Jack Ass Ginger

Poi Dog Pondering – Jack Ass Ginger*

#WhereILivedWednesday – Mt. Pleasant, Washington, D.C.

This is part of a series about places where you’ve lived, started by Ann Imig of Ann’s Rants. I highly recommend checking out her site for more people’s stories.

For two years in the early 90s I lived in what was commonly called a group house in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C. My three housemates were like me, young women with jobs that didn’t pay all that well but that looked great on your résumé. D.C. was full of young people and it was an exciting time to be there, the end of the Reagan/Bush era and the start of the Clinton years.

Our house was a row house with four bedrooms and only one full bathroom upstairs, then a kitchen, dining room, living room, and a tiny little half bath on the first floor. A back deck no one ever used, just like the front porch, and a basement where the laundry machines were. The neighborhood was pretty mixed, some group houses, some old timers, some new young families, some of the houses had been fixed up, others were sagging a bit around the edges. Mt. Pleasant backs up to the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park on the western edge, Columbia Heights to the east, Adams Morgan is to its south, and sort of nothing to the north. Back then, the Green line of the Metro stopped at 14th and U St. and that wasn’t a neighborhood where you really wanted to spend much time (my how things have changed), so we generally walked across the park and caught the Red line from Cleveland Park.

Mt. Pleasant didn’t really have many stores that sold stuff you actually needed. There was a 7-11, where I would go for my Ben & Jerry’s fix during that period of time when I had my pint-a-day habit. It was summer and we didn’t really have air conditioning. It was too hot to cook anything and invariably I’d suggest to one of my housemates that we hit up the 7-11 for something cold. I admit, I was addicted to Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream. You know how when you dig in, there are these chunks of cookie dough, and then when you get down near the bottom, you think, well, I’ll just get that little chunk there. But when you move that one out of the way, a new little chunk would be revealed and eventually there wasn’t really enough to bother putting it back in the freezer so you might as well just polish it off. That was my dinner for a good three weeks straight. It worked out all right though since I rode my bike to work down at the Smithsonian and in that heat I easily burned off all the calories.

Mt. Pleasant wasn’t a great neighborhood but it felt moderately safe, especially when you consider D.C. had the reputation at the time of being the murder capital of the country. It had been the scene of the Cinco de Mayo riots in 1991 (and the anniversary mini-riots in 1992) and we jokingly called it Mt. Unpleasant. It was certainly better than Columbia Heights but if you were sensible you could get off the bus on 16th street and walk home without trouble.

That all changed though on the night of St. Patrick’s Day in 1993. Three of us were home, I was up, the other two were already asleep, and our fourth housemate, who had a car, had double parked to unload stuff and then went back out to try and find a parking spot. Shortly after she left I heard a loud bang and a car screeching off. I looked out the window but couldn’t really see anything. I told myself that screeching car must have backfired. But she didn’t come back, and it shouldn’t take that long to park the car. Then I saw flashing police and ambulance lights. I was too scared to move. One of my other housemates woke up to use the bathroom so I ran up and told her what was going on and convinced her to walk down the street with me to see what was happening.

A small crowd had gathered down the street where police had blocked off an area with crime scene tape. The ambulance had already left and after determining no one had seen anything, the cops tried to get people to leave. The crime scene tape was encircling her car and the sidewalk leading up to a neighbor’s house. Feeling like I was about to faint, I stepped forward and told one of the officers that it was my housemate’s car.

She had been shot in the head by an insane person with a shotgun, driving around our neighborhood looking for people walking alone. As we later learned, there had been previous victims but as they were men of color and those incidents had happened closer to the eastern edge of the neighborhood, they didn’t see any connection. They wanted to know if she did drugs or had an abusive boyfriend. No and no.

She lost an eye but otherwise pulled through amazingly well. Her father came down from NY and we moved my bed down to the dining room of the house where he lived for the next six weeks. I borrowed a foam fold out sofa from a friend and had that in my room. It seemed like the least I could do. Her mother had died only a year or so beforehand and her brother also lived in the area so their dad wanted (and needed) to be there.

A week after our housemate was shot, a white woman was killed by the same shooter about a block away while she was out walking her dog. Only then did they piece it all together and a curfew was imposed on our neighborhood. You had to be inside your house by dark. Things were bleak. I spent a lot of time holed up in my room listening to music. I was outraged about the cops just dismissing the first shootings as symptomatic of the area. I was worried about my housemate, and I hated being cooped up in the house. Headphones on. “Breathe deep, fill up with relief…”

I forget now how long this all lasted. It felt endless while we were living through it. Sometime in the spring she sent her dad back home and told us she wanted to move across town to be nearer to her friends and her brother. The rest of us didn’t really want to be there anymore either, even though the shooter had been caught. While I have fond memories of my years in D.C. and of all the things I did and people I knew, I can’t say I miss that house.

*This video is from a live show in 2006 but this song comes from their 1992 album and I saw them a lot back then and this song kicks ass live.

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21 comments

  1. I can’t even imagine living through something like that. Do you keep in touch with any of your old housemates?

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    1. One of my housemates and I shared an apartment on the other side of the zoo after we all left the group house and I am still in touch with her. We all went off in different directions, like so many young people in DC, so I lost track of the others.

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  2. So scary! I like how the story depicts the sensibilities of a young woman telling herself she’s safe if she is “sensible” and then, how the senseless act shatters the illusion. This is one story but that theme is universal.

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  3. I’m with Julie, I was thinking about the first time I ever had B&J’s cookie dough ice cream, and was totally unprepared for what happened next (which is awful, but powerful writing nonetheless).

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    1. We were unprepared too, and I guess that feeling of being blindsided came through in the retelling.

      I actually had to quit the B&J’s cold turkey. It was baaad. Even now, I rarely buy ice cream and almost never Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. It holds a dangerous power over me.

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  4. Oh my gosh, that is freaking terrifying! I felt like, oh, I love this story, with the background view into your life, then WHAM! Really powerful.

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  5. What a terrible experience. When you reached the beginning of the Clinton administration, I thought the story was about all the fun you had those years. Talk about a dramatic twist!

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    1. I did have a lot of fun, just not during those couple of months. It was a little stressful after we moved out too because living in a better neighborhood meant higher rents and less cash on hand. Still, overall, my time in DC is something I think of warmly.

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  6. Ellen, this is so intense! What a story. I can’t believe she lived through a shotgun blast, either.
    Well written – I am looking forward to reading more of your work! I also lived in B&J cookie dough ice cream in my rowing years – and btw, I was a starboard rower, not a cox. : )

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    1. Thanks, Kristin. I have Nancy to thank for introducing me to all of you!

      I can see how all that rowing would counteract the ice cream’s calories. 😉 And I guess I had the impression it was you in a house with a whole men’s eight, not one guy in a house with a women’s eight.

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    1. That’s a good flavor too. They used to make a flavor called Kahlua Amaretto that was A-mAzing.

      It is incredible that she not only survived but also maintained her sense of humor.

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  7. Wow. What a frightening and compelling story. I’m glad that you enjoyed your years in D.C. but it is hard, I’m sure, for anything but this incident to stand out.
    Well written story, Ellen. I’m glad I got to read it.

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    1. Thanks, Shannon. I hadn’t thought about it before but now I realize I’ve compartmentalized those years into work, concerts and social life, city scenes, and then home. The home category is dominated by this but the others live on in my memory relatively unblemished by it.

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