Happy New Year to all my wonderful readers and the few haters who are probably reading these lines and will later wash this sin away by repenting through invective diatribe in the comments sections. But more importantly how was everyone’s new years? Mine was great and I spent it partaking in what has become an annual ritual of spending NYE in Washington DC with my 60 year old friend Eva. A former privileged yet ambitious trust-fund baby to an erudite Radcliffe student, a 70s hippie in San Francisco then a Studio 54 fixture in New York City. Later an ascetic waitress in Amsterdam and then eventually a successful DC attorney. Now, she fulfills her days as an eccentric landlady of a quaint row-house in Dupont Circle. Always attired in flamboyant caftans and piebald headscarves; Eva has developed an intimate relationship over the years with both her tenants as well as weekend guests such as myself. All endearingly referred to as her ‘munchkins’. Also every year on new year’s day, she throws an amusing dinner party for her self-appointed family of munchkins. Her ‘logical versus biological family’ as she likes to quote from a book. An eclectic mix of strangers who have slowly become my family as well. It all started one evening when whimsical Padash decided to take a chance on crashing an entire weekend on a rather peculiar 60-year-old woman’s couch.
I first heard about couchsurfing at my friend’s cocktail party. As we all gathered around to sip our Martinis and nibble on cleverly crafted ceviches in a modish loft in Hells Kitchen; I found myself engrossed in a conversation with a backpacker couple from France. Not only the most underdressed attendants at the party (refreshing in this uber, self-consciously magniloquent crowd of Manhattan) but also amazingly the only happy and content pair of Parisians I have ever met. As they carefully detailed their plans to backpack through America and then make their way on to Latin America, I assumed they had met my friend at a study-abroad program in college. Until they informed me that they had only met her a few hours ago.
‘Oh, we are just couchsurfing with her?’
‘Couchsurfing?’ I looked up at them intrigued. They in turn ironed the visibly axiomatic conundrum on my face by describing a popular concept among nomadic travelers: couch surfing. Thanks to dot com, now also a burgeoning online community. When I got home later that night, I immediately signed up with an account but really didn’t think much of it. I have to admit that even with all my impulsive escapades, the concept seemed a little unbelievable if not risky even for me….the most dissolute of all infidels.
Now a little about New Years. It’s interesting how many of us develop our own traditions on new years eve. I remember lying in bed as a kid barely trying to stay awake past midnight while the cacophonous revelry from my neighbor’s parties wafted and beckoned me through the walls. I always thought that the newly married Yuppie couple next door were the coolest people I had ever met with their exciting and alacritous lives that I both envied and admired. Around midnight, when I would hear the raucous drunks chant the countdown, I too would repeat the numbers on my lips lying still in the pitch dark room; 3-2-1…Happy New Year!!! Once I reached the ebullient years of my teens I was finally attending NYE parties with friends. The only night when we were ever allowed to extend our curfew beyond midnight because well…how do you really celebrate new years without midnight? A fairly strong case, so even the parents acceded to this logic and sanctioned us the liberty to stay out for an extra hour. But the nights soon began to follow a rudimentary routine; same people, same songs and in many instances the same living room cum discothèques. College offered a little bit more thrills with exciting NYE memories in Times Square, Vegas, Karachi but the year after graduation I found myself living in New York and desperately wanting to do something unusual. If nothing else, I wanted to get as far away as possible from not just the over-hyped ball-drop but also the City entirely. With a flooding influx of tourists from the Midwest in ‘I Heart NY’ T-shirts, I wanted nothing more than to get away from Times Square, Manhattan…even the Burroughs and New Jersey altogether. It was also the time when a nascent phenomenon called Express Chinatown buses appeared on the horizon with a promise to transport absconders between DC to NY. Merely an esoteric secret among frequent and thrifty travelers in its early days but several New Yorkers and Washingtonians were already availing the cheap fare for economical and spontaneous getaways to neighboring metropolitans. So almost every weekend with just 25 bucks, one could trade fashion snobbery for political snobbery, showbiz for bureaucracy, subways for Metro, Broadway for Capitol Hill, Empire State for Washington Monument, Grand Central for Union, credit cards for government IDs and cocktail napkins for sophisticated business cards. Needless to say, I too jumped on the Chinatown bandwagon and headed straight for a land where the men came in suits and the women…well they did too! For the first 2 years, it was a perfect setup! A friend was at graduate school at GW and wanted to spend NYE in the Big Apple watching a stupid ball drop. I was more interested in other forms of balls, so we agreed to swap apartments for that weekend. We arrived at each others abodes probably around the same time and retrieved our keys from the hidden spots – under a mat or buried in a potted plant. I personally got the better end of the deal when I stepped inside a capacious grad-housing room which literally overlooked both the Watergate and the Kennedy Center. I even enjoyed my NYE, bar hopping and clubbing with friends from undergrad who had trekked down from their own basement apartments in Virginia and Maryland, while I only had to stumble, a stone throw away after a night of dancing and debauchery.
