Jul/Aug 2018 Nonfiction

The Hidden District

by Mark Stein

Don't go there, my mother said, pointing to the crawl space underneath the den. There could be rodents and who knows what, she said, beneath the den. In the basement, one of the little windows just above the ground looked into perpetual night that came after the addition in the space beneath the den. And beckoned.

I went there once. Lobstered across the dirt. I found no rodents but did daydream a door flush with the earth that I opened and descended into my mind.


Summer, 1955, hot and humid in DC—but not here, the secret room is air conditioned, linoleum tiles green and black turn the floor into a cool lap. They come here when we are asleep, me and my sister; they drink cocktails and smoke cigarettes they tap on green glass ashtrays reading the Sunday paper. Dad in the upholstered chair; mom curled on the couch; a golf match on tv.


We do not live in the District. Just outside. Often I hear them mention the District Line. District I figured is a word that comes from the clicket of the not-busses that run on tracks and, if you're lucky, spark. In the District there are dark people who have taken the place of my parents before we were born. The not-busses do not go beyond the District. Things happen there that are too dark to see.


12th and F, center of the Business District. July 19, 1955, Dear Mary Haworth—DON'T WALK—The Washington Post. At the corners, Garfinkels, Woodward & Lothrup, Lansburghs and Hechts intersect on bags gloved by ladies—Lately, I find myself eating my heart out over the past—briefcases in the grips of men in briefly brimmed hats—My older brother was very fond of me—neckties and scarves politely in place of identities—but our father used brute force at every turn.

12th and F. My father's office is three blocks down. Once I was beaten unconscious because I protested being called a liar. Uncle Moe, who's not my uncle, has the office next to his. My parents had me stop school when I told them of the teacher's misbehavior. And Uncle Twigs (who is my uncle) is a block down 7th at Mayer's, just across from Uncle Lou at Lansburghs. After nearly three years courtship with a fellow we had to marry. Best of all, my buddy Mikey's dad's at Hechts. George was away in the service. Very lonely years for me and my child, whom I didn't love. Mikey's dad makes faces. Mikey's dad makes us laugh.

At 12th and F is—now three children and I love them very much since learning the truth about God—Dad's pal Al Green at Woodies (Colonel Green to me) whose practical jokes once made pop laugh so hard he wet his pants. I have forgiven my father for hurting me. And my husband for going out with other women. He lives in Virginia and tells me of his girl my age—But when I suggest that I do something to earn extra money—named Midge—George insists I'd be a good prostitute.

With my dad at 12th and F. I feel I haven't much to live for. He grips his briefcase—Please give me light—if possibleVC—adjusts his hat. Dear VC,



There is a deli on Eastern Avenue, the District Line, Hofbergs, where when dad takes me to his office we breakfast sometimes. A predawn shooting early Friday morning at the Crossroads Restaurant outside Bladensburg—See that guy eating eggs?—August 20, 1949, Washington Post—Dad leaning into the table to break off a piece of the secret city—Bernard Delnegro, 27, of 2428 Tunlaw Road, NW, was hospitalized with bullet wounds in both legs—a treat every now and then he gives me, better even than baseball gloves or the robot or the annual cardboard hat from where he and mom went New Year's Eve. Delnegro, with William "Snags" Lewis, was charged last Spring with operating a numbers lottery. Which one? I ask. Seated alone at the booth in the back—Samuel Ochs, clothing merchant, 3148 M St, NW, was also treated and released at Sibley Hospital for injuries suffered from the fracas. There a man my father's age reading the Post, eating his eggs. Mystery surrounded the shooting, which went unreported by police for two days. My father, confidential, says, Snags Lewis. The case was first investigated by Officer James Burgess—Who? Years ago, the biggest bookie in DC—whose father owns the restaurant. A gangster? I ask. Delnegro has insisted he can't identify his assailant. My father shrugs: I don't know about that.


The pretty teenage daughter of a lawyer sat quietly in Juvenile Court yesterday while a case worker described her as the kind of girl who should be protected from herself. September 1, 1955. The girl was brought to court on a complaint that she had been found drunk near the Armory in southeast.

If I could I would let her come here, to this place beneath the basement.

