THE SORTS of things you grew up with that you hoped would never change -- that's the real stuff. It was before soft ice cream, way before the discovery of yogurt, before digital watches, saccharine soft drinks, before superhighways and supermarkets. Before polyester, before hand-held computer games, before Styrofoam -- there was the real, and real people came with it.
Trips downtown shopping with my mother and grandmother were memorable because of the fruit-and-vegetable man, his name now forgotten, but once known. Seedless grapes were my passion, and it was my habit to acquire, for consumption on the way home, half a pound of them. I'd eat them all, no messy seeds, and I liked them especially well because the greengrocer would always let me take the grapes to the darkened back room where the sink was, and rinse them in cold water. I did not like "dirty" grapes. The trick was to gobble up the grapes before the brown bag that held them became soggy and tore, the hazard of washed grapes.
There was also the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, where mother would go on Saturdays, to buy scrapple or a turkey, the same stands where she'd been trading for years, and is to this day. At the end of the tiring walk through the tiled catacombs of the terminal was the reward at the stand by the door, "Franklin H. Field." When I was very small I thought Franklin Field was where they played the World Series. But then I learned that it was the friendly place to buy the summer savory, the thyme and the basil that the Fields grew themselves, fresh horseradish, which I did not like, and fresh grated coconut, which I did. And this was what would get me on the bus and back home: a quarter pound of coconut in a bag as white as the sweet moist flakes it held.
Though the real stuff is often associated with one's childhood -- simpler days -- it's different from nostalgia, in that what's nostalgic for one -- majorette boots and car hops and 45s -- is not necessarily nostalgic for one who recalls Clara Bow, or whose memory dates from the time when John Travolta was a sweathog.
It's more authentic than mere fad. It's back to basics. It's the direction we've been taking with tofu and jogging, but with a difference. In years past, there wasn't the need for "health food"; it was assumed that all food was healthful. Real stuff is sincere, the childhood verities. It's Girl Scout cookies baked by a Girl Scout, fresh lemonade from Rube Goldberg juicers.
The real stuff has a personal touch. Remember when you knew your postman by his first name? It has to do with small-town things -- a Main Street, a neighborhood; scissors-grinder, knife-sharpener, his bells ringing; ice-cream men or ladies who keep the route all summer; farmers' vegetable trucks that stop on the same corner every Tuesday as soon as warm weather arrives. Out in the suburbs where persons of Good Humor rarely venture, there's only the Chem Lawn man, four times a year.
It was once okay to be called a soda-jerk -- wear a white paper hat and dispense seltzer, malteds and lime rickeys at a soda fountain. You could order "the usual" and get it. Drugstores still had Prince Albert in a can.
Telegrams, before everyone learned to use the telephone: You'd know who'd bring you the bad news, and you'd have time to compose yourself.
And the sounds, real ones from clamp-on rollerskates, wheels of metal grinding on the sidewalk, but never on Sunday because it would disturb the neighbors. The skate kery clicking against a button where the indispensable slip of metal dangled from a string around your neck.
Prop planes groaning overhead in the summer night, or the buzzing of a small mosquito around the ear, before air conditioners blotted out the sounds.
The sound of silkworms munching on mulberry leaves. Train whistles, clickety clacks echoing back the blues.
The simple things: honeybees and Queen Anne's lace, a 5 & 10, clothespins, white picket fences, sneakers, riddles, pretzel rods and penny candy, rainbows in the sky and not on the seat pockets of jeans.
Banks gave out paper-and-felt things that changed color according to the humidity -- before humidifiers. There were hairnets for women, and for men warm moist towels in barbershops ("tonsorial parlors"), barber poles, shave and a haircut, two bits, and then along came unisex.
