It was then, as now, exciting to be young and living in the capital, perhaps more so because there was less around to be excited about. Only three television networks. Only one movie at the local theater all summer long. Only the set of values your parents, your schools, three networks and the local movie house had given you. And, increasingly in the 1950s, only one way to be a good American.
George Tames, the New York Times photographer, grew up poor within sight of the Capitol. He recalled the dome seeming to hang above the city, a sense he would capture in images as a grown man. I also remember the dome floating, especially in the rain and fog. And me with it, for whatever grimy or corrupt events took place beneath its circumference, they could not sully the grandeur and pride of being as certainly right as American democracy seemed at the time, with justice, fairness and progress only a few congressional bills or a handful of newscasts away.
Of course, you kept thoughts like that to yourself. If you were a young, neophyte reporter in an old, cynical city, the last thing you wanted to exhibit was idealism. So you watched the older reporters carefully and learned how to be indifferent to the right things at the right time, how not to be swayed by public words, and how to talk sardonically about events afterwards in the House and Senate radio-TV galleries…
I lived for a while in a room of a house belonging to a suburban lady who insisted on giving me coffee and details of her current ailments every morning. It was cheap and convenient — I was able to ride a bike to work — but I quickly accepted the invitation of my friend Larry Smith to move in with him on Capitol Hill.
Larry had grown up at 101 5th St. NE in a tall Victorian row structure that for many years doubled as a boarding house for congressional pages, eventually 1500 of them. Larry’s mother, Olive Smith, a 1920 graduate of Smith College, ran the boarding house, raised three sons and, from the late fifties on, served as ad hoc den mother for a succession of Harvard men passing through Washington. Larry’s father, a native of Ireland, was an engineer on the Pennsylvania Railroad. George Smith worked in leather in his spare time, earning the nickname, Pocketbook Smith.
Year’s later when my family and I stepped aboard one of Amtrak’s new Metroliner – then with its engineer’s cab in the front car – I asked the conductor whether he had known Pocketbook Smith. He had and it was a magic question because shortly after departure our two small boys were invited to sit on the engineer’s lap as he drove the train at 100 miles per hours. Everyone liked Pocketbook Smith.
Olive Smith had values, opinions, wisdom and specific knowledge in the manner of any good den mother. The opinions she would offer on request or otherwise. Somewhere in my files is a note from her complaining about my use of the phrase “nearly unique” and another arguing that one can not have shades of black and especially when writing about it.
You learned to ask her things as well. I remember one evening watching Mrs. Smith in her early 20th century dining room explaining to my friend Warren Myers, then teaching classics at Groton, how to get across some fine points of Latin grammar. Many more times I remember her laughing at her son’s friends’ jokes and antics, joining in heated discussion between Larry and the oft-visiting Father Petrini, or recounting her own stories. Like the time her exhaust fan overheated and she called the fire department. When she apologized for having bothered them, the fire lieutenant had said, “It is better, ma’am, to not need us and call us then to need us and not call us.” The idea of not calling the fire department when you needed it struck Olive Smith as very funny. It was something she would never have done.
The Smiths owned a boarding house at the other end of the block at 125 5th Street NE. Larry had the top floor. Larry, employed by the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company, had the haircut and build of the ex-high school varsity basketball player he had been, but the library of the Harvard English instructor and Ph.D. he would eventually become. His collection already comprised about 600 volumes, all carefully cataloged on 3 by 5 cards. He had, according to his calculations, read two-thirds of the books. And Larry had already developed the habit of carrying on a conversation with his books through extensive scrawled green ink marginalia that varied from the profound to the merely obscene.
Later, Larry took a job out of town and Bill, a reporter for the Washington Post and later a network news executive, moved in. Bill carried himself with a great southern dignity that had the curious tendency to reinforce itself the more he drank.
One night we were at the Carroll Arms Hotel, sipping whiskey and listening to a young, popular Hill comic named Mark Russell. The hotel, just steps away from the Senate office buildings, offered rooms by the hour. As Russell later put it, he got his start in a brothel.
Outside, one of those rare but deep Washington blizzards was underway. Despite our considerable consumption over the evening, Bill carried on a normal conversation. It should have been a clue. As we left the hotel, Bill without warning threw himself against the revolving door and hurtled face down into a magnificent snow bank that had blossomed on the sidewalk.
We had walked from the apartment, a half dozen blocks away, and there was no choice but to raise Bill upright, sling his arm over my shoulder in the classic grasp and started slogging back to 5th Street. On a couple of occasions I tried to flag down a car, but there was little interest in assisting a couple of inebriates on an all too snowy night.
With no little exertion I finally got Bill back to 5th Street. By this time he had virtually passed out and I was not far behind. I laid him out in the snow at the edge of the street, and went inside to find another boarder to help me carry him to the third floor.
Bill drank no more than the rest of us, which was a lot. The parties at 125 5th Street were frequent and flowing, as I once described in a letter:
The last two weekends have been fairly lively,. We threw a beer blast two weeks ago for about thirty or forty people. Last night a few friends joined Larry and myself at his mother’s for dinner. We began drinking Almaden Rose out of half/gallon jugs and discussing the fate of the world. The party moved down the street to our apartment and continued until Larry suddenly got it into his head that he was going to hitchhike to Cambridge to see his girl. Our drunken and ineffectual attempts to stop him failed and he walked off into the two am dark. Three-thirty this afternoon his girlfriend called to tell me that he had arrived. And a well-traveled, cold , and more sober roommate is catching the 5:30 plane from Boston . . .
On another occasion, I found a group gathered around the stove in our kitchen. On closer inspection, it appeared that one of the crowd had his head in the oven. He was, it was explained, Caryl Chessman and a game was being played in which the drunkest person present was to be declared Governor Pat Brown and allowed to pardon the convicted kidnapper, robber and rapist – or turn on the gas. I was sober enough to end the game. . .
Everything was simpler then. Even the US Capitol which I wandered around with my mike and tape recorder like it was my apartment building. Even the US Capitol Police force was comprised mainly of young men benefiting from the patronage granted their fathers by various members of Congress. It was a fairly pleasant crowd and you knew you were not just dealing with a law enforcement officer but perhaps a grad student whose dad was a buddy of the majority leader.
My favorite Hill cop story from the period involves a friend who was a bagpipe -playing Lebanese Catholic from Boston who knew everyone in the Demcratic Party and worked for a number of them including Massachusetts governor Foster Furcolo and, later, Ted Kennedy. She was on her way to an LBJ State of the Union from Boston but was late and arrived from the plane still carrying her bagpipe case in which rested not only the instrument but some pita bread her sister had made.
In a hall crowded with some of America’s most powerful, my friend was told by a Capitol police officer to open the bagpipe case. The officer was disturbed by what he found inside. “Don’t worry,” said my friend. “It’s just a bagpipe and some pita bread. . . Call your chief and tell him Terri Haddad is here with her bagpipes. He knows me.”
The officer did and at the other end the Capitol Hill police chief issued one blunt order: “Tell her to play ‘Danny Boy.”
