A Tourist at Home

It was a good neighborhood to grow up in, and then it wasn't

HERB HARRIS is a psychiatrist living in Chapel Hill, NC. He currently serves as Executive Vice President of Translational Medicine at Tonix Pharmaceuticals. He is currently working on a memoir. More at: herbertwharris.com and @herbertwharris.

My weekly phone call with my mother had been following its routine of meandering family stories and local news. I had given my usual report about the things I was learning in my second year of medical school, and she had asked when I would be coming home for Christmas vacation. Maybe my mind had wandered for a moment, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, she said, “Your father is OK.”

My father? I hadn’t asked about him. Why would he not be OK? The possibilities started flooding in as my mind raced ahead of my mother’s words. She had a way of letting bad news spill out in the middle of an otherwise ordinary conversation. She tried to keep things pleasant and cheerful until the pressure of what she needed to say became too great. The dam would burst, and I would suddenly be hearing about a death or serious illness in the family. The abrupt mention of my father set off alarms.

“He was robbed by a kid with a gun last night,” I heard her say. 

My brain processed each unit of information separately: robbed, kid, gun. Eventually, the whole sentence coalesced.

“Is he all right?” I asked.

“Yes. He was coming home from taking the car to the repairman last night at about seven. It was dark. He had to park on Second Street near Florida Avenue because that church was having a service. A kid, who couldn’t have been but sixteen, was walking down the street, and he pulled out a gun. He told your father to hand over his wallet. He did. The kid took it and nipped around the corner. That was it. Your father is fine.”

I knew my mother was working hard to put the best spin on the event. She could find a positive frame for almost anything, but the worse the news, the more strained her efforts grew. I was becoming alarmed by the breezy tone she was using to tell me of a gunpoint robbery.

“He is OK?” I asked again, my heart pounding.

“Yes, he is fine.” 

I struggled to focus and ask appropriate questions, but I managed to get a few more details. They had called the police; a report was filed somewhere, describing the assailant as a young black male wearing a black winter coat. They had called and cancelled the credit cards. Tomorrow, they would deal with the driver’s license. The cash was only about twenty dollars. Pop wasn’t sure what else was in the wallet, but they would sort it out.

I asked to speak to Pop. He had a gift for facing adversity with humor, but on this occasion, his humor failed him. “I’m fine,” he said, flatly echoing my mother’s words. He handed the phone back to my mother, who tried to steer the conversation back to family gossip. It was clear they had both been badly shaken by what happened. 

Crime had long been a fact of life in the declining Washington, DC, neighborhood where my parents lived, but by 1985, when the robbery happened, crack had emerged as the favored street drug, and violent crime had become almost uncontrollable in the inner city. I had feared it would inevitably touch my parents, and their safety was a constant concern to me, and now that something bad had happened, I felt powerless.

There were two weeks of exams to get through before I could go home, and I could not leave Pittsburgh until late afternoon on Christmas Eve. The thoughts that weighed on my mind during the four-hour drive east were mirrored in the dull gray sky, the jagged rock faces, and the bare lifeless trees as I passed through western Pennsylvania. Along the way, there were patches of snow that threatened to make the winding roads more treacherous. The sky was growing dark by the time I reached the halfway point in Maryland. At least the beltway traffic was surprisingly light when I got to the Washington area.

As I made my way down North Capitol Street, there was little traffic and almost no pedestrians. The scenery became both more familiar and more desolate. The row houses along the streets had changed little, with their unkempt yards overrun with weeds. The signs of neglect and disrepair grew more obvious the deeper I got into the city. I remembered my father driving us around the neighborhood, as children, to look at dazzling displays of lights and the decorations. People spared no effort or expense, and some of our neighbors were fiercely competitive. But now, Christmas lights and decorations were sparse, and few of the houses had so much as a wreath to mark the season.