The subdued teen, whose well-dressed parents sat beside her through the hearing—She could be my babysitter—charged with truancy from home—I could bring down my robot and some soda pop and she could sit on the couch with legs curled to hold her schoolbook—The case worker reported the girl, who wore no make-up or jewelry in her court appearance—She could wear her hair in a ponytail—had run away from home six times since last November—I would let her live here, if she wanted—During the sixth runaway—or hide here—she was forcibly assaulted—and I promise—when she tried to get a ride—never to ask anything—home.


There are cities within cities, yet disconnected—their passageways discarded, deteriorated, decayed.

The body of Raymond Crandall, 36 years old, who drowned Monday while swimming in the C&O Canal, was recovered last night.

The canal has its own long path of locks—July 28, 1932—some open some blocked, through which one can find the mind of George Washington himself. It was first thought Crandall was a Baltimore man. It was later learned he lived at 2501 Queens Chapel Road, NE. A passage linking the District to the future of the nation. Norman Grimmell, who witnessed the drowning, was arrested when he refused to describe what happened. Discarded now, encroached by verdure, home to mosquitoes—Later he said Crandall was from Baltimore—known now only by hikers and lovers—but finally gave the local address—and drunks.


Two teenage barefoot girls escaped from the psychiatric ward of District General Hospital—We are driving through Rock Creek Park at night—August 20, 1955—car radio and headlights—Police reported the girls, aged sixteen and fourteen, ran out the front door and fled on E Street, SE. I look at the woods around us. Could people be in there? The older girl was wearing a robe with a flower design over hospital pajamas. Hermits in huts? Abandoned kids with hair grown long? Greasers with cigarettes and switchblades? The younger one was wearing a white hospital robe over pajamas. Might our headlights catch a glimpse? The 16-year-old is 5'3" and weighs 109 pounds. Where are they now? The other answers the same description. And where, too dark to speak of, have they been? Both are Negroes. Barefoot girls in bathrobes on the run.


I have come back to this place beneath the den, beneath even the basement, trying to find my parents' hidden life. Can you tell a BLOND NEGRO?? There are no closets, no cupboards, no drawers. What happens to fair-skinned Negroes? Do they pass themselves off as white? Seeking even in ads in the Sunday paper—The big new July issue—in this hidden room—EBONY magazine, America's No.1 Negro monthly—flourescently lit—tells the unusual and revealing truth about fair-skinned Negroes in—Why create this secret place?—"The Problems of Blond Negroes." Secret Negroes—Now on sale—in DC?—at your nearby newsstand—Are we?


Will not saponify. Belly down now on the cold linoleum, eying ads for info. Protect your cement porch, cellar floor, stucco and masonry surfaces with NULON, the remarkable rubber plastic.—NULON keeps the mildew out. Keeps the outside out.—You apply NULON by brushing or roller coating. It's easy!—Down here, beneath the den, beneath even the basement—Available at hardware stores—there is not a whiff of mildew.


Trying to watch the golf game on tv, the only good parts being the commercials. Cartoon sprites, miniature butlers, smiling moms—A local housewife testified yesterday in District Court that she was an undercover agent for the FBI—One shows Russian children lined in rows in uniforms, their faces blank—Mrs. Mary Stalcup Markward—robot children—described how she rose from the Stanton Park Club in northeast DC—Robot, Aunt Jenny once interrupted my demonstration to inform me, is a Russian word—to become a member of the Party's District Board.

They're everywhere, the TV says. William Shonick, 1012 Quebec Terrace, was denied renewal of his license as a dealer in second-hand pianos—I try to imagine a new Nulon to seal them out. Shonick refused to answer DC licensing questions concerning subversive organizations. My father says Moe Katz, who sells men's sportswear in the office next to his, and always greets me with a grin and refrigerator filled with pop and bottles not for me, Uncle Moe my father tells me belonged to certain groups. As did, he says, Aunt Jenny who's a grandma.

I don't fear Aunt Jenny and Moe Katz. I fear neighbors like the Ingersolls next door. September 8, 1946. Pure Americans, where it would be hard to see, scare me—The bride, escorted by her brother, Lawrence Ingersoll, wore white satin, her veil held by a Juliet cap trimmed with seed pearls. Are the Ingersolls Communists? I ask my dad. He laughs.


