with it.
Washington is often thought of as the federal government’s company town, its inhabitants in some way owing their souls to Uncle Sam’s company store. That has never been true and could not be further from the truth. Anyone who has lived in this city long enough knows that Washington has always been a literary town, its cultural fabric held together by writers and artists rather than bureaucrats and politicians. The pandemic has proved it. It has revealed how Washington was defined by its literary culture and the institutions that support it. Once these were gone, it became clear how central they were to what made this city vibrant. By the end of March, many of our bookstores were shuttered, from intimate spaces like East City Books on Capitol Hill and Mahogany Books in Anacostia, to larger venues such as Politics and Prose and Busboys and Poets. Meanwhile, literary gatherings, such as the Folger Poetry series, the PEN/Faulkner readings, the Hurston/Wright Foundation workshops, and Split This Rock poetry slams, to name a few, had all gone into a kind of strange hibernation, divided into the silos of virtual attendance.
The absence of a tactile literary culture—one that happens in real time rather than on a screen—meant an uncomfortable cultural silence. And yet, during early morning walks through an empty city in April, paying attention in a wholly new way, I became acutely aware of being surrounded by literature, of how it manifests on many of Washington’s streets in the places where writers once wrote and lived, their words etched in stone. In one landmark after another, I was reminded of what I’d read recently in Rebecca Solnit’s essay “A Short History of Silence,” of how “the quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others.” Indeed, the speech of others existed on these newly abandoned streets.
Just three blocks from where I live stands a grand yellow house with green-and-burnt-burgundy trim and a wraparound porch. It was once the home of Anna Julia Cooper, educator and author of A Voice from the South, a book that included one of the first feminist discussions of the social status of black women. Another three blocks down are both the home of historian Carter G. Woodson and a memorial that proclaims him the father of black history. This three-story flat-front Federal townhouse was both Woodson’s home and office, serving as the base of operations for the Journal of Negro History. Woodson, who created “Negro History Week” in 1926, had numerous helpers in his efforts to promote black history, including a young Langston Hughes and a Howard University student named Zora Neale Hurston. Whenever I walk past his home, I imagine Zora strutting up the marble stoop in a stunning hat, a nattily dressed Langston walking down the street and entering for a day’s work.
Farther down on U Street is the Lincoln Theatre, the setting of “Box Seat” by Jean Toomer, whose collection Cane, a hybrid work of poetry and prose, is set in so many parts of Washington, whether along U Street or the grounds of the Old Soldier’s Home. Each section of the book is connected by the graphic of the half circle, alluding not only to the biblical mark of Cain but also to how each section of the book helps make the circle of the story complete. Like the half circles in the text of Cane, these places on the streets of Washington unite and complete the spaces shuttered by this pandemic.
Other landmarks both longstanding and newly improvised offer further testimony to the permanent literary Washington on the landscape. Off Georgia Avenue, on the campus of Howard University, sits Toni Morrison’s “Bench by the Road,” which is one of twenty-five markers around the country to help remember the lives of African Americans who were enslaved. “There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves,” Morrison wrote. Now these benches, and her novel Beloved, fill this emptiness.
On Fourteenth Street, the artwork painted on the windows of Busboys and Poets offers a sharp and healthy contrast to the brown paper lining the windows of other spots on the block. Closer to Dupont Circle, right by the Metro, is E. Ethelbert Miller’s poem about DC’s HIV crisis, “We Embrace,” engraved into the stone underfoot:
We fought against the invisible
We looked to one another for comfort
We held the hands of friends and lovers
We did not turn our backs
Encountering this poem on the city’s newly voided landscape reminded me of the human contact that was missing in a time when we desperately needed it. Kramerbooks was right across the street, yet I couldn’t enter its doors. Like every other bookstore, it was closed and converted to a book-shipping-and-delivery service. That was indeed a loss, part of a larger absence or a new world we have suddenly entered. But as mournful as it was, in that fleeting moment I’d discovered, too, how literature is woven into the streets of Washington. The quiet of the loss of one thing made room for the embracing of others.