I turned at Rhode Island Avenue NW, where several abandoned houses had plywood boards covering the windows. Battered cars were parked along the streets. Crumpled trash rolled along the sidewalks like tumbleweeds pushed by the cold wind. I had lived away from this place long enough to grow unused to this scenery. Each time I visited my parents, it was more difficult to remember this had once been my home. It was painful to think they still lived here. I thought about my father being robbed at gunpoint, and I reached over to lock the passenger door of my car. I felt a twinge of shame. I was behaving like a fretful suburbanite who had gotten lost in a bad part of town. 

The poorly lit streets in my parents’ neighborhood were almost entirely deserted, but on the corner, a few doors down from my parents’ house, stood a solitary man wearing a heavy black winter parka. He was about my height and build, and I guessed he was about my age. He did not turn his head or give any indication he noticed me, but I felt him watching me closely as I turned the corner. 

A man standing alone on our corner at night was not an unusual sight. Such men were there to conduct business, selling drugs to people who cruised through our neighborhood. They kept odd and unpredictable hours, but they were usually present in the evening. Often, they were teenagers and, occasionally, children; if arrested, minors were less likely than adults to face serious charges or prosecution. They were part of a large and immensely profitable enterprise. 

For the last year, my parents had seen the dealers standing on the corner of Second and S Streets NW; a ten-minute walk west would have placed you at the center of the largest open-air drug market operating in the city. My mother had called the police more than once, but nothing happened, and the boys on the corner became a fixture in the neighborhood. They were usually harmless, but the customers they attracted posed real dangers to the residents. 

I found a parking space just past our house, but it was too small to accommodate my car easily. I could see there were other spaces much farther down the street, but the thought of walking the length of this block, where I had once played as a carefree child, now terrified me. I did not think I had anything to fear from the man on the corner, but anyone else could have posed a serious threat. Apart from my parents, I did not know a single person who lived on the street. I decided to circle the block and try to fit the car into the too-small space. 

When I drove by the second time, the man on the corner turned his head and looked directly at me. He seemed to take a half-step in my direction. I guessed that a car passing more than once was likely to be a customer. Perhaps the old car I was driving, with its out-of-state license plates, made me look less likely to be police. He seemed ready to do business, but I had no desire to be mistaken for a drug buyer. I quickly turned the corner and sped down the block without looking at him. When I reached the parking space, I glanced in the rearview mirror. The man had returned to his position on the corner. 

I began the struggle to park the car. After several forward and reverse movements, I was still quite far from the curb, but I was anxious to get inside. I was sure the man on the corner and I were the only people on the street, but I looked cautiously up and down the block before unlocking the car door and getting out. The air was painfully cold, and my legs were stiff and sore after the long drive. A few snowflakes drifted through the air, glittering under the streetlamps. I hastily gathered my belongings from the trunk—a backpack, some textbooks, and a bag containing about a week’s worth of laundry. 

Everything seemed at once familiar and alien. The sidewalk, the small yard, the concrete steps, the wooden porch, the red brick house—I had seen these things thousands of times before. I was certain nothing had changed. There could be no place in the world I knew better than this house where I spent my childhood. But there was a weird unreality to the night that made me feel as though I were seeing everything for the first time. I had to confirm in my mind that I had come to the right address. Would strangers answer when I rang the doorbell? Would anyone at all answer?

Something about the thought of ringing the doorbell evoked a nearly forgotten memory of trick-or-treating in the neighborhood when I was four or five. The memory was so vivid I could recall the smell of the plastic Superman mask and the feel of the silky costume on my skin. I had no siblings, but I was joined by friends who lived on the block; the neighborhood was full of children and young families then. My parents accompanied us from house to house, and we tromped up and down the porch steps along with hordes of other costumed children. 

During my early childhood, this block was the center of a black middle-class residential area. Most of our neighbors were academics from Howard University or employees of the federal or local government; my parents were teachers who worked for the public school system. My father taught history, and my mother English. Washington had been my family’s home for generations, and I had aunts, uncles, and cousins scattered throughout the neighborhood. My parents seemed to know almost everyone. There were dozens of children about my age, and no weekend went by without playdates. As we trick-or-treated, at every door, smiling faces and handfuls of candy greeted us. The whole block was alive with giggling children. There was frenetic energy and excitement everywhere.

