They closed the lunch counter at Schwartz's drugstore yesterday. The regulars, who seem like half of Washington after all these years, didn't know what to do.
"We had a woman, she must be in her 80s, she walks down from Florida Avenue every morning to eat breakfast here," said David Shapiro, who bought the drugstore, which is at Connecticut and R, last May.
"We had to lead her over to the Mutual of Omaha cafeteria across the street. She didn't know where else to eat."
Shapiro was standing behind the cash register looking uncomfortable when Kathleen Fulton saw COUNTER CLOSED on the blackboard where she should have seen today's special.
"How could that be?" she said.
"Why not?" said Shapiro.
"Everybody was always here," she said. "I've eaten here for 11 years. I brought my kids here for treats. It's part of the community."
"The guy who had the concession came this morning and cleared all his stuff out," said Shapiro. "It was the expense - the utilities, the cost of food, the help . . . "
Schwartzs was the kind of place where you could read the whole Scientific American with one 85-cent cup of chili: the marble counter, a grease-spattered stack of Campbell's soup cans, smells of ladies's powder from the back of the store, tobacco from front, and millions of orders of toast. Schwartz's was where you took Saturday night's love for Sunday breakfast, equal parts nostalgia and absolution in the air.
Everybody hit Schwartz's.
Jackie Kennedy ate here in her photography days. Averell Harriman, Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and John L. Lewis dropped in. Plus the old lady who hit people with her cane, the kids wearing backpacks, the White Russian who kept talking about the huge war-damage claim he had coming, the folks who'd get off the Mt. Pleasant bus with their transfers and have a cup ofcoffee before getting on the L2 or the £4.
Once, you could walk in and ask counterman Charlie Cooper "how they doing" and he'd say seven to five bottom of the eighth and that was the score of the Senators' game. And Eddie Lewis never gave up cursing the diplomats who'd flash some pass that exempted them from sales taxes.
Eddie died of cancer in 1977. Charlie quit in February.
"Lotta people miss Charlie, they keep asking for him," said Shapiro. But Charlie, who works down the street now at a carryout called Tastebuds, says "I don't believe it." (His fans will be glad to know he's as bashful as ever and still talks faster than any two tobacco auctioneers.)
Schwartz was the kind of place you'd take a girl to show her you knew where the real thing was, the bag lady warming her hands around a cup of chicken soup" the old man with the perfect 1934 Paris pompadour studying Le Figaro, the lesbian pasting up a gay rights poster by the door.
Yesterday at 1:05 p.m., Steve Howards ushered Carol Freedman through the fingerprinty glass door. "This is it," he said. "I hope you . . . " As the door shut behind him, you could see his lips go "closed?"
"He said it was a tunky little place," said Carol Freedman.
"You know someplace else to eat around here?" Howards said.
Ada Harris, behind the newscounter, turned it into a lunchtime litany: "Fountain's closed, for how long I don't know."
Jerry Smith thought about it, all dressed up in his red sportscoat and red necktie.
"I've been eating in here for 26 years," he said in a southern accent that sounded odd when he lapsed into Yiddish turning "oy vey" into "oh-ah vehn."
"When Izzy had the place, I knew Izzy. Then his brother Doc took over, and I knew him. Now they've closed the lunch counter."
"They did the best they could," Shapiro said of the last concession holder. "They put in long hours, but utilities and food and the cost of help . . . "
In Silver Spring, Jack "Doc" Sadel, who with his brother and wife ran Schwartz's from 1930 til last May, said he was shocked. But people don't want to do that kind of work, anymore. Like you want to get waited on in a department store and it's like you're disturbing their siesta."
"If I could find a good operator, said Shapiro, "maybe we could keep it going. You see that guy in here with the board and the black T-shirt? He said he wanted to give it a try, because it was an institution."
It went on through lunch hour, the regulars stopping so fast they nearly stumbled when they saw the red plastic seats gone from the eight counter stools, the napkin holders huddled with the sugar canisters on the counter.
"For how long, I don't know," Ada Harris told them.
Over at the Georgetown Pharmacy, where the legendary Sunday breakfasts have recently vanished, too. Harry "Doc" Dalinsky had an answer: "I took my fountain out in 1957. It didn't pay. I hear they had a good lunch trade at Schwartz's, but I don't know who the hell has a fountain anymore."