Sunday, March 11, 2018

Urban Women of 2017

Somebody needed a change of scenery.

Today's road trip to D.C. was as much about catching up with Lady G as it was seeing two exhibits and venturing to the waterfront for lunch. We hung our visit on history and art, but the underpinnings were nothing more than an an epic conversation.

Driving up under a break-your-heart-it's-so-blue sky, she shared with me her first visit to Dumbarton Oaks as a teenager on a bike, recalling an unfortunate incident where a homeless man knocked her off her bike and tried to grab her. It was startling how much detail she remembered about that experience (trying to retrieve a fallen shoe?) for how long ago it was. Trauma never forgets.

Like we seem lucky enough to always do, we slid into a parking space on Constitution Avenue around the time most of the local worker bees were thinking about their second cup of coffee. Our destination was an exhibit by the Smithsonian National Museum of Black History (and, no, I still haven't been in there yet), but one housed at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

"City of Hope: Resurrection City and the 1968 Poor People's Campaign" brought together photographs and film documenting the six-week protest against economic injustice that was MLK's final legacy and the burning issue a month after he was killed.

And while I have vague memories of seeing newspaper photos of people living on the mall during that time, the exhibit provided a clearer understanding of how many poor people of all colors and races rallied together to make their cause known.

So much about the carefully planned and executed protest seemed quaint and downright impossible to conceive of today. I can't imagine for a second that the government would allow 3,000 people to set up a protest camp for six weeks on the national mall now. In 1968, the government had a team of architects work out how best to set up the simple wooden tents and sidewalks to make optimal use of the space and terrain.

For that matter, they had cultural programming in Resurrection City, a reminder of what a kinder, gentler time it was, not to mention a time when the importance of arts in life was better understood.

Photographer Robert Houston had been there and his pictures captured daily life in a newly created zip code. My favorite, by far, was "Woman Between Tents: Resurrection City," a gorgeous, warmly-colored composition that could have been a woman pausing between chores in Africa or the Caribbean. It had a painterly quality with the summer light giving a warmth to the many wooden tent walls around her as she sits barefoot in a chair.

Lady G and I left the museum better off for having seen the photos and films, but disappointed in the surface-skimming signage which provided so little in-depth information that we felt deprived of the bigger story.

Our only fear is that this is the new museum normal - shallow exhibits with minimal information - and we're woefully out of step in wanting to know more. Since neither of us had visited the American History Museum in over a decade, we vowed to return for a full look, albeit with concerns that the entire museum experience has been reduced to sound bite-sized signage.

Excuse me, Smithsonian, but we're here to learn.

Leaving there hungry for more knowledge, we allowed my friend's phone to direct us to Dumbarton Oaks, only to be flabbergasted when it took us south over the 14th Street bridge and back over the Key Bridge to land at the Dumbarton Museum.

In our sights (the gardens are currently closed) was a new exhibit, "Women in Art 1850-1910"," a show of fashionably dressed urban women of the late 19th century, as depicted by impressionists.

For a small exhibit, there were some major names - Renoir, Gauguin, Degas, Seurat - but the big revelation was Alfred Stevens, a Belgian painter who worked in France. Each of the never publicly displayed works of his we saw showed a clear homage to a better known artist (Whistler, Manet, Morrisot) as he executed a Whitman's sampler of then-current artist favorites, with occasional nods to Flemish and Dutch painting of the 1700s.

Since it was our first visit to the museum, we wandered down hallways and into a large circular glass gallery overlooking the gardens. It was as close as we were going to come to its beauty today.

By then it was mid-afternoon. so we once again crossed town, although not via two bridges, this time to head to Southwest and the hot new dining neighborhood, the waterfront. While I'd read about all the development going on along Maine Avenue and the old marina, I hadn't been down there in over 10 years when it was still looking tired and forgotten.

For that matter, if you want to go way back, in the '70s we'd come down to Southwest to go dancing at the gay clubs, back when the only other businesses were those enormous seafood restaurants like Hogate's. You can imagine the delight Lady G and I felt when we spotted a sidewalk marker acknowledging Hogate's rum buns, because no one who ever ate there didn't carb-load on those buns.

Can't say I'm impressed with the fake town center look of Wharf Street (and what the hell is up with piped-in music along the river?), but Del Mar de Fabio Trabocchi offered Spanish decor and eats plus a view of bobbing boats on the blue river while we relaxed into a late lunch.

Besides being enormous and high-ceilinged, Del Mar made it clear it had been fashioned by a Spanish decorator, with a fish sculpture clearly inspired by Picasso, deep blue Majorcan tiles fronting a wall and glass walls looking over the waterfront.

From my vantage point, I had a view of masts snapping in the brisk January breeze a few feet from the river, while both G and I admired the staff jackets of blue and white seersucker with inset floral panels. Our server said they took some getting used to, but now he appreciates the stylish look as well as lightweight fabric for non-stop movement.

Beginning with Ramon Canals Cava Reserva Rose (an easy-drinking Temperanillo blend that would make outstanding porch sipping), we kept lunch to four courses and of course G thought her choices were better while I like to think mine were.

Let's see, inexplicably fresh-tasting chopped tomatoes (how is that possible?), garlic and olive oil atop crispy Catalan bread was followed by a bowl of vibrantly-colored charcoal-grilled beets with sheep's milk cheese and black garlic dressing, earthy and deeply flavorful.

When our server came over to check on our bliss level, we inquired about the upstairs and he offered to arrange a tour after lunch so we could see the views as well as the private dining rooms and terraces.

Because we were in a Spanish seafood restaurant and although it was too chilly for the patio, nothing but grilled branzino would do for my main course, especially with that Cava Rose. I only wish I could have teleported to some sunny Spanish coastal city while I ate it. Sure, G's Chorizo and pork belly with white bean stew was to die for in terms of today's chilly DC climes, but, oh, that fish.

For dessert I had the creamiest of vanilla flans, with a blood orange sauce and tiny little basil meringues for crunch. We took our time finishing up, but the moment we threw in the towel, our server appeared eager to hand us off to our upstairs guide. His last piece of advice was to be sure to use the bathroom up there so we could properly ogle it.

Can do, sir, I make a habit of ladies' rooms.

From Picasso prints forming a frieze in one private dining room to another with a wall housing hundreds of bottles of wine, everything about upstairs involved a stellar view of the marina and water. A patio looked like it was just waiting for the party to start.

In fact, the hostess told us that they're in the process of trying to figure out how to manage the very different crowds who will want to hang out on the upstairs patio (likely casual dressers) versus the downstairs main dining room (at these prices, people are bound to dress better). Good luck with that.

Besides, that's their problem and on a blue-sky day in my hometown with a favorite girlfriend, we still had over two hours in the car as the sun set to continue dissecting my lack of blogging, her come-to-jesus discussions with her man and why we handle saying goodbye so poorly.

Was it enough? Never! Do I feel better after all that history, art and Spanish food? Without a doubt.

Girl talk, it's what's for lunch.

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