Redskins banners hung across the windows yesterday outside Chuck and Billy's Bar and Grill. Red and yellow balloons danced from tables and chairs inside.
About a dozen women who belong to the 2718 Social Club -- named for the bar's Georgia Avenue NW address -- followed their game-day ritual, bringing food from home to supplement the chef's chicken wings and pork sausage. Diana Roach-Canty had cooked up her signature dish, jalapeno salmon balls, and Damita Garner came in with a beautifully decorated "Hail to the Redskins" cake.
Willie Armstrong, who grew up in Washington and lives in Hartford, Conn., made a point of dropping in, as he always does when he's in town. Watching the game in his new Redskins cap, he tucked into a plate of ribs, string beans and potato salad -- "with a martini and champagne to wash it down with," he said.
As usual, most of the regulars arrived a couple of hours before the kickoff to drink a beer, tell a few tales and argue with old friends.
Many patrons have dubbed Chuck and Billy's, across from the Howard University campus, the black "Cheers," after the sitcom set in a bar where everyone knew everyone else's name. But Bill Knox, a Boston-bred Irishman who runs the District's housing authority, also counts himself among the game-day regulars. "Whenever there's an argument about the game, they get me to settle it," he said as he sat with the elbow-to-elbow crowd at the bar. He laughed. " 'What's the white man say?' they'll ask."
Most of the 60 or so people who packed into the bar yesterday were wearing Redskins caps, jerseys or colors, but not all. Even though the Redskins were tangling with the blue-shirted Denver Broncos, it was -- as always -- a battle between Redskins and Cowboys. For years, Dallas Cowboys fans and Redskins fans have carried on a loud and, for the most part, friendly feud at Chuck and Billy's.
A blue-and-white Cowboys banner occupies a place of honor high on the dingy wall across from the bar and will stay there, owner Chuck Gary has decreed, until the Redskins have vanquished "America's Team" twice in a row. After the Brunell-to-Moss miracle three weeks ago in Texas Stadium, they're one game away.
Carolyn Mitchell, a Chuck and Billy's regular who lines up with the Cowboys faction, proudly retrieved from her handbag two tickets for the Dec. 18 rematch. Mitchell, who works as a financial consultant, is from the Texas Panhandle city of Amarillo.
That accounts, in part, for her Cowboys allegiance, but it's not the only reason. She, like many of Washington's black residents, nurtures a lingering resentment toward the Redskins because in the early 1960s they were the last of the National Football League's 14 teams to have a black player. (All-pro running back Bobby Mitchell was the team's first African American, coming to Washington in a 1961 trade with the Cleveland Browns.)
"Maybe so," countered Gordon Metts, who was wearing a Redskins cap, a down jacket and khaki shorts. "But who was the first to have black cheerleaders?" Nobody challenged his observation.
Overseeing the raucous scene was Gary, a Memphis native who came to the District in 1959 to work as a file clerk for the federal government. In 1968, he opened his first place, Chuck's Bar and Grill on Irving Street NW.
Gary, a soft-spoken man with white, close-cropped hair who looks younger than his 72 years, bought the Irving Street bar from an Irishman who had owned it for 47 years but was reluctant to reopen after the 1968 riots. Gary literally put out a fire at the establishment and then bought it.
From the beginning, he worked not only to make Chuck's Bar and Grill a welcoming place, but also to help the 14th Street neighborhood recover. After the riots, he walked the streets with Mayor Walter E. Washington, calming residents and soliciting ideas for restoring the community. Over the years, he has served needy customers free turkey dinners at Thanksgiving, handed out food baskets and toys at Christmas, sponsored Easter egg hunts, prepared free Mother's Day and Father's Day dinners and sponsored youth softball teams. His efforts earned him the nickname, "Mayor of 14th Street."
In a way, Gary was a victim of his community-building success. In 1990, urban renewal drove him out of the burgeoning 14th Street corridor. The Georgia Avenue place, originally a lunchroom that catered to Howard students and then a jazz club called Woody's, was the closest location he could find to the old neighborhood.
Gary has continued to look out for the community, with help from members of the 2718 Social Club and other regulars.
"He never closes this place because he says people have to have a place to go," longtime employee Jo Jo Cooper said. "He's here every day. If there's six feet of snow out there on the sidewalk, he's going to be here."
Gary said his business approach has always been to duplicate as an owner what he looks for as a customer. "I want to give my customer a reason to come here and give him a reason to come back. That's the philosophy I've been using the last 30 years."
They keep coming back. As bar regular Jimmy Canty explained, laughing, "We don't get along, but we're family."
Redskins Journal is an occasional feature about the game-day activities of the NFL team's faithful.