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Unsafe at any creed.

It was 1995, a scant four years after the District's crackera murder wave crested and broke. We were still living in the spume. (1991 saw 482 murders in city limits, '95 a mere 36. In four years I guess we grew some weak little gangsters.) I was in high school, on my way to a hip-hop show in Brookland, a pretty but roughhewn Northeast enclave by the Catholic University of America. It was a grim winter night, darkness stiff as ice; an acetone wind burned in my nostrils. A scurf of dirty snow clung to the gutters, soaking through the duct tape patching the soles of my thrift-store high heels. Two blocks from the Metro, the place looked like the Cold War had broken the wrong way. The streets were lightless, neglected, empty. I got lost.

After an unpleasant interlude of skidding on black ice and stumbling into potholes, I ran across three friendly white folks, CUA students who'd foundered on some unshriven streetcorner. I told them where I was going--they'd never heard of it--and then gave the address. The girl's eyes got big. "Oh--are you sure? You want to go there?"

She then gave me some of the worst advice I have ever received from a nonprofessional: "Here's how you get there, but while you're walking, keep your head down and walk as fast as you can!"

Did this chick want me to get mugged? Why not baste myself in heroin? Yes, the best advice when traveling through a shaky neighborhood is to keep your head down, ensuring that you are less aware of your surroundings, and act like you don't belong. The shutters came down over my face and I headed off to my concert, bemused and a bit smug.

For once, pride bore no connection to a fall. The locals were cordial and the show adequate. My corner encounter, the trailer for "The Row Houses Have Eyes," is the only thing I can now recall from that night, and until I became Catholic, it was my only experience in Brookland.

After my conversion, I got to know a different side of the university and of the neighborhood. Catholics and their institutions marble Brookland like fat in meat. There's the university, of course, but also the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, blue and white domes curving like folded wings, where you can stand just outside the crypt church and hear Masses in three languages at once. There's the Dominican House of Studies, Philip Larkin's "serious house on serious earth," thronged with habits. The place is blindingly sincere. Driving down into the valley where the Basilica nests is like entering another country, an alternate-history America where Fr. Junipero Serra and Lord Baltimore take the places of Ben Franklin and George Washington. If my high-school experience of Brookland was the bass, this confection of piety might be the treble.

Because I have what Max Weber might have called a Catholic work ethic, and where others have gifts of prayer or healing I have a charism of failure, I've frequently availed myself of the university chapel's late-night Sunday Mass. When even 5 PM is too early to claw my way into consciousness, there's always the 9 o'clock at CUA. Despite the hour, the chapel fills with well-scrubbed teens happily doing what Protestants call "fellowshipping." It's unsettling.

A college chapel is a misshapen thing compared to a parish church. A few years of the lifespan are swollen to gargantuan proportions, and the rest of the generations are hardly represented. Or compare the chapel to a book, where the parish church is a medieval text illuminated with every kind of monk and monkey, a wild efflorescence of weirdness, gargoyle and infant and dogheaded man, the college chapel is a wellkept textbook where the most diligent student in the class has taken careful notes in earnest handwriting.

These good students stroll in and out of the darkness in clusters. A skinny sweater-clad hipster boy shares a hymnal with his friend. The priest gives the only really great homily I've heard in my life: he spins a tale of pitching the stigmata to Protestant tourists in Assisi, then tells these sweet-faced undergraduates that they must suffer with Christ to love Christ. We have definitely entered Bizarro America. The kids love this gospel-of-austerity line.

Outside, after church, I hike back up the hill toward the Metro. A weary security guard gives me a wave. Brookland still isn't the safest part of town; I had brunch with students living in an idyll of gentle hills and heard stories of muggings practically on their front stoop. But maybe Catholic University shouldn't be in the safest part of town. As long as you don't keep your head down, and don't walk too fast, you'll be okay.

Eve Tushnet is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She blogs at http://evetushnet.blogspot.com
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Title Annotation:Eve Tushnet
Author:Tushnet, Eve
Publication:The American Conservative
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:818
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