Imagine walking to your mother's house for breakfast and finding a group of strangers living there, your mother nowhere in sight, the smells of coffee and sizzling bacon no longer in the air. This is how my two young sons and I felt standing amid the shambles of what once was the Peoples drugstore lunch counter: no warm welcome, no familiar faces, no counter stools, no grits or bacon, and no advance notice. We didn't even know where to contact the various people we'd breakfasted with all those Sunday mornings over the past 17 years. We didn't even know their last names.
What we did know was how we felt: shocked and outraged. The Peoples drugstore management moved overnight, it seemed, to destroy our neighborhood gathering place at Wisconsin and O Street. We had already circulated a petition boasting 200 signatures and had presented the proposed closing to the Citizens Association of Georgetown, which unanimously passed a resolution urging Peoples to keep the counter open. But corporate managers act fast. Within five days of the association's resolution, the stools around the counters were removed.
When I spoke with Peoples' CEO David Eisenberg, I learned that it was a corporate decision, that his drugstores are no longer in the food-service business. I was told that I will be proud of the Georgetown store, which is slated to become the corporate "flagship" once $250,000 is pumped into new shelves and merchandise. Why not pump a little of that into community service? I then suggested that he change the name from Peoples to "Corporates."
Eisenberg professed no knowledge of a promise made by the Peoples management 20 years ago, when the drugstore was built in Georgetown in 1966. The company had promised the citizens association a community-service drugstore with a lunch counter, a promise that had encouraged the association to approve the construction of the drugstore.
This counter that Peoples built was, in fact, more than a mere gathering place: it was a common "eating" ground for everyone from the homeless to well-housed Georgetowners. It was a place where black and white, rich and poor knew no barriers. We broke bread there, argued politics, sports and even religion. My children practiced telling jokes there, and felt the excitement of weekly ritual.
It is ironic that the demolition occurred over the weekend on which we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. King would have loved this lunch counter, part of his dream of black and white coming together in normal, mundane ways. There was just no big deal about being there -- except in retrospect, now that it's gone, it was a big deal.
Everyone who ate there has his or her story to tell. Lettie said fondly, "I remember when the counter opened. Peoples was the first ugly building allowed in Georgetown." Lynn said that whenever Aunt Janet visited from New Jersey she remarked that "the counter was Washington's answer to 'Cheers,' only more wholesome."
What about Truman, who drove for an ex-ambassador and who was almost blase' about meeting Gorbachev? What about the former restaurant critic of the Washington Star, now with the Washington Times, who breakfasted there almost daily? What about Ed's daughter, Hope, who had just celebrated her fourth birthday there? And Harry, the honorary mayor of Georgetown, who knows everything and everyone? He still misses the five-cent pies from the store Peoples replaced. What about the numerous customers, of all denominations, who stopped for a cup of coffee en route to or from church?
This place embodied what still should be special about America. Its disappearance contributes further to the alienation of people in our society. Corporate greed has widened many gulfs, which the lunch counter had helped to narrow. So, hail to the people -- the corporate people of Peoples. Farewell to the people -- the real people of Peoples' lunch counter. -- Justin A. Frank