Anybody with a taste for the out-of-step and the eccentric is pretty much out of luck in Washington. The only real game in this town is scrambling up whatever corporate, political or bureaucratic ladder you happen to be on until one day you find yourself in that cool flourescent glow where all the ladders come together and you've got what they call "national stature."
Of course there can be some strange twists between the bottom and the top, but that's not the point here. I'm talking about getting off the ladder altogether, switching sideways into other dimensions, which usually means leaving town: spending a weekend in Baltimore or moving to Key West.
What few pockets of true eccentricity there are in the capital city tend to be marginal and fluid. They crop us and disappear like volcanic islands in the Pacific, all hot and steaming before the cold ocean closes over them again.The old Admiral Benbow near Dupont Circle on Connecticut Avenue (now Ellen's Irish Pub and slated for demolition) had some unusual moments. So did the defunct All Night Bakery on upper Wisconsis, the old Schwartz' Drug Store at Connecticut and R, the Venus Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, the back room at Nathan's at certain early hours of the morning.
Columbia Station, the enfant terrible art bar, was cooking pretty hard a few years ago before they put a rock band into it. There was a time at the warehouse disco Pier Nine when a current of real weirdness mixed with the original gay clientele; then the tourists discovered it. But there has never been a Washington counterpart to, say, the Chelsea Hotel in New York-a kind of semi-permanent institution of the eccentric. Why should there be? Nobody has time for it.
Which raises the natural question: What good is it? Why bother with eccentricity at all? Let's dust that one off with the observation that the most truly non-eccentric living thing is an ant. Everything works perfectly in an anthill. If people were as finely programmed as ants, everything would work perfectly for us too.
It's not going to last, but right now there's a building in Washington that is so out of step that visitors from New York can hardly believe it themselves. "It reminds me of Soho," one of them said recently. "But Soho has gotten so self-conscious lately. There's nothing self-conscious about this place; it's just plain weird .When I went into it for the first time I had this feeling I wasn't going to be the same when I got out." The visitor was smiling.
The Atlantic Building, as it says in carved letters on the old granite lintel, is at 930 F Street NW, a beer bottle throw from Ford's Theatre and bordering on Booth's Alley, the assassin's escape route. The building wasn't there then. It was designed as an office building in 1887 by the same man who designed the Bureau of Printing and Engraving and the Ontario-a class act. Nothing was too good for F Street in those days: it was Washington's Great White Way. However, after World War II, F Street gradually turned into a kind of half-desserted carny show and the Atlantic Building itself moved out even farther onto a plane that is really all its own.
It's not going to last there, though, because F Street is changing again. Its downward curve of weirdness has started to intersect with the "resuscitation of the inner city." People are coming back to F Street, though not exactly the same kind of people who left. The Atlantic Building is right on the cusp. You have to catch it now, while it's still hot.
Observe the dark red eight story Atlantic Building from outside, its lush Richardsonian Romanesque Revival architecture reminiscent of old power houses with those huge arches stretching through many floors, heavy columns in between, sunken windows, various rococo flutings and fillips including wreaths, eagles and gargoyles. You're Sam Spade, on the prowl for cheap office space. A cold spring rain begins to fall and the blind gospel singer on the corner slips his guitar in a trash bag and feels his way past you into the lobby. The sidewalk marquee reads: A Carryout Restaurant. The menu blinks with red, white and blue bulbs:
Inside, a man in a bright blue and white striped shirt is mopping the old green rug, more gospel singing floats down the elevator shaft, a red dog still as the sphinx stares at you through a glass door and while you're trying to interpret the building directory you realize the peculiar and essential smell of the Atlantic Building is enchiladas mixed with Lysol. The rain has begun in earnest outside. There's no choice but to look around.
What did I have in mind when I bought this place? I must have been out of my mind." Paul Parsons, 50, looks and laughs a little like Slim Pickens. His office is behind the glass doors at the end of the brown corridor past the still red dog. His white Cadillac convertible is somewhere outside.
He was in the furniture business around Washington for 21 years, retired, moved to Arkansas, hated it, moved back to McLean and bought the Atlantic Building three and a half years ago from a wig merchant for somewhere around $400,000.
He never planned to renovate it, just rent it out at some of the lowest rates in town . . . $75 to $450 a month for offices. The building is pretty cold in the winter, his tenants say, because the furnace is only on about three hours a day. Sometimes it's not on at all. Power is a little chancy; so is plumbing to the lavatories. When it's working, the elevator stops at six.