January 15, 1932, six months before my dad graduated high school and migrated to DC to be a stock boy at Hechts, Donald Bishop, 21, was captured after he entered a downtown loan office—Now he has an office of his own at 918 F—Bishop was found in the office of Eastern Mortgage and Investment Company, 918 F Street, NW—an edifice to the hidden city—by Miss Shirley Levitt, a clerk,when she arrived for work. An old black man sits in the elevator cage—Unaware of the detection, Bishop remained in an inner room when manager Samuel Himmelfarb arrived—guides whites up and down, fenced from the staircase that surrounds—Himmelfarb phoned police then—Mom told me once the alley behind the building is where—he entered the room and warned the intruder not to move—Booth left his horse at the 10th Street end behind Ford's Theater—Bishop told Himmelfarb he was hungry.


Mr. Planck teaches piano to my sister. We have come to pick her up, waiting in the car outside his house. A chauffeur of the Maritime Commission was sentenced yesterday to three months in jail. Through his picture window we can hear the Spinning Song—March 30, 1950—ending on a blast of fists upon the keys. Warren T. Turner, 4416 Dix St, NE—He's smart, mom says to dad, always leaves the curtains open. Dad agrees. In jailing Turner, Judge George Neilson asserted you cannot merely fine perverts—Why, I ask, is that smart?—Here is a man who worked for a government agency—So people can see, my father tells me, the hidden city beginning to seep into the car—Sex perversion has gone to the extent that there's a threat to this country's security—See what?—Such perversion is contaminating in that it ensnares the young—See Mr. Planck teaching piano.


Without warning they appear, a band of black men bearing filthy balled up burlap. Trash men, mom calls them. A trash collector suffered severe arm injuries yesterday after he was trapped in the lift mechanism of his truck. How you love watching the trash men, she smiles. Who wouldn't? John Hill, 27, of 1253 16th St, NE, told rescue workers his arm was caught between the hydraulic lift and the truck body after he reached in to turn a lever. Flapping open their burlap squares along the street, emptying garbage cans on them as in the distance comes a monstrous roar—The rescue squad worked for nearly an hour before they were able to release the man—Each quickly lifting the corners of his burlap, turning the square into a sack, hefting it upon his back just as the vast magic truck appears. At Suburban Hospital—Into its jaws they unfurl their load, then grab the beast by its sides and ride as it rumbles on—preliminary examination disclosed Hill's arm was crushed—devouring our refuse—from elbow to shoulder.


We have stopped at Wilson High School to have our car washed by the big kids. We get lemonade and watch laughing boys with buckets and girls in rolled up blue jeans shriek—Major General McCausland peered through his binoculars—at threatened wet rag smackings. My parents smile—atop the point where the river road meets the Rockville pike—I love it here—twenty-seven heavy cannon frowning down from Fort Reno—all the tv towers, like towers shown on A-bomb tests—Jubal Early's Raid on Washington, Benjamin Franklin Cooling—I like to think their blinks are messages to martians.

The heirs of Giles Dyer sold what had become Fort Reno to squatters who had flocked there when set free. See that one? my dad asks, pointing to a tower far away. Peter Smith, colored, of Fort Reno, a carpenter, was caught between two cars on the electric railroad at 32nd Street, NW, near Prospect about 9:35 last night. That's Silver Spring. That's where we live. Mounted Officer Murphy rode out to Fort Reno. I ask about the castle just beyond the baseball field next to the school. When informed her husband was dead—It's not a castle, my mother tells me, It's an old water tower.

Called for the condemnation of the Fort Reno tract. Mom knows because her mom warned her not to go there with boys. The resolution, which noted Fort Reno occupies the highest land in the District—I ask if the tower was a castle long ago—urged the misfit area be condemned and a reservoir created along with schools—My mother said she didn't think it had ever been a castle.