Twenty years later, it was difficult to imagine that such times had ever been possible. The heavy stillness was broken only by a few falling snowflakes. The block was gray and lifeless as I glanced back at the man on the corner, who had not moved. Probably he had grown up here, too, and our paths could have easily crossed before. Perhaps he had been one of the trick-or-treaters or a playmate from my early childhood. Or maybe our lives had only this strange moment of intersection. 

I reached the porch. A small wreath hung on the door, and orange-red electric candle lights glowed warmly behind the wrought-iron bars that covered the first-floor windows. I rang the doorbell and heard the four measured tones that had announced every visitor to our house throughout my life, more familiar to me than any other chord. In my childhood, at Christmas, the doorbell rang all day as gift-bearing visitors came and went. Now, I was a visitor. The door opened, and my mother and father appeared, beaming as brightly as ever. 

• • •

In truth, the neighborhood had been declining since the early 1960s. With the success of the Civil Rights movement, the segregation that enclosed our community began to relax. Families began to move to the suburbs or to predominantly white neighborhoods in the city. I had little awareness of these changes as a child, but one event stood out for me as the turning point when our community changed. It was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on a Thursday evening in April of 1968, when I was nine. The rioting that followed would change the city forever.

My first awareness that something was wrong came the next morning, a Friday. My parents woke me early and told me about the assassination. I knew little about Dr. King, but I understood that someone greatly loved had been murdered. They were careful in choosing their words, and they tried hard not to alarm me, but I could hear that their reassuring tone covered something ominous. 

“Won’t people be sad?” I asked.

“Most people will be sad, but a lot will be very angry, too,” explained my mother, who always tried to give me lucid rational accounts of life’s most irrational events. On that day, her efforts stoked my anxiety. I could not avoid the sense that something was threatening the basic security I had always known in our home. 

“It’s those people we are worried about,” my father added in a way that only deepened my confusion. 

With scarcely another word, my parents got me into the car and drove to my aunt’s house; I wouldn’t be going to school, and they wouldn’t be going to work. My aunt greeted us at the door, and we went in very quickly. I wondered if we would be staying and if I could play with my cousin. 

“There’s no time for that,” my mother said. Her tone conveyed the unmistakable message that this was serious business and not playtime. Her sudden bluntness made me feel guilty, somehow. “We have to get home,” she said with an urgency that frightened me.

None of the usual conversation took place between the adults. My father went down into their basement and returned carrying two bags of groceries. My uncle kept a large supply of canned and frozen food in his basement for snowstorms and other improbable emergencies. We sometimes made fun of his obsessional preparedness, but no one was laughing now.

“Did you get enough soup for a few days?” my mother asked.

“Yes,” said my father.

“Canned milk?”

He gave a nod.

They thanked my aunt, and we quickly got back in the car.

“Why didn’t we just go to the grocery store?” I asked. 

“The grocery stores are very dangerous today,” said my father. He did not elaborate, and I was afraid to ask any more questions.

It was only a five-minute drive from my aunt’s house, but it seemed much longer in the uncomfortable silence. I had never seen my mother tremble with fear. She glanced furtively up and down the street as my father parked the car in front of our house and we hurried inside. 

As soon as we got into the house, my mother turned on the radio and listened to the local news. I learned that the night before, rioting had broken out in the city and stores had been looted and burned. Although reporters and city officials believed the violence had ended, my parents feared there was more to come. Their instincts proved good; the rioting resumed later on Friday afternoon, and its fury exceeded anything officials had anticipated. 

We spent the next four days in our house, hunched over the television. Friday was a day of complete terror, when none of us knew what would happen next. Throughout the weekend, we saw clips of burning buildings and police in riot gear. We were never sure how close the violence was. Most of the initial reports of rioting were localized to an area several blocks to the west of us. Before long, reports came of burning and looting to the east of us. We heard that rioters had come within two blocks of the White House. Although we could see nothing happening on our block, it was clear that violence was exploding all around us. 

