A mental block at midnight

Allan Fotheringham June 6 1988

A mental block at midnight

Allan Fotheringham June 6 1988

A mental block at midnight


Allan Fotheringham

It is a nice street. The perfect street. Only one short block long, bothered only by the lowering jets headed

for the airport. Leafy trees, full of squirrels, tower above the three-storey row houses. The houses are so narrow you could swing a cat, if you could find a large enough cat, and hit both walls. A professional basketball player, with his wingspan, could reach both of the rickety picket fences in the tiny back gardens. This is Georgetown, the whimsical enclave in Washington that

was here before Washington, a slice out of London only 10 blocks square that sits on the Potomac just down from the Kennedy Centre, just along from the Watergate complex, astride the old canal that once brought produce all the way from the Ohio Valley and was going to make Georgetown—alas, the railway was invented—the major port on the Atlantic coast.

This being a government town, no one on the perfect street talks to one another. Perhaps a brief nod as briefcases brush on the way to serious work pushing papers.

Government is serious business. Too serious to get to know one’s neighbors. No one in large cities knows one’s neighbors. Nor wants to. That’s why they live in large cities. It’s a simple arrangement. There are, however, troublemakers. Some ladies who talk to each other (and actually leave their screen doors unlatched on warm evenings) conspired to import that dreaded device popular in suburbs. The Block Party. Induced conviviality among people who basically don’t like each another. (In Georgetown, the suburbs are referred to as “the slurbs”: suburbs=slums.)

So it was done. Each spring, on a sunny Sunday, the perfect street is blocked off. Parked cars are persuaded to vamoose in search of other impossible-to-find parking spots in the narrow streets that remind you of Dickens’s London. Balloons are produced. Flags are hung. The shy, reticent residents of the perfect street reveal, on this one

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News. Sunday in spring, that they actually have some individuality. A Union Jack sprouts from one doorstep. A French flag, as if in defiance, emerges across the street. The Saskatchewan flag is posted on a front stoop, causing some consternation since it seems to feature a marijuana plant.

Tables are placed in the streets. The ladies bring flowers. Food appears. Children frolic. Everybody brings their own grog. As this year’s notice said: “Come to the Block Party famous since 1985.” Participants are asked to bring five bucks to

cover balloons and incidentals.

Block Party 1988 dawns beatifically. The sun streams through the leaves and the squirrels. The excited children frolic on their skateboards five hours early. By 4 p.m., official start time, the men having been sated by their Sunday afternoon TV sports fix, the neighbors who never speak during the year wander shyly out, dressed in carefully constructed casual garb (as in the slurbs).

The pâté is creamy. The salsa could use a tad more bite. The chocolate squares are to die. The ladies who wear sunglasses on top of their heads (Jackie Kennedy lives) are here. The men who wish they were Ralph Lauren have the collars on their pink T-shirts turned up. There is one ominous note. The hired band seems strangely muted for an outdoor event. Oh, it seems there were complaints last year about the noise. This year: no drums. They are playing, for heaven’s sake, Glenn Miller. There is a faint touch of mingling. People from the adjoining lane are allowed, as sort of deputy Block People. A few curious strollers, puzzled by Tuxedo Junction, wander through. This is such an organized Block Party that there is even a large black cop on a white motorcycle. “Here for the riot?” I inquire. “Yeah,” he says, sucking on an ice cream.

They are drawing tickets for the lottery. A handsome blond Danish lady with an English accent who conducts affairs says she has a short announcement to make. This is a mistake. One

Among those not attacking the pâté or deciding if that chap over

a should never make announcements at Block Parties. One should have bands with drums that don’t play Glenn Miller when the gang wants to boogie. There is some $350 left over in the incidentals, it seems, and instead of giving it all to the blind, as planned, she suggests half of it be given to a new centre for mentally disturbed teenagers. Could we have a show of hands?

there in the funny shorts

is actually my neighbor, there is a desultory showing of hands. Right, says

blond lady. Decided. No, says a lady who should never again go out in public without a bra, it’s not decided. She didn’t like the count. Right, says a fellow beside her, I think this is unfair.

One smites one’s salsa-stained brow in despair. At a Block Party we have a lawyers’ dispute? Indeed. On it rages. The muted band sits mute. Of course. The answer is clear. In a government town, on a government street, full of lawyers and diplomats and paperpushers, tiny issues are the most important. People making $90,000 arguing about $350. It is like little league and minor league hockey. The reason why the infighting is so vicious is because the stakes are so small.

By 7:30 the affair that once went to midnight is vitiated, the numbed neighbors once again slinking off to their lairs. The band is playing Take the “A ” Train. The earnest dogooders have killed what was shaping to be a world-famous five-year institution.