And so for the chief and many of America’s most powerful, she did and then was allowed to repack her instrument and go hear the speech.
If you were from Michigan or California and you went and worked up on the Hill, you had a southern accent within six months. It was very, very Southern; they were the people who controlled it.
There was a Congressman from Ohio who had gotten on Sam Rayburn’s bad side, and he had lost his favorite committee assignment and been sort of sent to purgatory. After Sam Rayburn died and John McCormack was the new Speaker of the House, he goes in to see McCormack and he says, “I just want you know Mr. Speaker, that I’ve learned my lesson.” He said, “I’ll never do that again. You can always count on me to go along with whatever you want.” John McCormack reached into the desk and pulled out a piece of paper and says, “I’m sorry, but Sam left me a list.”. ..
I later took a job in the basement office of a row house on New Jersey Avenue SE, a few blocks from the Capitol. Out of this long, sunken, slovenly one-room den qua office was published Roll Call, a weekly paper for those thousands who worked on Capitol Hill. In the center of the room, with its low lights, brick wall, overstuffed bookcases and casual furniture, were three desks. The first would be mine. The second was assigned to an ad representative who might or might not be employed at any given moment and if employed might or (more probably) might not be in the office depending upon the current status of her not inconsiderable array of personal problems which, according to the frequent testimony of the man behind the third and rearmost desk, were due to alcohol, insanity, sexual dysfunction and various other character flaws which in aggregate left him to sell the frigging ads as well as having to edit the whole damn paper himself.
This aggrieved man was Sid Yudain, the editor. He was tall, of medium build with wavy swept back hair and heavy black horned rimmed glasses He smoked a pipe and talked out of the tiny space remaining between his pipe stem and the right corner of his mouth and generally affected the manner of a Catskills comedian engaged in contract negotiations.
Roll Call was a free paper supported by advertising. Some of the advertising was paid for, some was run and not paid for, and some was published and eaten. Sid was a bachelor whose sole interest in cooking consisted of making coffee when no one else was around to do it for him. Among the purposes of the paper, therefore, was to feed the editor. Sid traded restaurant ads for free meals. It was a shrewd business move. While plenty of advertisers failed to pay for their ads, none refused to serve him.
Sid regarded my arrival as a possible break in his ill-deserved fortune and set me to writing what would sometimes be as many as a half dozen stories a week on such topics as a new 300-car parking lot for the Senate, hiring prospects in the next House of Representatives, and how the great iron dome of the Capitol gyrated several feet a day in response to the thermodynamics of the sun. One of my scoops was the discovery that 1,200 people could go to the bathroom at the same time in the brand new Rayburn House Office Building.
Sid also let me try my hand at writing humor and a column of whimsical shorts about life on the Hill, including this transcript of a conversation overheard in a House office building:
Matron (whispering) Could you tell me where the reading room is?
Guard (also whispering): We don’t have a reading room
Matron (still sotto voce): Isn’t this the Library of Congress?
Guard (still likewise): No ma’am
Matron (out loud and with force): Then what are we whispering for?
Guard: (louder still): I don’t know, you started it.
On another occasion, I reported that “we’ve heard about parties that are so hip, everyone dances to Mort Sahl records.”
Even more pleasing was Sid’s acceptance of my contributions of light verse. One went:
I like to go down to the zoo
And there I sit and watch the gnu.
I’ve also noticed recently
The gnu has started watching me.
For hours we just share a stare
A happy unproductive pair
Economists we might impress
With our total uselessness.
Still it’s the G-N-U for me.
Let others boost the GNP
And I filed this report on a national conference:
With whereas and with wherewithal
The graying ladies sternly call
Upon the past to come alive.
We listen not and still survive
Without a bruise, without a scar,
Conventions of the DAR
Although Sid was a Republican, and a former aide to a GOP congressmember from Connecticut, he considered politics first and foremost a fraternity and entertainment; its ideological content was of tertiary concern at best. He seemed to know just about everyone on the Hill and treated them as neighbors and friends whose gossip he relayed in his paper. This did not mean he was unmindful of the business of politics — in fact he knew the specifics of elections as well as anyone I’ve ever met. In 1960 he correctly predicted the outcome of 426 of the 437 house races. He was 96.5% accurate and even declared five too close too call. They were, in fact, still in doubt several days after the election.
Sid also found politics funny and had no objections if one of his writers wanted to suggest that the funny had, on a particular occasion, slipped into the absurd. After all, it was Sid who would take me over to the Carroll Arms Hotel to enjoy Mark Russell, a discovery he shamelessly promoted in the paper.
The Carroll Arms had been a ‘railroad hotel,’ situated between Union Station and the halls of Congress. Shelby Scates in his book, Maurice Rosenblatt and the Fall of Joseph McCarthy, reported that rooms in the hotel – where McCarthy aides Roy Cohn and David Schine lived on the top floor – went for as little as $10 a night as late as 1961. On the second floor was the notorious Quorum Club, a hangout for favored lobbyists of Senate Secretary and LBJ capo Bobby Baker. And in the bar was piano-playing comedian Russell who later told Scates that “In those days there was no satire on television, no irreverence. The barometer was good old Bob Hope.”
I had no trouble enjoying Russell’s puns, one-liners and dubious rhymes. In fact, I saw him as a challenge, which I finally fully met near Christmas time with an lyric work that, so far as I know, has yet to be surpassed. Called A Representative Christmas List, it was an ode containing the name of every member of the House of Representatives. The poem took a full page in Roll Call, with the print superimposed on a screened clip-art picture of Santa Claus. It committed such unpardonable offenses as rhyming bacchanal with Chesapeake & Oho Park Canal as well as asking “Herlong, oh Herlong America, must we suffer this?”
On returning to Washington after my tour as a Coast Guard officer, my ex-landlady, Olive Smith offered me the whole first floor of 125 5th Street NE for $110 a month, utilities and two parking spaces included. I now not only had a place to stay but an exceedingly inexpensive office, where I would start my first publication, The Idler.
125 5TH STREET NE BECAME A POPULAR CRASH PAD ON WEEKEND, ESPECIALLY FOR REFUGEES FROM VARIOUS NEARBY MILITARY ENCAMPMENTS
The notorious DC Transit wanted to raise its fares and the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized to stop it. They urged citizens with cars to drive bus passengers during a one-day boycott.
I joined the volunteers. On the morning of January 24, 1966, 1 hauled myself out of bed, swallowed a cup of coffee, warmed up my ’54 Chrysler, and made my way to Sixth and H Streets Northeast, one of the assembly points for volunteer jitneys. A boycott organizer filled my car with three high school girls and a middle- aged and rather fat woman.
A bus drove by and it was empty. “They’re all empty,” the woman said, It was the first bus I had seen that morning and I wondered if she was right.
If both the fat lady and her husband worked, the five cent fare increase Chalk was seeking would cost them two week’s worth of groceries over the course of a year.
I let my passengers off and headed back to Sixth and H. At Florida and New York, I counted five empty or near-empty buses. It wasn’t even nine o’clock in the morning and the boycott was working,
“It’s beautiful,” the man in the slightly frayed brown overcoat said after he told me he was headed for Seven-teenth Street. “It’s working and it’s beautiful. Hey, you see those two there. Let’s try and get them.”