WHAT IS THERE around that's authentic? Is your post office, for one, a homey gathering place? If it's decorated with knickknacks -- little china dolls of many lands in one window, blown-glass animals in another -- then your post office is Glen Echo, MD 20768. It's one-fourth of a sparkling white clapboard building just off MacArthur Boulevard -- the other three-fourths is the Town Hall. The Glen Echo Post Office has old-style numbered post boxes and only two service windows. Its concession to progress: a roped-off area for standing in line. Not that anyone would ever dream of butting ahead. These are neighbors, and the clerk behind the counter takes the packages from another woman with the exclamation: "You had your hair cut! I like it!" The clerk at the other counter negotiates with a white-haired woman on her request to return some old airmail stamps -- maybe she could trade them in on the current airmail stamps? "Oh no," the woman explains, "I never use them anymore."
This is a post office that still salutes the flag, if the poem on the bulletin board is to be believed: "A Toast to the Flag -- Here's to the red of it. . . Here's to the blue of it. . ." Above it is a 1938 stamp honoring the founder of the American Red Cross, with the typed legend: "Miss Clara Barton, the only woman resident of the state of Maryland to be honored by a commemorative postage stamp, lived in the town of Glen Echo. She died here in 1912." And next to that is a most out-of-place and ancient yellowing sign that says "Warning. It is a federal offense to assault a postal employee" -- then in small type -- "while on duty."
Who would ever dream of it?
THERE'S A REAL dairy bar at the University of Maryland -- not the usual affectation of an ice-cream parlor. They call the wood-paneled room their salesroom, but it's a paean to cowdom -- with framed pictures of Bossy herself and a statue of a cow. Here they sell the eggs and milk that are produced on the university's farm, and in the same building they make the ice cream. Though you can't tour the dairy in the Turner Laboratory building on U.S. 1, you can see the operations through the windows, and watch the milk-transfer truck pull up behind the building to release its cargo. The high-quality, dense ice cream comes in flavors from black raspberry to the more exotic banana split, devil's food, Dutch apple and Hawaiian moon (pineapple, cherry and coconut combo). Hours are 8 to 6 Monday through Friday, noon to 6 Saturday and Sunday.
The connection between producer and product is obscured these days, but not here. While the kids finish their cones, you could be driving them up U.S. 1 a block to the northernmost campus entrance, which leads to the university's local dairy farm and the cows responsible for the cones. Cows are milked starting at 1 p.m. and ending at 6 every day. Says Dave Lehman, who takes care of the dairy's cows, "Anybody's welcome to walk right through," as long as children are with an adult. The staff is there to answer questions. At busiest times, vistors can watch without getting in the way; in warm weather, windows are out and the doors open. Horses, sheep and hogs are pastured outside during the day. The farm is surrounded by parking lots; says Lehman, "It's hard to call it a farm anymore. We have a few acres that haven't been gobbled up yet that we grow corn on. This is really part of campus."
FOR THOSE WHO think herbal teas, carrot juice and megavitamins are recent inventions, there's Vita Health Food Company, 1010 F Street NW, across from Woodies, walls lined with pills and health portions and the latest health notions in book form -- eating away your allergies, eating away your ulcer.
Vita, run by the same family since 1928, makes its own carrot juice by driving huge carrots into a machine of many cylinders. When turned on, it emits a loud groan that abates when the carrots are inserted. Vita makes celery juice and cabbage juice, too, not nearly as interesting to watch being made, and combinations of all three. Unfortunately, fruit juices served there come from concentrate. On the menu, among other things, is "real peanut butter & jelly."
Brothers Ron and Walter Camp own it now. Back when honey was 15 cents a pound and Vita was new, said Ron, "A lot of the business was missionary work in a very limited market. My father tells me when they were on 14th Street there was a movie on the corner and they used to stay open till the last show was over in hopes that some customers would come in.
"When I moved over to F Street people would say, 'Hey, you're new in town.'"
Hand-lettered signs on the wall help establish Vita's authenticity. On the menu: "Your health is your wealth." Over the lunch counter: "We use pure water! We filter out the chlorine. Taste the difference." We did and we could.
Up the street is Reeves Bakery. The window says it's been in business since 1886, and it may be Washington's oldest restaurant. Shoppers stopping for a quick sandwich at the lunch counter find it hard to resist the temptation of the baked goods, in particular the pies -- choclate cream, banana cream, peach, apple and most specifically the fresh strawberry pie, which miraculously seems always to be in season.
