During a recent visit with my landlord, I was informed for perhaps the twentieth time, that the building which I live in has character. I believe he used the word to mean personality, claiming that what one person may perceive as a flaw would be a charming feature to someone else. I find, being the person who lives in this humble abode, that I have to disagree with him. It is not that the house is lacking in fine points, it has many. It is, rather, that this house has many quirks of an undesirable nature. Without delving into a laundry list of complaints let me list one and then move on. The building was orginally a house and many years later it was divided into three apartments. When this was done the heat for the house was not divided separate zones for the apartments and now all three share the same thermostat. If it is character that your forgetful downstairs neighbor either freezes you or bakes you (depending of course on the time of year) whenever she leaves on vacation, then yes, this residence has plenty.

It strikes me that this notion of character truly applies to the city I live in and how, I think, people come to deal with its many oddities. Washington DC is out nation’s capital and has many wonderful places to visit. It is also a wonderful place to live, but again, there are certain quirks which exist that make life less than perfect. This is to be expected but so often these quirks seem to the the product of poor planning and the ability to admit mistakes and rectify them. A good example of this are the sidewalks. In Georgetown a good number of sidewalks carry on following the road, as sidewalks so often do, only to stop abruptly and leave the pedestrian to wonder if they made a wrong turn somewhere. After several years of exploration I can safely say that the fault does not lie with the pedestrian, and even more oddly, if they summon up the courage to continue on without the sidewalk, in most cases they will be reunited only a few blocks later.

Both houses and cities having character has to do with the same thing: coming to terms with a problem. The trick, I imagine, is finding someway to balance out the bad with all the good and walking away from the matter in a cheerful state of mind.

What spurns me on to further thought and discussion (much to my own dismay) is when those in shouting distance seem unaware that such situations existed. When I say to my landlord “The windows don’t open properly because you painted them shut.” I expect his response to address the point I just made. When I say to my neighbor “Any idea why the sidewalk ends in front of those three houses and then begins again?” I expect them to have noticed this situation prior to the conversation and to have some thoughts on the matter. Strangely enough the landlord often makes a reply that does not address the paint and the window and the neighbor often looks at me as though I just spotted a distant and unknown planet with my naked eye.

I can recognize that not only does my landlord not live in my apartment, but he looks after his own best interests and that usually means not spending money. My neighbor may never walk anywhere and therefore find the concepts of sidewalks a quaint one, like horses and buggies as a viable form of transportation. The simple fact of the matter is we are all paying attention to our own matters because they have some direct effect upon us. When something outside our sphere is highlighted, when the person next to you in the grocery store exclaims, “This bottle of vitamins is three times the cost of those and they are the same vitamins!” it’s not that this should stop you in your tracks and cause you to compose a letter to the manufacturer.  I would think, though, that it would tug at just the corner of your mind and make you ponder, if only for a moment, why such a thing would be. I can think of nothing healthier than a small amount of curiosity for this world around us especially when we find ourselves living in such close proximity.

Author: John Ryan Sullivan

I am a writer and filmmaker.

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