The soup line is across the street. The El Latino market (run by a Korean from Argentina) is a couple doors down. Police sirens marry shrieks from the neighborhood psychotics. You squeeze your car into a parking space out front and suddenly you're crunching on dead soldiers: cheap pints of bourbon with their labels torn off. This isn't Georgetown Park and F.A.O. Schwarz, this is the 14th Street corridor and a famous Lionel train store in the back of a lock shop that probably hasn't had a paint job since Calvin Coolidge left town. Well, maybe that's stretching it a little, not much.
Something there is that loves an electrified string of boxes working its heart out around the top of your ping-pong table or around the base of your Christmas tree. In an instant it can make any of us children again.
"Sure. Absolutely. Oh, yeah. We're all children in here. That's what it's about," says Don Duke, the proprietor, his words choking their way through the horrible air around his cigar. Don Duke is not a young man, especially this week. Once he worked overseas for the U.S. government. He took his trains and family along with him, set them up in Tokyo, bought new pieces at the PX. He's been a model railroader since his boyhood, which was back in Davenport, Iowa, which was back in the '20s, in the heart of the heart of the Rock Island Line. A mighty good road, the Rock Island Line. Don Duke has been the proprietor here since 1980. It's sort of a retirement, and Lord knows you can't make a lot of money from little toy trains these days.
Dreams are where you find them. In the window is a small red neon sign with a rich blue border: ELECTRIC TRAINS. It seems so odd, burning here, beckoning gently to junkie and rich man alike. Here at 1324 14th NW, in the tarnished yellow gleam of the Downtown Lock & Electric building, on the street where the '68 riots scorched through, hard by hooker heaven and pusher row, the dreams seem atavistic dreams -- and perhaps the more wonderful and reassuring because of it.
Here the once-and-ever little Washington boys -- many of whom have somehow turned into wizened old men of the suburbs -- come now to moon over, perhaps even to purchase, a new boxcar for their Chessie line (maybe it's their son's line these days), a used loco for their Pennsey layout, a new engine for their Blue Comet collector series, a baggage car on their Alton Limited, a tender for their Powhatan Arrow, a dining car for their big blue Wabash.
These dining cars in the Wabash series are hardly to be believed, they're so beautiful. They feature, in addition to the midnight-blue paint scheme, a silhouetted row of elegant little diners (about the size of ants) sitting at their elegant little tables, with fumes of smoke trailing elegantly from the Luckies or Old Golds held so effortlessly in their elegant little fingers. It's a little like gazing at a Maxfield Parrish mural.
Well, you can't really tell that they're Luckies or Old Golds, that's true, but, come on, would they be Newports or Capris? This is 1946. Imagine it that way. This is the Wabash road. The war is over. Girls cake their lips ruby red. They don't mind being called girls, either. All young men are immediately preceded by the adjective "promising." And the Wabash Cannonball, not the one of fantasy around your Christmas tree, but the one of life, the one of history, the one of, say, 1946, well, she roars on down to the sea with nearly all the speed and glory and beauty and power that man has ever been able to devise.
In 1987 you can get the whole model Wabash set -- engine, tender, four snappy cars -- for $484.95. It's part of what they call the Fallen Flag series, glory trains that are no more.
Actually the hot ticket this Christmas is the Southern Crescent's dining car. Lionel introduced the Crescent in 1977 but only this year brought out a dining car in the series. Don Duke's had them on back order for three months. "I wanted 60, I got promised 36," he says mournfully. You get a feeling they would go like Redskins tickets.
The store traces its roots to 1910. It wasn't always at this location, or even connected with the same lock company, but 1910 is only 10 years behind when the Lionel company itself began. That was somewhere in New Jersey under an American dreamer-genius named Joshua Lionel Cowen. (Among other things he developed the first flashlight and sold it to what became the Eveready company.) Once, the Lionel company was the largest maker of toys in the world. That was in the '50s, when Joe DiMaggio himself had a 15-minute TV show with his own Lionel layout burning in the background as he talked sports and morality to the big and little youth of the nation. By 1968 the Lionel company was bankrupt. General Mills had it for a while. Then Parker Bros. Now a man named Richard P. Kughn, from Mount Clemens, Mich., has it.
