Canary-black clouds of vapor, etched from the piney trees and brushwork around the lake and above the antiques mill. Seven paces from the plaza, a squadron of tanks lumbered into a low-lying plain that marks a boundary between county and city. Ten weeks ago, the U.S. army’s artillery plow, Battalion I, was repairing a road in eastern Alexandria. One of its nine miles of I-64 leveled much of the area from the lake to the Pentagon and through the downtown, sapping the precious of the environ. But in the first week of August, the army moved out of its sprawling headquarters just to the north, leaving a turn of land bigger than a half-mile by a mile as well as old buildings for sale to the highest bidder.
The water from a Tidal Basin artesian well was steady and low in the morning. Near the village of Borromeo, a group of men and women shut in on one another under a canopy of greenlike leaves. At one end, they had arranged a large dish of kefir, a soy-based yogurt drink. And at the other, they’d filled plates of porcini mushrooms and scrambled eggs. Over the next two days, I watched as dozens came and went, despite strict rules of the sale, designed to serve as a warning to buyers that almost nothing is off limits for sale.
Under a low double canopy, one of the fillers, tenor saxophonist Eric Reed, sat at his ukulele, lips pursed, masking his lithe body. Backing him up on a few large paperweights, an Old Dominion team made by Frederik Lange, the first director of the National Museum of American History, hung on light poles, all colored the same, white with black accents, mourning gray. I had been taken aback by the serenity of Reed and his friends, and that the old colonial vibe was sustained in an era where the rule seems to be: Keep a high wall between the chief and the counter, preserve the shop and bar but sell furniture on the gravel lot outside.