Westmoreland Hills meets a distinct need in new home communities—I have never been in—The Washington Post, June 11, 1933—Westmoreland Hills. Obsolescence and deterioration of sections of the city—Are their basement floors linoleum?—together with encroachment of undesirable elements—with walls of knotty pine?—have brought to homeowners' attention the need for a new community. In Westmoreland Hills—where proper restrictions will protect them—do homeowners use NULON—from the disadvantages they have suffered—to protect against the seepage they suffered in DC? Situate where Massachusetts Avenue crosses the District Line—In Westmoreland Hills do they drink cocktails?—Westmoreland Hills is easily accessible by driving—Do husbands and wives smoke cigarettes on Sunday mornings—With regard to restrictions—reading the paper while golf plays on tv?—the developers have required all plans to be approved to assure a community free from eyesores—Are there teenage girls—for architectural and social control—who flee barefoot into the night?—to maintain one's investment—Are there men who beat their children?—by assuring purchasers of neighbors whose standards—Are there wives whose husbands—are harmonious—call them whores?


Why didn't it occur to me before? This room beneath the den, beneath even the basement, is a bomb shelter. A 47-year-old father of eight wants to put a 100-person bomb shelter under the front of his home. A place deeply dug, even if only in my mind, to save the family. But Perry Hill, 3803 Military Rd, NW, has found it may take an H-bomb to blast through District ordinances. Kept secret to shield me and my sister from fear—The design envisions two tanks 25 feet by 10 feet connected by a passageway covered by 8-inch thick pre-stressed concrete buried under five feet of earth—not realizing we live too near the District to be shielded—Entry to the shelter would be through an eight-foot tower—too near its streets with clickety tracks and dilapidated alleys leading to shadowy places—District officials say the shelter might extend beyond Hill's property—not knowing anything can protect us—The tower may also violate zoning regulations—from blasts that are strapped to our own bellies.


Like a breath the verdict was carried to the crowd outside and a shrill yell drowned every sound inside the courthouse. We are on Wisconsin Avenue at Q—March 18, 1893—me and mom waiting for a not-bus to take us to—Howard Schneider, 3121 Q Street—Friendship Heights—has been convicted of the murder of his wife.

In the window of a TV store, a man with a thin mustache is waiting on Jack Benny. The prisoner appeared in court with a slight mustache, dressed in fashionable well-made clothing. He makes mom laugh. It was toward his mother that Schreiber displayed the only feeling evidenced on his part. I do not care for this man with the mustache. When he took her hands the first day of the trial, tears dropped from his cheeks. There is something I don't trust in so delicately trimming hair beneath the nose. No doubt his impassiveness was due in part to the whiskey which was given him—I don't know what it is I don't trust—nearly a pint every day. Mom laughs again. Should I trust my lack of trust?

Waiting for the not-bus in front of stores along Wisconsin I look at row houses on Q, tombstones of a hidden city. Evidence connected Schreiber with a girl 18 years old.

Mom laughs again.

The courtroom was filled with men of prominence and women. What is it about him? Outside the courthouse, lining the sidewalks, was a mob. Something's funny about this man—The sentence was that he be hanged January 29, 1894—but it does not make me laugh.


Remember this, my mother says, soon there will be no streetcars in the District. I try to imagine—Leroy C. Witt, December 15, 1956—what the District will be without that sound—Mr. Witt stopped his streetcar at DeSales and Connecticut Ave, NW—without the sparks—Supervisor R.E. Holt completed the run. Take a good look, my mother says, but try as I might—after coming out of the Marine Corps after World War I—it is my mother I look at—company officials said he hadn't had a sick day in 15 or 20 years—looking at the ads above the windows—was a native of Washington until moving to Maryland six years ago—gazing out the window as the streetcar lurches forward—Burial will be—toward Friendship Heights.


I come more often now to this place beneath the den, to search again more thoroughly for something for me. A hidden closet with a robot maybe or secret fridge with soda pop or laughing shows on the tv. But there are only Sunday papers, seltzer, scotch and golf. Still, I seek some secret door to other rooms or passageways emerging in a place I never knew existed. A shopping center, say, tucked away among restricted homes where a woman tells her kids put down the lid of the Coca Cola cooler under which burbling waters bathe bottles purple, orange, black, and green; where there's a five-and-dime in which an undercover agent now keeps watch in a smock on kids who handle everything before buying Lik-M-Aid and Nibs; where outside a hardware store a black man with a mangled arm struggles to load NULON to the trunk of a car whose owner stands there thinking of his daughter at her piano lesson—until she disappeared into the dark.


Previous Piece Next Piece