Now you can all understand my dismay when my friend finally finished her Masters and subsequently moved to Tanzania to save the world or something. Even though, I no longer had the DC hookup I still craved my ritualistic NYE getaway to the Nation’s Capital. I had just started battling with this predicament as 2005 neared its end when I thought about my couchsurfing account. Feeling slightly more intrepid than normal, I sent out a few emails to potential DC hosts and made it very clear that I was coming down only to spend time with other friends and wasn’t really looking for a DC tour-guide or a BFF for that matter. One particular profile that caught my eye was of an extremely aged yet amiable looking woman smiling radiantly at the camera with a mottled scarf tied around her white curls. The caption under her photograph: ‘You want to see the museums? You want to stay home all day? You want to stay out drinking all weekend…by all means…be my guest!” Bingo! Tambola! Sure, the difference in our ages forced me to think twice but the lines that followed read ‘Old in dates but young at heart.’ If nothing else, she promised to be an entertaining person worth meeting. She replied almost immediately the next day and her emails were as laidback as the smile in her pictures.
I arrived in DC a day before New Years overwhelmed with a growing sense of uncertainty. Still, I followed her instructions from the bus stop and took the metro down to Dupont Circle. A quick stroll through the spacious blocks and I soon arrived at an oddly welcoming red-brick townhouse nestled on the edge of its neighborhood. No sooner had I rung the bell when a poised woman with a seraphic face answered the door. A cerulean caftan hung loosely over her cadaverous frame yet was immediately convalesced by the warmth in her smile, ‘Hello munchkin, welcome to DC!’
‘Oh, I’ve been to DC a few times before!’ I disclosed after introductions were exchanged.
‘Oh sweetie, I didn’t mean the acronyms for District of Columbia,’ she jauntily waved her hand in the air as she led me through the house ‘I meant Dupont Circle. You see there is Dupont Circle and then there is the rest of DC. Two totally different worlds my friend and that, I hope you will soon discover.’
Immediately, I knew I loved this batty old woman.
When she finally showed me to my room I graciously thanked my lucky stars. The woman’s eccentricities aside, I was getting a pretty sweet deal for free and I began to love the concept of couchsurfing even more. The couch Eva magnanimously offered was actually a cushiony futon in a small anteroom adjacent to her own bedroom. I even got my very own bathroom. A grateful grin on my face as I plopped down on the futon and stared at the contents in front. Neatly folded sheets besides a spare set of keys left especially for me. Sure, the woman’s level of trust in a complete stranger was commendable if not unrealistic but I figured she had garnered this faith over years of perfecting the role of an adored and revered landlady to aspiring yuppies, hippes, bureaucrats and non-profiteers. The house, quite commodious with a common lounge as well as a communal kitchen, which I was free to use.
