September 18, 2014

Mother S

 Somewhere around my junior year at Georgetown, I started working at the Safeway -- or as I liked to put it, Mother S: She Feeds Us All -- on Connecticut Avenue, right above Calvert Street, across from the restaurant where I would propose to my wife a few years later. I needed the money to pay for the room I was renting for $40 a month and to buy food to eat. I had worked part-time at a grocery store during high school, so it was a natural fit. I'm not sure how I found the job or how I got there, although in those days, I got around mostly by taxi. Fares were cheap, the rates being rigged to favor the congressmen who mostly lived in the Northwest section of DC. The poorer folks in Southeast and Northeast no doubt paid more.

The swanky Shoreham Hotel--the Beatles booked an entire floor in 1964 during their appearance in DC--was right around the corner on Calvert Street. North on Connecticut were several large apartment buildings that supplied a steady stream of old ladies who would pay for their groceries with money hidden under their mattresses since the New Deal. Paper money was less standardized in those days; many older forms of currency such as silver certificates and U.S. bank notes were still in circulation. I did have one old lady who would try to pay with matchsticks. She would bend them back as if peeling off ones from a money roll. I would gently inform her that we only took money at this store. She would greet this each time as a fresh revelation, then she would put her matches away and fish money out of her change purse. Today she would be in a nursing home. Back then, she was on her own.

I made some good friends while working at the Safeway. There was a group of guys who called themselves the Oxford Otters, after a local bar called the the Oxford Tavern, which was across the street from the National Zoo. My usual role was that of the observer, standing on the edge of the crowd watching the play unfold, so to be accepted as one of the guys was nice. Maybe it was because, like John at the bar, I was always quick with a joke, but there was no definitely place I'd rather be than working with the guys or hanging out at the Ox. (None of this was especially helpful in terms of my academic pursuits at Georgetown, but there is more than one way to get an education.)

Phil was a simple man, an all-American guy who eventually ended up in Vietnam. I hope he made it back. He gave me my first ride on a motorcycle: a 650cc Triumph Bonneville. Heavy metal thunder as good as it gets. I knew at that moment I was born to run, and in fact I did get a motorcycle after I came back from Vietnam. The only rush that ever matched that first ride was my first time on a slick -- the UH-1D Bell helicopter you see in every Vietnam movie--cruising 125 miles per hour over the jungle at tree-top height, turning and twisting with the curves of Highway 1, and nothing to keep you from sliding off the bench and out of the chopper except your ability to weight-shift against the guy sitting next to you.

Joe was a burly Irish kid who, like me, was in college. He had a girl friend, something that up till then had eluded me. He was good-looking and blessed with an easy-going temperament that often kept us out of more trouble than we might otherwise have gotten into. Ron was a tall, thin guy who didn't work at the store, but he was part of the group from high school. He had a way with the girls that they found irresistible, another skill that up till then had eluded me.

Then there was Jack, the youngest of us but in many ways the oldest. As I think back, I can see in his eyes the thousand-yard stare that would become so familiar to me. There was a wildness in him that came from a tough family situation. We were close, or at least I like to think we were. He often said he didn't care about anything, but unlike most of us, he really meant it. When I got to Vietnam, I would think about Jack and not caring about things. It became a way of coping that got me through the war, although not without its own side effects. I hope he survived the sadness, but we all know how scars from childhood linger in the soul.

For me, working at Mother S was an interlude before I got on with my real life. For most of these guys, this was their real life. Whatever the future might hold, right then in that moment we all somehow understood that this was the last time we would have money enough and time enough and  freedom enough to fool around and just have a good time. So, we worked and we hoisted a few at the Ox. Sometimes we would head out to the Campus Club at GW University, where Jack would maybe get into a beer fight with one of the students. One time we went out to this place in the woods one of the guys parents owned. We sat around shooting the shit, drinking beer, and eating Vienna sausages out of a can. God, what fun it was, living the simple life in a world about to go crazy on us.

It ended for me with graduation and then being drafted into the army. I moved back to DC and lived and worked in that area for 30 more years, but I never saw any of those guys again. The last time I went down that way, the Safeway was long gone, as was the restaurant across the street. Time had rubbed out another part of my past, leaving behind only the memories. That's life in the big city.

The Old Location of the Safeway

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