July 7, 1974, was one of those rhetorical days from hell! I awakened at sunrise to my mother’s determined bang on my door. In a cruel and twisted knot of fate, my great uncle Fred had passed away the night before and we needed to drive to Washington.
We were to assist in helping my grandmother and great aunt with the funeral arrangements, as well as seemingly non-ending mutual consolation. Naturally, the Universe was perversely smiling as I had been out the night before celebrating my eighteenth birthday, enjoying a pool party with my cronies, drinking beer, and pursuing relatively harmless misbehavior.
Of course, my mother wanted me to drive the six hours, probably because she was confident that I’d speed!
By eight, we were on the road. I was driving, denying to myself that what I was feeling was my first hangover in life. My mother was on the passenger side, vacillating between staring out the window at the “ditch lilies” and sharing memories of my eccentric loner of an uncle who had just turned sixty. Sixty and his last breath seized by natural causes!
My sister, who was twelve at the time, tried to keep the air as light as she could but disregarded boundaries and crossed many lines in that annoying and predictable pubescent manner.
We arrived at my grandmother’s house just after lunchtime. We took my grandmother, great aunt, and cousin to the funeral home to finalize arrangements. My sister and I were rather voiceless that afternoon, limited by both our ages and lack of experience in such matters.
In fact, the only death I had ever felt was that of my father’s father who died from a heart attack on Christmas Day when I was three. Although he gasped, struggled, and quickly died after he showed me how to play dominos, I have no memories of that wintry day except for those of laughing and nurturing.
But fifteen years later, we were now preparing to bury the man who was essentially the only surviving male in my mother’s family, save me. My grandmother and her three sisters were all widows and had each only given birth to daughters. The only man of the family was a recent high school graduate, one with a throbbing headache of remorse.
We checked into a hotel so that we could have privacy and my mother wouldn’t have to deal with any unnecessary family dysfunction. Then, through dinner, and well into the evening we discussed Uncle Fred: how he was such a loner, had no friends, and never even dated.
He had been employed exclusively by the British Embassy for almost four decades, since he graduated from college. He lived upstairs in my Great Grandparents’ family home and rarely came downstairs, except to go to work or prepare his vegetarian meals.
Near ten o’clock and the air still a-swelter, my mother needed me to run an errand: to go to the store to purchase tampons for her. Naturally being a young man, I was mortified by the certain embarrassment. But I put on my yellow high tops, ready to oblige, as I was nothing if not dutiful.
Of course, the Universe was again smiling, if not guffawing. The only drugstore open at that hour was the 24-hour Peoples Drug at Thomas Circle. Mind you, it was the mid-seventies and that area of the district was relatively seedy, a mixed bag for a curious yet naïve teenager from North Carolina.
I parked on Fourteenth Street just across from the entrance, painfully aware that the crowds on the sidewalks were much more street savvy than I. The area was filled with adult entertainment “emporiums” and an air heavy with both hormonal and criminal intent. I reluctantly and sheepishly walked into the store, quickly grabbed that most unholy of feminine grails, and got in what seemed like an endless queue.
My discomfort was compounding with each second: I was the only non-African American customer which made it impossible to blend in discreetly. From all the stares and pointing, I sensed that folks were sizing me up. Was I some sort of troublemaker? Or some lost Kansan tourist who had wandered in by error? What was with the gold wire rims and Polo shirt?
I finally checked out and scurried to my mother’s new Volkswagen. Oh my God! (I feel compelled to write that out since internet shorthand was yet to be.) Three prostitutes were sitting on the car’s hood, smoking cigarettes and preparing for what was most likely some intermezzo of “toying with the teenager”! Getting into the car, starting the ignition, and attempting to put the car into gear didn’t even begin to thwart them. They chuckled, fascinated and fueled by the blushing reactions of an innocent.
After about fifteen minutes, they were either bored or mindful of the clock and lost revenue. They abruptly waved goodbye as I rushed to Massachusetts Avenue, following the long, picturesque route to the hotel, listening to “Band on the Run”. I might’ve gone several miles over the limit but the stereo’s volume was most assuredly too or three notches higher than was needed for full aural appreciation.
When I got to the hotel, I took my mother that pink carton and went downstairs for a relaxing beer. (The drinking age for beer was eighteen at the time.) No sooner did the waitress return than an older woman, perhaps in her late twenties, approached me, inquiring if I wanted company. Terrified yet again, I mumbled a bit and just went back to my room … where I knew I would be safe from the unknown.
As I nestled in bed trying to read, I mentally replayed that long, stressful day more than often. It was a day of many firsts, rites of passage, and stepping stones. But as I turned off the light to try to get some sleep, I realized my hangover at least had dissipated, and with neither fanfare nor notice.
For many years after that July night, whenever I traveled anywhere with my mother, I first always asked her if she packed all necessary provisions and precautions. I never had to purchase tampons again. Over the next 36 years, however, I went on to endure many heinous hangovers I have thus compiled a cache of tales of Washington’s proper, but sordid, underbelly.
(Image: “In the Pavillion of the Red Clown”, Robert Williams, 2001.)