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Fireworks or Gunshots?

Nearly every city dweller has at some point wondered which is which; one day I got it wrong

I loved my old house in Washington, D.C. My housemates and I shared one of the city’s innumerable old brick rowhouses; ours sat at the intersection of Q St. and North Capitol, on the boundary between the Bloomingdale and Eckington neighborhoods. (This was the D.C. version of living at the edge of Williamsburg and Bushwick a few years back: We always told people we lived in Bloomingdale, although we didn’t, quite.)

My bedroom ceiling was lined with cracks that widened when it rained, and the recessed lights in the living room had a tendency to send down streams of water if anyone used the upstairs sink. Squirrels and rats staged regular battles for dominance in the attic — loudly. But the house boasted a roof deck (of somewhat dubious structural integrity, and accessed via a rickety spiral staircase in my bedroom) and a real wet bar in the living room — which none of us ever used, except as a storage space for cat food, but we liked knowing it was there.

We loved our neighborhood, too. We were walking distance from all the cool stuff in Bloomingdale, like the postage stamp of a local farmers’ market and the dark little bar where the bartender, Tony, routinely applied the service industry discount to our tabs. But we were far enough from the restaurants, the Metro station and the fancy grocery store that our rent was doable on idealistic-young-person salaries — and therein lay the rub.

Our intersection marked the rough southeastern vanguard of D.C.’s rapid, uneasy gentrification, which had raced eastward through Logan Circle, Shaw and Bloomingdale before stopping short at North Capitol. Immediately to our south was Truxton Circle, and a stretch of blocks with a long and ongoing history of violence.

I wore earplugs every night to muffle the sirens of the ambulances and police cars that raced up and down North Capitol till dawn. When I went out running on long, light afternoons, police officers would sometimes stop me to warn that the streets weren’t safe for pedestrians, and they weren’t kidding: Several friends and neighbors had been mugged at gunpoint. “Fireworks or gunshots?” was a common game in our home; sticky summer evenings tended to occasion both.

Within our own walls we could make a macabre joke of it, but coming home after dark was another matter. My default assumption, as I biked east down Q Street, was that any loud booms I heard were most likely to be fireworks — especially in the weeks bookending Independence Day, an especially popular holiday in the nation’s capital. Children and teenagers would set off firecrackers along the sidewalks nearly every evening in June and well into July, while alarmingly spectacular fireworks would light up the sky without warning.

One muggy June twilight, I guessed wrong: Approaching the housing project that sat a block or two west of our intersection, I realized only when I heard screams and saw people sprinting away in terror that the sound I’d taken for fireworks was in fact that of gunshots, which were coming from the window of a car not 25 feet ahead of me. Turning back was no longer a viable option, so I kept pedaling: past the now-fleeing car, the terrified pedestrians, the freshly broken glass littering the street.

I arrived home completely safe but shaken. My blithe naivete could have gotten me killed, and I could no longer find even a scrap of humor in my inability to tell the difference.

These days I live in West L.A., just outside Culver City, in an apartment where all the appliances work right and the power never inexplicably cuts out for days at a time. The ceiling probably wouldn’t even leak if it ever rained, though there’s no way to be sure of that. My old housemates all live in different cities — none of us stayed in D.C. — and the 24/7 hum of the Santa Monica Freeway half a block from my bedroom is only occasionally punctuated by sirens. I’ve never heard gunshots on my way home from work; biking back late doesn’t give me even a moment’s unease.

As the June nights get hotter, though, I hear fireworks in my neighborhood more and more often. Sometimes they’re far in the distance; sometimes close enough to rattle the walls. But to me, at least, they never sound like gunshots at all.