I pulled over to the right lane by a stop where two men stood.
“Hey man, why spend thirty cents? Get in,” my rider called to the pair.
“You headed downtown?”
“Yeah, get in.”
“Great. It’s working, huh? Great!”
At the delicatessen at Twenty-fourth and Benning, one of the assembly points, a young black who worked with SNCC greeted me: “Been waiting all morning for a car to work from here; said they were going to have one, but they didn’t send it. Want a cup of coffee?”
“I’m tired, man. Been up all night down at the office. We got some threats. One bunch said they were going to bomb us, but they didn’t.”
We got into my car and continued east on Benning. Lots of empty buses.
“We’ve got to live together, man. You’re white and you can’t help it. I’m Negro and I can’t help it. But we still can get along. That’s the way I feel about it.” I agreed. “You ever worked with SNCC before?” “Nope,” I said.
‘Well, I’11 tell you man, you hear a lot of things. But they’re a good group. They stick together. You know, like if you get in trouble, you know they’re going to be in there with you. If you get threatened they’ll have people around you all the time. They stick together. That’s good, man.”
Later, I picked up a man at a downtown bus stop. The woman in the back seat asked him, “You weren’t waiting for a bus, were you?”
“No. I just figured someone would come along and pick me up.”
“That’s good, ’cause if you were waiting for a bus I was going to bop you upside your head.”
We all laughed and the man reassured her again.
“You know,” the woman in back continued, “there were some of the girls at work who said they were going to ride the bus and they really made me mad. I thought I’d go get a big stick and stand at the bus stop and bop ’em one if they got on Mr. Chalk’s buses. Some people just don’t know how to cooperate. And you know, you don’t have nothing in this world until you get people together. Hey, lookit over there, let’s see if that guy’s going out northeast.”
People stuck together that Monday, I carried seventy-one people, only five of them white. SNCC estimated that DC Transit lost 130,000 to 150,000 fares during the boycott. Two days later, the transit commission, in a unanimous but only temporary decision, denied DC Transit the fare hike. The commission’s executive director dryly told reporters that the boycott played no part in the decision.
Never had so many Washingtonians done anything so irregular and contrary to official wishes. The assumption that DC residents would passively accept the injustices of their city was shattered. SNCC and the Free DC Movement had laid the groundwork for future action.
After the bus boycott, I wrote a letter to its leader congratulating him and offering to help in the future. Not long after the leader, Marion S. Barry, and his colleague, L. D. Pratt, were sitting in my 5th Street living room talking about how I could help in SNCC’s public relations. I readily agreed; for the first time in my life I had joined a movement.
The trouble really began at the wedding. I didn’t know it, however, until a few months later when I received a letter from an MIT student thanking me for the summer job offer.
I did not, however, recall hiring an MIT student for the summer. Still, I could hardly — according to the not unreasonable code of the day — wriggle out of an obligation simply because of consumption-induced impairment.
Which is how Jim Smith came to work for me, how that summer 1966 I started The Capitol East Gazette, and in many ways how I ended up where, however shakily, I find myself today.
At the time, of course, Jim had no more idea of where it all might lead than I did. I was still editing the Idler out of my apartment on Capitol Hill, a neighborhood that was racially mixed but becoming less so with the growing success of a restoration movement led by a vigorous herd of real estate dealers. The community’s black residents were not happy with what was going on, but neither were many white residents, more than a few of whom had moved there to live in an integrated neighborhood.
Living there, I found it hard to ignore both the simmering tension and the hope of something better. Besides, I soon met Bob Smith — no relative but a Presbyterian minister — an Alinsky-trained organizer who was methodically laying the foundation for a major community coalition. Bob and I had some long talks into which I would occasionally slip my dream of starting a neighborhood newspaper to compete with one that was deeply in the service of the restoration movement. Since I barely had time for putting out the Idler, however, these talks were mostly just that.
Until, that is, I got the letter from Jim Smith. Why not, I thought, start a neighborhood newspaper over the summer with the extra help? If it worked out, fine; if not, at least I could stop imagining it. Bob Smith gave his blessing and his support, but urged me strongly not to use the term “Capitol Hill.” “The Hill” consisted of the blocks closest to the Capitol, which were rapidly turning white. Bob proposed that I use “Capitol East,” a phrase then only found on the maps and in the reports of city planners. It included an area deep into black Washington, with only about a quarter of its residents white.
Which is how I came not only to start The Capitol East Gazette but tried to rename the whole neighborhood at the same time.
I enjoyed my conversations with a 9th Precinct police officer who would drop by the Gazette office with his dour squad car partner. I may have been the only underground newspaper editor in the country who was periodically visited by a uniformed cop to discuss politics, both of us on company time.
To be sure, I had known the officer over the years, mainly as his sister’s brother. He had first come around to my office shortly after graduating from Harvard to discuss what he was going to do with his life. One of the options had been to join the police department. I attempted to discourage him but to no avail. He took the job and ended up in my own precinct and with my own office on his beat. Officer Don Graham would continue to ignore my advice in his later employment as publisher of the Washington Post.
In 1969, my friend Gren Whitman called from Baltimore to borrow my office “as place for the press to meet before an action.” I asked what was up. “Don’t ask,” he instructed. “I don’t want you to know. That way you won’t be liable.” I agreed to help. The reporters and the activists arrived at my office at the scheduled time and within minutes departed on their still-unidentified mission. Later that day I learned that nine protesters had broken into the offices of the Dow Chemical Company and spilled blood over the files in an anti-war protest.
The next morning Kathy woke me saying that I’d better look at what was in the Post. In the upper left corner of the front page was a story describing the attack. In the lead it said that reporters had been told to meet at the offices of the DC Gazette and gave the address, 109 8th Street NE.
I was upset and angry. The Post, it appeared, was setting me up for retaliation — legal and otherwise. My only role in the affair had been to provide a gathering place for my news colleagues and now the Great Prude of 15th Street was out to punish me for having done their reporter a favor. I called a lawyer friend who came over and calmed me down. Nothing more came of it.
In my neighborhood, the Age of Aquarius often looked more like a war zone. Many of the people there were not part of a counter-culture but of an abandoned one. Even the jukebox at the Stanton Grill — purveyors of Greek and American food to white Appalachian boarding house residents — played the Supremes and the Temptations, not Bob Dylan.
The grill, open from 6 am to 10 pm, was run by two Greek brothers, Pete & Sam, who split the shift. They never took a vacation and put at least one boy through collage through their unflagging provision of braised short-ribs, chicken Greek style, and “I Hear a Symphony” calling from the juke box. They fed the old Capitol Hill roomers, the guys from the union hall down the street, and a few young singles like myself with good plain food that varied no more over the yeas than the shade of brick on the school across the street. One of their sons now owns a restaurant on Capitol Hill.
We lived in one of the toughest sections of town but experienced relatively few problems. Which is to say that two cars of friends were stolen from our block. Our house was broken into several times. Once, a half gallon of vodka was returned to us by the police, complete with blood stains and evidence tag. I kept it like that in my bar. Some months later, the house was broken into and the bottle stolen again.