However, Parsons' radio and TV ads are filling the building up, and he is not a man to ask questions as long as the rent is paid. Some of his tenants appreciate that.
Parsons did have a dream, a vision of a classy restaurant on part of the first floor and in the huge Gothic basement. He brought in consultants who told him it was hopeless. However, he sandblasted the bricks, put in new rest rooms and other plumbing and opened it up. His manager stood on the sidewalk with a sandwich placard, trying to tout it. "It was the only place in town where a cup of coffee cost five bucks," a tenant remembers, and it didn't last long. Then Parsons got into punk rock; the "Atlantis Club" presented bands like the Urban Verbs (the lead singer is still a tenant) and once Lance Loud performed. There were a lot of gold safety pins through ears.
Every weekend the punks would rearrange the building directory, rip the wiring and toilets out of the rest rooms and roam through the upper floors of the building like droogs. Parsons used to sit at a table in the club and watch with his Slim Pickens smile; he was amused, but he wasn't selling much alcohol-the punks were into other things. This January he folded the operation just in time, he thinks. "I get a knot in my stomach every time I think about it. They were going to tear the place apart."
Now he'd actually like to ride the rising tide of F Street economics and sell out completely. He's looking for a 75 percent profit, at least. "Most people think I'm rich and doing all this for fun. I don't know where they came up with that idea. I need money. I'm 50 years old. I have a lot of real estate people trying to get me to sell."
He sounds a little wistful. You can tell he kind of enjoys the three ring circus that is the Atlantic Building. He even takes care of some of his tenants whose marginal businesses have failed. People like Elder James Reddon end up working for him. Reddon (BAL AGLE SSOC on the directory) had a black wedding invitation operation on the third floor which failed, and now he's wearing a clerical collar, talking about how God has better things for him to do, counselling Charles the Janitor about his drinking, and helping Parsons keep track of the Koreans who manage the carry-out restaurant.
The original restaurant manager came from a defunct recording company. Parson's young son David is often to be found in a room on the eighth floor. David's friends from McLean use the olda Atlantis Club for rock parties on Saturday nights.
Originally operated by a huge steam piston, it could be the oldest elevator in Washington. It's electric now. Life on the elevator is one of the threads that tie the building together. For example, when Running Bear was operating it after a bad night at the Eagle leather bar, he got free medical attention and advice on every floor. After Running Bear retired, Thelma took over; she seemed to think her job was to save the building from damnation.
She learned everyone's names and sold them flowers from a booth in the lobby (when the punks didn't steal them first) but after a while, an eighth-floor tenant remembers, the job got to be too much for her. It might have been the transvestite disco band that did it. Or some of the studio props for the free life drawing class. "Anyway, she started giggling at us from behind her fingers. She got so she wouldn't even let me photograph her flowers. She was a very sweet Christian lady who had no business being in a building like this."
Then there were Fast Eddie, a hot dog vendor and amateur traffic director who turned the elevator into a head shop and recording studio, John the angry Korean, pretending to speak no English but reading The New Republic, and now Billy Bruce.
"I'm always on forgiveness," Bruce explains. "When I come in in the morning, I just put myself on forgiveness.Forgive me now!" He says this because, trying to explain it to you, he has missed your floor by two.
There are many things more important to Bruce than operating an elevator. Such as his health (he heats the elevator to 80 and wears a wool turtle neck), his poetry, his art, the book he is working on, his gospel singing, and a good conversation. It's not really proper to ask Bruce to stop at a floor in the middle of a good talk, even though people on all floors are yelling and pounding on the doors as he goes by.
The bells sound in the cab like fire alarms. Bruce smiles tolerantly. "Forgive me, they want me to be there when the bell rings, there's no way I can be there. It's like a cross to bear. Forgive me sir, it's not the work; it's the people that are always coming into you. I have to get myself together for the public."
To join Bruce's "personality club" you have to smile at him like they did in the old days when he was operating at the Army and Navy Club. Gerald Ford smiled April 11, 1974. It's in one of Bruce's diaries:
"On the above date, Billy Bruce was given the honor to carry Gerald Ford, Vice President of the United States, in the small elevator of the Farragut Entrance to the sky room on the eighth floor. This was done with smiles and the greatest of pleasure." Ford also replied to Bruce's election congratulation note, as has every president since Roosevelt, plus Walter Washington.
