When Catherine Hill reopened Hill's Market, the popular grocery at 17th and Gales streets NE last week, just nine days after her husband James was killed in the street outside, residents felt that their neighborhood pulse was beating again.
"It was hard to decide to go back," Hill, 48, said after spending her first day without her husband in the small corner store they built over the past 10 years.
She talked as she unwound in their Upper Northeast Brookland home.
"I've been crying all day. All of the memories of him are right there. People say, 'Why don't you smile?' because I smile all the time, but I can't smile. I'm a lonely child," she sighed.
Her 52-year-old husband was shot twice in the chest during a puzzling argument with a regular customer over change for a newspaper and a pack of cigarettes, police say. Clarence L. Joyner, 60, of 1642 Gales St. NE was arrested and charged with second degree murder.
The Sunday, May 4 shooting, the store's closing and Joyner's release from jail the next day bewildered residents of the close-knit 1600 block of Gales, which, like the surrounding poor neighborhood, depends heavily on the little market.
According to the people who live nearby, parents send their children there and never worry about shortchanging. The elderly buy food on credit and pay at the end of the month -- or whenever they can. Everyone was treated to a joke, a smile or friendly advice on a disturbing problem.
Young neighborhood residents newly released from Lorton made the store their first stop to announce their return. It was the residents' community gathering place.
During the 16 hours the store is open each day, residents from the narrow street of working class renters and retired homeowners, amble in to buy half-smokes, beer, bacon, detergent, newspapers and a Southern favorite, Alaga syrup.
Then tragically, the store closed. "Gales Street was dead and lonely and missing James Hill," Dee Dee Knight, 23, of 1643 Gales St., said last week when describing the reaction to Hill's death and the eight-day shutdown of the store. Knight was among the more than 200 neighborhood residents who attended Hill's wake to show their caring and appreciation.
"We need that store to keep us from having to go four or five blocks away or across Benning Road and walking up the hill to the Safeway," 21-year-old Joan Walker said. She grew up on the block, buying candy from the Hills since she was a youngster.
"If there is no store I don't know what this street would be like," she continued. "It's dead without it. My grandmother can't walk well, but she can walk up here. This is the only store left."
Lillie Herron, who lives next door to the market, said the Hills always had handouts for the neighborhood children. "So many children are out there at dinner time I think the store is feeding them and not their mothers," she said.
James Hill, a $125-a-week forklift operator with a third grade education, scraped together $2,400 in June 1970 and bought the market for $10,000.
"He always wanted to do it," Catherine Hill recalled. "He liked being self-employed . . . always said he was tired of working for the white man.
"The first day we opened we made $60. We had a handful of loaves of bread, some cartons of milk, a few candy bars and some sodas," she remembered.
The couple and seven of her 10 children from a previous marriage moved into the small apartment above the store.
Hill would open the market at 7 a.m., then she would come down after the children were off to school to give him a chance to rest. When he returned, she would go upstairs to wash, iron, and cook, then back to the store.
She would inventory the stock in the afternoon and write out a shopping list Hill would take to the Northeast wholesale market the following morning.
"We did the whole thing together," she said. "We were trying to help each other. We had both gone through a similar situation (a bad marriage) and we longed for a better life."
During the first three years, they never took a day off, keeping the store open 365 days a year. They never took off more than 12 days at a time.
"He would bring in the luggage (from a trip) and say 'Baby I'm going to the store,'" she said. "I would tell him to relax, and he would say, 'No, baby, those people are wondering where I am.' People would get mad when he wasn't there."
They also established "the book" in those early days -- a list of people who owned bills ranging from $1 to $30.
Her husband had a philosophy, Hill said, "if you spend your money with me when you have it I will give to you when you're in need."
So, their neighbors would come in or send their children whether they had money or not.
From her Brookland home, she was recalling the old days in the old neighborhood. "In that neighborhood that meant a lot because a lot of people had large families like I did. You cannot get credit from the Safeway or A&P. We had a book that thick," she said, holding her hands about five inches apart.
In 1974, after putting a little money aside they bought their modest frame detached home in Brookland, about 10 minutes from the store.
After their move, they endured six robberies before installing a thick plastic partition from the counter to the ceiling. The store was broken into four or five more times so they bricked up the windows, put a heavy metal screen over the door window and a heavy metal grate with bars in front of it.
After the last robbery five years ago, she was frightened. "I said I was going to quit and he said you can't let hoodlums who don't want anything stop you. 'I want something.'"
Now, with the help of two of her children she's carrying on, "in the way he would have wanted for the convenience of the people. I enjoy those people."
But the dreams are gone. After living together for 12 years they were planning to be married next month. He bought the gold rings in April. Some of their wedding china has already arrived and more is expected.
He has begun telling friends he planned to retire in about two years, and that he and Catherine were going to move to Florida where they had recently bought a home.
"He was just trying to make a living, and to be shot down while he was working," she pauses painfully, then continues, "We were working so hard together to get what we got and now we can't enjoy it together."