There were also a few break-ins that were less than routine. One afternoon I came home and found my front door busted open. Through the void, two friends were pushing an ugly old mantle piece they thought would look nice around my fireplace.
I had bought the traditional Washington row house on 6th Street NE after becoming engaged, but before getting married. I assured Kathy that the neighborhood was safe. It was, after all, only about four blocks away from where I was already living. The neighborhood kids who helped me move weren’t so sure. Over lunch at my new abode, one observed that he “wouldn’t come over here with the whole US Marines.”
“But,” replied another, “it’s better than Death Alley.”
“You know, Sam, that alley behind your apartment.” I had never thought about it from a kid’s point of view, but he was right: the dead end of Death Alley would not be a pleasant place to be trapped.
THE ‘ONE IOTA.’ THE HULL WAS MADE OF STYROFOAM
When I returned to my new house the next morning, I found that one of my prized possessions was gone already, an eight-foot styrofoam sailing dinghy precisely named the One Iota. It was barely more than a beer cooler with canvas, rudder and a dagger board, but at forty pounds, it was easy to flip on top of Gloria and drive down to Roach’s Run at the end of the National Airport runway for a late afternoon sail. Gloria was my ten year-old Chrysler New Yorker. It was also precisely named. I called it Gloria because it was sick transit.
Sailing on the Potomac was something of an exercise in maritime masochism. The down draft of a landing plane could flip a small sailboat using the end of the runway for home port. On one occasion I beached the boat and took refuge during a thunderstorm in my swimming suit under an Anacostia freeway overpass. There wasn’t much wind in summer and it was said that if you fell overboard you should get a tetanus shot. I tried, however, to provide some elegance to the experience: I placed a jack staff on the transom from which I flew a tiny yacht ensign and added two cocktail glass holders mounted on gimbal rings.
One day, Jerry Cabel, press secretary to Senator Phil Hart, joined me for a late afternoon sail. We were lolling about the Potomac drinking Myer’s rum when Jerry proposed that we have dinner at Hogates, a waterfront restaurant,.
“I don’t think we’re dressed for it,” I demurred.
“Leave it to me.”
And so two slightly damp sailors in t-shirts and jeans walked up to the maitre d’ and as he crinkled his nose, Jerry announced haughtily, “A table for two, please. We came by sea.”
Now my beloved yacht had been stolen from the backyard. The window in the basement was broken and mast, oars, rudder, daggerboard, lifejackets and sails were all gone. Nothing else in the house had been touched. Clearly a ruthless gang of cheap sailing dinghy thieves had been at work.
I walked down to the 9th Precinct — then claiming the city’s worst crime rate — and reported a stolen boat. The desk officer looked intently at the Polaroid I had brought along. “Would you like to keep it?” I asked. “No, I wouldn’t know where to file it.”
Later that same day, Thomas Glasgow Smith, attorney at law, part Cherokee, all alcoholic, and about the foulest-mouthed, craziest paragon of decency I ever met, called to say that he had borrowed the One Iota and would soon be returning it. It seems he had been on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay the previous evening and had decided at about two in the morning to go for a sail and thought I wouldn’t mind.
Which is one of the reasons I was less than totally surprised by the subsequent forced entry by mantelpiece. One of the perps, after all, was Tom Smith. Tom was beloved in the neighborhood until about the third drink after which almost anything was possible. He had, as chair of the local recreation council, once called a 6:30 am emergency meeting to deal with the just discovered gross misplacement of several pieces of play equipment in an unprotected corner of a park only a few feet from a freeway entrance ramp. We quickly gathered in a nearby home as Tom awakened the recreation director with a torrent of obscenities. The equipment was moved later that day.
My circulation staff came from the neighborhood — when they weren’t in jail. At one point, about half of them were. I found needles behind stacks of papers in the office, had a few checks stolen and was even tipped to a kidnap threat credible enough that my wife and son left town while the police staked out my house for a day. But most of the time things went pretty well.
With ten to fifteen thousand papers to distribute, I needed some help and there were plenty of youths in the neighborhood who wanted work. I could fit myself, ten thousand copies, and three kids into Kathy’s roof-rack equipped red Volkswagen.
One day I came home to find several of the neighborhood youths watching another run out in front of cars that were forced to swerve or brake suddenly. I asked what was going on. “Oh, Bo, he crazy,” I was told. “He try kill hisself.”
When Bo returned to the sidewalk I introduced myself and suggested some alternative activities for the afternoon, none of which seemed to interest him much. Bo was 16, somewhat older than the others, and seemed considerably more sophisticated when he wasn’t doing dumb things like trying to kill himself. Talking some more, I discovered that Bo actually knew how to type. Bo, in fact, was quite bright.
Which is how Bo became a part-time member of the Gazette staff. There were good days and bad ones, but I was an editor and not a therapist and so when Bo told me one day he was going to kill himself all I knew how to do was to sit with him and talk and talk and talk. Or when he called me up one night with the same intent, to talk and talk and talk again.
He didn’t commit suicide but he didn’t really get better. I tried to get him help but he had been raised on the idea that you were either crazy or you weren’t and he, as he made sure I agreed, wasn’t crazy. I finally persuaded him to go with me to the Area C Mental Health Clinic but that didn’t take either.
Matters deteriorated and with the deterioration, Bo became more manipulative and less dependable and more frequently clearly on drugs. I finally reached the end of what I could do and told him so.
That didn’t work, either. One night around eleven-thirty he showed up at our front door, high and scared, begging for sanctuary from his pusher who was on his tail. As I looked out the window, I saw a two-tone brown Cadillac drive slowly by several times.
I wasn’t going to get into the middle of Bo’s failed deals. I finally figured that the safest place for Bo that night might be jail. So I called the local precinct, explained the situation and suggested they just take him down to the station house until the problem subsided.
A white cop arrived and Bo left with him. As they walked down the street, something went wrong and the two started fighting, with Bo eventually losing and being forcibly taken off. A neighbor, a popular black singer at the nearby Mr. Henry’s bar, looked out his window, saw a white cop assaulting a black man and went down to the precinct and bailed Bo out. One hour later, Bo was at my door again begging to be let in. This time I called the precinct and asked them to send a black cop and just take Bo home. They did and the evening ended.
But Bo continued his slide and was eventually arrested for robbery. While in prison, he wrote me a letter blaming me for his troubles. I wrote back in considerable heat telling him to stop blaming others and to get some help so he wouldn’t be so screwed up when he got out. This time he listened.
When his sentence was over, he came to see me, rational and sell-possessed. He wanted a job but I told him that it was time for him to move on. I saw him once again and he seemed all right.