Downtown seems to offer a lot of things we hope don't go away. For example, Central Valet at 1409 H Street NW still has those comfy little booths to sit in, in sock feet, while waiting for shoes to be repaired.
THERE WAS REAL paper, before recycling; real ink and inkwells, and real khuman hair to dip in them. Kids had pen-pals. Some schools still grade for penmanship, but desks are being made without inkwells. In former days all the kids would own fountain pens, and those who felt restricted by the basic washable blue required in school could express themselves at home in their diary in phosphorescent blue-green script. Now if handwriting is coming back it's as calligraphy.
But at Fahrney's Pens at 1418 New York Avenue, proper pens have always been in style. Fahrney's sells the entire range -- from the Fisher space pens, the Shafers and Prakers to the Montblancs -- an exhibits some fairly ancient styluses, too. There are pads of airmail paper and books on calligraphy and erasers and glue and, of course, many bottles of ink.
ITS POSSIBLE to confuse "real" with merely "common," but U.S. 1 between College Park and Laurel, for example, is both. U.S. 1, which has been supplanted by the parallel I-95, is a real road, with slices of life you miss on the superhighway: the Sidney Lust Drive-In touting its dirty movies, the huge steer by the road that herds people toward a "furniture barn," the "Vets" liquor store with the soldier sign in front, his lightbulb eyes lit even in daytime -- a road where an Arby's Roast Beef cowboy hat looks in place on the horizon, with a bluegrass bar, an urban bronco-buster hangout, wrecking companies and gas stations, the Tastee Diner of Laurel open 24 hours and serving eggs and home fries to gaunt men with hangdog expressions who sit at the bar and stare into each face, looking for something, maybe the way home.
TAILOR IGNACY KUNIN was sitting at his desk in his shop on Wisconsin Avenue, exchanging pleasantries with one of his customers, a builder by trade. aStanding between the wall of mirrors and the wall of shelves packed with bolts of material -- every subdued stripe and check and solid imaginable -- the customer was describing going to Woodies to buy some slacks. A clerk in the men's department looked closely at the navy blazer he was wearing and said, "There's only one place you could've gotten this. Only one place in town does work like this."
At Arts Custom Tailor, you get what you pay for: suits start at $900, custom-made tuxedos at $1,200.
"Somebody will be an hour choosing material, if he doesn't know what he likes. He look at this, at this, at this," said Kunin in his Eastern European accent. "But for me, to measure and to write what style he likes, it takes only 15 minutes.''
A custom-made suit can be ready in a week. "We make ours on the premises, like the old style, the old-timers," said Kunin, who at 71 may be considered one of those, having been a tailor since he was 13, survived a concentration camp and come to America from Warsaw 30 years ago.
Among his long-time customers are Senator John Warner and David Lloyd Kreeger ("He's very poor, you know," Kunin said with a twinkle). "I don't care about the big shots," said Kunin. "Bill Brock come in. I talk to him like I talk to you. Or David Kreeger, we make jokes." He's also made a number of suits for author Herman Wouk and for Beach Boy Mike Love (three, four suits, a topcoat and a tuxedo, Kunin recalled).
"Liars, doctors, the customer who wants a suit must have money. Did I say liars? I meant lawyers. I always do that."
The custom-made suit must be specially maintained. "For my good customers, we press it by hand. We don't charge. But if someone came in we wouldn't take it."
"Customers always changing, you know," he said. "A lot dying -- 30 years I have a lot of dead customers."
In Europe, he said, "it was 99 percent custom-made. Here is the opposite -- 99 percent ready-made. They are too busy. They came in the shop, try something on and then they buy it." Most people don't really care how they look, he said, "they care how much they have in their pocket."
Of course he tailors his own clothing: "Who will make for me?" asked Kunin. "Nobody will make for me."
