Mar 242011

Mary Donovan

Here’s another delightful addition to the Numéro Cinq What It’s Like Living Here series, this time from VCFA graduate Mary Donovan in Wheaton, Maryland, which, yes, goes by many names, and is thus ambiguous, until you get to the charming details.



What it is and is not

Wheaton is many things, but it is not Silver Spring.  Much less Kensington.  Nor (god forbid) Washington, DC.  If you live in Wheaton, though, you must reckon with these.

The US Postal Service makes you say “Silver Spring” as your City.  The US Census hyphenates “Wheaton-Glenmont,” though Glenmont is a crossroads of strip malls and the end of a subway line.  Just across Veirs Mill Road is Kensington, where the high school blasts its Friday-night-football and half-time tubas clear through your cottage. You’re not far from the border of Washington, DC, where you likely commute to work. Although when you travel you say “from DC,” every evening you’re relieved to flee its workaholic bosses and center-of-the-known-and-unknown-universe stance. Wheaton is also not Rockville, whose shared border remains mysterious and may involve the creek; you once mailed a card to friends you knew from woods walks and guessed their address as Rockville, but it was Silver Spring, which meant Wheaton.

Although Wheaton has no formal borders, everyone knows where you mean when you live there.  Ah, near Wheaton Plaza, the first “shopping mall” in the 1960s.  Near vast Wheaton Regional Park — you can hike miles of trails or ice-skate year-round or ride a horse or play (or watch) baseball as the sun sets.  All those tiny places to eat – Salvadoran, Peruvian, Vietnamese — and you can walk to HMart? You’ve got Wheaton Regional Library, with robust programming for children and speakers of languages other than English, who are now the majority. You signed a petition called “Don’t Move the Wheaton Library!” when council members decided to “revitalize” by razing an historic area and building a brand-new library and chain stores. (They ran out of money when the Recession hit – you win – for now.)

No one knows quite where you mean when you (must) say “Silver Spring” with its 16 zip codes. Your next-door neighbor Bernice, a stalwart, 80-something daughter of “original” residents, mails you a Christmas card with “WHEATON, MD 20902” pressed by a forceful hand. (They deliver it.)

Wheaton, MD, has a strong feeling of the late 1940s-early-‘50s, when most houses – including yours and Bernice’s — were built: small, brick homes rising and falling through rabbit-warren neighborhoods for middle-class folk with, at most, one car per.  Now these streets are choked with parked vehicles and you can only drive one way at a time.  You may not have a dining room, or an upstairs, but you will have hardwood floors, thick plaster walls and solid brick construction. Store signs still feature the fonts – Art-Deco-meets-Space-Age — of the ‘50s and ‘60s.  People your age – and you are not THAT old – reminisce about childhood trips to Hot Shoppes at Wheaton Plaza, home of the Mighty Mo and its Special Sauce, delivered to your car by a waitress on roller skates.

Claims to fame

Wheaton has the highest elevation in the Washington, DC area, and sprouted its first radio towers. WTOP has been broadcasting since 1939; you rely heavily on its traffic reports each morning.  Wheaton also transmitted the very first television in 1923. A resident named Charles Jenkins built that first transmitter and got the first TV broadcast license – and invented the television set.  People in the 1920s and ‘30s watched his “radiovision” and assumed everyone in the U.S. would remember his name.

The Wheaton Metro (subway) Station has the deepest escalator in the Western Hemisphere; only Hong Kong has a longer escalator.  Kensington, with its antique shops and Victorian wrap-arounds, can only dream of having such an escalator.

Chuck Levin’s Music Center in the heart of Wheaton is a legendary destination for musicians in the Mid-Atlantic region. When your band needed its sound and light equipment in the mid-80s, you drove all the way from Virginia to Chuck Levin’s. When your Dad (in Florida) threw himself an 80th birthday party a couple years ago, Chuck Levin’s kazoos, shakers and harmonicas filled your suitcase.

HMart is not unique to Wheaton. Both Gaithersburg and Catonsville (near Baltimore) have them in Maryland. But people know where you live by “that awesome Korean grocery.” You can buy 21 different (frozen) types of dried fish cake, or a set of shot glasses whose box reads “Perfect for Today’s Modern Life” or the absolute-best deals on fresh and strange produce.

Roads named “Mill”

Wherever you live in Wheaton you live on or near a road named “(Someone’s) Mill” – remnants of grain mills in operation from pre-Civil-War throughout Rock Creek, the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River, and Sligo Creek.

Just say “I’m near” Veirs Mill, Kemp Mill, Plyers Mill, Newport Mill. People nod their heads, sure.

Flora and fauna

Your house and porch appreciate the shade of mature oaks (red, white and black). Yards feature azaleas, hydrangeas, lilacs, rhododendrons, crape myrtles, boxwoods, magnolias. These somehow survive icy winters and bloom in turn, just when you most need them.  Your own vegetable yield can be iffy, but you can go to any of a dozen farmers markets on weekends.  Plus HMart!

