This week Embry and I attended what I would call an old fashioned, Cleveland Park dinner party. Cleveland Park is the Washington neighborhood we lived in for over 40 years before moving to the apartment house we live in now only a couple of blocks away.
This was only the third time in the last three years of Covid quarantine that we have been invited out to someone’s house or apartment for dinner. It reminded me of the dinner parties of old when we were young and just beginning to make our way in Washington. The hostess, a former neighbor in Cleveland Park, who now lives in a stunning apartment in a fabulous, iconic apartment house not far from our old neighborhood, prepared a splendid feast and invited one couple who are our close friends and another couple we had never met. Conversation was lively and interesting, and it turned out the guests we did not know were classmates of Embry’s brother at Yale Law School in the late 1960s. Due to Covid, old age, and the vagaries of life, these types of evenings rarely happen anymore. I could not help thinking back 40 plus years when they used to occur once or twice a month, and, alas, how much I loved them then, and still miss them now.
In 1972 Embry and I moved to Washington from Chapel Hill where we had both been graduate students. Our son, Andrew, was about two at the time and Jessica was not born yet. We packed our old Toyota station wagon to the brim. Minette, our beloved cat, a combination Siamese and Russian Blue, sat in the backseat next to Andrew. This was a time when a young couple with two entry level jobs could afford to live in a close-in, DC neighborhood. We bought a single family, fixer-upper next to the Cleveland Park Public Library and within a mile of the National Cathedral, even closer to the National Zoo, and not far from several highly regarded schools. It was then and remains now an ideal urban neighborhood with large, single-family homes under towering shade trees, stately apartment buildings, and only a short walk to the Metro and neighborhood shopping and restaurants. The only difference is that today, a young couple with entry level jobs can’t afford to live there. We paid $40,000 for our house in 1972, a rounding error of what it would be worth today. We lived in that house for over 40 years and never regretted it for a moment.
But as attractive as the neighborhood was then and continues to be, what I remember most are the neighbors and friends we had while living there. We moved in before the neighborhood had the cachet it has now and at a time when a lot of people our age were moving in. The time was magical: All these 30-somethings moving to Washington—many ending up in our neighborhood. They were from all over the country, mostly Type-As, some with degrees from elite colleges and universities, and most with graduate or professional degrees. And most of us had the same goal—to make a difference, to leave a mark, to be in the fray, and to be where the action is. Making money and social status may have been a factor for some but never mentioned. Almost everyone we knew was a Democrat, liberal, smart, energetic, and focused on careers. Most were couples with young children. Women were just as educated, focused and ambitious as men. They had their law or advanced degree, and they landed the same types of career-track jobs as their husbands. Of course, there were exceptions though few were stay-at-home moms or housewives, and the women that did not have career-track jobs were usually neighborhood activists and community leaders.
It was fabulous! How often do you get a chance to live in a neighborhood where so many people are interesting and smart, have similar values, and are on a pathway to try to leave a mark? Naturally, there were a whole lot of lawyers, some with degrees from famous law schools and many involved in the political arena, but there were also a whole lot of others just as interesting and just as smart—architects, engineers, artists, teachers, college professors, policy wonks, civil servants, journalists, writers, activists, legislative aids, nonprofit workers, and researchers. There were few businessmen or women (except for realtors) and only a couple of doctors. Of course, there were older people who had been living in Cleveland Park for some time who did have traditional business jobs and careers but few of those types were moving in at the time we arrived or became part of our social network. I did not know anyone who belonged to a country club or had any desire to join one. I knew only a handful of Republicans.
However, Cleveland Park was not entirely the Never-never land I am suggesting. Every neighborhood has its kooks and eccentrics, and Cleveland Park had its share. I am especially sad to confess that almost all our friends were white, many from privileged backgrounds, and that still applies to the neighborhood today. Lingering de facto segregation continues and remains a thorn in our national flesh. There is some truth, I suppose, in the complaints by Trump supporters and others that we “progressives” in Washington are a bunch of coastal elites born with silver spoons in our mouths and insensitive to “ordinary people.” Despite these criticisms, Embry and I loved the people and the place. I make no apologies.
And this is where the dinner parties come in. That is how you met some of these interesting and engaging people, who might live up the street or around the block. We would get a call from a friend to come over for a casual dinner on a Saturday where a few other friends of the host would also be gathered. Eight to ten people would be a typical number. We would know about half the guests and make new friends with the guests we did not already know. The who-do-you-know exchanges would often happen in the early hours, and almost always there were mutual friends identified regardless of where people grew up or attended college. The mood and ambience were casual and the food delicious—sometimes potluck– with lots of talk about great issues and great challenges and interesting things that happened this week on Capitol Hill or at City Hall or that think tank or that government agency. Empty bottles of wine started to pile up early. Sitting around the table the conversation was both chit chat and group dialogue. What came home to me almost every time was how interesting and smart these people were and how engaged with the world. The parties would go on until after 10 or even later before people started to head home—sometimes staggering.
Then it would be our turn. I guess that Embry and I hosted these dinner party gatherings of friends (many, but not all just with Cleveland Park neighbors) at least quarterly and sometimes more often. And like other hosts we tried to mix it up with about half the guests not already friends but who we thought would be compatible, and we were almost always right. This is how social networks grow and how people expand friendships. It was hard work pulling off a dinner party but always fun and always worth it. I loved it. Embry is less enthusiastic, remembering how much work was involved in hosting but also looks back on that time of youthful energy with fondness.
I can’t remember the time the dinner parties started to peter out but think it was in the late 1980s or early 1990s when everyone’s kids were then mostly in college, when work was most demanding since most of us were about as far along in our careers as we were going to get, had lots of responsibilities, and, frankly, no longer had the energy to pull off a dinner party. The ones that did happen were fewer and smaller, and eating out with friends at a restaurant became the preferred option.
Of course, life changes over time. Most of us living in Cleveland Park in the 1970s and 1980s are now in our 80s or close to it. Some of our friends have moved out of the neighborhood. Some marriages have failed. Some have died. Some now live in long term care or retirement communities. But over the long haul many friendships have continued.
In those early, heady days of the 70s and 80s when there was so much youthful drive, energy, determination, and optimism, how many of us over the years were able to live out our ambitions and to achieve our goals? Did any of us live up to our potential, make a dent, or make the world a better place, even if ever so slightly?
I think we who moved into Cleveland Park in the 1970s are less sanguine now about how to answer those questions. The world is surely in worse shape now than it was in those days, and this has happened on our watch. You know the litany: climate change, continuing race and class divisions, greater disparity in incomes between the ultra rich and everyone else, Trumpism, and the threats to our democracy. The Russia-Ukraine War continues with no end in sight, and Putin is threatening a nuclear “solution.” China has now become an enemy. There are probably more dictators in the world now than there were then, in those early days. So perhaps the more apt question is not whether we achieved our dreams but whether we ran the race as best as we could. I suspect many of us would answer yes to that question.