Watching the gorgeously seedy old LaSalle Building collapse into ruins last week, I tried to summon forth pleasant memories, but what kept coming to my mind was the smell.
The LaSalle Building used to stand on the southwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW and, as I write, about a fifth of it still stands there. It's being demolished to make way for a new office-and-shopping complex. In a way this is just, because every other building in the vicinity is a new office-and-shopping complex and the LaSalle Building, where I worked for two years and change, stood out like a sore thumb. In the middle of booming downtown Washington, it was low-rent. It had no right to be there.
Anyway, the smell. One morning I got to work and there was a terrible rotting smell in the corridors of the 12th floor. I called the building manager, who was what is called in the South a little banty roster of a man. I think he was the only person in the LaSalle Building who saw himself as a big shot. He wore loud coats and big rings. In the elevator he was full of brassy talk of deals. Tell him about a problem and he would say, "No problem." His attitude represented to me some sort of weird triumph of the human spirit.
The building manager got on the case, and a few hours later the hallway outside the office where I worked was full of policemen. They were wheeling a metal stretcher out of the apartment down the hall. It was covered with a white sheet. I knew the guy under that sheet. He was an obstreperous old drunk who every month or so would turn up with some horrible purplish bruise or cut on his face, bespeaking an uncontrollably contrary nature and a knack for picking the wrong kind of barroom. But he maintained his dignity via a sly, rakish, go-to-hell view of the world. Sometimes I'd be in the elevator with him and when everybody else got off, he'd shoot me a wink and a grin, as if say, "Ah, they can all go jump in the lake as far as I'm concerned."
As the cops wheeled the guy into the elevator, the building manager stood in the corridor watching them, an utterly stricken expression on his face. Looking back, I think this was the moment when it was all over for the LaSalle Building. It was the moment when even the building manager realized this was not a building that belonged where it was. Guys aren't supposed to die in buildings along the L Street corridor.
Having got all that out of the way, I should make it clear that all was not bleak at the LaSalle Building. Duke Zeibert's and Brooks Brothers were in the building, although they were on the L Street side and therefore not really of the LaSalle world. Sholl's Colonial Cafeteria, the quintessential LaSalle institution, dominated the ground floor on the Connecticut Avenue side, and all of us who worked or lived in the building ate there often. The six-cent coffee, Mr. Sholl's weekly trips to kiss all the serving ladies, the conspiracy freak camped at the pay phone in the lobby ("I can't speak freely now," he would boom into the receiver), the gray-haired lady shouting imprecations in a strange East European tongue -- these were things we came to love. We used to joke that if you went to Sholl's for dinner, you could hear a din of conversation even though everyone was sitting alone, because it was such a mecca for those Washingtonians who prefer to talk to themselves. Sholl's Colonial has now moved to a new building on K Street, but the old clientele hasn't moved with it. I don't know where they went.
As for the rest of us, I have a vague sense that we landed on our feet. When I was there, in the heyday of detente, the Committee on the Present Danger was just a couple of drafty rooms on the 11th floor; whoever worked there would probably be snugly ensconced in the West Wing in a Reagan administration. Ralph Nader can take care of himself. Anything with as suspicious a name as The Korean Cultural Freedom Foundation can certainly take care of itself. I've begun to notice the names of some of the people who worked there for do-good organizations popping up a deputy assistant secretaries of this and that. The large Vietnamese families crammed into small apartments may not be the same ones I'm now beginning to see in the lists of home buyers on the real estate page, but I hope they are.
Still, I find myself wandering over at lunch time to see the old warhorse breathe its last. People used to say that the LaSalle Building, in its day, was a proud address. There were rumors even in recent years of magnificent duplexes salted away at the ends of obscure corridors. Once in the days when the tenants were all vacating, I got a glimpse of one of them and it was, if not magnificent, at least uncharacteristically big, and it impressed me that the building could hold such secrets. I saw the wrecker's ball slice through a room that I think was my office, exposing the familiar dirty white paint, the sea-green rugs, the cell-like windows. There it was, hanging in midair.
I wish I could say I wept, but I did at least mourn silently. Somehow it seemed to me healthy for Washington to have a collection of losers and oddballs right in its midst, and unhealthy for it not to. The kind of people who used to end up in the LaSalle Building -- the immigrants and causists and drunks and pensioners -- where do they go now? Not Washington, I imagine. Washington is for the work of the world to get done.