‘Darling, I just put the kettle on….don’t know what your plans are this evening but would you care to join me for a cup of tea?’ Words I would learn to cherish for many of the following years. But that evening in 2005 was the first time I heard those words and I acquiesced only out of courtesy because I did not want to come across as a boorish New Yorker. And yes, I was also planning to take her out to a couple of meals as couch surfing etiquette recommended but such cold and token gestures have stereotyped us far too long and I didn’t want to appropriate them for this seemingly winsome and amicable lady.
As we settled in the lounge for a cup of Celestial Earl Gray, I immediately realized that she was by far the hippest 60 year old I had ever met. She too flashed me an appreciative smile every now and then as if to display a reciprocal approbation.
‘So what are your plans later honey?’ She inquired politely as she sipped her tea. One of the few people in the States who still served tea in cups with matching saucers. Reminded me of evenings spent in Islamabad drawing rooms.
‘Oh I’ll probably just catch a quick power nap and then go meet up with some friends.’
‘Sounds like fun. I’m afraid I’m too old to stay awake past midnight.’ she replied. And then later when we finished tea, she got up and declared ‘Well, make yourself at home darling, I should run along and get ready. Josh is meeting me in an hour.’
I guess the inquisitive twinkle in my eye wasn’t entirely as inconspicuous as I had hoped because she immediately followed it with a chuckle, ‘Oh no sweetie, Josh is one of my munchkins. Used to be my tenant many years ago when he was just a scrawny small-town boy from Texas excited for his very first internship at the HRC. Now the boy is all muscle and protein and lives in his love-shack of a studio on 17th street. That’s him right there.’ She pointed at a photograph of herself with a handsome man in a perfectly proportionate torso and a gaunt face. The inscription ‘The Mrs. Madrigal to my Mouse’ scribbled lovingly on the frame.
I smiled, slightly confused at the dedication.
‘Its from the Maupin series. A lot of my tenants think I remind them of a fictional character. I take it as a compliment, I adore Olympia Dukakis.’
‘Alright munchkin, I am off to doll up for nothing. Josh and I go to a bear happy hour every Friday. It really is a barrel of fun and I would ask you to join us but it’s also very tragic in some ways. An evening with a room full of devilishly handsome men with perfectly chiseled and hairy bodies but all pawing each other instead of buying this pretty, single gal a drink.’
‘Trust me,’ I replied with a knowing smile ‘I get my heart broken at least 10 times a day, I live in New York remember.’ I thought of Dario and missed him! I knew he would joke that Eva reminded him of an older, wrinkled version of me in curls and a caftan.
I must confess I thoroughly enjoyed my stay with Eva. I could come and go as I pleased and the times spent together were truly savored as amazing company. New Years Eve was also a blast and not just that year but even the years that followed. I would wake up from my evening nap, have a cup of tea and maybe even watch an old French film with her before heading out to meet my friends in Dupont, Adams Morgan or Georgetown. We would party till sunrise and after the usual munchies stop at the Diner or Bens Chilli Bowl I would amble back to Eva’s house in the frigid cold. Tip-toeing into my room and cuddling up on the futon to sleep till 3pm the next day. Waking sluggishly up to Eva knocking and inquiring if I wanted to join her for some afternoon tea.