PEOPLE ARE LOOKING for something like this, a shopkeeper who knows them, a little bookstore where they can feel comfortable enough to ask for what they want. Witness the fact that when Gilpin House bookstore opened in 1977 on King Street in Alexandria, it became, in the words of owner Bill Rowan, an "instant institution." It's developed a Sunday-morning tradition: People come in for coffee and doughnuts, to buy The New York Times, and to read sitting beside one of the two working fireplaces. "We lay claim to having the busiest bookstore on the East Coast at 9:45 Sunday mornings," said Rowan. "We have a number of interesting folk who come in and we exchange local gossip. But mostly we talk politics and sports." And of course Gilpin House sells books, some by special order. It recently delivered a fashion-history book that took a year to track down from England. When the customer discovered she'd been charged last year's price, she went back to the store because she was worried about being undercharged.
The Crown Books chain has opened a branch two blocks away, but Rowan is undaunted. "We recognize trend," he said. "A store like Crown is in the business to sell best-sellers, and we are in the business to make best-sellers."
Tommy singleton of the McLean Butchers Shop has been in the business for 28 years and used to have a store on Lee Highway.When he moved to Old Dominion Drive, four miles away, he said, he brought fully a quarter of his customers with him. "Sure, you couldn't survive otherwise," he said. "The only way you can stay in business is through the loyalty of your customers." How does he complete with the nearby supermarket? "I don't try. It's a different business. you either wants a $250,000 house or a $50,000 house. They don't compete.This is a better product, better trim and no waste." In his immaculate shop, Singleton has a way of standing back to admire the refrigerated cases full of neat rows of roasts and ribs. Just outside the door, the hours are listed with a personal note: "Sudays reserved for church, golf, fishin', calf ropin', bronc ridin'."
THE MONTGOMERY FARM Women's Co-op on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda hums along every Wednesday and Saturday, with about 20 area farm women, and many more of their friends, standing behind glass cases of their country wares: Scrapple, bacon, fresh eggs, pepper jelly. Home-baked pecan pie and home-grown asparagus. Whole-wheat rasin bread, baked beans and cinnamon buns.
Joyce Barthoud, a portly merchant who can be seen dandling a baby or calling out cooking instructions, ran out of a favorite pie early one Saturday. "But my guests are coming tomorrow!" groaned the customer "How many times have I told you, baby, to call in advance," said Barhoud. "I'll save it for your. You got my number here."
Homemade aprons, crocheted doilies, crab apply jelly -- it's home sweet home for sale.
THE OTHER MORNING a dozen or so urchins filed into the University Pastry Shop to sing a song about a frog to the baker. They were little students from Beauvoir School, the other side of Wisconsin Avenue. They'd been out taking a tour of area businesses and stopped to peer at the cakes and things in George Andracsek's shop window. One of the staff went out with a bag of sugar cookies, and the song was the tots' way of saying thanks.
The store's been there at 3234 Wisconsin Avenue NW and in the family for more than 50 years; the current owner has been working there full-time for 25. "We feel like we're part of the community being here all this time," said Andracsek, dressed in his perennial uniform of white apron over white T-shirt. It's almost an anomaly: an American-style bakery, and Andracsek himself makes all the ice cream, a whopping 17 percent butterfat.
A few years ago for the 70th anniversary of the Washingting Cathedral, the bakery made a pound cake. It had a 2 1/2-foot tower, was about five feet long, took six people to carry and looked just like the cathedral, with the window lines done in chocolate on the white icing. "As luck would have it, just as we were ready to put it in the truck to take it over there, it started to rain," Andracsek recalled. "We were holding umbrellas over it and put a piece of paper over it to keep the rain off. Somehow we made it." And, he said, "They wiped it out in no time over there."
What about the competition, the all-pervasive kiwi-fruit tarts and sacher tortes?" "They tried to get us to do this one time, to branch out and ship to different stores. But you start losing your friendly, home touch that people like. Anybody can go into a supermarket, but that's just what you got: a supermarket.
"I have had families where I made the wedding cake for them. Children come along, we make all the birthday cakes and christening cakes, and the children's wedding cakes. I've gotten into the next generation. You start feeling your bones click. A woman comes in and say 'I want to order my daughter's wedding cake' -- and you just remember making her kid's first and second birthday cakes."