CAPITOL EAST GAZETTE, 1968
RED STAFF CAR AT LEFT
The meat and potatoes of our coverage were the endless meetings taking place in the community, not a few of them spurred by questions as to what to do and who should do it with the money coming from the war on poverty. Everyone knew Robert’s Rules of Order and its locally sanctioned addenda: “Mr. Chairman, I have an unreadiness.” Sometimes meetings broke up in pandemonium. One was literally turned around after the chair declared it illegal. The vice chair, a minister and cab driver who wore a clerical collar around his neck and a coin holder on his belt, stood up in the back of the room and announced that the meeting would go on and requested everyone to turn their chairs around. Most did, leaving the chairman speechless in what was now the rear.
On another occasion this same preacher-cabbie urged the audience to “Calm the tempest, bridle tongues, and govern our thoughts.” It didn’t work. The minutes of the group bring back the flavor, if not the purpose, of the dispute:
The meeting was held on the above date with Mr. Swaim presiding. As a background he reviewed the Annual Assembly of Delegates which was not held because there was no quorum, and questions concerning the By-Laws, missing minutes and the fact that the Executive Committee minutes were not available . . .
Mrs. Mayo felt that all people should be allowed to speak. Mr. Geathers stated that it was not legal for non-members to participate. Mrs. Mayo then asked, “Who are the members?” Mr. Geathers stated that we were going to establish definitely the answer to this question . . .
The meetings may have seemed chaotic but they were actually part of a community coming alive, of power being transferred to better places, and of the anarchistic results of discovering hope. And you met some wonderful people covering the story, people like the Reverend Imogene Stewart of the Revolutionary Church of What’s Happening Now.
And public housing activist Lucille Goodwin. Ms. Goodwin, it seemed, spent all day on the phone. A long-time resident of Langston Terrace public housing in Near Northeast, constantly cropping up on anti-poverty boards and committees, ever-present at the big fights, chairwoman of the citizen’s advisory arm of the Neighborhood Legal Services program, she had plenty to talk about. A memo had come in the mail that she wanted to read, someone was putting something over on someone else, or perhaps she just had to report that at some local meeting “those folks messed themselves up good last night.” She carried out her civic functions with an energy more typical of one half her age, and she did so despite an ill and old husband who had to be helped in and out of rooms and who would sit quietly in a corner fiddling with a little plastic soldier while his wife took on the accumulated offenses of the system. It was her intensity and concern more than her language that carried her through, and she would toss around transliterated multisyllabic words like confetti. Everyone knew just what Lucille Goodwin meant even if they hadn’t understood what she said. One day, though, she ended her call with a message that hung around. “You know how you got to treat them people downtown?” she asked, and then without waiting offered the solution: “You gotta technique ’em.”
It is one thing to use political power; it is another thing to be denied political power and still produce change. It was the latter talent that a number of exceptional and unexceptional Washingtonians developed following the awakening of a local civil rights movement. The old-line groups, like the white liberals on the Home Rule Committee, the local NAACP, and the black ministers would plod along with traditional lobbying, petitions, and failure and increasingly they would be estranged from agitators, troublemakers, and radicals like Julius Hobson, Sammie Abbott, and Marion Barry. The newer activists realized that without the vote, policymakers would be influenced only by techniques and strategies that surprised, confounded, aggravated, delayed, or just plain scared them.
The biggest manifestation of this new spirit in our neighborhood came in 1969 when Bob Smith created a large Alinsky-like umbrella group called the Capitol East Community Organiation. At its first convention, representatives from more than 70 groups showed up to form what the Washington Post called a “broadly based, citizen-run community coalition.”
Not everyone was impressed, though. Regina Cobb, chair of the DC Family Rights Organization, took one look at the proposed slate of officers and demanded, “Why are there so many well-to-do people on the committee? Why aren’t there more poor people?”
Before long, seven new names had been added to the slate of 13 vice presidential candidates, among them Mrs. Cobb. Again she was not impressed: “I didn’t ask to be nominated as a board member, I asked to be president.” She lost.
Mrs. James Morrison of the League of Women Voters also had an objection; she wanted to know what the body’s condemnation of the Vietnam War had to do with Capitol East: “Let’s deal with Capitol East and not worry about the rest of the world at this assembly.”
CECO would be short lived, one of its most noticeable achievement being window signs that warned gentrifiers, “I love Capitol East and will fight to STAY!” The organization’s demise was speeded by the financial misdeeds of the director that led to a court trial notable for the appearance of two nuns as character witnesses. He may have been a sinner, but he was our sinner and not the courts. Saul Alinksy would have smiled.
Only a few national figures gave more than passing attention to the city. The most striking exceptions were Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. When Congress wouldn’t act on home rule, LBJ gave the city its own de facto government through the expediency of a bureaucratic reorganization, his appointees instructed personally by the big man to “act as if they had been elected.” And Ladybird personally directed a beautification program for our neighborhood. This was no publicity shot, rather a carefully designed program in which she enlisted the efforts of premier landscape architect Larry Halperin who produced one of the few urban plans I’ve seen that didn’t involve the probable displacement of currently resident citizens. Further, she assigned a White House staffer to work with neighborhood leaders — using skill instead of spin — in carrying out the project. There would be periodic reports of a White House limousine arriving in our neighborhood as Mrs. Johnson quietly checked on how things were going.
Washington was a city of dichotomies, contrasts, and striking inequalities. It was the capital of a major democracy that lacked local democracy. It was a citadel of power whose residents lacked power. It was a city with an excess of multimillion dollar office buildings and a shortage of housing. It was a city that was wealthier than most in which a sizable minority lives in great poverty. It had a 70 percent black population but the major decisions were still made by whites. It was a city in which the American dream and the American tragedy passed each other on the street and did not speak.
It was, finally, a city that had suffered a form of deprivation known primarily to the poor and the imprisoned, a psychological deprivation born of the constant suppression and denial of one’s identity, worth, or purpose by those in control. Washington to those in power was not a place but a hall to rent. The people of Washington were the custodian staff. And the renters were as likely to visit the world in which this staff lived as a parishioner is to inspect the boiler room of the church. The purpose of Washington’s community was to serve not to be. Its school children were not taught the history of their city; they were told little of its significant men and women. There was no city festival or parade. In fact, this repository of national history didn’t even have a local history museum. The city’s present was suppressed, its future was a hostage, and its past was ignored.
This was the city that civil rights activists and other reformers determined to – and did – change. This change was cultural as well as political and increasingly the old ways and the new found themselves in conflict. For example, having discovered that there were more African-American books in the libraries in the white parts of town than in the black city, I decided I better check out the meetings of the library board of trustees. There I found not only an all-white board but a chair in his 90s serving his colleagues tea and cookies.
Leaders of a reform movement at the Edmunds-Peabody Elementary School parent body also ran up against the old ways at a meeting so heated and controversial that the citywide PTA sent its president and two vice presidents to serve as monitors. The organization’s vice president, Bessie Turner, repeatedly interrupted the proceedings with instructions such as “Madame Chairman, the names of the nominated slate must be on the left hand side of the board.” During a break, I attempted to engage the formidable Turner in conversation. She told me, “I’m not interested in reporters. I defy you to write anything I don’t want in.”
