Posted: 11 April 2005 in DC

Every once in awhile, you catch a secret glimpse of the city you live in. Something it reveals at just the right minute, like a whisper between old friends. When I lived in San Francisco, it was easy. I hunted for secrets and reveled in sharing some hidden bits and keeping others to myself. Even now, when I send friends to that city and tell them all about the best time to catch the fog, the best walks to take, the bus line with the best views of all the city sites, the perfect hills, the dreamiest vantage of the bridges, ocean and bay, I don’t tell them the real secrets, the unpredictable signatures that the lucky stumble across.

I’ve had similar experiences in every place I’ve lived. In one place, it was the hidden spring above seven spilling pools surrounded by sun soaked rocks. In another, it was the sounds of a market setting up at 2am on a cobbled street. Sometimes, it’s mundane – a way to see the sun rise over a dozen mirrored skyscrapers. Other times, it’s striking and sudden – heavy lavender on the air in the African bush. Tonight at midnight, DC smelled dank and river-like, the Potomac releasing wave after wave of tidal scent mixing with the delicate plant smell of millions of cherry blossoms and the sweat of spring dirt. I’ve never smelled the city quite this way before, despite living here for years; at different times; driving, walking, biking in every season, at all hours. It wasn’t unpleasant, though it was heavily earthy. I’ve smelled dozens of memorable common DC scents, bread baking in the predawn, beer spilled after a parade in the sun, clouds of people and smoke and liquor spilling from bars, baking cement, slick sidewalks. This smell came from 18th century wells, from canals, from prostitutes crossing puddles.

It’s been months since DC has shared a truly good secret. I don’t mind sharing it with you.


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