Joy Jones, a consultant to the D.C. public schools, grew up on Morton Street NW in the 1950s. She now lives in Northeast but visits her old neighborhood often. The District Weekly welcomes such reminiscences. By Joy Jones
You can keep your roller skates and even the roller coaster, because nothing could beat the speed of slide-riding down a playground slope in a cardboard box.
Or so I believed as a little girl growing up during the late '50s and early '60s on Morton Street NW, right off Georgia Avenue.
It was at Banneker Junior High School playground where I would go with big corrugated cardboard boxes dragged from the Safeway on Georgia Avenue, past the fish market, past the delicatessen on the opposite corner, past the laundromat that is in the same shabby condition now that it was in then. I would walk very quickly past the dark pool halls where old men stood in the doorways smoking cigarettes and looking scary to me.
Usually on Saturday mornings, it was my father who took me to Banneker playground. While I mastered the Jungle Gym, sliding board and swings, he played tennis with the rest of his cronies at the Mall Tennis Club. Every summer they would hold tournaments on those clay courts. When my mother took me to Banneker, we went swimming -- she in the big pool, me in the baby pool.
My street, Morton Street, was about 10 blocks north. It is a small street -- two blocks long on each side of Georgia Avenue. My parents moved to Morton Street after they married in the early 1950s. They knew the neighborhood because they had attended Howard University where they met and fell in love. They tell me that during their courting days, they would stroll around the McMillan Reservoir, which was unfenced in those days. The three of us stayed in a row house as roomers of Mrs. Mabel Butler. An elderly woman, she often told us how she and her husband were the "first colored on the block" when they moved to Morton Street in the '20s.
Our backyard had a grape arbor. My father and I had a ritual: we periodically examined the growing grapes. The grapes first appeared on the vine as hard little balls, resembling green peas. Once they ripened and were ready for eating, we performed a special operation on them. With one of my mother's sewing needles, I would prick the grape's flesh to remove its seeds. Only we called it removing the grape's appendix. After we had accumulated a bowl full of seedless grapes, we ate them.
Late at night in the summer, Mommy, Daddy and I would sit on the back steps and catch a cool breeze and watch the bats swoop overhead. If it was the right time of the month, we'd also hold a quarter to the sky -- "showing the new moon some money" -- to insure that we'd have money all month long.
Ranking right up there with my first job, my first date, and the day I was accepted by the college of my choice is the day my parents first allowed me to walk to the store alone. My destination was the DGS -- District Grocery Store, and my mission was to buy some M & Ms Plain. The DGS on Georgia Avenue between Morton and Lamont was one of a chain of stores that were painted a loud, eyesore orange. They sold pig's feet in fat glass jars, pickles in big barrels, a few cuts of meat, notebook paper, dish detergent, bread and eggs. It was the 7-Eleven of the '50s.
There was no street for me to cross to get to the store, just a walk around the corner, but I was careful to look both ways before venturing across the Morton Street alley. I dreamed of the day when I might travel alone across the great Georgia Avenue.
Georgia Avenue: the street with the eternal aroma of fried food and barbecue sauce. What we used to call greasy spoons are now fast food restaurants. Kampus Korner at Georgia and Euclid has been replaced by Blimpie's. McDonald's, Church's Fried Chicken and Roy Rogers are relative newcomers to the neighborhood. Lee's Restaurant has lasted for ages despite recent competition from Howard China, another Chinese food carryout that opened in the last year or two. That barbecue pork paradise, Thrifty's, has also stood the test of taste through the years.
I attended B.K. Bruce Elementary School, at Sherman Avenue and Kenyon Street NW, named after a former slave who became a D.C. Public Schools trustee. It seems that every morning of my elementary school career, the reading lesson began with the teacher making us recite "pig -- 'p'; wheel -- 'w'; top -- 't' " from a large yellow phono-visuals chart.
In those days, Bruce's arch rival was Monroe Elementary on Georgia Avenue. Monroe girls were ugly. Monroe boys were bad. Monroe kids were dumb. Monroe kids liked to fight (but we could beat them).
Today, the old Bruce School is a day care center. Monroe has been torn down. I knew Bruce would prevail.
Ironically, Monroe was demolished and a new open space school was built on its site. The school's name is Bruce-Monroe. I taught briefly at Bruce-Monroe. I questioned some of the students about the old rivalry. They didn't know what I was talking about.
On Sundays, my shiny, black patent leather, pointed-toe shoes would carry me to Park Road Community Church. "Step on a line, your mama drinks wine. Step on a crack, you break your mama's back," I'd chant on the way to Sunday school. Once there, the class would open with my favorite hymn, "Jesus Loves Me." I don't know if any of my Sunday school mates grew up to sing in any of the church's choirs, but I tell you, the singers who are there now are angelic. Check out the Choraleers, second Sunday of the month. Sweet. Moving. Majestic. Amen.
Morton Street and its environs are still a part of my extended neighborhood. I routinely visit Dea's Delicatessen, which serves better peach cobbler than anybody's Southern grandmother could ever cook. The house I lived in now has a "For Sale" sign in the front yard. I called the real estate agent to show me the house so that I could relive some memories. I knew that through my adult eyes the house of my childhood would look small. I was wrong. It looked like a dollhouse for midgets. But my memories were overflowing as I studied the small spaces. I looked out the window to the street and saw a discarded cardboard box on the street. It made me wonder: If I step inside it, and scrunch up real small. . . ?