In the end, Ted Jones won the heated election for president by a vote of 28 to 26. Mrs. Turner called the new officers forward. Ramrod straight, she read from the PTA’s encomium to itself as contained in its manual and instructed the audience to rise as she recited the “objects” of the organization. Asked whether they intended to help the new officers attend to their duties, the parents obediently responded, “I do.” Mrs. Turner then told the officers that “I sincerely hope you will follow your manual. If you follow its provisions you will not get into any difficulty.” She handed Jones his gavel but said he couldn’t have the official PTA president’s pin because he wasn’t a woman and that the pin would be held in escrow until the election of the next woman president. And she promised to send all the new officers their own manual.
It could be funny and it could be maddening. In 1967 I expressed my frustration in a piece for a local paper written as a letter to a friend moving into my neighborhood:
Don’t complain if Deborah comes home from elementary school with dirty hands. There are not enough wash basins to go around and she’s just being considerate to the other kids.
Don’t complain if John’s junior high history text stops with the League of Nations. . .
Don’t call a cab after sundown. It won’t come.
Look at the underside of produce in the supermarket. If it is less than 25% spoiled, buy it. You won’t do better.
Don’t call policemen “boy.” That’s a special phrase they reserve for their own use.
Train your dog to use the first spot of grass he finds. A choosy canine around here can be very tiring.
That scrawny tree behind your house is not dead. It is called a tree of heaven and it meant to have just three leaves on each branch. It only grows in blocks with a median income of less than $3,000 a year.
It is all right to call the Post Office after the third missed mail delivery. But don’t quote them that line about “neither snow nor rain not heat.” They are not familiar with it. They will think you’re some sort of hippy poet and will seize and burn all your mail.
The issues the Gazette covered and the causes it pressed ran the gamut. We campaigned for the then novel idea of packer sanitation trucks to replace the high sided open trash trucks. And we warned readers not put dog and cat dirt in their trash cans, quoting a trashman as saying, “How would you like to stand up in that truck in that stuff all day?’
We also quickly became a leading voice of the anti-freeway movement, and a precocious supporter of light rail and bikeways years before such phenomena became popular. Kathy would later recall going to an anti-freeway meeting and being astounded that we thought we were actually going to stop a highway. In fact, we didn’t stop the one we were fighting; it sliced through Southeast Washington, dividing public housing from the rest of the community. The Gazette ran a photo two young boys looking wistfully up at “Southeast’s Berlin Wall.” But before it was all over, people like us all over DC had stopped hundreds of lane-miles that would have made the city look like an east-coast Los Angeles.
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER CAUSE
There was always something to save – such as the 200-old trees in Lincoln Park – and something to promote — such as a new swimming pool – and something to cover – such as activists Janie Boyd and Marguerite Kelly, who were taking on the local supermarket chains. They challenged quality disparities between outlets in different parts of town and campaigned for the open dating of meat. Meat at that time was dated with a code known only to supermarket employees. The Gazette took the bold position that “an understandable date on each package of meat would be of considerable value to the shopper,” noting that “we have shared with other consumers the experience of having meat go bad soon after it has been brought home and put in the refrigerator.”
The consumer activists also went comparison shopping, coming up with prices at inner city Safeways up to a third higher than those in a white section of town. Further they demonstrated that prices were hiked when welfare checks came out.
During congressional hearings, Rep. Henry Reuss double-checked the figures at lunch time, returning to the hearing room with bags of groceries that he placed on the podium. When a Safeway official blamed some of the price differences on human error, Reuss responded, “In an hour and half I found quite bit of human error.”
We also ran a feature on Jane Hardin who had opened a combination laundromat and legal services office on Pennsylvania Ave., where on the first day someone stuck a quilt into a washer, jamming up the pipes. And we wrote about community police officer Ike Fulwood who, as we drove past some grim public housing, remarked, “There’s trouble. They never ask the police their opinion when they build public housing.” Fulwood would eventually become the city’s chief of police.
But things were already well beyond the capacity of any one community to solve. America’s cities were starting to burn and you could feel the heat even in Capitol East. In September 1967, anti-poverty activist Lola Singletary convinced the white businessmen of H Street to form a organization dedicated to involvement in community problems The group, the Gazette reported, “intends to deal with such issues as employment, welfare, safety, health, housing, recreation and urban planning.”
In late 1967 I came up with the idea of pulling together the various leaders of Capitol East into an informal leadership council with the possibility of forming a major neighborhood coalition. Fourteen people attended a meeting on January 31: 7 white and 7 black.
Among our purposes:
To share our group differences so we can increase our knowledge of one another’s group positions, plans and needs.
To increase opportunities to share our group concerns so that we can better support one another’s group efforts.
To obtain full representation for our community in civic and governmental affairs.
To unite in common action where we have agreement.
Your participation in the Council does not commit your organization to any position or organizational arrangement.
In February 1968, I wrote in the Gazette:
As contrary as the thought is to our national self-image, it is entirely possible that we are giving up the struggle to solve the deepest problems of our cities. . . National Guard troops are undergoing special training. Hotlines are being established. Armored trucks are being purchased. Police riot equipment is being beefed up. . . .Ramsey Clark, the Attorney General, was probably correct when he told a group of police chiefs and city officials recently that the nation’s power to deal with urban riots is increasing faster “than the underlying layers of frustration that cause them.”
On March 6, I wrote a prospective member
Although the Leadership Council has yet to establish a formal structure, the present trend appears to be in favor of a loose federation of leaders, relatively unstructured, and designed so we can act effectively when we have agreement but not get hung up when we don’t.
In the issue that appeared in late March, I wrote:
It seems like a lot of people, both the militants and the extremist moderates, are putting down Martin Luther King. I share some of the doubts that have been expressed as to whether his efforts this spring will make any difference. On the other hand, I wonder whether anything will. MLK does have one big factor in his favor. He is doing something. Congress isn’t. The White House isn’t. The District isn’t. The Urban League isn’t. Stokely isn’t. Possible or impossible, King’s show is the best we have in town this spring and it behooves all who would like to see some changes made to lend a hand.
That same month, the US Court of Appeals ordered the city to halt construction on four major sections of the city’s freeway system. For a change, it looked as if we might be winning.
H STREET BURNING AS SEEN FROM THE AUTHOR’S ROOF
FOUR BLOCKS AWAY
On the evening of April 4, 1968, I was up on T Street with a group of anti-freeway protesters picketing the mayor’s house, when word came of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. We went home as the police cars poured by filled with shotgun-armed and helmeted police.
The next morning things were quiet enough that we went about our business as usual. But I came home that afternoon from the office a few blocks away to find a slow stream of people walking down the street with liberated articles: hangers full of clothes, a naugahyde hassock, a television set. Somewhere in our neighborhood a woman walked off with a case of whiskey from a liquor store. When she got home she realized she didn’t have any soda to go with it. She went back and was arrested as she tried to liberate her chaser.
There were only a few whites living in the block; but I felt little tension or hostility. I mainly noted the black smoke drifting down from H Street, four blocks away. Kathy was out back working in our foot-wide strip of garden, listening to reports of looting and arson on a portable radio as a black fog settled in. We decided to go up on the roof for a better look. H Street was burning. Others areas had gone first and the radio reported a lack of fire equipment to deal with the situation a few blocks to the north. I tried to count the fires but they congealed under the curtain of smoke.
