FOR A YEAR AND A HALF now, my husband and I have lived in a tall, tomato-red house near the southern end of Washington's Embassy Row. Built in 1898, the house had the exact combination of personality and sturdiness we had been looking for. Just as important, it came with an array of age-related quirks that scared away all other potential buyers. This allowed us to avoid the bloody bidding wars so common in D.C. these days--in which competing buyers start out offering a few thousand dollars above a house's asking price and wind up loudly impugning one another's parentage as commission-minded real-estate agents whip everyone into a frenzy of one-upmanship designed to drive the closing price higher than the GNP of a small African nation.
EVEN SO, AS WITH ANY FIXER-UPPER, we had to ask ourselves certain hard questions before committing. For instance, were we prepared to die one night in a ball of flame if something went wrong with the house's gargantuan, turn-of-the-century furnace? Converted from coal to oil back when Strom Thurmond was a jitterbugging young buck, the hulking, "modernized" unit--swathed in a thick, gray coat of asbestos--looked like something Norman Bates would have used to dispose of unruly hotel guests. Our insurance appraiser took one look at the toxic monstrosity and demanded that we install new smoke detectors ASAP. The precaution proved unnecessary: One month after we moved in, during a pre-Christmas cold snap, the furnace died, forcing us to cancel a trip to Hawaii, don every piece of clothing we owned, and huddle together under a mound of blankets for a week until a shiny, new gas unit could be installed.
SINCE THEN, WE'VE GROWN ACCUSTOMED to our house's uncanny knack for suffering leaks, breaks, and minor explosions within 48 hours of a scheduled holiday. With a passel of family in town last Thanksgiving, the oven expired at the precise moment every repair shop in the nation closed for the long weekend. Then, as we were packing for Italy last summer, lightning struck the roof, frying most of our appliances and blasting a hole in our newly repaired chimney. It's gotten so we're afraid to discuss holidays at home anymore, just in case the house is listening.
GOING IN, MY HUSBAND AND I understood that our house, because of its age, would require our endless attention. What we didn't expect was all the attention it has elicited from strangers. Because of its location, rarely a day passes without plump-shanked tourists from Kansas or New Jersey pausing on our walkway to snap photos and debate why we don't have a big flag out front like the other embassies on the street. If my husband or I happen to be outside, young mothers will grab their children, point, and shriek brightly, "Look! People!"--as though we were an exotic bit of local fauna. Activists protesting the wickedness of neighboring embassies plop down to rest on our steps. And once every couple of months, some old man with a funny hat and a crumpled map comes toddling up to our door, just to see what he can see.
FAR FROM ANNOYED, I AM CHARMED by such incursions. I view them as symptomatic of the way visitors see Washington in general: This is their nation's capital; they feel perfectly free to explore their monuments, their streets, and their buildings at will. (Except at the Capitol itself, where these days they'll hog-tie and strip-search anyone who even looks like he wants to stick a toe into a restricted zone.) Sure, I'd be happier if these merry explorers would stop chucking their empty Starbucks cups and Fudgsicle sticks into my hedges, but why nitpick? Despite the cheap anti-Washington blather spewed by politicians over the years, thousands of people each season feel moved to come here to celebrate, protest, mourn--or just see what they can see. By a coincidence of geography, my husband and I get to share a sliver of these people's "Washington experience." Unperturbed at having stumbled onto private property, they linger to chat with us about the weather, the neighborhood, or what it's like to have strangers traipsing through our flower beds at all hours. And in the wake of September 11, most folks who wander our way seem a bit happier, a bit prouder to be here.
OF COURSE, THE QUASI-PUBLIC nature of our residence also attracts reminders of the less glorious side of Washington. Returning from a dinner party late one Friday, I stood on the dark porch waiting for my husband to unlock the door. As he fumbled with the keys, I noticed a strip of something white next to my left foot. Squinting, I realized that the strip was, in fact, part of a shoe-- connected to a large, dark lump of a man curled against the wall of the porch. Silent and motionless, the guy was either asleep, dead, or waiting patiently until the door opened so he could slit our throats and empty the house of its contents.
NOW, I WAS RAISED IN A FINE Southern family where the general rule is that if a stranger sets foot on your property at night uninvited, you shoot first, ask questions later. Twenty years ago my parents thought they heard a burglar in the kitchen; my father has yet to forgive my mother for reaching into the bedside table and, in her panic, arming him with a hairbrush instead of his revolver. (Appalled by D.C.'s ban on handguns, Dad is forever offering to buy me a nice deer rifle or 12-gauge, over-under Winchester for my birthday.) In Washington, however, the shoot-first approach is more problematic.
YES, THE CRIME RATE IS HIGH, AND some days the news makes it seem like every boy over the age of eight has his own assault rifle. To make matters worse, if one were to meet with foul play, there's a solid chance that the bumbling, beleaguered D.C. police wouldn't have a clue what happened to you until a year later when some guy and his dog stumbled across your remains in a heavily wooded area of Rock Creek Park. That said, there are an awful lot of harmless homeless folk who wander District streets looking for a safe place to sleep. Some curl up on benches near churches; others hide behind hedges outside embassies that they assume to be vacant at night. As I pushed my husband through the door, I was hoping our porch lurker had simply mistaken the house for some diplomatic building where he could crash undetected for a few hours. We briefly debated what to do. My husband wanted to wake the guy and ask him to leave. I voted to let him sleep--largely to avoid reopening the door. The discussion quickly became pointless: Roused by our arrival, however, the man crept off as soon as the coast was clear. Still, I went to bed thinking maybe all those friends who had fled for the relative safety and privacy of the 'burbs had the right idea after all.
BUT THE NEXT MORNING, THE tourists were back with their cameras and their kids and their chitchat about the neighborhood. And any thought of leaving our exhaustingly quirky, absurdly colored home--and the odd public-private bubble it occupies--again seemed completely out of the question. At least until our 30-year-old air conditioner gives out right before our beach vacation this August.
This article originally ran in the June 24, 2002, issue of the magazine.