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After the Fire: Why Frager’s Matters

June 12th, 2013

Last Wednesday after dinner, I got a text from my niece.

“Fragers burned down… everyone’s okay,” it said.

A fire at Frager’s? The hardware store on Pennsylvania Avenue SE? The retailer of your Mayberry-fueled fantasies, where you don’t even have to bring cash if you have a house account? The one where the staff trips over themselves to help you – okay, help *me* – with home projects involving PVC pipe and the right-sized gasket and those little light bulbs that run really hot but are the only size that fits under my kitchen cabinets? THAT ONE?

That one.

Only this Mayberry is not TV fiction. It is to be found in the “village” of Capitol Hill, in the District of Columbia, the city lots of folks love to hate for its homicide rate (which has plummeted, by the by) or for the crack-fueled shenanigans of a certain former mayor, or simply because it’s the seat of the federal government, whose elected officials in recent years have elevated grandstanding to a whole new level of yuck, backdropped by an inability to get much of anything done legislation-wise via the kind of compromise my six-year-old and his friends are mastering.

Congress, it seems, could take a lesson from the good people of Frager’s, who could help you solve all manner of problems within minutes.

For more than 90 years, Frager’s has been a locus of community life and retail on the Hill, offering something for everybody: advice for the new condo owner in search of the right light fixture, air-conditioning filters for the contractor who underestimated how many that old rowhouse on 11th Street NE would take, an eight-ball keychain one of the neighborhood nannies thought might quiet her young charge. There’s a paint store, a garden store, a place to rent popcorn machines and folding tables, and the main store where everything else is.

The fire took out all of it. Okay, some rentable ladders and much of the garden plants survived, but the vast majority of the store’s innards went up in smoke. Some $4 million in inventory up in flames – that was the figure I heard bandied about as I stood outside in the rain on June 6, staring at the building with dozens of other Hill residents and Frager’s fans. The north-facing brick wall still stood, but the window glass was blown out and the roof was gone and the grey light of the drizzly afternoon filtered down into the store’s top floor rooms, where the humidifier filters used to be. The polar bear-shaped ice crusher for making snow cones, which I rented this time last year for a party at my son’s school, stood in one of the windows of the rental area, one paw up as if signaling for help, a beatific grin frozen on its plastic face.

The main thing, of course, is that other than a couple of fire fighters who were treated on the scene the night of June 5, no one was hurt in the fire. The Frager’s owners were insured and have vowed to rebuild. And in a neat twist, the city made it possible for Frager’s to set up a pop-up shop on the concrete pad where the temporary Eastern Market was once housed after its own devastating fire, in 2007.

But I keep thinking: it was a store, a place of commerce. Why did everyone I know refer to the fire as a tragedy, a giant loss for the neighborhood, a very sad day for Capitol Hill and for all of Washington?

Perhaps because Frager’s eased our lives a little bit each time we went in there.

By virtue of the right bulb, better light to cook by. An extension cord with which to power up a tiny lawnmower to tame that postage stamp of an urban backyard. A third birthday party that was a little more fun for the rented popcorn maker in the corner. A bit of advice on how best to stake the tomato plant from the gardening expert out back. An unexpected encounter with a friend also there to pick up basic supplies, and plans to meet another day for lunch.

There aren’t too many places like Frager’s left in the world, where the sense of community is palpable, where spending dollars in local independent stores offers tangible benefits in the form of convenience AND good customer service. Shopping there made you feel like you were part of a long continuum of retail, of camaraderie, of respect for tradition.

Maybe it’s just part of life in a city rich in history like Washington is, but when we walk through the aisles of Frager’s, trying to whittle down that to-do list, we’re walking where the ones who came before did – the ones who lived in the old homes and walked the even older streets and took children kids to the parks in the years and decades and even centuries before we did.

At Frager’s we meet, and we share greetings and gossip and information, and we take our place in the long line of those who made our community the resilient place it is today, a place where a neighborhood store’s loss can make folks unhesitatingly give money equivalent to what they spent last Saturday before the fire at the store, and offer temporary jobs to displaced workers, and design benefit T-shirts to sell for the recovery effort, and stand in the rain, not really able to explain why they felt compelled to come gape at a charred storefront, but happy to help pull the place back from the brink so those to come in the next 93 years can also witness the fabric of community stretching tight and strong.

The Next Big Thing!

March 8th, 2013

A year or so ago, I met writer Susan Blumberg-Kason on Twitter. Hey, hey – no scoffing! People can and do meet really interesting, simpatico folks on the big T.

I forget exactly how our connection came about, but we realized we had a bunch of stuff in common, from places we had lived (Chicago, the Bay Area, D.C.), to sons named Jake, to the fact that we both have a memoir on submission right now through our respective agents.

If it’s possible to hit it off over social media, Susan and I did – and happily, in a couple of weeks we are going to meet in person when she comes to Washington on a business trip!

Susan invited me to take part in The Next Big Thing, a “blog chain” in which writers interview themselves about a new project they’re working on. 
After my answers to the set questions, I’ll tell you about another author I tagged to keep the chain going.

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

It’s ADOPTSHOCK: One Mother’s Journey through Post-Adoption Depression.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Well, I lived it. My husband Ari and I adopted our son Jake from South Korea when he was almost nine months old (he will be 6 in June). About a month after we got home, I suffered a bout of depression.

