Tales from the Old Post Office. Plus: Holding it along the C&O Canal.

John Kelly
Columnist October 15, 2013

These days, the Old Post Office Pavilion is even quieter than it normally is. The government shutdown has meant that its merchants are deprived of customers who work in federal offices there and nearby. And with the National Park Service-run bell tower closed, there are fewer tourists, too.

So we’re left with memories. When a 17-year-old Betty Walters came to Washington in 1953 to work for the FBI, her introduction to the bureau was in the Old Post Office. The Washington Field Office was there, and that’s where Betty took her typing test and processed her “entry-on-duty” papers. Her actual workplace turned out to be down the street, in the Justice Department building.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“My job there was in a typing pool in Room 4525 in the personnel section,” wrote Betty.
“We were told to keep paper in our typewriters even if there was nothing to type, because John Edgar Hoover could walk through at any time. (He never did.) And if all else failed, we were to pull a card file drawer of personnel cards to check alphabetization.”

Arlington’s James Bell remembers enjoying the Old Post Office Pavilion’s sweeter side. “Many years ago there was a candy store in the atrium where they made real, honest-to-goodness fudge,” he wrote. “There was a huge marble counter where hot fudge was poured from big copper kettles, and the ‘candy masters’ would entertain the crowd by mixing and keeping the fudge from dripping off the sides of the counter. And man, was it good!”

Karen Gill works in a federal building near the Old Post Office. She regularly stops by the Bagel Express. “The people who work at the Bagel Express could teach Donald Trump a thing or two about customer service,” she wrote. “They always try to give you exactly what you want. The manager has an amazing memory and can remember your regular order even if you have not been around for more than a few months. She frequently treats regular customers to bananas and extra bagels. I will miss them greatly once redevelopment starts and they have to leave.”

Noted Karen: “The Old Post Office Pavilion has been a ghost town since the government shutdown began.”

Please don’t call it a ‘John’

Once or twice a week, Zoltan Bagdy of Germantown walks his daughter and son-in-law’s yellow Lab, Oszkar, on the C&O Canal towpath. Recently, he went to walk the Calico Rocks segment. Because of the shutdown, the gate was locked.

“Of course, all you have to do is take about four steps to the left of the gate, walk down the grassy knoll and you are at the towpath,” wrote Zoltan. “Which we did. We saw a few bikers, no hikers, a man and his son fishing. About halfway through our customary walk, there is a hiker/biker campsite, which includes a Jiffy John and an artesian well.”

Both were victims of the shutdown: The well was dismantled, and the toilet was wrapped with a metal band so it couldn’t be used. Wrote Zoltan: “The impact of the shutdown ranges from the tragic — cancer patients not admitted to NIH trials, the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan not receiving the customary death benefits, etc. — to mildly annoying, to the ridiculous. Clearly, our experience with the shuttered toilet and the dismantled well falls in the last category. No harm was done — I didn’t have to go, and Oszkar doesn’t use the facilities anyway. Nevertheless, this experience pointed out that the shutdown pervades even the most trivial aspects of our daily life.

“One day the shutdown will be over, politicians and pundits will declare that order is restored, the wellwater will be flowing. Oszkar and I will have a drink at the well, and keep our fingers crossed that indeed, order is restored.”

Blowup

After reading my Sept. 30 column about old cameras, Leslie Wilder of Alexandria wrote to say that she was a “PK,” too: a photographer’s kid. Her father even had a makeshift darkroom, though it occupied a critical room in their house. “God help anyone who needed to use the toilet while he was developing,” she wrote.

In the 1960s, Leslie and her sister went on a trip to Europe with their dad. “[We] joked that we automatically put a hand out every time we stopped to hold a lens for him.”

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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