Twelve years ago, I visited Washington, D.C. for the first time. It was part of a school-sponsored trip to better understand our nation’s government and history. I said that I was Republican because everyone else said they were (the only time I have ever identified with a political party). I traced the name of a fallen Vietnam solider. I took a photo in front of the White House. And tears filled my eyes while walking through the Holocaust Museum.
Yet, the memory that has always stuck with me occurred in a pizza parlor. It was on a street that I likely could not find now and felt underground because of the down slope inside the restaurant. Our table, a mix of juniors and seniors, ordered a few large pies that were delivered to us in tiers. It was a small place so the coalition of South Dakota high school students filled it to the brim. We lingered well after our bellies were full and I wondered what it would be like to eat that pizza every day. To just show up, order a slice and continue on with an urban life. I would live in a city some day. I thought. I must.
The second time I came to D.C. was five days when I moved here.
Since as long as I can remember, I’ve yearned to live in a city, to feel the swell of busy life overtake and comfort me. I’ve been to many, domestic and international, but never long enough to make it my own. My initial ambitions were New York City. It had everything and I wanted everything, yet everything requires great courage. There was always a reason not to go – money is the greatest deterrent of any dream – and I accepted them as reality. I set my bar lower and lower, believing that was what I deserved, and my goals morphed. Idaho was a dream chase to something bigger that didn’t pan out. The Post was supposed to be the whole package. Niger and Lesotho were proof I could do anything.
I made few plans as my Peace Corps service ended, but I knew that my next phase needed to be set against the big city lights. It was one of the things I had wanted for so long and, as I am getting older, I knew that it was now or never. That was always my goal for beyond Peace Corps and there were no compromises to be made.
The city, though, that changed. In Niger, I was very set on New York. It was the place that always grabbed my heart the tightest, for whatever reason. DC came next because of energy and passion. I want to make a difference in the world and DC, at the time, seemed like a good place to start. Then, my desires drifted to the West Coast for the first time. San Francisco, Seattle, Portland. My hippie, earthy nature could thrive in these places and, although I have never actually been to Seattle or Portland, friends and natives reassured me I would fit in. Yet, as my home return date approached, Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis shone a bit brighter because they are closer to South Dakota and I needed family.
I applied for jobs in all of those cities – San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Chicago – but there were significantly more non-profit job opportunities in New York and DC. There was a position in New York, but the city and the job didn’t feel right from the beginning. Then there was DC, the position I have now, and one in Seattle. The Northwest was my goal, or so I told myself, and Seattle had more selling points than DC, but in the end it didn’t feel right. One very emotional night, I made a split decision to withdraw my application from the Seattle position and invest fully in D.C. My mom was a bit shocked and was a bit worried that it was an impulse I would regret the next morning. I did not. In fact, for the first time, excitement for my new job and my new city overcame me. It was happening.
The past two mornings, the first at my new job, I’ve walked to the Metro station, boarded a few trains, hustled up escalators, bustled through the commuting masses, stared up at the buildings jutting into the sky. It’s fast. It’s noisy. It’s what I’ve always wanted.
For some, the drain of the city adds unnecessary stress. For some, it’s too much and not anything they would ever embrace. For me, it’s what I’ve always wanted.
It’s true that I am a country kid (I didn’t grow up on a farm, but Pierre, S.D., is a far cry from metropolitan) and here I’ve come to make it in the big city. I am so not used to this world: I wonder about the guy who jumped the tracks rather than being irritated that I will get home later or my eyes widen each time I get the bill.
Still, there is pulse to the city and I get to be at the center. For whatever reasons, ones I may never fully understand, D.C. was meant to be my city. I love seeing the nation’s capitol every morning when I get off at Union Station. I love scanning the faces of everyone I pass and wondering their story. I love that so much is happening outside my door, and I can decide to be in that world or my own.
My life, especially in the last seven years, has been about crossing off things. This city living is a big one, and I am just pleased that I enjoy it so much. The city, this city, is where I am meant to be right now and I plan to soak up all of it.