I think this happened for several reasons. One, the gap between my rose-colored fantasies about what life with new baby would be like versus the on-the-ground reality of caring for a child 24/7 was enormous. It was much harder than I had thought it would be, for a raft of reasons. Two, our son had a bunch of health problems right off the bat, some mundane, some much scarier, and Ari and I were new and clueless parents with no sense of perspective as to what really constituted a serious problem and what would pass within a couple of hours. Everything felt like a fire drill, and nobody in this house was getting adequate sleep in those early months. Incidentally, there are lots of connections between sleep – or lack thereof – and depression. Here’s some more information about that.

Three, and more existentially, I began to wonder if I was up to the job of parenting this wonderful baby – who had no say in being adopted by us, who had a birth mother and a foster mother back in Korea who loved him, who will deal with racism as he grows in a way I as a Caucasian woman have not had to face. All of these things added up, overwhelmed me, and triggered my first-ever depressive episode.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a memoir.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

My stars, that is a really cool question. I guess I’d like Laura Linney to play me and Liev Schrieber to be Ari. I’m not choosing these guys because I think we look like them, by the way, though Ari does bear a passing resemblance to Liev. It’s more because they are both such smart, nuanced actors.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Adoptive mom overcomes stunningly unexpected depression and lurches into motherhood of smart, handsome, funny little boy.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s represented by Sorche Fairbank of Fairbank Literary Representation.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

That’s a work in progress. I have about 100-plus solid edited pages to date that Sorche and I have been polishing over the last year.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Well, I loved No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, by Melissa Fay Greene. She experienced post-adoption depression after bringing home her son born in Bulgaria. I also found Brooke Shields’ memoir of postpartum depression, Down Came the Rain, to be a very supportive and validating book.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Like I said, this is my story of how an event I expected to be more or less uniformly positive – bringing home our long-awaited son – was much, much more complex than I originally realized. My roles as a writer, mother, woman, wife, friend – some well established, some brand new – were tested and reshaped across the board, in ways I never anticipated. Learning to be a mom did not come easily to me. My expectations were unrealistically high, but the long wait to adopt – which is only getting longer, as countries like South Korea seek to promote domestic adoption, and other factors come into play – gave me lots of time to spin some crazy fantasies about what motherhood would be like. (Scary Mommy, like Susan a fun Tweeter to follow, has a book coming out about this very thing.)

What’s more, learning to look at adoption in a more nuanced way is a process that continues to this day. As our son grows and wants to know more about his origins, it will be up to me and his dad to support him in any way we can.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

This is not going to be a depressing book about depression. It’s going to contain humor and poignancy and love. It’s going to help people understand more about international adoption and about the inherent losses and gains in any adoption. It’s going to try to take a whack at the stigma that continues to surround depression, an illness that afflicts a huge number of people around the globe and one that is readily treatable, but also one that often goes undiagnosed.

Now, here’s my first “taggee,” if that’s a word: Chuck McCutcheon, a political reporter and writer who lives a few doors down from me on Capitol Hill. Chuck’s also making a name for himself writing about stuff as scary as politics, if not moreso: climate change and nuclear waste. Here’s his set of Next Big Thing answers!

Here is another writer I’m thrilled to know (we share an agent): Jessica Handler (here is her Twitter). Here’re her Next Big Thing answers, and lastly, here is a link to her forthcoming book, about coping with grief and loss by writing about it.

More authors and writers to come soon…

Begin the Vegan

February 27th, 2012

I’m not planning to go vegan wholesale, folks. But I did make this soup yesterday that had me rethinking some of my assumptions about what a dish made with no animal products looks/tastes like.

It is called Vegan Split Pea Soup I. (Hmm, maybe there’s a II and a III I ought to explore as well.) And it is outstanding.

First, the bad news: there is an insane amount of peeling and chopping involved. Three potatoes, eight small cloves or garlic, three carrots, one huge onion, three celery stalks, a handful of parsley (which in the end I even omitted, mostly because I let my parsley sit out on the cutting board for three hours until it was pale and flaccid, while I did other things like go to a neighbor’s party and play hide-and-seek with Small Man.)

Also, the recipe (from the venerable AllRecipes site) calls for a substantial chunk of simmer time: more than two hours, to help break down two cups of dried split peas into something less like a fourth-grader’s carefully curated pebble collection, more like velvet. You gotta plan accordingly. Unlike me; I kept turning it off to go out and turning it on again when I returned. Don’t do this. Not with this soup.

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Yes, we have no tongue

May 11th, 2011

My son’s class (and two others from his school) took a field trip today to the Florida Avenue Market, a no-frills purveyor of produce, meat, battered catfish filets, men’s tube socks and jumbo boxes of Rice Krispies, among many other things. The kids in his school’s early-childhood program have been learning about how seeds grow into vegetables, where milk comes from, stuff like that.

Which is why the cow tongue probably blew their young minds.

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Substitute teaching

April 20th, 2011

Most of the time, I still refer to the directions on the package of frozen corn to check how much water to add, then pour it into a measuring cup before I add it to the pot.

It’s so very lame, I know. An instinctive cook I am not.

But lately, I’ve been getting a little more freewheeling about swapping this ingredient out, the other one in. Or about eyeballing the water or the chopped cilantro or the grated nutmeg called for in the recipe.

Tonight, I really tore it up. By my standards, anyway.

Several weeks ago, I clipped a stovetop macaroni and cheese recipe out of a Woman’s Day that was part of a stash my pal Stacey recycled my way. Through the addition of hot sauce, ground ginger, garlic powder, creme fraiche and broccoli florets, the recipe made an old standby quite a bit more compelling. It was no stretch, I predicted, that Small and Tall would both dig it. And heaven knows I cannot walk away from any starch entwined with or layered over or smothered beneath melted cheese, be it Velveeta or Gruyere or Monocacy Ash.

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