Melting the Ice With Creatures From a Hot Lagoon

By John Kelly
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

On the snowiest day of the year I felt like visiting the tropics, so yesterday I pushed open the door to the Tropical Lagoon fish store in Silver Spring and waited for the condensation to clear from my eyeglasses.

It was warm in the store. No, it was hot, and I stripped off my parka, hat, scarf and gloves. Owner Steve Maletzky was in jeans and a T-shirt that read, "Buy this man a beer."

"I almost wore shorts," said Steve, "but it's a little cold for that."

Steve, 51, was messing with a customer's balky aquarium light while all around him fish tanks burbled, their colorful contents flitting around in gin-clear water like so many precious jewels.

It's always hot in Tropical Lagoon, which has been on Georgia Avenue basically forever. Steve bought the place in 1984 and can't remember how long the guy who sold it to him owned it before that.

Yesterday, it was a Caribbean island in a sea of snow. Beautiful fish darted around exotic corals and frondy aquatic plants. The fish names written on the tanks sounded like delicious, fruity drinks: purple tang, blue damsel, royal gramma . . . All that was missing were paper umbrellas.

Steve has quite the menagerie in his shop. Besides the dozens of fish-filled aquaria, the store is home to two resident cats -- Tara and Kitty -- who lolled around like harem girls. They haven't eaten a tropical fish yet.

Every few minutes, Susie, one of Steve's two parrots, squawked, "Gimme a beer," a skill she learned from a former employee. Steve's other parrot, Brodie, brooded in his cage. ("He's kind of like a teenager," Steve said. "He does the opposite of whatever you tell him.")

Steve's newest acquisition -- an 8-week-old, turquoise-eyed miniature Australian shepherd named Layla -- chased her stubby tail around the store, stopping occasionally to untie customers' shoelaces with her teeth.

"Have you seen my turtle?" Steve asked.

I hadn't. Steve has a 65-pound African spur thigh tortoise named Tank who "winters" at the back of the shop. Tank spends the rest of the year in Steve's back yard, where he is a fairly efficient gardener. "He loves dandelions," Steve said.

A well-tended fish tank is a miniature world, a simulacrum of reality. Tropical Lagoon seemed like one too, but instead of hermit crabs or tiny plastic treasure chests spewing bubbles, it's decorated with a six-foot-tall wooden tiki ("That's from the old Kona Kai restaurant in the Pooks Hill Marriott. We used to maintain their aquarium"), a plaster gorilla head, a large Bill the Cat statue, a dusty velvet sombrero, a half human/half lizard made out of papier-m√Ęche. . . .

"We used to have a lot more stuff," Steve said apologetically.

I pulled on my winter gear and left the tropics, trudging through dirty snow the mushy consistency of brown sugar and butter.

Across the street, a man was shoveling the driveway of a dry cleaners.

Ski Patrol

The snowstorm that dropped as much as a foot of snow on the Washington area dropped a fraction of that on nearby ski resorts. Wisp in Garrett County barely got an inch. Whitetail in Mercersburg, Pa., got just two inches. But that's just fine with them.

"When D.C. and Baltimore and those areas get snow, it puts skiing on everyone's minds, so we benefit immensely," said Lori Epps of Wisp. "I call it the 'backyard syndrome.' When there's no snow in your back yard, you don't think there's snow three hours away. It helps eliminate the backyard syndrome when it snows in D.C. We love it."

Running a ski resort means reading the skies. "We subscribe to every weather service available and have three or four weather stations on the mountain," said Whitetail's Matt See. "We have people that monitor the weather all day long."

Matt said that 20 computers hum in the snowmaking control room. When conditions are right -- low humidity is more important than low temperature -- they "charge" the mountain, drawing thousands of gallons of water from their reservoir and sending it through the snow machines, from which it emerges as perfect crystals. Natural snow on top is icing on the cake.

Ski folks hope the season will go through March.

Bird in the Hand

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a starling living deep underground in the Forest Glen Metro station. Reports of his demise -- Metro told me it had been euthanized -- were premature. I saw him yesterday, looking as incongruous as ever.

I'll post more pictures of the Tropical Lagoon menagerie on my blog today: My e-mail:

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