One of the things that helped kill trains was "slot cars," those prosaic plastic jobs that race around precut tracks. But toy trains were destined to come back, and Lionel came back. Lionel has always been the great American electric train. The American Flyer line was like a Ford to Lionel's Cadillac.
"I had two sets of parents in here with eight kids on Saturday," says Don Duke, snapping a visitor from his reveries. The proprietor is standing behind his glass-smudged counter in a baggy brown sweater, a flannel shirt. Before him are stacks of yellow receipts, which he keeps sorting and rearranging, as if they were canasta cards. He keeps trying to pour himself coffee from a red and white thermos that doesn't have any more coffee in it. Today was a rough day and the coffee was gone early, but he's smiling.
"Aiyiyi. Two sets of parents and eight kids, I'm saying. You know what these cars cost, one of these kids drops one? Finally, one of the mothers had the sense to send them all out to the car."
And they were okay out there?
"I never heard otherwise."
Jerry Lewis has been in here. Johnny Cash has been in here. Former senator Edmund Muskie called one night and asked if they had a Bangor & Aroostook car, and when they said they did, he said he'd be right over, whatever you do, don't close. They didn't.
People drive up from Richmond, come down from Philadelphia. Baltimore has at least two model train stores, but Don Duke thinks his is better, natch. (In this area there's also a recently opened store in Kensington; another in Falls Church.)
"We used to have a couple from Texas come in," he says. "He was a lawyer and would come to town to do something connected with the Supreme Court. He'd come in here with this dynamite blond. I think she was the secretary. She'd plop down on this huge briefcase and he'd go around the store saying, 'I'll take that. And that. And that.' We remember him mostly because of that secretary."
Three days before Christmas, and this is some of what a visitor overhears at 1324 14th. All the children present are somewhere in middle age or beyond:
"Have any heavy-duty spikes?"
A very thin, white-bearded man is asking this. His alpaca winter coat is locked at his wrinkled throat. He is wearing a tie, he is wearing small greasy glasses. He seems very much at peace with what he's accomplished in the world. He's literate, he's quiet, his old bones seem to have pushed themselves inward, so that he seems almost concave.
"Got a sale on the spikes, in fact," says the proprietor.
"Good," says the customer. "Also need a double-pole, double-throw switch wired for a reverse switch."
"Got it," says the proprietor.
The heavy-duty spikes turn out to be nails about the size of something you'd put in a pin-cushion. The package has a price on it of 49 cents but they're going for half of that today. Not a big-ticket item.
"With these I will nail down track on a repair job I'm doing for somebody else," says the customer. He sticks them in his plastic grocery bag. His name is George. Actually, he provides his last name to the interviewer, too, but he says he doesn't want it in the paper. "Just write George. Those who know trains will know which George I am, and those who don't will not know."
George,like Don Duke, has been interested in trains nearly all his life. "Let's see, I've been in the repair business since I was 17 and that would be roughly -- what? I'm 69 now, so you can do the arithmetic. I got interested in model trains when I met a man who was writing a column for a railroad magazine. The column was called 'Along the Tin Plate Track.' I've built in O gauge, HO gauge, even ON 2 1/2 gauge. I think it goes back to childhood in the sense that childhood was when you first discovered real trains. The scale modeler, which is what I am, is trying to reach some semblance with the real world. He is engaged in the Proustian 'A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.' Now you take a man who builds up a yard or a whole town around his train -- he's trying to create something, complete a vision of his past, isn't he? I mean, what else can possibly explain it?"
Among the wonderful things you can buy in this store:
old glues and enamels
bottles of "smoke fluid"
die-cast illuminated bumpers
operating "dwarf signals"
blinking signal lights
miniature telephone poles
automatic refrigerated milk cars
Santa Fe RR rotary snowplows
There's an Erie Lackawanna engine on sale for $279.95. Know what the Erie Lackawanna, the Penn Central, the Central of New Jersey, the Lehigh Valley, the Reading, the Lehigh & Hudson River roads have in common?
They all got amalgamated into Conrail.
It sounds a little like the story of America as a century winds down.