In your yard you spot raccoons, possums, squirrels, rabbits, and more rabbits. Deer venture away from the creek to eat only the heads off your tulips. Birds make the rounds of neighborhood feeders; gangs of starlings bully away sparrows, cardinals and mourning doves. Even starlings fear the iron beak of a red-headed woodpecker with black-and-white houndstooth markings, who travels solo.  (You’ll hear him and his family pounding bark – like rapid-fire gunshot – while you climb the trails of Wheaton Regional.) You see goldfinches, but to date, not one oriole without cleats and a uniform.

In the Brookside Gardens of Wheaton Regional Park, you can visit the Butterfly Garden May-to-September and the “Garden of Lights” Thanksgiving-to-mid-January.  Last year they began an “edible landscaping” project, foregoing flowers for vegetables and crops. Eggplants drew flea beetles but the okras were insanely happy and the sweet potatoes grew out onto the sidewalks.

Along the Park’s trails, it behooves you to look down and jump over piles of horse droppings (they have the right of way). You find it curious that you see chipmunks only in this Park, never in anyone’s yard, and you marvel how they achieve jet propulsion across your path, leaving only the after-image of black stripe on brown.

Maybe twice a month you see a fox there, and notice its vibrant red fur with ring of black on its chest — not the same brownish fox you see other times. You aren’t sure if these are differences in gender or ethnicity or family resemblance, or all three. The fox usually trots parallel to you for a while from fifteen yards away, so you can exchange glances.  Once you saw a coyote, whom you didn’t register as “coyote” but “strange dog – odd-colored fox? – hey!” as you remembered reading of their increasing numbers along the East Coast.  You miss your dog every day, your longtime eager companion for woodsy adventures; she would dive shoulder-first to roll around any ground cover trotted upon by fox or coyote. (Thus both of you once suffered from sarcoptic mange.) She is buried in Rockville, your ex’s choice and his to make; she was his mother’s dog first.

Speaking of dogs

Since you miss your dog every day but adopting one would be unfair with your DC commute (11-12-hour days R/T) you may arrange your activities around chances to encounter them.  Your own corner lot has much more lawn than house and seems a message board for Wheaton dogs. (You may not be fully aware of this paw traffic until it snows.)

Loiter outside. Sophie and Billy, Springer Spaniels, live just across the chain-link fence. There has never been a creature – not a lover, nor niece or nephew, nor your own Cocker – ever happier to see you than goofy Sophie. Billy is geriatric with a fraction of her energy, but his tail whirrs just as fast. Catty-corner lives Bentley, a white dreadlocked Komondor, and further down Allison the elderly Basset and Christopher the Terrier mix.  Out on the trails you’ll likely be rebuffed by Nellie (unless you’re wearing strawberry lip gloss) but met with enthusiasm by the King Charles pack (Kallie, Ottie and Netta) and their Golden Lab companion, Cozy, with a sinus tumor. You hope their humans don’t expect you to know their names.

Now and then you hear cats wailing at night below one of your windows. Neighbors have guessed they’re feral. One gray cat has tried to get through your front door twice (you are allergic). S/he is breathtakingly beautiful and wears a collar.

Water features

Along with the creeks and branches that promoted so many Mills, streams run under or along roads and provide a soothing sound when you pass by.

In the summertime, sudden violent storms can move in from the west. They are strong enough to down trees and knock out power and even issue “microbursts” of rain (2-3 inches in 30 minutes). These can overwhelm your back stairwell drain and soak your basement. After the sun comes out, your neighborhood fills with vans of ServPro folk hauling industrial de-humidifiers and fans inside, while other folk haul carpeting and laminate out to the curb.

If you sold your Rockville condo and bought your Wheaton house in August of 2008, you would’ve treaded water through the crash of the housing/financial markets in September/October.  With enough homes in foreclosure or bought vastly undervalued, your own cottage is now “underwater.”

The Corner of Collins and Ivydale

In Wheaton, just for showing up you benefit from the spectacular hearts of your neighbors. You know the names of the humans across your road, next door and behind, at least. Only a few remain of “the originals” – first occupants like Bernice’s parents. (You will hear the term enough that it insinuates your dream, reminiscent of TV’s “Lost” – murky group called “Originals” — but it was only a dream.)

Don’t worry about going out of town for a few days. Without your asking, your neighbors will look out for pamphlets stuck in your storm door or newspapers delivered contrary to your stop request. They will take in a box from Amazon on backorder. You will do the same during their upcoming trips to Italy and Ocean City.

You catch up with news of life on any day warm enough for yard work, and you talk again about getting a list-serve going for yourselves. You should really have a block party or something.  And you stop raking to visit with Allison or Christopher or Buddy or Moose from blocks away, but you forget again to ask the humans their names.

And they won’t know your name.  But it won’t matter. You all know where you live.

—Mary Donovan

  5 Responses to “What It’s Like Living Here — Mary Donovan in Wheaton, Maryland”

  1. I shop at that HMart. There’s a fabulous bakery next to it called “Bakery.”

  2. Love it Mary! My grandmother (and mother) grew up in Kensington and then she moved to Wheaton. But you’re right–Christmas cards were always addressed to Silver Spring. Kind of like the Post Office insisting Darnestown is Germantown. Which it certainly is not.

  3. Enjoyed reading this Mary! Seeing this by a fellow classmate and the recent piece by Keith Maillard was enough to bring me out of lurking mode to say howdy.

  4. I love this. Great job!!! “Aint no beatin Wheaton”

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