September 15, 2014

Those Were the Days

If I was to chunk out the first quarter century of my life into broad blocks based on geography, they would be labeled "Cohasset," "Washington, DC," and "Vietnam." The rough draft of the man I am today was first sketched out in those places. Of the three, I would have to say that my fondest memories are of Glover Park, a working class neighborhood occupying the heights north of Georgetown.

I spent my first year at Georgetown University living in the Loyola Dormitory, adjacent to the School of Foreign Service, which at that time was located on 36th Street, between and N and Prospect Streets NW. In my sophomore year, I moved to a house in Glover park owned by a woman named Della, a spindly old lady who rented her basement apartment out to me and a friend of mine named Mike, who hailed from upstate New York. He would still get the local papers sent to him by his folks. A typical story might read: On Sunday afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Salvatore visited the home of Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Catanzaro, where they were served coffee. (Does this America still exist?)

In my junior year, I rented a room in a house on Benton Street, which ran east to west from Wisconsin Avenue to Glover Archibald Park. I was introduced to the place by my friend Denny, with whom I would eventually share an apartment on Connecticut Avenue. The house on Benton Street was presided over by Albert J. LePain, a short, slightly bow-legged, balding martini drinker from Massachusetts. Albert was the head waiter at the Madison Hotel, one of the elite hotels in Washington.

Besides Denny, my other best friend was Jack Fitzgerald, a non-student who was a computer programmer, something of an oddity at the time. Other people rented rooms during my tenure there, but they are long-forgotten. It was Fitzie who introduced me to the crowd at the Grog and Tankard, a bar on Wisconsin Avenue run by a woman named Nina. (This was long before the Grog changed to a live-band bar. The place has since closed.)

There's a wonderful old Russian drinking song that begins with these words:  "Once upon a time there was a tavern, where we used to raise a glass or two." That place for me will always be the Grog. I would sit in a booth with Fitzie, who would be greeted by all the regulars as they came through the door. Some would join us as we sipped on our 25 cent beers and maybe a hard-boiled egg we would get from a basket Nina kept on the bar. (Don't knock it if you haven't tried it.)

This was a cast of characters every bit as varied as those in Billy Joel's Piano Man. Sadly, I remember only a few of them. One traveled from city to city setting up convention sites. Another was a chauffeur who would have a beer or two or three while waiting to pick up his party from a night at the Kennedy Center. Herbie would sit at the bar and nod agreeably as he listened to the occasional clueless tourist bemoan the pervasive presence of those gays in DC, never realizing that Herbie was one of them. Presiding over it all was Fitzie, the ringmaster of our little human circus.

It was at the Grog and Tankard where I first spent time with adults who weren't relatives. I listened as they told their stories. Through the laughter came echoes of the losses that had piled up over the years. These were men who had ended up alone, men who gravitated towards places like the Grog, where they could drink in the lonely crowd and relive the dreams they used to have.

Looking back over my own wins and losses, I realize that at no time was I more carefree than when I was sitting in a booth with Fitzie, listening to the stories unfurl. If I could go back to any one time and place, perhaps that would be it. But it doesn't work that way. We are propelled relentlessly forward from cradle to grave, with no way back. Who the hell came up with that system?

Physicists speculate about parallel universes where all our stories unfold in every conceivable fashion, worlds we are forever barred from entering lest the universe come apart at the seams of time. But I doubt those physicists ever spent much time in a place like the Grog, a place where parallel universes converged every night and we all got to live the life we chose instead of the life we got.

This is the first in a series of reminiscences about that time in my life. I beg the reader's indulgence in advance as I let my mind wander among friends and places too carelessly left behind.

Benton Street

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