The Cali Corner: To Hyattsville with love

April 6, 2015

Photo courtesy Andrew Schmidt.
BY DIANE CONTRERAS —

BY DIANE CONTRERAS —

A California Native of 28 years, where skateboarding, beach volleyball, and stand up paddling were just a few of my stereotypical hobbies – I have found my home in Hyattsville, Md.

I came here last January, rather obligated, to visit family over Christmas vacation.  As cool as the fam is, a  seven day trip away from the sand, sunsets, and water, just hurts.

My heart was set on Santa Monica and Venice for the rest of my life.  I could see nothing beyond endless nights of playing pool, falling asleep on the sand, hiking in Malibu, running through the canals, and catching wave after wave – a place where I could wear my bathing suit under my work clothes to get the most of the sun and water.

A mermaid to the core and hipster-before-hipster based on my genetics of naturally long, curly hair and a simple childhood, it seemed I would be this barefoot California Native for all time.  And as great as life has been, I had no idea what I was in for.  I didn’t understand the pull on my heart, until I came to Hyattsville.

Oddly, I am both very extroverted and introverted.  I spend most my hours training for marathons, praying and meditating, making earth-toned jewelry, crocheting head bands, hats and scarves, designing frames with paper-to-wood transferring Modge Podge, sipping on craft beers (yes, that counts as both an introverted and extroverted quality), and writing to music.  A passionate inner-city teacher by day, I have even patented myself as a social-local, pool shark by night (drink of choice: Old Fashioned con brandied cherries).

Finding friends has always been no-big-thang, but then again, I grew up in the same environment my entire life.  I know a set of waves like you know when a Snow Day is coming.  I know every way around traffic like you know which Metro stops to switch at.  In short, I was about to visit the polar opposite of the West Coast, as warned by all my friends from the Midwest and the East Coast – but shockingly, to us both, I found my equal.

It seems, I have fallen in love with you.  My appetite has changed, I’m smiling for days – nothing can get me down!  I was starting to think I had actually fallen in love with someone, but the truth is I am in love with this place.  I sat down to write about it, and this is what came out.

It all began on that obligated, 7-day trip last January.  My brother had relocated from Cali to Hyattsville one year before me, for a job with the Department of Energy and when he and my sister-in-law invited us out here for Christmas, I thought, “Oh great, now we’re going to have to spend our vacays on the East Coast.”  So, in short, they planned the perfect Hyattsville 101 trip for all our sakes.

First, they lured me in with the infamous, craft beers of Franklin’s and the knick-knacks next door.  Then, as the snow began to really pile on, we spontaneously walked down to Bus Boy’s “Open Mic Night” where we sipped on whiskey and witnessed courage and talent on stage.  The next morning we hit up every monument, memorial and museum along The National Mall.  As we made the rounds, I made mental notes of the bodies of water, from the Anacostia to the Potomac. I could survive here.  Things were starting to look very similar, just with seasons and a Smart Trip Card.

At one point during the visit, I had the pool itch so bad that my dad and I Yelped local pool halls and found the diviest of the diviest – Townhall on Baltimore.  Being my first pool experience here, I’ve got mad, nostalgic love for that place.  Then, we headed over to Cornerstone.  Though a college bar, it is still a welcoming joint for Sharks.  I played my first local and won in 8 minutes.  Things could work out here.  On our way back on Route 1, I spotted the Laundromat with the pool table in it!  You know what I’m talkin’ about!  And of course, my brother’s washer and dryer broke while we were visiting.  So, who did everyone’s laundry and played pool all night?  That’s right.  I’m in heaven.

Yes.  At this point you can’t tell if I just embrace life to the max or am an insanely positive person.  I confess – I had no intention of even liking the East Coast.  I had no intention of ever leaving California – and the stars still aligned.

At the end of our 7-day visit, I was reflecting after Mass in the Gold Room of St. Jerome’s, just watching all the young parents happily chat while their kids ran around joyfully with one another.  I felt warmth and could feel their authenticity from afar.  One of the wives approached me and asked, “So, do you think you’ll be back to visit again?”  And before I could think, my response jetted out, “I think I could live here!”  The families standing close-by couldn’t help but over-hear and they, to my surprise, were overjoyed!  I hardly knew these people and yet, they wanted me to stay.

Did they just need another babysitter?  Am I actually that interesting of a person?  NO.  I had it all wrong.  These people were just the genuine crop of Hyattsville – the souls behind the authentic energy that is fueling this growing area.

I returned to Santa Monica with just a few glimpses of the D.C. – Maryland area.  And when I looked out at the ocean the way I did every morning before school and every afternoon from Tower 9, something had changed.  It just didn’t look the same anymore.  I cried.  I pleaded for it to tell me to stay. But, it didn’t.  It told me to leave, and reside here.  I decided to let go, and start trusting.

