24 hours is a telling time in Trinidad, a D.C. neighborhood turning the corner

A blighted stretch of Bladensburg Road NE bordering the Trinidad neighborhood has begun to transform, thanks to the recent arrivals of the Capital City Diner, Sullivan's Southern Style Seafood, a mixed-use condo building and a bar called Jimmy Valentine's Lonely Hearts Club (which first staked a claim to the nascent commercial strip in 2007).
Map of  Capital City Diner
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It gleams like a giant silver bullet lodged in the former site of a used-car lot, between a dumpy little liquor store and a rubbly, vacant property. It's a diner, that American symbol of both thriftiness and plenty, community and loneliness, where the well of coffee never runs dry, where you can eat alone and still feel part of something.

Every city needs a utilitarian district where life is staged, where cabs are serviced, trash is compacted and sand and salt are heaped, and this is where there should be a diner. Nail salons, automotive shops and blighty storefronts line this stretch of Bladensburg Road NE between H Street and Mount Olivet Cemetery, on the eastern edge of the unkempt-but-quaint neighborhood of Trinidad. Hardly an oasis, Trinidad still smarts from a rash of homicides that prompted police checkpoints two years ago. At that time, on the 1100 block, a bar called Jimmy Valentine's Lonely Hearts Club had taken root where an income tax service used to be. Shortly thereafter, a new 18-unit condo building opened on L Street NE. Next, in September of last year, Sullivan's Southern Style Seafood set up shop in an empty former deli spot. And then the diner appeared in February.

Something is slowly coming together in this part of Ward 5, short stack by short stack, condo by condo, crab cake by crab cake, Pabst Blue Ribbon by Pabst Blue Ribbon. Here are 24 hours on a single block of a neighborhood on the verge.

The early shift

The pre-dawn sky is velvety. The new streetlamps on Bladensburg flood the rusty strip with honey-hued light. Crickets chirp in thickets of weeds. Morning glories strangle barbed wire. The O'Jays sing from a single speaker beside the Capital City Diner's steel-grated steps, where a man in a button-up chef uniform awaits the man with the key. He's staring past the condo building across the street -- the one with papered-over retail windows -- up a slope toward 17th Street NE, where he's lived all his life.

It's 5:37 a.m. Friday, and Charles Caldwell, 46, watches August slip away with the night.

Three minutes later, Matt Ashburn, 28, pulls up in his sport-utility vehicle and jumps back into his 107-hour workweek. He lives around the corner on Morse Street NE, bought the 1947 diner for $20,000 on eBay last year, shipped it down from New York, opened it after an aggravating permit process, and manages it before and after his day job as an analyst at the Justice Department.

Stubbled and sleepy, he unlocks the front door, flicks on the lights, and Caldwell follows him in. The young white entrepreneur from small-town Virginia and the black, middle-aged, ex-Marine cook go about the business of the business: turning the fryers on till they gurgle, unloading tubs of waffle mix from the antique Frigidaire, spritzing cleanser on the teal formica counter, brewing the first black drops of a stream of coffee that won't stop till 5 p.m. Sunday.

Mornings have been slow lately. Caldwell and Ashburn think it's because there was a massive drug bust -- crack cocaine, marijuana, PCP -- four blocks behind the diner last month.

"Business is down 15 percent," Ashburn says, darkly amused. "When did Girly get locked up?"

"About a month ago," Caldwell says, shaking his head, recalling the loud, middle-aged woman who had to be the center of attention whenever she walked in, who always ordered biscuits and gravy.

At 6 a.m., as a baby-blue haze spreads upward from the horizon, everyone's favorite waitress walks in. This is Gloria Rucker, 48, who's been waiting tables since her IHOP days in Winston-Salem, N.C., when she was 14 and had to hide her job from her father, a strict Methodist minister. She moved from Maryland to 16th Street NE for this job. She's assumed the role of den mother, all "sweetie" this and "honey" that as she scoots up and down the narrow stretch of floor between the five booths and 16 stools.

The first customer walks in at 6:14. His order, as written in loopy letters on a ticket, is "3/scheese/BAC/wwtst" (three scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon, and whole wheat toast).

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