Bits from the past: Living east of the Capitol in the 1960s

Sam Smith – In my 1960s neighborhood east of the US Capitol, 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 culture. Even the jukebox at the Stanton Grill — purveyors of Greek and American food to white Appalachian boarding house residents — played the Supremes, not Bob Dylan. We lived in one of the toughest sections of town. 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 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.” “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. When I returned the next morning, I quickly realized 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. I called it Gloria because it was sick transit. Now my beloved yacht had been stolen from the backyard. The window in the basement was also 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 kept calm, and even 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, John C, attorney at law, part Cherokee and 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. John 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 misplacement of two 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 John awakened the city’s recreation director with a torrent of obscenities. The equipment was moved later that day.

My circulation staff came from my new 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 we got along 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 my wife’s roof-rack equipped red Volkswagen. One day I came home to find several of the neighborhood youths watching another kid run out in front of cars, forcing them 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 began to suggest 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, very high and very scared, begging for sanctuary from his pusher who was after him. 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. When his time 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 only saw him once again and he seemed all right.