Emily Langhorne is associate director of the Reinventing America’s Schools project at the Progressive Policy Institute.
It started with a bartender.
For transplants to the District, it can be hard to find a sense of community. On the day my husband and I went to visit the apartment we would end up renting for the next two years, we decided to have lunch around the corner, enticed by the open-air dining room, as well as the menu of Belgian food and beer. The exchange with the bartender was full of pleasantries, nothing more than you’d expect, excellent service with a friendly demeanor. It was, like most beginnings, the kind when you don’t realize that something’s begun.
Six weeks later and two weeks after we moved into the apartment, a friend and I returned to St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar in Cleveland Park. The same bartender served us, and when my friend ordered syrup to go with his waffle burger, the bartender informed him it was a weird choice. We laughed about it, and it became our first running joke.
My husband and I began to frequent the bar: impromptu weeknight drinks, celebrations for job promotions and anniversaries, a standby for taking out-of-town guests. Somewhere in that time, we learned the bartender’s name: Ruben.
He was seemingly always there. Waving to me through the glass windows as I passed by on my evening runs. Smiling at me from behind the bar as I commuted home from work. Serving my husband and me beer and frites and more beer until it was late, and we were the last lingering customers.
And then Ruben died. Right there, in the restaurant, from a heart attack, a year after we’d moved in, when my husband and I were visiting family in Ireland.
The ripples of a life can never be known. The owners of St. Arnold’s held a service on a Sunday afternoon, and members of the neighborhood, who had been following Ruben from bar to bar until he’d ended up at my new locale a few years ago, turned out in large numbers to pay their respects, to say goodbye, to share the loss with all who cared, those such as Paul, a co-owner of St. Arnold’s who knew Ruben well, and those like me, who didn’t.
Shortly after, Paul and Val (Ruben’s co-bartender extraordinaire) began hosting monthly neighborhood dinners, a one-night-only, seven-course menu, for neighbors to come together and get to know each other over well-prepared food. Everyone ate together: the guests, beer distributors and St. Arnold’s employees. Each dinner was different; each dinner was special. Each dinner was the restaurant’s attempt to create a sense of belonging among members of a community.
Friends began to come along; strangers still came, too. There was a dinner before Christmas and another the week of Valentine’s Day. There was one on my birthday. For that special night, they presented me with a shirt that read, “Strong Belgium [Fem]Ale,” and a special dessert, made by Val’s aunt using her family recipe, which they served as course number four because they’d come to realize that I’m always full by course six.
The St. Arnold’s kitchen caught fire last month , with flames so intense that the restaurant has not yet reopened. Walking home that evening, only a few hours after the blaze, we tiptoed into the restaurant, where Paul and Val and a few other employees dwelled quietly, contemplating the damage. Chairs remained stacked on tables, the lights stayed out, and the ceiling fans whirled soundlessly overhead. We treaded lightly upon their tragedy; they welcomed us with literal open arms and let us drink to their sorrows. Then we stood outside in the humid, nearly July summer air, as Paul locked the doors and shut the windows, unsure when he’d open them again.
Each morning since, I walk by and look in. The ceiling fans are still whirling, but the restaurant remains dark. Our empty glasses uncharacteristically left out on the counter. Every community needs a clean, well-lighted place, and I wonder what we will do if ours is truly gone.