Time Travel, Washington, D.C.


On a sunny, humid day in Washington, D.C., there is a block with a short-stack mishmash of old buildings and new ones, and none of the gleaming white grecian-style marble of the rest of the city. Here, there is a building with a Chinese restaurant on the first floor called Wok and Roll. There is no striving for the ideal polis in this part of the city, the bright sandblasted surfaces that you see near Capitol Hill, so bright that you need sunglasses.

We’re on our way to what A_____ tells us a hipster coffee shop, because no one in our party operates properly without coffee. There is a gate, carved in ornate angles, that tells us this is Chinatown.

Wok and Roll occupies the first floor of what used to be the Surratt Boarding House, the “conspirator house” where John Wilkes Booth planned the abduction and murder of Abraham Lincoln. The boarding house’s proprietress became the first woman put to death in United States History. A plaque on the side of the building tells us this, and it’s a small plaque.

We squint at the top floors, realizing that it’s the same structure, but that the building has been modified at some point. (Wikipedia says 1925.) The door moved. The ground floor became commercial space. But the roof line is the same, the windows on the top floors. It is the same shell that housed history, even ugly history, a shell shed and picked up again by another generation, bent to its purposes. It feels right to stop, to snap photos by ourselves on an empty sidewalk of a shuttered Chinese restaurant.

We find our hipster coffee shop a few blocks beyond it on the opposite side of the street, all exposed brick and bold sans-serif fonts, in another buidling that was something else and has turned into something else. I get an iced latte and granola, grateful for the air conditioning, for modernity above and inside ancient and less-ancient things.


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