We decided to pack just in case. For about ten minutes we gathered an instinctive selection of nostalgic items, favorite photos, the non-valuable but irreplaceable. Then we looked at what we had done and laughed. Like loyal children of our generation, we settled down in our smoky living room to watch on television what was happening to us.
DC FIRE DEPARTMENT PHOTOS
At six-thirty the next morning, a white friend from around the corner rang our doorbell. He wasn’t in trouble; he just wanted company on a tour of the area. We got into his car and drove to H, Seventh and 14th Streets. As I looked at the smoldering carcass of Washington and observed the troops marching down the street past storefronts that no longer had any windows, I thought, so this is what war is like. As we drove past a gutted store on 14th Street it suddenly reignited itself and flames leaped towards the pavement.
That day and for several days thereafter, we stuck to home. The trouble had flared again. We received anxious calls from friends and relatives in another parts of town and in other towns. We assured them we were all right; they seemed more upset about our physical safety than we were and I did not want t alarm them by speaking what was in my mind.
For a year and a half of running a neighborhood newspaper, I had observed, and tried to report, a part of the community seething with emotions much of the other part refused to recognize. Now it was worse than even I had thought and anger, frustration and helplessness washed up on my mind’s shore.
I subconsciously prepared myself for it to get worse. In the middle of one of the riot nights, I awakened to a rumbling noise in the street and ran to the window expecting to see tanks rolling past our house. There were no tanks. In fact, the physical threat of the riots barely touched us.
WASHINGTONIANA DIV DC PUBLIC LIBRARY
H STREET THE MORNING AFTER
PHOTO BY SAM SMITH
The strange ambivalence of the riots — the slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the sounds of racial war penetrating the tranquility of a white couple’s home four blocks from disaster, our strangely ordinary experiences in an extraordinary situation — made the disorder a crazy amalgam that took weeks to sort out. For months after, when sporadic violence hit stores in our neighborhood, I expected to find our newspaper office smashed and looted. It wasn’t, despite the inviting glass storefront. I was inclined, with normal self delusion, to attributed this to having paid my dues. It was more likely that our second hand electric typewriters weren’t worth the candle when there was a whole Safeway up the street and a cleaners right on the corner.
Some people seemed to think I had something to do with it all. One of my advertisers, the photo dealer Harry Lunn, told me late one night that if anyone firebombed his store he was going to come and personally burn my house down. He had been or was still with the CIA so I tended to take him seriously.
Len Kirsten, an advertiser and owner of the Emporium, was more blasé. A lady walked into the store one day and, spotting the pile of Gazettes on the floor, said, “Isn’t that a Communist paper?”
“Oh no,” Len replied cheerfully. “The editor’s a communist but the paper isn’t.”
THE EMPORIUM, OWNED BY LEN KIRSTEN (IN BLACK HAT)
On the other hand, Lee, of Helen & Lee’s Chinese carryout was totally indifferent to politics. Lee and his wife ran a regular ad bragging that the carryout had been recommended by their four doctor sons. One of the items on the menu was a pork chop sandwich — the chop still on a bone slapped between two pieces of Wonder Bread. After Helen died, the sign over the door was changed to read: & Lee’s Carryout.
Another favorite advertiser was Harry Spack, owner of Spack’s Chicken on the Hill, which had a storefront windows filled with an 1883 Swiss music box, an airplane propeller, opera glasses, statuettes and drug store jewelry. There are Arabic sabers hanging over the restroom doors and travel posters on the wall. Also “the world’s smallest bar” — a few shelves filled with miniature liquor bottles.
“Now someday this place is going to have class,” Spack told our reporter, Greg Lawrence. “You know — cosmopolitan, relaxing, with fine music from the past. For instance,” he said as he reached for an object under the counter, “this vase from Europe has been dyed by its creators in pigeon blood. Now I ask you, what other cafe on Capitol Hill features decorations dyed in pigeon blood?”
LOCAL PUB – WHICH FEATURED SINGER ROBERTA FLACK – TAKING PRECAUTIONS FOLLOWING THE RIOTS
SAM SMITH PHOTO
The riot did more than $3 million worth of property damage. In the vicinity of H Street and some 124 commercial establishments and 52 homes were damaged. Another 21 businesses were damaged on or near 8th street. I wrote:
The destruction did not end with the quelling of the riot and the removal of federal troops who had guarded the area after being called in by city officials. Sporadic arson occurred, primarily along H Street, doing hundreds of thousand of dollars additional damage. . . Reaction varied from the intense anger of many white merchants at the failure of police to shoot looters to the feeling on the part of some community leaders that a new opportunity had been created to correct old economic and social wrongs.
During the riots, the black mayor, Walter Washington, had been called to the office of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he was told to start shooting looters. Washington refused, saying that “you can replace material goods, but you can’t replace human beings.” Hoover then said, “Well, this conversation is over.” Replied Washington, “That’s all right, I was leaving anyway.”
One white businessman, Milton Hoffman of Art Young’s clothing store, which had been burned in the riot, proposed a one percent of gross sales contribution by businesses to be used for community projects. Black businesses posted large “soul brother” signs on windows and walls. Private social agencies and anti-poverty centers were left alone. A laundry near the US Marine Barracks received special attention; guards with fixed bayonets protected the troop’s clothing inside. The riots had created their own rules.
PHOTO BY SAM SMITH
At the time of the riot early 25% of the labor force in Capitol East was either unemployed, earning less than $3000 a year or employed only part-time. Over half of all adults living in the east part of the neighborhood had eight years or less schooling. Over a quarter of the housing units in this same area were listed by the census as dilapidated or deteriorating.
Not long after the riots it was Easter and three local ministers, Tom Torosian, Jesse Anderson and Ralph Dwan held a sunrise service on 8th Street, refusing what Camus called the sin of despair.
SAM SMITH PHOTO
The riots weren’t the end of it. Even where there was a building to come back to, business on H Street wouldn’t really return for decades. A real estate dealer’s home was fire bombed as was a local settlement house. White and black friends no longer saw each other. And one day, in the dingy basement offices of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael said that we whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. Black nationalism had arrived and people like me were out.
The dream of a functioning bi-racial community was in pieces. H Street, with its jagged free standing walls and piles of rubble, looked like photos from a World War II retrospective. For me, hope had lost its virginity. There was no work for a white editor in a black neighborhood anymore. If I was to talk to anyone now, they would have look a lot more like me.
To be sure, a bi-racial slate of reform Democrats was elected in early May as convention delegates and central committee members. The slate included both Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy supporters, united in a desire to defeat the locally popular Hubert Humphrey. I won one of McCarthy’s slots on the party central committee. McCarthy had stated that he wanted no part of a coalition but some of his supporters, including myself, disagreed and so worked out a deal. A few days before the riot, the anti-war Democrats for Peace and Progress held a neighborhood convention in Capitol East. Five persons — a community organizer, a minister , a physicist, a school lunch clerk, and myself — were nominated. To my surprise, the Kennedy organization accepted us as well as other McCarthyites from around the city.
