The bar in Adams-Morgan is small, somewhat dark, and studiedly witty, its pale blue walls covered with empty picture frames. A woman in black with a swoop of purple-tinted hair sits at a table, flashing perfect, white teeth and greeting the people swirling around her with little hugs and kisses and exclamations.
Natasha is holding court. It must be Wednesday night.
For nearly 10 years, Natasha Reatig -- extrovert, longtime Washingtonian, self-styled impresario -- has set aside Wednesday nights for her public drop-ins. Her "salons," as she calls them, draw as many as 80 people and as few as a dozen: lawyers, bookstore clerks, actors visiting from New York, a fashion designer who "assembles collages."
"It's an opportunity for me to see friends, plan parties, and, in quotes, to network at a given time and at a given place," said Reatig, 45, a daughter of academic parents and holder of a well-paying research job in the federal government.
"If I know a friend is coming in from London," she said, "or looking for a job, looking for an apartment, looking to meet somebody, I say, 'Listen, drop by Wednesday night and I'll introduce you to people.'
"It saves wear and tear," she said with a laugh, "and it saves me from having to go out on blind dates."
On a recent Wednesday night, Natasha and friends met for the first time at Pauline's, a bar on 18th Street NW. It is the fourth Adams-Morgan bar she has used as her headquarters since the weekly gatherings were launched in early 1976.
About 8 p.m., Natasha's friends started wandering in, singly and in groups of two and three. They stopped to say hello, they formed little groups, they gossiped, they drank. Ice cubes tinkled; the conversation reached a heady roar. At the center was Natasha, eating a bowl of french fries, waving, talking and snapping photographs with a small Kodak. She has filled five photo albums.
"Hi, Susan, you're back in the country," she greeted a young woman with a stark white face and spikey black hair.
"Stewart," she cried, stretching out her arms to a pale, thin man. "I was wondering if you would remember the new place."
Natasha's friends speak of her in relentlessly glowing terms. They talk about her sprawling, theatrical parties -- her Inaugural Brawl in January, and her upcoming "Howl-oween" celebration that will feature a special reading of Allen Ginsberg's poem, "Howl." They talk about her warmth, her interest in their continuing life stories, her flair for the offbeat.
"Natasha is my window on the new world," said Susan Moss, a D.C. lawyer. "She's always listening to music before anybody else has ever heard of it."
"Her line is, 'I live to be in,' " said Surell Brady, another lawyer. "She's a source in the most primeval sense of the word. People are drawn to her."
"She's just the ideal hostess," said Glenn Marcus, who works for the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is also endearing because of her Natalie Wood looks and her self-mocking humor.
The "salons" evolved when Reatig -- who prefers to be known simply as Natasha -- grew tired of trying to juggle get-togethers with her many busy friends. One night, a large group of them happened to meet over ribs at Columbia Station in Adams-Morgan and, by popular demand, the custom continued. Wednesday nights seemed appropriate "because there was nothing else going on."
"I've missed them only when I've been deathly ill or on vacation," she said. "The only way a salon can work is if I am there, regularly, at the appointed time. It takes a commitment."
Natasha patterns her gatherings, she said, on the European cafe society of the 1920s and '30s. A daughter of Russian immigrants, she moved to Washington from New York when she was 10. Her mother was the founding chairwoman of the department of Slavic languages at George Washington University; her stepfather, chief of the Slavic and European divisions at the Library of Congress.
At Gordon Junior High School, Natasha was a cheerleader; at Wilson High School, a pompon girl. At Vassar College, she majored in cultural anthropology. But in her heart, she said, she was always attracted to "people who live on the fringe."
"As a cheerleader in 1954, I was always in love with the juvenile delinquents," she said. "From there, I went directly into being a beatnik and from beatniks into Bohemians into hippies. I was very much into the antiwar movement. I was an organizer for Federal Employees for Peace for many years." Natasha was married for six years to an Israeli sculptor.
These days, Natasha focuses much of her energy on encouraging and supporting Washington's struggling painters, actors, musicians and writers. She likes to see herself as an impresario in the Sol Hurok tradition -- "who creates not the artist, but the audience" -- as well as a patron of the arts in the spirit of Gertrude Stein.
"Most women who are patrons of the arts are rich," said Natasha, who has an annual salary of $41,000. "Gertrude Stein was rich. No matter how Bohemian and wild she was, she had a lot of money, and I don't.
"But I have the same spirit," she said with a laugh. "Instead of purchasing their paintings, I buy them drinks while they're painting. I've also given lots and lots of parties where I feature them and introduce them to people who can help them."
A new group -- two young women and a man in chic, shabby, black clothes -- saunters into the bar and heads for Natasha's table. "Hold it right there," she said, holding up her camera and snapping their picture. Her other friends, about 35 of them this night, drift in and out. Natasha talks briefly, animatedly, about the latest project she is sponsoring -- a 16mm black-and-white silent film featuring local artists. She describes it as a 1920s melodrama about "morally corrupt people trying to survive in an innocent world."
Natasha throws back her head and laughs. "Not a single night in the 10 years has ever bored me," she said, "because there is never a set group. I know hundreds and hundreds of people in this town. People will suddenly show up from California to surprise me. People who used to come and see me in 1976 will show up in 1985.
"They know that on Wednesday night, if they walk around Adams-Morgan, they can find me."
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