I had the privilege of getting to learn a lot about Eva’s life and it not only baffled but impressed me. The photographs she showed me with reminisced fondness added visuals to the stories as we sat and talked for hours; finishing entire kettles of tea only to make some more. I would sit back and hear her tales with awe and wonder. She would often pause to jokingly comment that if death were to come and take her away this minute, she would go sashaying behind because she had already lived a beautiful and prolific life. Born and raised as a young privileged girl in Bethesda, Maryland she was brought up with strict Jewish values. The youngest and only daughter of 3 brothers, she followed a conservative and unassuming demeanor like most girls in her neighborhood. Always dressed in plain tunics, plaits in her hair and with older brothers off at Harvard; she spent a reclusive childhood studying in her room and taking breaks only to treat herself to Russian literature. Always a bit of an ambitious zealot, she decided at a young age that she too was going to follow in her brothers footsteps and attend an Ivy League school. True to her word, she got accepted into Radcliffe in the early 70s and after her parents relented to her pleas, she immediately moved to Boston. The first year of collegiate life were spent in academic bliss but just as quickly the charm of an exclusive education began to fade. The cookie-cutter norm she had surrendered to left her jaded instantaneously. It was around that time she befriended a bunch of college dropouts at Harvard Square and began to spend much of her free time in a ramshackle house down the street from her dorm. The smelly habitat was housed by an emerging breed of youth known as hippies that led a fairly hedonistic life, immersed in sex, drugs and the cause for peace. Though she was initially treated as a misfit by the inhabitants of the house, Eva became determined once again to gain acceptance by members of this subculture. By the end of her sophomore year, she had not only become a devout hippie herself but had also fallen in love with an older male member of the house. A Harvard dropout who spent his afternoons smoking hashish and indulging in perennial harangues about peace and love. He was also intent on moving to San Francisco and so it seemed only natural for Eva to follow her first love to the Bay as well. Unfortunately, her parents stepped in with the stipulation that if she did not wish to be estranged, she had to finish her degree. So Eva complied and stayed back only to fulfill her promise to her parents. However, the day after she graduated, she packed a bag, booked a one-way ticket and migrated immediately to San Francisco.
Her first few years in San Francisco were a fused blur of both bliss and acid. She moved into an artist’s commune with her boyfriend and developed her own little family. That was the first seed that planted the concept of a logical vs biological family for Eva. A few months later, she married her boyfriend in a spontaneous wedding ceremony at a public park. A wedding she describes as an exchange of vows followed by a massive acid and hash fueled orgy. Indubitably, it was no surprise to Eva herself that the marriage barely lasted longer than a good high when her husband forgot all about his passion for peace and instead spiraled deeper into heroin addiction. They divorced at the end of the decade with very little contention or remorse. Ready for another fresh start, Eva decided to move back to the East Coast. A free-spirited girl she had befriended in the commune shared Eva’s sentiments of being too disillusioned by this desultory lifestyle and followed her across the coast in pursuit of change too. The girl possessed her own set of aspirations which included modeling nude for Andy Warhol one day so the only logical option was to pick New York City. The first few weeks, they began to live with kind strangers following the exact same drug infused routine they had tried to flee from in San Fran. And although they never got to set foot inside The Factory, they did however, in their search for Warhol, manage to sneak into Studio 54 on a few nights. ‘A few very lucky and over dressed nights’ Eva recalled as she giggled over nostalgia of running around the nightclub like groupies desperately hoping to rub shoulders with celebrities and Celebutaunts. Still, they never got to meet Warhol, but did instead find their golden meal tickets at the club. Right before getting kicked out for squatting in stranger’s apartments, Eva’s friend scored a modeling contract (an unsuccessful one which led to her getting dropped by the agency) while Eva met and fell in love for the second time with a rich Italian lawyer. A senior partner in a Manhattan law firm who first hired Eva as his assistant, later courted her at fancy restaurants and then eventually proposed and married her.