It was an unprecedented relinquishment of political power to mere party members and it produced an unusual slate that included community organizers and college professors, mothers on welfare and lawyers, black militants and a white philanthropist. Possibly no slate in America has ever been so varied.
The slate also included Sophie Reuther, wife of Victor Reuther. A former union organizer, she had once jumped out of a second story window to escape armed KKKers who had been set upon the union at the urging of management. Recalled Victor later, “She went underground and it took me three days to find her.” It was not a singular incident. On Sophie’s 25th birthday, her party had been interrupted by two gun-wielding company thugs who forced their way in and began pistol-whipping Walter Reuther, her brother-in-law.
On election day I stood outside my precinct distributing sample ballots. The Humphrey people were there too, but our main competition came from a man who accosted as many voters as he could and read them a two-page polemic against the police department for having stolen his watch three years earlier.
Inside my wife served as a Kennedy poll watcher in what was DC’s second election after a century of a full colonialism. Early in the morning the precinct election official had hung some political posters to decorate the drab voting area. Kathy indicated that the posters were nice but illegal. She also met a lady whose name she could not find on the voter list and who told her, “Oh, you won’t find me. I’m just here from Philadelphia visiting my aunt and I thought I’d come by.” Kathy thanked her and suggested that her vote might better be cast in Philadelphia.
Late in the afternoon, I moved to a corner with my card file of known favorable voters who had yet to cast a ballot, dispatching a small squadron of volunteer kids to remind them. We won and the next day, the Evening Star offered this editorial comment on the new Democratic Central Committee:
They are likely to me more militant, more aggressive and more insistent on direct participation in local affairs. What this bodes for the community remains to be seen.
With such unbridled enthusiasm from the establishment, we were off to a good start.
Then, one month later, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, completing the hat trick of evil begun four years earlier with the killing of his brother, followed by the slaying of Martin Luther King. While the other deaths may have been more tragic to more people, in one respect RFK’s was the most profound, for it appeared to shut the door on hope. What had been with his brother a grim anomaly had turned into a grisly habit. I wrote about it on June 7, 1968, two days after Kennedy was shot. He had died a day later:
Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, one of his associates is said to have told another: “The time will come when we shall laugh again; but we shall never be young again.”
The comment, I suppose, was about those closest to the dead president, but it also contained a truth for the country. As I sat before a television set the last few days, attempting to sort the emotions marching through my mind, the thought that kept coming back was how weary, how old, we had all become. The inertia of age had settled upon the nation in the years following John Kennedy’s death it seemed, and now we were stoically acting out one more scene in an unrelieved tragedy. . .
Tomorrow I shall go down to see the funeral cortege arrive at Union Station. I shall go not just out of sorrow and respect, but also to try to find some small sign that we collectively – without waiting for someone else to do it for us – are willing and able to have a dream, or seek a newer world.
Then, perhaps, we can become young again.
Later in June I wrote:
To a large extent, a community such as Capitol East is limited in its ability to respond with justice and adequacy to the current situation. Even if we had the will to change, we would remain hostage to the larger inertia of the nation and the city.
In September I wrote:
The Republicans have nominated Richard Nixon for president. The Democrats have nominated Hubert Humphrey for president. The reading scores of Capitol East schools are lower than ever. Some 9th Precinct patrolmen don’t want to ride in integrated scout cars. Some white DC fireman don’t want to use the same breathing apparatus as black firemen. Congress has passed, and the President has signed a bill ordering the District to complete a freeway program overwhelmingly opposed by the people of the city. DC Transit wants another fare hike and the transit commission says there’s nothing it can do about it. . . We could write an editorial on each of these items, but they’d all be pretty much the same. From the mundane to the cosmic, it’s been a busy month. We think we’ll just wait until October and hope things get better.
About six months later, I folded the Capitol East Gazette into the DC Gazette, a publication more like the many underground papers sprouting throughout America. I wrote:
We have decided to suspend publication of the Capitol East Gazette. Our reason for this change is that we have been unable to develop either the advertising base or the paid circulation within Capitol East to support a separate community paper. . .
Later I would explain it by saying that it seemed like too many of my readers wanted to burn down too many of my advertisers, but it wasn’t really funny. And it still hurts.
YOUR editor enjoyed lunch today with his wife at Jimmy T’s five blocks down East Capitol Street from where George Bush and his capos were being given four more years to do damage to their country, its constitution, its culture, and its environment — not to mention further mischief to the rest of the world. The inauguration was taking place on the opposite side of the Capitol and there were hardly any cars or people and no signs of security.
The counter at Jimmy T’s was full so we sat in a booth. The TV was on but no one looked at the inauguration and the sound was turned to WASH-FM – loud enough so you couldn’t hear the helicopters overhead. For as long as it takes to eat a short stack with bacon and drink a cup of coffee we could pretend everything was okay.
EIGHTH STREET SE is one of those places progress didn’t think was worth messing with. They even ran out of fire engines by the time it burned in the 1968 riots leaving the Marines from the barracks to send some sentries to guard the laundry through which their dirty uniforms flowed. A Sunday or two after the riots, three ministers held a sunrise service out on the street, but not much has happened since.
Thirty-five years later it offers little but utility – a headquarters and laundry for the Marines; a Popeye’s; overflow space for the Shakespeare Theater; a Seven-Eleven and a Subway, the sina qua non of urban survival; one of Capitol Hill’s two hardware stores; a dollar emporium; video stores, a fire station, and some restaurants that were looking for cheap space. It’s one of the few urban strips where you’ll find homeless, yuppies, gays, Marines, firefighters, and Shakespearian actors all enjoying the same space.
The secret of such places is their non-discovery and 8th Street was too close to the already found and desiccated to last. It is, after all, the holy jihad of planners to root out such heresies and turn them to the path of progress. Having already done their work in downtown, where the last of the quirky and the human have been exorcised, they are now turning towards our neighborhoods, promising the infidels there that no block shall remain unplanned. They even have over a hundred places picked out for monuments now that the center city ceremonial parking lot has been filled. And no one will ask the good citizens of Brookland whether they really need a statue of Robert Dole on a horse.
They have already discovered 8th Street, which is now being spruced up as part of Main Street, a campaign to cleanse America of urban greasy spoons, seedy emporiums with seedy customers, and places of scruffy usefulness. My neighbors seem to welcome it. I have gently tried to suggest that they should welcome instead being one of the few hoods in America with two hardware stores, but in this land only resurrection ranks ahead of progress.
It is absolutely predictable what will happen. Eighth Street will become a tree and bench lined paragon of new urban style; in fact you may even get confused and think you’re in downtown Alexandria or Warrenton, for progress comes in only one flavor these days. The rents will rise to meet the charm and the scruffy and the seedy and greasy will not be able to pay the rents and will be gone. In its place will come antiseptic, clerical urbanity.
It is already happening even as the street is torn up for the greater glory of God and revitalization. Payless Shoes will soon be replaced by Paymore Coffee, a.k.a. Starbucks, where you can drink your latte grande and be grateful that 8th Street will soon be just like everywhere else.