Cornstalks in Georgetown

I DON'T know Washington well. The other day, however, I found myself by a quirk of the schedule in the nation's capital over a holiday Monday, with nothing to do but await the next day's appointments. A vacationing friend had loaned me his house in Georgetown -- pressed it upon me, in fact. So I set up shop at his upstairs desk, beside a window opening onto brick sidewalks and narrow row houses in the warm September air. I was beavering away at the work I had brought with me when a door, opening across the street, caught my eye. Out of it came a blonde and attractive woman dressed in T-shirt, jogging shorts, and running shoes. With her, on two leads, were two tiny dogs. I found myself imagining the sort of life she led in the heady world of Washington's bureaucracy -- bright, competent, articulate, but with a soft spot in her heart for the two dogs and with the sort of house that included (as I could see through a win dow) a graciously frilly lampshade.

Having her dogs firmly in command, she disappeared up the street. Some moments later another door opened. A young man -- tall, slender, also in running gear, tossing a set of keys carelessly in his hand -- strolled over to a compact foreign car at the curb, flicked a few specks of dust from the hood, and climbed in. A run before breakfast, swimming twice a week over the lunch hour, squash on Thursday nights whenever the demands of his endlessly exacting and wholly absorbing work MD NMlife allowed it -- again, before I could stop it, the mind printed out the parameters of his life. As he drove away, I berated my runaway imagination and turned back to the desk.

But by lunchtime it had gotten almost funny. If I had seen my young friend once, I had seen him a dozen times. Sometimes he was shorter. Sometimes he had curly hair, or a mustache, or a dark tan. But always he had the same trim build and intelligent face. Moreover, he was almost always with her -- although she wasn't always blonde and had lost the dogs somewhere. Sometimes they passed with tennis racquets, sometimes with backpacks. Once they came home in a taxi with two sets of golf clubs. And a t one point they even climbed into a small station wagon with a toddler and a babe-in-arms -- relaxed, patient, looking every inch the model of all that America holds dear. As the afternoon and the city began to fill again after the holiday, they flocked past by the score -- lean, poised, self-confident, wearing their finely tempered educations as easily as their rugby shirts and Reeboks, the well-appointed movers and shakers of the world's most power-conscious city.

There are times when, hungering for meaning, the mind roams the landscape in search of a sign, a symbol, something around which the images of the day can coalesce -- times, even, when it must sally forth physically in its hunt. Which, toward sundown, is just what I did. Surely, I told myself as I walked, there is more variety to this neighborhood than my window had revealed. I did find some black children playing basketball in the park -- although my friends were now playing tennis on the court besid e them. I found some green paint peeling from a doorway tentacled with vines -- next to a freshly painted door bearing a brass nameplate, through which my friends issued. I found a boy I took to be Iranian pumping gas -- into my friends' Audi. They were, it seems, everywhere.

So I hurried on toward the grander, less crowded streets -- where, presumably, more mature generations lived among what W. B. Yeats described in a poem as ``monuments of unaging intellect.'' As I walked, I suddenly remembered the brooding opening lines of that poem: ``That is no country for old men.''

Old? Was that my problem? Was it that I was approaching (as my younger daughter jests when I smile patronizingly at her rock music) ``old fogeydom''? The mind rebelled: I felt no different from the people I'd been seeing on the streets. Old, indeed!

So peeved was I with the notion, in fact, that I hardly saw the symbol until I nearly walked into it. But as I came upon a sun-rinsed corner among well-mannered brick and stucco houses, there it stood: a giant clutch of cornstalks, towering above a NO PARKING sign and bearing full ears and fluffy tassels. The stalks grew out of a small square of earth cut into the sidewalk at the curb and meant, originally, for a tree. They grew boldly, irreverently, with a hilarious vitality and an almost truculent c hallenge to the passer-by. ``You think this city is all of a piece?'' they fairly shouted. ``You think city is city and farm is elsewhere and never the twain shall meet? You think Midwestern culture can never find a foothold in this bastion of Eastern-establishment thinking? Well, look again, buddy: Just watch us grow!''

I had to admit they were bursting with health. More than that, they were unique -- and, to judge from the tiny wire fence around their base, intentionally so. They neither passed judgment on their surroundings nor bowed to peer pressure. They simply grew.

And, in their way, changed my life. That evening, sitting at a street-level window table at a nearby restaurant, I couldn't help thinking about them. And about the passers-by. Old, young, rich, poor, the handsome and the plain, the ice-cream-eating families and the sellers of imported bracelets -- all jostled past, stared in the window, then trooped away. Inside, a white-haired couple sat near me, next to two black college students. Everywhere I looked, in fact, the world was awash with variety.

Old? I suppose I had been -- if by old is meant an unwillingness to shake off the tyranny of narrow-minded criticism and listen hard to the incalculable babble of individuality. Old? Yes, if from my study window I had imposed my order on the world instead of searching out its own design. Old? To be sure, if I had fallen victim to the inertia of thought that accepts the stereotype instead of hunting down the differences.

So I vowed, walking home, never to grow old. Old, after all, has nothing to do with age. It's a bad habit of the mind, well worth breaking. Ponce de Le'on, looking for the fountain of youth, found only gold. I was more fortunate: I found cornstalks in Georgetown.

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