The white-bearded man nicknamed The Judge perches on a stool at the counter. A government staff attorney for years, years ago, he made the bar but never the bench. He reads the New York Daily News wearing a Champion Spark Plug hat, LaCoste shirt and golf sweater with the sleeves snipped to fit his tiny frame. His shoes don't touch the footrest at the Berkshire Apartments' coffee shop.
Haven for non-cooking singles, hideout for the crazed, retired and unemployed, the coffee shop in the basement at 4201 Massachusetts Ave. NW is the minimally greasy hub of the building's social activity-- a gem of a place that predates the fast-food era.
The Berk was classy when it opened in 1950: The first big high-rise in the city, the first with air conditioning, in woodsy upper Northwest. Now an army of little old ladies holds its own against the American University students and their loud stereos.
There are nearly 800 apartments at the Berk and 5 1/2 miles of hallway. A familiar cluster of senior citizenry owns the lobby, afternoons and evenings. Occasionally a senile gentleman gets lost on the elevators and wanders around the upper floors asking for the lobby. He drools. And "Romeo" stalks the corridors and grounds at all hours. The hard core, who take three meals a day in the basement, would be lost if their rent-controlled units went (whisper the word) condo.
The counter observes a daily rhythm free of beautiful music. After late breakfasts there are burgers, fries, diet plates and ice cream sodas through the afternoon. Liver and onions or other dinner special move until the 9 p.m. closing, when Pauline puts a glass of seltzer water under the cake cover to keep a triple-layer coconut temptation moist.
"Romeo" stares at the horizon line above the grill, coughing as though to make a point. He looks roughly 35 years old and is thin out of neglect, not fashion; extra inches of his belt curl up in front of the buckle. Since he departed from social norms to become a loiterer, the regulars at the coffee shop have lost patience with his scruffiness. He talks angry politics and paces waiting for the elevator. When it comes he sometimes turns away.
Daniel, the 40ish suave Yugoslav, kisses ladies' hands hello and goodbye and sips from the shop's well-worn plastic coffee mugs, all continental charm in distinguished gray hair and three-piece suits.
As though addressing a maitre d', the large grandame with cane asks where to sit. She wears a coat indoors several months of the year.
"Sit anywhere you want," Cora Cox says, trudging from behind the counter to deliver ice waters to an older couple at a table. A fixture in powder blue short-sleeves and industrial-strength pants, Cox takes no nonsense. She tucks two pieces of rye into the toaster and continues slicing tomatoes on the marble slab, getting a jump on the lunch regulars.
Owner Louis Shankman, 68, stops bustling long enough to tell proud tales of the celebrity customers he's served. "Senator Dirksen used to live and eat here," Shankman remembers. "And lots of couples have met here. Yeah, the place used to be filled with Congressmen."
Most mornings, he's been working hours by the time patrons settle in to mop fried eggs with toast. His wife Ida has trimmed her work week in recent years, but brisket cooked to her specifications remains a coffee shop crowd pleaser.
On the Formica-clad wall, signs push the "Kosher Style Corned Beef or Pastrami Sandwich $2.00"; "Breakfast Special, 1 egg 1 pancake hash brown potatoes, $1.35." The cooking is a cross between black and Jewish homestyles.
Reunions of A.U. alums inevitably bring old patrons back for a nostalgic bite. One current student brought her regular waitress flowers on Mothers Day. Martin H. Sachs, a Justice Department attorney who's lived in the building for 13 years, eats at least half his breakfasts and dinners in the basement. He slaps his paunch to demonstrate what he thinks of the cooking.
Libby (Olivia) Stroman has worked the coffee shop for 20 years. She remembers when A.U. students used to "line up out the door." A tavern opened on campus a few years ago, complete with beer, and that put a dent in the Berk's business.
Like "Romeo" (also dubbed the "mad hacker" for his smoker's cough), the soda fountains, freezers and Sealtest Ice Cream clock are originals; the equipment dates to the shop's opening in November of '55.
The red-jacketed, red-haired clerk in rouge who rules the cash register, Jane Mills, is tired but distinctive, her glasses slightly askew. In a meek voice, she tells "Romeo" to blow his nose and cover his mouth when he coughs.
She can be testy when someone needs to cash a check and her supply of bills is low. Or she calls customers "sugar."
Thankfully, she rarely says "Have a nice day."