As an adult, I have read many accounts of the rioting and seen video footage of the destruction. The violence began with the destruction of businesses that stood along the boundary between black and white neighborhoods. It spread across the community, and our neighborhood was in its direct path. I now understand the fear that gripped my parents as they learned of the growing chaos. The patient explanations they repeated to me were intended to calm themselves as much as to relieve my anxiety.

“Why are they doing this?” I asked repeatedly.

“People are very angry. Angrier than they have ever been before. They don’t know who or what to be angry at.” That was my mother’s explanation.

“Are they angry at us?” I asked.

“They don’t know who to be angry at,” she repeated. “We just need to keep out of their way.”

My parents told me more about Dr. King and the work he had done. They explained how he had been a beloved leader and how his assassination had created a kind of blind rage. This anger was like a terrible storm that could turn in any direction. The more I tried to understand it, the more frightening it seemed. I did not want to watch any more news, but they kept turning from channel to channel to follow events. 

The phone rang constantly as my parents’ friends called to share news. We knew that buildings were on fire only a few blocks from where we lived. We heard that the National Guard had been called in. Helicopters flew over our house. Sometimes they were so loud I thought they were going to land on our roof. I heard what I thought was gunfire, but my parents kept insisting it was only firecrackers. I did not believe them. I had been told to stay away from the front door and windows, but I could not resist peeking whenever I could. Once, I saw soldiers in Jeeps driving through the neighborhood. All I wanted was to go outside and see what was happening. 

While my parents watched television and talked on the phone, I created a street in the center of my bedroom. Pillows and shoeboxes formed the houses. A green plastic battalion occupied the neighborhood, and plastic tanks and Jeeps rode up and down the block. I wondered what the children across the street were doing. I missed them and hoped they were all right. I couldn’t remember a weekend going by when I didn’t see them.

Monday came and went. My parents seemed less tense, but things were far from normal. They spoke little, and their attention was always focused on the television. By Tuesday, we could no longer stand being in the house, and we ventured out. There was trash and debris strewn across the sidewalks and in the street, and broken glass everywhere. Many cars had the words Soul Brother written with soap bars on their windows. The owners had done this to indicate solidarity with the rioters and to avoid being targeted by them. We were lucky: there were no signs of damage to the houses or cars on our block. A convenience store around the corner was not so fortunate. Its windows were smashed, and it had been looted. It was later boarded up and closed for more than a year. Many other local businesses were attacked or vandalized, but fortunately, nothing had been burned. 

The streets were nearly deserted except for police patrol cars. We drove to a grocery store in the suburbs, and I remember passing a city reservoir defended by a group of soldiers sitting behind a wall of sandbags. 

When I returned to school a week later, my route took me across a swath of smoldering rubble that would come to be known as the 14th Street riot corridor. It was a path of destruction that ran north and south along 14th Street NW and turned east on U Street. The buildings that had escaped complete destruction were eventually boarded up with plywood and abandoned for decades. 

After the riots, the decline of our neighborhood turned into a freefall. Almost anyone who could sell their home escaped to the suburbs. Those who could not, fortified their houses against future threats. That summer, we installed wrought iron bars over our basement entrances and the first-floor windows. Many of our neighbors did likewise. Some of the ironwork was quite ornate and decorative, but our house was fitted with simple black iron bars. For the next several years, I looked out at the world through those bars as my friends and family moved away. I watched as the children I had played with packed their belongings and left. I remember watching movers carrying the boxes and furniture out, loading them into trucks, and driving away. 

My parents were among the last to leave. The robbery of my father at gunpoint had been the decisive event. Not long after my Christmas visit, they put their house on the market, and after more than a year, it sold for a fraction of what similar houses would later bring when the neighborhood eventually began to recover. It was painful to see them sell the house under these circumstances, but I was glad to see my parents escape. Most of our family had already moved, and by the late 1980s, we had no friends or relations left in the neighborhood.

