Waiting for Condit
Missing intern Chandra Levy probably sing-songed that sentence many times, but it's not something I'd ever said. Until just recently, anyway.
It all started when I saw live shots of police investigators making their way into Condit's apartment building on the late news. Just hours earlier, the philandering congressman had submitted to a search. Oh sure, I'd been vaguely aware that my neighborhood was peripherally involved in the nation-consuming scandal, that Condit lived somewhere nearby. I wasn't sure where, though, and I didn't really care.
But for some reason, that footage of investigators entering the California Democrat's illicit love nest with all their scary-looking equipment was all it took. Suddenly, I was intrigued. The whole country had been wrapped up in this the missing-woman mystery since early May; I needed to make up for a two-month lag. It was time to go loiter in front of Condit's place.
It's not that I'm some kind of freak. But from the news footage I recognized the guy's apartment, about four blocks from ours. The place where he bedded poor young Chandra for 10 months was about an eight-minute stroll from my front door. And everyone knows that if there's a spectacle in your 'hood and you don't go by and get a piece of it, you run the risk of having that terrible empty feeling later. And I'd be able to tell my grandkids about it. Besides, from what we saw on the news, dozens of panting reporters were staked out at Condit's condo -- and what's a bigger hoot to watch than the pack in action?
More than anything, though, I wanted to catch a glimpse of the weaselly 53-year-old congressman myself, to try and detect what an eager young chickie might see in him. On TV, he does not look appealing. But perhaps up close, his magnetism would be apparent. Would it radiate from him like a powerful pheromone no 24-year-old could resist? I wanted to see.
"'Will you drop me off at Gary Condit's place?' is not something one generally wants to hear from his fiancee," my man Marty said that morning. "But sure, I'll give you a ride."
Five minutes later, I was standing in front of Gary's apartment building, next to a cluster of 12 or so TV camerapeople camped out on the sidewalk. Across the street, several other news trucks were parked, and out of them had spilled more TV types, who stood around staring at the rather modest five-story brick structure. Still more media was camped out on the median. Everyone was ready to lurch into action should the shifty Casanova emerge for his morning meetings. It was a true phalanx.
I looked around, not knowing what to do. Hang with the most aggressive gaggle? Cross the street and fraternize with the more subtle press? Or do my loitering alone? I scanned the crowd for nonmedia folks, thinking I might hobnob with the other idiot gawkers who didn't have anywhere else to be that day. But there were none. I was the only one without a camera or a notebook. Yikes. I stepped over endless cables to cross the street and hide. I leaned up against a tree, not too far from the CNN folks, and I let the slightly self-conscious rubbernecking commence.
The first thing I noticed was the two large, round art-deco lights that flank the five or six stairs in front of Condit's otherwise unadorned building. The orbs had green trim and were the size of large beach balls. For a moment, all the hyperfocused reporters looked like members of a cult that avidly worshipped white spheres. I shook my head to try and get that image out.
The cult-meeting vision was replaced by the image of the lawn at one of those summer-concert sheds, just before the start of a big show. Big-gutted guys wearing shorts were kicked back in lawn chairs, all looking in the same direction, filled with anticipation. They were sipping coffee, eating Danish, giving off a faint vibe of bored annoyance that masked a vast reservoir of jubilation. And why not? They were at ground goddamn zero for the summer's white-hot megastory. They were the stand-in vigil for a whole country awaiting the images they would produce, images that might show something new, something revealing.
But what, I wondered, was the actual pointing of all this waiting around on this particular day? Was Condit even in his fifth-floor love shack? After all, the police search had begun at 11 the night before and ended around 3 in the morning. That was just less than six hours ago. Maybe Romeo had gone to stay at a Comfort Inn? At about 10 minutes to 9, I asked a young, coltish print guy. He said Condit was due in some sort of congressional meeting at 9, and then another at 10, and that yes, he was still up there.
I looked up at the westernmost apartment on the top floor, where everyone else was gazing. The thick blinds were closed, and motionless. What--or who--was he doing in there? How could he resist parting the blinds every now and then to peer at the pack of wild dogs with gnashing teeth waiting for him below?
Nobody at street level had learned yet if the middle-of-the-night search had produced any pieces of Chandra. Was there 4-month-old blood? Hair? Evidence of fisticuffs? All we could do was stand around in the heat and wait.
As we did so, several thick-haired girls who looked like Chandra passed casually by. Cocky TV reporters dressed to the nines strutted around, crossing paths with young moms taking their little bundles out for some rays on streets that are usually pretty slow this time of day. Across the street from Gary's place, one of the locals had come out on his second-floor balcony; he stood there in the morning sun, shoveling cereal into his gob, looking down upon the inactive horde like a bored king. Ah, Washington, scandal capital of the world.
I had nearly lapsed into sleep when suddenly every reporter sprang into action. TV guys leaped out of their beach chairs and scrambled to hoist their hulking cameras to their shoulders. I got all tense. Condit must be coming! Sheer adrenaline compelled me to dart back across the street.
