It's Just Nazi Same Place

(Eric Shansby)
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, February 10, 2008

I'm sitting in a cozy little coffeehouse in Clarendon, listening for whispers of evil. It's an important journalistic mission; I am trying to rescue an endangered literary cliche, the one about how places carry "echoes of their past." Every journalist depends on this cliche when we write our crappy stories about Civil War battlefields, or the razing of some venerable stadium, or some neighborhood that was once great and is now grim.

I'm here at the Java Shack because I've been told there are no bad echoes. And yet, by the solemn rules of my craft, there must be. The building that the Java Shack occupies used to belong to the American Nazi Party. Back in the 1960s, a fulminating racist named George Lincoln Rockwell held court here, plotting world conquest.

How bad was Rockwell? Well, he kept a candlelit shrine to Adolf Hitler. He wore a swastika armband, believed that black men just want to "loaf, loot and rape," and he publicly advocated the imprisonment of homosexuals and the gassing of Jews. He did have a softer, artistic side: He also founded a music company called Hatenanny Records, featuring the song stylings of Odis Cochran and the Three Bigots.

So I'm hoping for the worst, aura-wise, but so far, things are not going well. The Java Shack seems like a friendly place, with a wooden rocking horse for children, a featured quiche of the day, yogurt muffins and "free trade" coffee that costs a little more because the South Americans who harvest the beans get a living wage. The light bulbs are energy-savers, and the Styrofoam is made from corn, not petroleum. The guy behind the counter is dark-skinned, as is the woman in the corner, talking to her white friend. The owner, Dale Roberts, is gay.

Hey, Dale, do you let Jews in here?

"'Scuse me?"

You know, money-grubbing Christ-killers?

"Oh. Right. Sure!"

Dale's laughing. He still gets letters sometimes, addressed to the Nazis. There's a pile of them next to the cash register.

These could be the evil vibes I am looking for, except they're too pathetic to qualify. They're all postmarked from prisons and are mostly written in curlicued, second-grade cursive, like this one that begins, "I've been a racist since March of '95 . . ."Here's one that ends so bizarrely that I take a picture of it with my cellphone:

I tell Dale I'm looking for echoes of the past. They're gone, he says. He got rid of them with magic . . .

'Scuse me?

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