Bruce is working on the Atlantic Building volume now, trying to be as tolerant as possible, actually loving toward all parties, even the loud orange-haired girl from the outcall massage service on the third floor, the Iranian group that scribbles slogans in his cab, the punks, Queen Esther the coppersmith with her blind dog, the growling man, the Rastafarian head shop group, the violent poet, the ghost of a deceased lady whose estate still maintains her record-producing office.
The Atlantic Building volume will come together if his health holds out and people continue to be forgiving. It has to. Meanwhile, keep smiling: "If people come into my little place they should see something that makes them feel very good."
Uptight Uptight Evang E. A. Shuford Sr. is a former Black Panther, now working as a janitor at George Washington University, who can remember exactly when he decided to go into street ministry work. It was down in Alabama when the Panthers were taking on the KKK. His gun was empty. A man in a white sheet drew down on him, saying, "Nigger, your ass is grass!" and then didn't fire.
Shuford works the streets now in his spare time with a hand-built megaphone, trying to "show people they are somebody." Sometimes he works the Atlantic Building too. And sometimes it works him. He's slim, tall, easy on the eyes, and, he says, there's a woman on another floor that can't keep her hands off him. Not to mention the outcall massage girls buzzing around him like mosquitoes.
That kind of attention can take your mind off the right road. However, he has had some profitable talks with the bail bond bounty hunter next door, a lawyer from downstairs and two crippled half brothers who used to run a jewelry repair shop in the back hall. When the shah was overthrown, the anti-shah students left many bottles of beer and wine in front of his door.
"Most ministers don't like to deal with people. I'm just the opposite. This building's my domain; I like to know it. There's a man that growls at me. I just growl back. We're friendly. I tell the women, sure we'll talk as long as you'd mind keeping your hands off my leg."
A lot of artists have been moving into the Atlantic Building in the last couple of years, saying they are just looking for cheap space but actually "discovering" it in the sense of taking part in the developing Soho trend along F Street. They're mostly on the formerly vacant top floors.
Sometines they'll team up, like in room 520 where two phone company men who do still-lifes and an ambulance driver who does nudes share the space. In room 720 Judith Watkins, 30, who restores paintings and looks like Audrey Hepburn, and Marcel Sanson, 82, who repairs antique clocks and picture frames and looks like Maurice Chevalier.
"We were both working at Launay antiques on 18th street," Watkins says, "and just decided we couldn't take working for people anymore. So we left together and got this place. I love it here. Sometimes I feel like Eloise in the Ritz Hotel, wandering through all these rooms and floors. There's everything you need right here in the building. We all work together. For example the woman next door is a journalist and artist who's putting on a show. I and a guy from the fifth floor are doing the frames, a photographer on the eighth floor is doing the photos. If you get bored, you can go down and chat with Parsons. "I'm quite sensitive to space, and the space here feels very good."
When Sanson, who speaks only French, leaves for the night he kisses his partner gently on the cheek and lifts his eyebrows in a courtly manner. Soon Watkins herself (it's too late for the elevator) is clicking lightly down the cavernous winding central staircase, her hand on the railing, looking up and down at the people circling from other floors like a child at her first nights at the theater.
At one time the F Street area was the center of the wholesale jewelry business in Washington. Most of the Jewelers moved to the suburbs in the 1960s, but there are still some left in the Atlantic Building and elsewhere.
Joseph Orgel, who wholesales costume jewelry and novelties to places like Andrews Air Force Base, thinks he remembers when the Atlantic Building had two elevators running and they washed the windows every year, but his assistant doesn't agree. "They never washed the windows more than once every five years," she says. "This place has been in bad condition all along, believe me."
There's nobody around who goes back further than Orgel, just dusty legends and myths of past grandeur. One is that the Atlantic Building was the fanciest hotel on F Street, the huge central stairwell was open on all floors then and there was a grand ballroom on the eighth floor. It must have been more than an office building, you're told: the walls are three feet thick, there are fireplaces in every room and real brass doorknobs. However, occupancy records going back to the '20s show the respectable but mundane reality: clothing outlets, jewelry stores, photgraphy studios, attorneys, the U.S. Forestry Department. The truth is the Atlantic Building is far more interesting these days than it has ever been before.
When Chip deMatteo, who works in electronic art on the eighth floor, arrived four years ago the place was really weird. In those days the morning was likely to start with a blow by blow description of a building tenant's beating, followed by a long discussion of the advantages of illiteracy.
Tucker the old electrician had more time in those days to explain why he never bought a cup of coffee in "A Carry Out Restaurant," to gossip about fights between folks in the building and to argue about women's rights.