Her first few years of marital bliss were glamorous and opulent. They lived the high life among NYC’s elite. They traveled around the world and around that time, she even visited her family in Bethesda who sighed with relief to see her married and doing well for herself. A life they had always hoped for her, the opposite of the nomadic life of a commune hippie she had once chosen for herself instead. In order to improve her life further, Eva enrolled into school at Columbia and soon graduated with a law degree. The picture perfect life of a wealthy socialite soon lost its charm also. Once again, Eva found herself beckoned and seduced by the sinful strobe lights of drugs and parties. No sooner had she passed the bar that she divorced her husband and moved in with friends once again. NYC no longer offered her the thrills she once received since the nightlife scene was now saturated with young Club Kids running amok on Special K. In the back of her mind, Eva knew she would eventually end up living a mundane life so as her last treat to herself; she booked another one way ticket. This time to Amsterdam where she lived off her trust-fund for most of the nineties. She worked as a waitress in a café not for income but only to meet interesting strangers. Her life in Amsterdam was mostly boring and uneventful but it was something she had always aspired to do. A few years later, she packed up her dreams and moved back home to Maryland. Before she knew it, she was working a rudimentary job as a Public Defender in Washington DC. Although she worked most of those years she invested in a house in Dupont Circle: the same house I would visit every year. Soon, she began to rent out the rooms to fresh college grads on an aimless path to life, only because they reminded her of herself during her youth. People she felt most comfortable with. Naturally, her tenants soon became her munchkins worthy of nurture and they all became one big, happy family. Even when her tenants moved out of her house, they all remained good friends and new tenants became new additions to this family. And in that diverse mix, I too was embraced as not only a munchkin but a ‘logical’ family member as well.
On New Years day, Eva has a tradition to invite all her munchkins over for a dinner party. Her infamous, ‘Dress As The night Before, Dinner Party’, where everyone is expected…in fact mandated to wear what they woke up in!
The first day of 2006 when I sleepily crawled out of the futon around 3pm in sweat pants and a tank top, I could hear Janis Joplin from Eva’s room drowned out by her louder humming. I washed my face and walked downstairs – sneakily throwing on a sweatshirt – to make a run to the nearby liquor store for a party favor.
‘Why you look so angelic darling’ She greeted me with a wave of her spatula ‘A lot more put together than my other munchkins I’m sure. Feel free to help yourself to some tea.’
I made a quick run for a tray of Baklava and a bottle of Chardonnay and then joined Eva in greeting her friends as they arrived. An astute 30-something female arrived in Power puff pajamas, a blackberry and a bright smile. I learned that she once surfed Eva’s couch and then rented a room at the house throughout law school at Georgetown. Now a successful attorney, she lived in a chic loft but would always return to Eva’s house when she needed to be around ‘family’. She also told me that Eva had cut her a deal during law school: for every ‘A’ she got, Eva would dock a 100 bucks off her rent. Josh arrived with an even chirpier smile dressed in flesh-hugging jeans and a tight muscle shirt with the words ‘Morning Wood’ printed cleverly on the front.
‘That’s what you sleep in?’ I joked ‘You cheated!’
‘No actually he didn’t darling’ the lawyer girl laughed, ‘The boy probably hasn’t gone home since last night. Prove me wrong Josh?’
‘Guilty!’ Josh giggled as he sat down to join the rest of us.
Within minutes, we were devouring a delicious meal of Paella and home-made sangria. Even for a minute it did not feel like any of us were meeting for the first time. I had immediately been welcomed as part of Eva’s family of munchkins. We joked around as if we had known each other for decades. We even raised our glasses in the air to toast for families of friends versus families of blood and then took pictures together.
It has been 5 years since my first New Years dinner at Eva’s in 2006, yet I return back to her Dupont Circle row house every year as if going home to visit family. Over the years I have become closer to all the members of the house; with new ones who come and go. I have gone dancing on 17th street with Josh who calls me his ‘Bollywood princess’ and I have had long interesting conversations with the lawyer girl about men, careers and relationships. Most of all I have not only slept on Eva’s futon but spent hours drinking tea and conversing with her about her amazing past and her beautiful presence. And every year without fail, we gather around the table for the consistently themed ‘Dress As The Night Before’ New Year’s dinner party.
When we are thousands of miles away from our biological families and the home we left several years ago, we arrive at a point in our lives where we find ourselves surrounded by a new family altogether. A family away from family. A family of friends. And among those many families I have made in this world, Eva and her munchkins…have become one of my favorite ‘logical’ families.