• • •

I have called many places home over the years. I now live in a suburban community in the South. My parents are deceased, and I have few relatives remaining in Washington. When I visit the city, I feel like a tourist. I visit all the historic and cultural sites, snapping pictures of monuments and museums. Last year, I went to see the cherry blossoms in April. As I strolled around the Lincoln Reflecting Pool, I realized that exactly fifty years had passed since the riots of 1968, and I decided to make a pilgrimage to my childhood home.

My drive took me across the old 14th Street riot corridor, where the violence and destruction had been most intense. Organic produce stores, upscale restaurants, and yoga studios have replaced burned-out buildings that stood abandoned for decades. These miraculous changes extend eastward, tracking roughly along the path of the riots across U Street. As I neared my old home, I saw joggers and mothers pushing baby strollers. There were dogs, young parents, and small children enjoying the warm spring afternoon. These everyday scenes seemed incredible to me. Like a sightseer, I found the most mundane things to be astonishing and wondrous. 

I parked my car near the corner where the drug dealers once stood. Planting my foot on the pavement, I struggled to convince myself that what I was seeing and feeling was real. The cobblestones were gone, replaced by an asphalt surface, but the row houses were still much as I remembered them. Most looked as if they had been painted within the last couple of years. The trims and cornices were a little more brightly colored and varied than I remembered. The tree boxes and small front yards were filled with early-blooming flowers. I could not recall ever seeing so much color there in spring. One of the houses had contractor trucks parked in front and a dumpster filled with plaster and other debris in the yard. It seemed to be undergoing a substantial renovation. 

How would my parents have reacted to these changes? They had known the neighborhood as a cohesive community where families could flourish. They had seen it become a frightening, hostile place where everyone was a stranger. Would they have seen the forces of transformation as opportunism and gentrification, or would they have welcomed the emergence of a new community where families could again flourish? My mother was an optimist to the end, and my father never failed to appreciate how the twisting convolutions of fate always seemed to bring us full circle. I think they would have greeted the newcomers and welcomed them to the neighborhood.

I approached the house slowly. It was difficult, at first, to be certain that it was the right one. So much had changed; I recognized it only by its position in the block relative to the alleyway. The porch and woodwork had been painted colors that differed strikingly from the ones I remembered. The yard was shaded by two small trees that reached to the second story. It was beautifully landscaped and accented with many potted flowers. The first familiar thing I saw was the house number painted on the transom over the front door. The lettering seemed unchanged. I touched the granite retaining wall and found its cold rough texture to be just as I remembered it. This tactile memory was much deeper and more certain than any of my visual impressions. There came a flood of other tactile memories—the bricks, the window sills, the texture of the glass panes. It was the same house. 

My eye caught a detail I might have easily overlooked—the black wrought iron bars that still covered the windows of the house. They had not changed. They were always cold to the touch. They were hard, and smooth with black enamel paint, which sometimes flaked off, revealing the gray iron beneath. Did the current residents know where the bars came from? They served no purpose now. For many people in the city, they were just a part of the edgy urban vibe. For me, the bars evoked a torrent of powerful memories of those terrible days in April of 1968, when we sat huddled inside this house while everything fell apart around us.

Medical school was the beginning of a journey that took me a long way from this place. It gave me a professional identity in a rarefied world far removed from this community. Once my parents left the neighborhood, I thought I would never look back. As the years went by, my memories of the community faded and grew more unreal. At times, the experiences I recalled felt as if they belonged to some other person’s story.  

Something had drawn me back on this beautiful day. When I saw the bars on the windows, everything that separated me from the frightened nine-year-old who once lived in this house suddenly vanished. The years dropped away along with the degrees, credentials, and all the things that enclosed and fortified my adult identity. I became a terrified child surrounded by chaos. It was then that I realized I had come here to reclaim this part of myself that I thought I had left behind.

* Illustration by Anna Hall

About the Author

Herb Harris

Herb Harris is a psychiatrist living and practicing in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He is currently working on a memoir.

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