Charles the janitor had more time to talk too, and talk with Charles always kept your mind sharp because basically he talked in exclamations, a pure uncluttered string of exclamations was what it was:
Down deep! Right! A Down Deep! You Know! Like home! Straight! What's happening! Man you never know!"
Charles was taking body building too, following a mugging where he was left for dead in Booths Alley and they had to install a steel plate in his head. Any kind of weird article you needed for your studio, Charles could wrastle with it. Also in those days you could wander from room to empty room, picking over 30-year-old Life Magazines, lawbooks, ancient records. There was a big green parrot that chased after you as you went down the stairwell (it's kept inside now).
"There were just more characters around then," Chip remembers, blinking his agate artist's eyes with pleasure. "I've sort of lost track of the people here now. The building has gotten filled up with a lot of new people, a lot more respectable businesses. Downtown is coming back; it's a lot more fashionable . . . they call it Soho in New York, Soso down here, you know. I think I'll be moving on soon."
To many people in the Atlantic Building, the arrival last year of Darrel Downing Rippeteau, architect, was the first real sign that the old order might be on the point of giving way to the new. For one thing, everybody in Rippeteau's office on the fifth floor wears business suits or dresses. They have alert expressions, lots of promotional literature and say they're involved in large projects, such as the renovation of a big townhouse on Logan Circle.
Rippeteau himself used to work for the classy Georgetown firm of Arthur Cotton Moore. It's not the average Atlantic Building operation at all, even though Reppeteau says they're there for the same reason everybody else is: cheap space.
Rippeteau is something of a building politician too. He is said to be working on forming a tenants union, so services such as light, heat, water and lavatories can be "regularized." He has a smile for everyone which is so wide and enthusiastic he is the unchallenged head of Billy Bruce's personality club. He is the only person in the building that Bruce will trust with his precious diaries and the elevator heater that keeps him from freezing on cold days.
The other tenants are watching Rippeteau's movement carefully. There is a talk of turning the place into a studio co-op, driving the prices up and forcing them out, which seems to be the trend all over F Street. There's nothing eccentric or out-of-step about Rippeteau. He's bright, articulate and well-dressed. He's got a wonderful smile.
"I have nothing against the guy personally," says one of the seventh-floor regulars. "He seems like a very nice guy. It's what he represents that scares me. Those kind of people are like woodchucks or beavers. They cut down all the trees and dam up all the rivers."
Everybody is it seems to have a feeling that something is about to happen to the Atlantic Building. They know the history of such places here-they don't last. They're either torn down or else discovered and put back together. Recently Parsons has been bringing well-dressed groups of people throught it whom he introduces as "structural engineers" or "power company technicians." The tenants say they are not fooled.
The last time everyone in the building got together was for Thelma's going-away party about a year ago. There is talk of having another one soon, as one seventh-floor regular puts it: "a kind of wild, last fist town horribles parade, where everybody just comes as themselves, only more so. In honor of the sack of Rome by the barbarians, in reverse." CAPTION: Picture 1, The Atlantic Building Directory seems to reflect the character of the structure. It is frequently rearranged; Picture 2, In the old days, the parrot used to chase people down the central staircase. Now there are so many new faces around its owner keeps it inside; Picture 3, Drinking fountains are conveniently located in the halls of the Atlantic Building; Picture 4, Atlantic Building owner Paul Parsons, his son David, and his dog Big Red are often to be found in the now closed Atlantis Restaurant. Photos by Mike Anderson; Picture 5, Robert Gleason has plenty of glasses frames in his third floor jewelry repair shop; Picture 6, Queen Esther Gramm is a Swiss coppersmith who makes furniture for doll houses, among other things. Her dog is named Flossie; Picture 7, Chip deMatteo, an electronic artist, remembers the good old days when Running Bear was the elevator operator; Picture 8, Jeweler Joe Sowders is selling his tools and leaving, after being burglarized twice in five months; Picture 9, The Ricardsonian Romanesque Revival architecture features gargoyles, eagles and fire-escapes; Picture 10, Climbing the central staircase in the Atlantic Building, there's a show on every floor; Picture 11, Billy Bruce runs the Atlantic Building elevator, sings gospel music, keeps a diary and stays tolerant; Picture 12, Tucker, the Atlantic Building electrican never buys his coffee at A Carry Out Restaurant; Picture 13, Rastafarians run the Live and Learn Record Mart on the fourth floor.