Four months ago, Wardley Patterson gave up on the big-city business hassles of Washington and moved out to Gaithersburg where he became the town's first black merchant in many years. There, amid the lumberyards and grimy auto repair shops of decidedly blue-collar Frederick Avenue, Patterson says he finally has found happiness.
"I figured it'd be hard, you know, being black up here with all the hicks, but I've been accepted like anybody else," Patterson said, slapping French bread around slices of ham and cheese in the delicatessen he owns off thundering Rte. 355.
"There's more class up here than in all the white-collars in Washington."
In May, when Patterson opened his Deli King at 17 N. Frederick Ave., he learned that "appearances don't count a bit around here."
His deli caters mostly to workers from the lumberyards, trash companies and greasy auto repair shops that line the avenue. Corkie, Danny and Red were among his first customers.
"The Friday payday was one of the first things I found out about around here," Patterson recalled. "The Iranians who owned the place before me said don't give any credit to those guys because they're mean and don't pay up."
But Patterson extended up to $60 in credit to "some of the boys."
"Well, the first Friday came along and I went over to the trash yard to collect. I yelled 'Red, you miserable so and so' and he just about jumped under the truck."
"Shor' nuff did," chuckled Red, a beefy garbage collector with rust hair and a scarlet face.
"But they get it back to you. If you're good to them, they'll be good to you," Patterson said.
Patterson first became a small business man by necessity, he said, when he was growing up in Champaign, Ill. He ran two morning newspaper routes and another route at night when he was 8 years old "to get something to eat," he said.
If someone had advised him about the value of formal education, he said, he would have gone to high school. But he felt alienated being the only black in public schools in a predominantly white college town.
So there was the military. "The Navy was good to me because I learned to become a medic. It was good pay and not much work, something I wasn't used to," he said. In the Navy he also became a boxer. "I was a hard, bitter person. Boxing sort of relieved a lot of anxieties I had growing up."
At Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he was stationed, Patterson met Mildred, a nurse who is now his wife. After he was discharged he returned to Champaign, hoping to get a job as a lab technician at the University of Illinois.
"It was like returning to hard times. The man said they didn't hire blacks for lab work, but that there were plenty of kitchen jobs available. I said to hell with Champaign."
Patterson returned to Washington worked in a railroad post office and saved up enough money to open a service station at South Dakota Avenue and Riggs Road NE in 1965.
Those were good times, he recalled. Income rose steadily until Patterson had three full-time mechanics on the payroll and six part-timers.
Then, one day in April 1968, Mildred, at home with their three children, called frantically to report rioters had taken to the streets in the neighborhood.
Patterson rushed home, and when he returned to the station the next day, he found windows smashed and gasoline pumps toppled. For a week a National Guard transport truck was parked in the station lot.
"Everybody's got hard luck sometimes," said Patterson, stacking beer bottles in a cooler at the deli. He mentioned an elderly woman who lived in a trash truck on the other side of Frederick Avenue.
"One of the workers over there came in one time and only had a buck and a half and wanted to buy a submarine," he recalled.
"I told him. 'You just ate. You can't be hungry.' Then he told me it wasn't for him, but for the old lady. He pointed to her outside the store, and then it really hit me: These people have class."
Shortly after the riots, Patterson had his first run-in with the Small Business Administration, which was guaranteeing low-interest loans for merchants hit hard by the rioting.
He and a friend, a Jewish merchant who ran a nearby mom-and-pop store, were told by the SBA that it would be a year before the agency could lend them money.
Patterson sold the station and it took five years for him to pay off his debts, he said.
Eventually, he built up a small fleet of taxicabs in Washington, but said he gave up on that when the gasoline squeeze started absorbing profits.
"Before I started this deli there was a succession of Italian, Iranian and Korean owners here who got all kinds of loans because SBA had preferential treatment for immigrants," he said. "Everytime I go to the bank or SBA, they say I don't have enough business experience. Nobody thinks blacks have the brains to run a store."
Corkie, a young auto mechanic with sideburns that curl into a bushy mustache, came into the deli and complained to Mildred about his debts. He said he had child support to pay and his car was in the shop for $600 worth of repairs.
"I ain't drank all week, Pat," he said to Patterson. "And I'm only gonna ask just once, see. Could I get a six pack?"
"Corkie, you already owe $20. You don't need the beer to boot," Patterson answered.
"With all my problems, I got reason to drink."
"If you don't know the lows, you can't enjoy the highs."
"You're a good man, Pat," Corkie smiled as Patterson gave him a six-pack of Pabst.
"Corkie always pays," the owner said. "I know I'll see him again."
Patterson's family, who moved to Rockville seven years ago, went to work on the deli as soon as it was purchased, sweeping, scrubbing and waxing floors, washing windows and kitchen grills.
His son's beer can collection was displayed on the walls. Beer and wine prices were lowered to accommodate the robust local workers.
And, Patterson said, he set about putting together a menu of quality sandwiches. Thick hamburgers with hot pappers, relish, mayonnaise and tomatoes. Cheese and Italian sausage wrapped in thick layers of French bread. The kinds of things that drip all over the paper plate.
There's his favorite, the house specialty that he said people call in for them as far away as D.C. and Prince George's County: a six-foot-long sub that can fill 20 appetites.
In a few months, he figures the deli will break even. He knows word of mouth advertising has already spread "among the boys" up and down Frederick Avenue. During lunchtime, from places like the Big A auto shop and Midas Muffler, the grimy workers come in and "set awhile" while Patterson takes orders over the phone.
Eventually, he hopes to attract more business from the "white collars" who work in the local IBM office and Federal Bureau of Standards. "With a little luck," he said, "everything'll work out fine."
Just then a long green praying mantis hopped into the doorway out of the rain. Danny, a young lumber cutter, gently picked it up and tossed it back outdoors.
"Those things are supposed to bring luck, Pat," Danny said.