Garnza Duffey, a retired postman, grew up in an alley in Southeast Washington when alley dwellings dotted several sections of the city. These houses were narrow, the bathrooms outdoors and the lights, kerosene lamps. These homes, usually occupied by poor blacks, were located behind the homes of whites, which faced onto city streets. Most of the alley dwellings, including the one Duffey had lived in, were torn down during the 1940s and '50s because they were slums. The few that remain have become fashionable addresses in Georgetown and on Capitol Hill.
The District Weekly welcomes such reminiscences.
I was born in a hospital on Kirby Street NW bounded by New York Avenue and N Street, New Jersey Avenue and First Street. The hospital, whose name was Homeopathic, was torn down long ago. I spent the first 11 years of my life with my grandparents in Western Maryland and returned to D.C. only because my grandmother died. I loved that lady.
I was the only boy in a family of eight and the youngest. We lived in an alley between Sixth and Seventh, G and I streets SE. There was no H Street. Black poor people lived in alleys such as this mainly because of cheap rent.
Christians, bootleggers, numbers writers and prostitutes lived in this alley called Navy Place. I guess it got its name because it was near the main gate of the Washington Navy Yard. I remember sailors from the Navy Yard and marines from the Marine barracks, which still is at Eighth and I streets SE, coming into our alley for immoral purposes.
I recall how as a boy we used to call the girls we knew or thought we knew, who were involved, all sorts of bad names. We also stoned the sailors and marines from the roofs of the row houses that made up the compound of alley dwellings. We often had help from the men in the alley, who would catch the sailors and marines and beat them up.
Every day there were crap games under lampposts, and often the police would chase the players away, laugh and pick up the money left by the fleeing men.
We often went to the city dump about two miles away to pick up cinders. What are cinders? Most homes in those days were heated by wood and coal stoves. In these days people put their used coal out back for the ash truck to pick up and be carried away to the dump. The dump was located on what is now the parking lot for the Kennedy Stadium. Ashes and trash were burned there. Garbage went to another site.
We made sifters from old winter screens or discarded dishpans with holes in the bottom. All kids had wagons, mostly homemade. We would find burlap sacks or bushel baskets and we were ready to go to the dump. We sifted the used piles of ashes, picked out the pieces of coal that had half-burned, bagged them in burlap bags or bushel baskets and sold them in our neighborhood.
A freight train ran down Potomac Avenue SE. It ran underground from 11th Street to Second Street and Virginia Avenue SE. A lot of the freight cars carried coal. Since it was moving along at five miles an hour, you should know what happened to a lot of that coal. Stealing? No. We called it surviving. We sold it for $1 a bushel for hard coal, 50 cents for soft.
We were competing with men who made their livings selling wood and coal from horse-drawn wagons in poor neighborhoods.
Their battle cry was "coal man" or "wood man." I remember Mama buying from them. A bushel of hard coal sold for 50 cents. Soft coal sold for 25 cents. A bushel of wood sold for 10 to 15 cents.
The houses in Navy Place were alike. Two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs. Where was the bathroom? I never heard the term used until I was around 16, when by the grace of God and a hard-working mother, we were able to move out to a house on a street.
We had to learn to use a bathroom. In the alley the toilet was a small room attached to the rear of the house. A place to sit and a handle to flush.
Just outside was a hydrant for drinking and bathing water. In the winter we had to make sure a supply of water was in the house at all times. In extreme cold weather, the hydrant could freeze, and in order to make it workable, hot water had to be poured over it.
Most neighborhoods had a corner grocery store, and had these stores not allowed people to get food on credit, Lord knows how folks would have made out. Fresh bakery goods and milk were delivered early each day and placed in a big box at the door of the store. Yes, the boxes were unlocked.
Mom would leave a quarter with my oldest sister and tell her to go to the store and get: 10 cents worth of pork kidneys, or hog liver; 5 cents or about a pound of potatoes; 5 cents worth of lard; 5 cents worth of flour.
What a feast. Too many starches, but we left the table satisfied. Sometimes we had a few biscuits left from dinner that made wonderful bedtime snacks. Foods from Mom's domestic job helped also.
The bootleggers had more money than anyone else in our alley and often loaned families money until payday. This service to people made the bootlegger a big shot and also was good for his business.
We used to search for and find different-sized jars, wash them and sell to the bootleggers. They gave us 3 cents for half-pint bottles, 5 cents for pints and a dime for half- gallon jars. They had to be clean. They then were used to bottle the corn whisky.
Life was hard. Not all made it. The early training I received with my grandmother helped me resist many temptations. I saw two of my friends die by violence.
One was stabbed by his common- law wife and another shot in a crap game argument. Another friend drowned in the Potomac River. We used to swim across the river near the 11th Street bridge. Most of us were strong swimmers and could swim across and back with ease. My friend who drowned was the best swimmer in our gang. We figured he had cramps or was pulled under by a strong undercurrent.
My love of baseball and tennis also kept me out of a lot of trouble. I was good enough to play baseball with one of Washington's best teams during the segregated period. Often when the Washington Senators, the city's big league team, was away on weekends, we were allowed to play at Griffith Stadium and could draw 5,000 to 10,000 fans, a lot of them white.
Rough side of the mountain? I've been there. God and a burning desire to find a better life prevailed. I am just one of those who made it.