One recent morning, longing for lox and bagels, I bounded down my front steps and made for the Emporium Deli. Because it's just around the corner from where I live on Capitol Hill, I've been giving the place my business when that special mood comes on.
This time, I found people charging about with clipboards and boxes, the floor nearly bare where I expected brimming shelves, the counter longer and emptier than I remembered it and the register at the back instead of up front. I collared the proprietor, a bearded chap in grocer's apron fleeing into the store room. "We've cut out the bagels," he said, eyes darting hither and yon. "The lox, too," he added.
My bewilderment gave way to unreasoning rage.
A few days later, after I calmed down, I went back to the Emporium in the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE and found that the man in the apron wasn't an ogre after all.
"I've been on the Hill for 17 years," Len Kirsten said, scratching his beard. He gave me a cup of coffee. "I live a few blocks away."
He looked less harried than before; things were coming together. A new sign in his window, all red, blazoned such delectables as "The Metropolitan Police," "The Capitol Police," "The Leatherneck" -- sandwiches named, he said, for some of his best customers -- and "The Market Mall," this last to drum up interest in the shopping arcade next door. "I've spent many a night here in the last few weeks, experimenting with ingredients and making up these things." He patted his belly. "I've put on weight."
Len Kirsten is one of the folks who make the Hill a neighborhood. It's a loose collection of merchants, bag ladies, budding families, professional types, winos, Marines. They give the place its character, the feel of a town -- though all they may have in common is their love for Capitol Hill.
Every time you stroll up Pennsylvania Avenue, through Eastern Market, or past turn-of-the-century houses lining tree-shaded sidestreets, you get a new sense of the place. Inescapably, you meet some of the local characters: a tall bewhiskered gent known as "The Preacher," who dresses in greatcoat and boots regardless of the weather, likes to hold prayer meetings in McDonald's on the Avenue and greets all passersby with "Have a nice day"; a heavyset, matronly woman, who strides purposefully toward no clear destination, strikes up friendly conversations with strangers and passes out calling cards before pressing on.
There's also the old woman in "Turtle Park," just across from Hayden's Liquor Store, at 700 North Carolina Avenue SE, whose manager, Gary Hortsch, cuts the grass, pulls the weeds and plants the tulips in his spare time. The lady, chihuahua in tow, plants herself near the four steel-and- concrete turtles and regales kids with a thickly accented, oft-told story: "In the zoo in Warsaw, when I was a girl, we had live turtles. I used to ride them."
Then there are the leathernecks, some 400 of whom live at the Marine Barracks at Eighth and I streets SE. Sometimes it seems as if all 400 have taken to the streets for their daily jog. Muscles working, jaws set, they forge painlessly ahead, past young women with strollers, chain-smoking congressional aides, all manner of street people and a fellow named Herbert Knight.
Most days, nine to six, Knight's selling flowers (25 roses for $7) at Third and Pennsylvania SE, perched on his upended bucket, or -- if colleague Harry Winter is there pushing jewelry -- on Winter's extra chair. "If I was mayor of this city," says Knight, his craggy face frowning under a goose-feathered hat, "it seems to me I could straighten out these vending laws. They make no sense at all. I just heard the other day that the city's going to kick us off the streets by the first of the year. Just get me on television. I'd sure blow the lid off."
At the Capitol Hill Barber Shop, 209 Pennsylania Avenue SE, where Pat Donoghue presides with a serenity born of 30 years in the business, the chat's wider-ranging. As Donoghue gives his $4 haircuts -- soon, alas, to be hiked to $5 -- the customers grapple with matters running from football to foreign policy.
"Sometimes they want to talk to you about their personal problems," he says between clips of his scissors. "I just listen to them, and they seem to feel better about things when they leave."
Donoghue's of the old school -- "I'm strictly a barber," he says -- and the shop, likewise, is up to its neck in tradition. Beyond the barber pole, the walls are covered with photographs -- the original Washington Redskins of 1937 and nearly every team thereafter, the Capitol Police Force of 1854 along with some of its successors -- plus a display of law-enforcement patches from all over the country. (Donoghue has two sons with the Capitol police.) Cutting hair, it seems, is the least of what goes on.
"This," said Donoghue, as he worked on his old friend Louis Croci, who owns the Exxon Station nearby, "is like a social club." He talked over the din of a TV set tuned to the Ohio State-Stanford game ("I'm rooting for Ohio 'cause it's closer to Notre Dame"); he paused every so often to call out "Howya doin', John?" or "Howya doin', Jim?" to people poking their heads in from the street. "We're a stopping-off place," he said. "The barbershop and the bartender are a lot alike. And we have more fun in here than a barrel of monkeys."
Libby Sangster's Antiques on the Hill is a shop much in the same mold. Across the street from Eastern Market at 701 North Carolina Avenue SE, she holds court amid a clutter that recalls Charles Foster Kane's warehouse. "Libby is sort of a centerpiece on Capitol Hill," said sculptor and art professor Berthold Schmutzhart, who lives nearby. "She's a hub and a news center. Listening to Libby is a pastime."
Wedged, as usual, behind what she calls "a plain oak desk, I imagine from the 1930s," Sangster said she came to Washington during World War II, after growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and working as an artist's model in Greenwich Village. "I think we were called 'bohemians'," she said, her gaze making me feel a bit like bric-a-brac.
In 1958, she settled on the Hill, where she's now a commanding figure. Hardly a soul has not heard, for instance, that she's just become a grandmother -- partly because she announced it with a banner in her shop window.
"I guess I'm so sedentary, this is my neighborhood," she said. "There's a lot of exchange of ideas, especially with young people. A lot of them have come to me for advice. Advice about life, of course. Emotional problems of all kinds. A lot of people have gotten help from me over the years."
If, like Bert Schmutzhart, you have a curious eye, you can wander the neighborhood ceaselessly -- and be ceaselessly surprised. What are those fellows doing playing guitar and flute in the window of J.J. Mutts Wine & Liquor in the 600 Block of Pennsylvania SE? Why is that plaster arm sticking out of the house near the corner of Sixth and A streets NE? Or you can marvel at the fanciful animals sculpted by Schmutzhart's wife, Slaithong, that line the 1000 block of East Capitol Street.
"It's very strange," Schmutzhart said, "but most people who stroll, stroll toward the Capitol and then back to their houses. I like to do it in a gentle rain, and sit on the terrace, looking downtown."
Wander in the other direction, though, all the way to the 1200 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE, and you're apt to come upon the Potomac Metro Bakery. There, at 1238, a young couple -- Hamidou Diarra, who grew up in West Africa, and Linda Pryor, raised in Illinois and Germany -- opened the place last spring. Diarra makes the breads, some in the shapes of hens and alligators, and Pryor does the pastries, mostly Austrian, German and French. They live upstairs from the bakery with 14-month-old Hamidou Jr. and wake up at 1 most mornings to fire up the oven.
"Capitol Hill," said Pryor, who spent part of her life in Kampen, Germany (population 7,000), before settling on the Hill 10 years ago, "is almost like a village. People seem to stick around more than in other parts of the city."
Diarra, a Bambara tribesman from Mali's capital city, Bamako (population 600,000), said, "I like the Hill because you almost know half the people. It's very nice, the people are friendly.""