Miss Scarlet and Miss Brown
One of the things I’ve really loved about visiting Washington DC is the ability to walk so many places—something that I seldom get the chance to do in the sprawling suburbs ouside of Los Angeles. I’ve been to DC three times and each trip seems to build on the previous one in terms of the scope of things I have been able to see and do. The first trip, I spent most of my time on the Mall, but I got sick, so even that was somewhat of an abbreviated version of what it could have been. The second trip, I ventured away from the Mall (as well as conquering a fear squarely in the middle of it) into areas like Capital Hill, Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle, which only made me want to come back and see more. This time, I really wanted to experience as much of the diversity of DC as I could, which meant walking as much as possible.
After spending some time photographing the area around Union Station (I’ve had an interest in trains since I was a boy), I decided to make my way across the city to Ben’s Chili Bowl, an iconic DC eatery that has been serving up their signature half-smokes smothered with chili to both residents and tourists alike for decades. The distance from Union Station is only a couple miles so, of course, I decided to walk. My route would take me up North Capitol Street NW, past the NPR building, then on to Florida Avenue, which I learned is home to a number of terrifically diverse neighborhoods, including LeDroit, which is where I met Wayne—but that’s another story. About halfway to Ben’s, I passed two older black ladies, sitting on a bench chatting outside a restaurant. Each wore lovely dresses, one a deep red and the other a rich paisley and herringbone print (I’ll refer to them as Miss Scarlet and Miss Brown, respectively). “Well, hello ladies,” I said as I approached. “Hello to you,” Miss Scarlet replied. “Are you enjoying your day?” I asked. “Oh, yes thank you,” she said with a smile as Miss Brown nodded. “And you?” she asked politely. “Absolutely,” I responded. “I’m just out exploring your wonderful city.” Smiles all around. “Have a great day,” I offered, as I turned to continue on my walk. “You too,” they replied, almost in unison.
About a mile or so later, I arrived at Ben’s and was met with a line of people that extended out the door and into the adjoining alley. From the way they were dressed, it looked to be a church group out for a post-worship lunch. As much as I wanted to try one of the famed chili dogs, I was burning daylight and decided to keep walking and shooting. One thing I was pleasantly surprised at is what a great city DC is for street art (especially along the tracks of the Red Line) and often I found myself wandering onto side streets and down alleys between buildings, only to be rewarded with one terrific mural after another. After about an hour and a half of wandering, I decided to start making my way back to the Rhode Island Avenue metro station via the Metropolitan Branch Trail where I had seen quite a few murals on the ride into Union Station.
As I made my way from U Street back down Florida Avenue, who did I see sitting on a bench outside a restaurant, but Miss Scarlet and Miss Brown, who I had passed more than two hours earlier. They both smiled as they saw me approach. “You’re still here,” I said, grinning back at them. “Well of course,” Miss Scarlet replied. “It’s such a beautiful day, why not?” “Are you enjoying your day?” Miss Brown asked. “Very much,” I replied. “I really do love this city.” Miss Brown smiled. “Are you both from DC?” I asked. “She is,” Miss Scarlet said, gesturing towards Miss Brown, who nodded in agreement. “I’m from West Virginia.” “Really?” I asked. “What brought you to DC?” I realized the sun was behind me, so I knelt down in front of them so they wouldn’t have to squint. “Well, my grandfather worked in the coal mines. Actually, daddy worked there too, but that was later. They worked in the mines until they dried up, then we moved to Ohio and they worked in the steel mills.” “I’ve heard that coal mines are dangerous places to work,” I said. “Oh, yes,” Miss Scarlet continued. “Daddy lost a thumb and my grandfather lost a finger. Or was it the other way?” She paused for a moment. “In the mines?” I asked. “Mmm hmm,” she replied. “And then the mine stopped producing and we went to live with my aunt in Ohio.” For the next ten minutes or so, Miss Scarlet and I talked about her life in Ohio, including her siblings and the death of her grandfather, which seemed to have a profound effect on her. I asked her when she came to live in DC. “I came here with my husband,” she said, “and I’ve lived here ever since. My husband passed but I still live here.” “I’ve always lived here,” said Miss Brown, who had up to this point been sitting in silence, content to watch people walking up and down Florida Avenue. “You’ve lived here your whole life? I asked?” She nodded, smiling. “Not in the same house, of course, but yes.” “Do you live here in the city?” Miss Scarlet asked. I told her that I lived in California, but that I was considering moving to DC. “Oh, I hear it’s nice there, ” she said. “Parts of it,” I replied. “But it’s different now than when I was a kid.” She asked if I had always lived there. “Mostly,” I said. “When I was little, I spent summers in Arizona with my dad.” “Oh? Is he still there, your father?” she asked. “No,” I replied. “He passed a little over a year ago.” “Well, bless your heart,” she sad. “Mmm hmm,” Miss Brown added. I reached for my camera bag and stood up. “Well ladies, I’m going to let you continue enjoying your day.” They each smiled warmly. “Thank you so much for your time today. Would you mind if I took your photograph?” I asked. “I don’t want my picture made, but she does,” Miss Scarlet said, motioning to Miss Brown. “She loves pictures.” “Is that right?” I asked. “You wouldn’t mind if I took your picture?” “Oh, no,” she said, smiling. “I love pictures.”
I took two frames of Miss Brown, thanked them both again for their time and continued on my way towards the Rhode Island Avenue metro station. As I walked away, I thought about the conversation—the brief connection that had just taken place—and smiled to myself. Everyone has a fascinating or even compelling story to tell and I realize that I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface.