Changing Environs (sp?)

At least I think that's the word I want. I'm talking about the immediate area around the Sojourners office; specifically, down on the corner, out in the street, where Willy and the Poor Boys have been replaced by a Starbucks, a Kinko's, and a Bed Bath & Beyond. That's right, in what was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., we'll soon have a Bed Bath & Beyond (which I think is the next Star Trek movie, the one where the Starship Enterprise stops to pick up seasonal patio accessories).

Apparently, in an effort to protect us from terrorist attack, Homeland Security is surrounding us with a protective wall of chain stores, including Best Buy, Staples, and Target. The premise being that in a general state of emergency you should immediately seek shelter, order a latté, and buy a flat-screen television.

Our corner used to be a wonderful hodge-podge of diverse cultures and ethnicities. It had color and vibrancy, and offered experiences vital to a robust urban environment, such as getting robbed at gunpoint. These days, your only risk is being accosted by Cinnabon employees offering samples in front of their new store. ("Absolutely not," I reply indignantly, "I RESENT the way you people are trying to turn our neighborhood into a shopping mall!)

("... Okay, maybe just a taste.")

Where once there was the sound of children's laughter, now there is silence, mainly because the children's mouths are full of cinnamon rolls ("with extra nuts, please").

Where once there were only vacant lots, an old shoe store, and an abandoned theater, now there are high-end condominiums (condominae?)—"starting in the low $600,000s!"—big box megastores, chain restaurants, three banks, and trendy coffee bars that I'm not hip enough to patronize. Fortunately, a couple of liquor stores have survived, but I hear they've been taken over by the Smithsonian Institution. (It's part of their History of Malt Liquor and Pork Rinds exhibit.)

WITH SO MUCH development, the question is: When did our neighborhood become a suburb of Minneapolis? And if I suddenly feel the need for new sheets, do I really need three stores to choose from, all in the same block?

Darn right I do. And make sure they've got a high thread count for a sublimely comfortable night's sleep. And when my aging clock radio finally wears out—and I fail to wake up to National Public Radio reporting that, given the state of the world, I probably should just stay in bed—I won't have to drive to the suburbs to get a new one.

And I can't really complain about the new restaurants. Our neighborhood used to have just one option for lunch, and it helped if you liked pork rinds. Today there are lots of choices, including a Ruby Tuesday in our own building that pipes the smell of french fries directly into the ventilation system of my office. By the end of the day I'm delirious, mumbling incoherently about the nutritional advantages of salt and grease; I once had to be forcibly restrained from pouring ketchup on my keyboard.

GETTING TO THESE new stores is the hard part, given another phenomenon that came with our new building: a fog of cigarette smoke hovering around our front door. A small group of smokers is in evidence most days, having been forced there by the latest in environmental technology: a large cartoon boot that apparently swings down from the ceiling and kicks them to the sidewalk whenever they get the urge to light up.

Mind you, these are not Sojourners staff members. No, they work at one of the secular hedonist offices upstairs, which means they completely miss the theological aspects of modern life. It also means they're more fun to talk to.

In fact, I've often envied the camaraderie between these smokers as they stand outside conversing amiably about sports, politics, and the fact that their habit is taking years off their life, which will end in horrible, prolonged pain and add billions to the cost of our nation's health care. You know, normal conversation.

I'd spend more time with them if I could just think of another socially unacceptable behavior, like maybe peeing on the wall behind them. I wouldn't be able to make those cool gestures that smokers use to punctuate their vigorous conversations. But when their break was over and they threw down their butts in a manly way, I could just as forcefully zip up and add my own "Well, back to the salt mines."

I figure that way I could be part of the edgy crowd of social misfits, traveling our own road and spitting in the eye of uptight civil society, but without the health risks. Which means my doctor won't one day look at my X-rays and gravely ask, "Sir, how long have you been peeing on walls? You know, if only you'd stopped when you were younger. ... Pity."

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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