But I didn't. Instead, I watched the reporters feverishly angle in closer to the steps of the building, ready to hound the congressman who may have done something very bad. Would he walk casually, or dart? Would he look tired, or spry? Would he be tiny or hulking? Upright or slouchy? And where's his car?
The double glass doors at the top of the steps parted. A glint of light reflected off them, blinding me for a second. I blinked and blinked and blinked, recovering my sight in time to see a creature emerge from the building, a creature dressed head to toe in hot pink! Had Condit snapped, gone mad from the pressure? Was he now going to rant and scream and sing and dance, with me here to see it? Wow.
Alas, no. It was just one of Condit's neighbors, a woman in a pink pantsuit. She descended the steps, looking bemused, and skittered away. The camerapeople slumped. I slumped. The eager energy drained out of the crowd. They backed up and sat down, putting down their cameras and picking up their Starbucks cups.
After my adrenaline high drifted away, I went back into a semi-stupor, wondering what exactly all the reporters here hoped to get. An impromptu press conference near the orbs? The opportunity to badger Condit so badly between his front door and his car that he'd burst out, "OK! I did it!" Do they just want to examine how much deeper the furrow in his brow has gotten since yesterday, or get a couple seconds of footage of him skulking around? Hard to say.
Leaning against my tree, waiting for the money shot, I began to daydream. Did Chandra ever stand exactly where I was, gazing up at Gary's apartment, wondering if he was inside cavorting with another young lovely? Staking out your lover's house is just the kind of thing starry-eyed 24-year-olds do, if I remember correctly. So she'd probably been here, right where I was, trying to balance on that root, biting her nails and fingering the gold bracelet he gave her. I tried to tap into the Chandra energy that may have rubbed off on that tree, on that spot. I tried and tried for an epiphany or some channeling. But nothing happened. So I abandoned that and watched a Fed Ex guy go into the building.
Just then, a violent wind kicked up and a big channel 9 umbrella blew over. People shouted and scrambled for about 30 seconds. The wind passed. Then, oh my, all the camerapeople hopped up again. The glass doors were opening. Gary? Gary?
No, it was the Fed Ex guy. He smiled hard as he descended the steps. He seemed to feel like a star. He passed by a Corolla that was pulling out of a space right in front of the building. I watched as a cameraman was told to run and get his station's Suburban and wedge it into that miniscule space. All looked on in wonder and fear as the guy backed the huge SUV down the street toward the tiny space and proceeded to maneuver in, parallel style. Collectively, we held back our gasps. Collectively, we felt disbelief and relief when he got in there after much struggle. Clearly, this was the most exciting show of the morning so far.
Forty-five minutes and no Condit. He'd missed his 9 a.m. meeting and was about to miss his 10. The taxpayers' dollars at work. But never mind him, I thought. How much of my day was I willing to miss in order to glom onto this stakeout? Part of me said, However long it takes to see Gary and his aura of irresistibility. A second part reasoned, Oh c'mon, it's nice out and it's summertime. Stay awhile. A third part snarled, Oh, just go on home. This is stupid.
My inner argument ceased when the glass doors swung open again. The reporters and camerapeople scurried to their feet and closed in. But again, it wasn't Gary. It was a young woman in a ponytail, toting a plastic grocery bag. When she saw the camera-wielding mob, though, she didn't dart down the stairs and scurry away. Instead she plopped herself down on the steps and lit a cigarette for CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. Clearly she hadn't gotten enough attention as a child. Or maybe she's just able to block things out easily, I thought. Or maybe she's just plain ballsy.
I start thinking about how this woman's essence is different from Chandra's--or the Chandra Gary created. According to The Washington Post, when they were having their trysts, Chandra was instructed to never get off at his floor if there was someone else in the elevator. And when they went to dinner--usually at Thai places in the suburbs, where no one would recognize him--she was to leave the building, this building, alone, and get a cab. He'd follow a few minutes later. Sitting bored in his apartment, she took to color-coordinating his clothes. Ick.
Bored down on the street, I noticed a print reporter in the crowd looking about nervously. He laid his notebook on an SUV and scampered away toward the gas station at the corner, walking kind of funny. Poor guy, his coffee must have kicked in. What a tragedy for him if Gary makes his grand, sweeping exit now. What will he tell his editor?
Then it hits me. That Exxon just 30 paces away is my Exxon. Kim's Dry Cleaners around the corner is my dry cleaner. And Mr. T's Grocery right next to Kim's is where I go for milk and frozen yogurt sometimes. If Chandra was spending so much time at Gary's pad, surely she must have frequented Mr. T's for beer and condoms. Surely, like me, she must have contemplated the really strange workman's gloves on display near the cash register, the ones whose fingertips and palms bear a waxy protectant that looks like bloodstains. Surely she commented to herself that the apple turnovers in the case always look like someone sat on them.
My skin crawled as I realized Chandra had walked many of the same paths I've walked, and will continue to walk. And for some reason, that seemed like my signal to leave. I resisted it for 10 more minutes, but then I realized slippery old Gary might not ever come out. I pried myself away from the tree at 10:15, stepping over snaking cables and making my way home, avoiding the cracks and contemplating how one goes about raising a girl child so she won't be vulnerable to men like that.
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Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
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New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...
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