The last part of the deal fell threw in March of 2014.  Upon word of mouth, I was offered my current, faith-aligned position as a teacher at a Catholic school in Northeast D.C. and flew out to accept the position over Easter break.  I hardly tried to get a job!  Of course, this all happened over spring break, during the Cherry Blossom Festival – doesn’t get much prettier than this!

I knew there would be more to this adventure than just living on the opposite coast.   One of my favorite quotes from the documentary, 180 Degrees South, says it best, “The best journeys answer the questions that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.”  And this is what you have brought into fruition for me, Hyattsville.  But more importantly, much like falling in love and wanting the beginning of a new relationship to last forever, I have no intention of rushing this experience.  I have decided to take this journey, day-by-day, allowing this place to transform me and bring out the best.

So, when I decided to officially move here, my sister-in-law and a fellow parishioner of St. Jerome’s found me a cozy spot in an attic on Kennedy Street, 4 houses down and across from my brother’s house.  Right?  Amidst embracing every last moment in California before I had to say goodbye to the sweet life, my sister-in-law sent me pictures of my future, fully, furnished attic.  I remember looking at the picture-text in the middle of, what my family starting calling, “The Diane Farewell Tour.”  There was no way to say no to Hyattsville – it was all coming about better than if I had planned it myself!  So, as I sang with all of my might, alongside all 800 of my friends, at the top of the Ferris wheel, at the edge of the Santa Monica Pier, on one of my last nights, “GOD BLESS SANTA MONICAAAA!” I still didn’t want to leave, but knew I had to obey the pull of the stars aligning.

I must end this article, with my most dear connection to Hyattsville.  In the last month or so, I doubted my decision to move here, a tad.  I was wondering, where life would take me after teaching, or if I simply am a teacher for life.  And then, I experienced my very, first snow day.

I have concluded, that snow days are our nation’s version of siestas in Spain.  I have never had so much fun in my career– they made me a better teacher and conclusively, a better human being.  I had so much time to reflect, and I am someone who has spent hours upon hours on the sand, just praying and meditating because I like to!  But, it’s something about the magic of an unexpected snow day.

And so, the love story truly comes together when I ventured over to Vigilante Coffee on Gallatin and Church that very, first snow day.  I know now, that I had subconsciously avoided the place.  Coffee shops had become a passion of mine back at home right before I moved and I had purposely not embraced it here yet.  One of my previous roommates this past fall was even one of the Baristas there!  But, just like falling in love, it all happens in its own time and when you least expect it.  Thus, I have actually fallen in love – madly in love, with Hyattsville . . . because of this establishment.

It was the moment I opened the door.  It was already something so familiar without even having to walk all the way in.  I fully opened the door and glanced up and throughout the place – my breath stopped as I took in the energy of it all.  From the type of furniture picked out, to the coffee bar of pour overs – this energy was welcoming me home.  It was like a clear message, written on the wall.  Yes, it helps that they have coffee-designed, skateboard decks hanging below the bar and, yes, they are attached.

But then, I went to order my first latte, and it felt like I was putting a dollar down to play pool at my favorite, local bar in Venice, Ca.  I was home and I knew it.  Like any beginning of a relationship, I got a little scared.  Am I going there too much?  Am I dependent on this place?  Am I addicted?  On those snow days, I would stay past closing, as they never rushed a soul out of there.  They would simply tell me, “Stay as long as you like.”  Very much like, Mi casa es su casa.

And when you stay late, you witness the hustle in Vigilante.  Though they are cleaning, lifting tables, running back and forth, they are so happy to have you there!  Then, you realize that they’ve been maintaining such an authentic vibe all day long.  While you were deciding on a drink, they were giving you their undivided attention.  While you were thinking of where to sit, they were saying hi and welcoming you to the place.  While you were staring off into space, they were asking you how you were and making small talk.  Beyond their specialty coffees, they deliver your drink to you like you are the only person in the room.  And isn’t this what everyone wants in a relationship?  And, I’ve found it!  Right here, in Hyattsville.

I made a secret vow to myself, that I would give back to every establishment that pushes me to be more of who I crave to be – but to have moved across the country and found such a place close enough to skate to, blows my mind!

Officially, this past Sunday, I had my first day as a real Hyattsville local.  Even though I’ve been here since July, this was the first time I knew I had fully opened my heart to Hyattsville.  It was daylight savings time, and I busted out my board from hibernation.  Without even planning on where to go, I skated down my street and carved down the slopes over to Vigilante – as if on autopilot.  Just like riding a bike, I thought.  That’s when you know you’re home – when you don’t even know how you got there and feel like you’ve been doing it for years.

And thus, I am flying high with love for Hyattsville, whipping around streets like I grew up here or something.  I don’t want this feeling to go away.  I plan to continue to explore this hub just outside of D.C., more in depth, and share my findings through these Cali eyes.  Committed to riding the wave, I will ultimately share the experience with anyone looking for a new adventure, a new life, or even a new heart.

From Coast to Coast,

Diane