Tassos happened to be in my neighborhood. But it didn't have to be. To be worthy of the name, neighborhood bars need occupy only a peculiar mental geography. Their physical location is incidental.
Tassos was conveniently situated in an area that is now occupied by the Air Line Pilots Association's parking lot at 17th and O. During its heyday in the '60s, Tassos was the reigning funky-fascinating hangout in a neighborhood asniff with tear gas and adolescent anarchy.
Jammed in the basement of a Victorian row house, it crouched near historic and graceful Massachusetts Avenue. With jukebox blaring, it dared cliffdweller and gentle bureaucrat to pass, much less enter.
But enter many did, fumbling down a couple of steps through a gloomy foyer to the front room where the bar was located. Like many men of substance, Tassos was all bay window, with spindly formica tables circled around the enormous span. For the I-always-sit-with-my-back-to-the-wall set it presented a dilemma; you had to sit with your back to the windows or the room -- or go in the back dining room, a former Chinese laundry, dark and dreamy as a latter-day opium den, with its own players and rules. Mysteriously, and by degree, you learned trust at Tassos.
Tassos was a comforting womb, an adventure, a family. Its habitues represented a perfect cross-section of Washington's upper and nether societies. Serious bums, lawyers, writers, nurses, prostitutes, cartoonists, teachers, secretaries, and card-carrying political crazies from both wings of the bird share fragments of Tassos memories, though no two versions will jibe. Most went on to lead productive, though private lives. Some killed themselves. Others were killed. And some rose to public greatness.
In my mind's eye, I can picture Carl Bernstein, in his union-activist days, bearded and blue-jeaned. Marion Barry, resplendent in his dashiki, stopping in with regular Ivanhoe Donaldson. Stokely Carmichael, who always had something to say and was missed when he expanded his podium to include the world. But we were all nobody then. Just fellow pilgrims in the hazy Washington night.
Try to picture it. "Hey, Jude" time and time again on the jukebox. People did a lot of reading -- TIME, GUNS & AMMO, THE CONGRESSIONAL RECORD (I swear). Drinking, too, was almost an afterthought. Beer was the norm, befitting both the average mentality and financial profile. So strict was the custom, in fact, that I became something of a local legend for drinking boilermakers consisting of Old Forester and Ballentine Ale.
People remember it to this day and occasionally try to buy me an encore, which in deference to the first twinges of maturity and a fortyish liver, I am forced to refuse.
At Tassos, conversation was the mind-altering substance of choice. The Irish, who should know, have a marvelous word for bar talk: The Crack. They use the term as a catchall for the content, length, rhythm and texture of conversation. One Irishman will ask another, "Heard you were at Paddy's last night. How was The Crack, then?"
"Ah, 'twas fierce," will come the reply. "The doctor was there and Paddy was in rare form."
Though a high boredom threshold is the saving grace of any serious bar-goer, Tassos had a marvelous Crack. Sometimes it was even weird. Overheard one night: "My cat Barney The Black Sword had to be renamed Bonnie The Black Sword."
Or: "I like music, too, but I don't understand people who want to listen to it every day."
And ambiance. Tassos had it to spare. New heights of municipal conscience were scaled in 1967 when city officials prevailed on the cook to wear a shirt. He agreed only because he was afraid they'd make him stop living in the kitchen if he didn't.
People received their mail there. Even the building itself got mail. From all over the world. From people who missed it.
And then there was the day they finally fixed the ladies' room.
Small memories of a time writ large. In the midst of the 1968 riots, when whites fled the city, both races sipped together at Tassos. Surging post-demostration adrenaline was neutralized. Problems were solved, or close enough. Friends were made.
It is now 15 years since Tassos closed. I still have some of the friends, but I am married, with a young child, and don't get around much anymore. And even if I had the inclination and price of a babysitter, Tassos isn't there. Eventually, the pushers began to outnumber the regulars. There was even a pernicious rumor that some unromantic types at the Air Line Pilots' Association had prevailed on a couple of impressionable members of the police establishment in the late '60s to close the place down. Just to make sure they were really rid of their nemesis, the pilots tore down the building and paved the scar.
By some weird form of synchronicity, the parking lot it became is next to my daughter's former day-care center. From night-care to day-care, Tassos remained in the family.
A few years ago Ray Schandelmeier met a Tassos regular and Schandelmeier said, "Didn't you know? I used to own the joint."
The man replied "Owned it? I didn't think anyone owned it. I thought it belonged to the people."