By Jim Stasny, House, 1962
Along with a Hoosier roommate who ran an elevator on the Hill for the summer, I lived at 214 A Street, N.E. The building was owned by Virginia Turner, my sponsor, Congressman Madden’s Administrative Assistant. It was, and still is (2013) six doors back of the U.S. Supreme Court. If you golf, you could hit the Court with a sand wedge. With a driver, you could hit the ball over the Supreme Court and on to the Capitol grounds. As of this writing, the house is painted blue. In 1961, it was a lighter color. Perhaps it was not painted at all, or at least not since Grover Cleveland’s time.
I didn’t know at the time that the Supreme Court property had formerly been the site of the Old Brick Capitol, the temporary home for Congress built after the British set fire to the original during the War of 1812. Later, the temporary capitol building had other tenants. It became a boarding house and John C. Calhoun died in it. Later still, the property housed a Civil War prison. Samuel Mudd and Mary Surratt were held there. The superintendent of Andersonville prison was hanged there. Dead senator; hanged war criminal; assassination conspirator. By my time, the neighborhood had improved. Some.
The building at 214 A Street, N.E. shows up on the first D.C. edition of the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps in 1888. It shows that next to the building was Whitehall Alley, raising the possibility that the locals named the alley after the seat of British government. Next to the alley was a lumber and coal yard owned by W.H. Marlow who, early in the 20th Century, sold coal to the Senate kitchen and stable. The lumber yard is now a parking lot. The alley is the driveway to it. So I lived between what used to be a prison and what used to be a coal and lumber yard, in what was probably once a notable house.
Not in 1961.
In the often rainy summers of 1961 and 1962, the old wooden house soaked up moisture as though it had been built to do it. The two story structure slumped and leaned which made closing the windows all but impossible since the sills shifted with the level of humidity. Inside, to close the door to my room, I had to lean on the door frame to alter its shape enough to make the door fit in it, more or less. On drier days, the door frame shape-shifted again. This created a gap that required tying one end of a clothes line around the door knob and the other end around a radiator to at least give the illusion the door was safely shut. The floor was less a plane than a swale, dipping toward the middle. Furniture (there wasn’t much of it) gravitated spontaneously toward the center of the room.
The front porch of mushy wood sloping toward the street, sat on a dirt mound above a debris field of broken bottles and chunks of stone. There was a screen door in front with a little less than half a screen hanging loosely in its frame. Behind the screen was a front door with the same problem my room door had. It locked as the weather allowed.
The house was dark inside, one bare bulb hanging from a long wire just inside the threshold. To the right was an unlit hall with rooms to the right of that, the hall extending beyond my street-facing room all the way to the back of the house where I did not go. On the left of the hall was a stairway ascending to darkness. At the top of it (where I did not go, either) lived Calvin, Grace and Tippy, all of whom seemed to have outlived their teeth.
Calvin the male was very, very old with miracle stubble on his chin. It never changed, never seemed to grow, evidently untouched by a razor. His spouse, Grace, was also very, very old. Had I any sense rather than the dim wits of a teenager, I would have asked them to talk about things they had seen and done, then written them down. I did not have any sense. Perhaps they no longer had the memories. They did not appear to have excess money.
Calvin always wore suspenders over a flannel shirt, heavy pants and high-laced shoes. Grace wore a house dress and was usually barefoot. Both appeared to favor alcohol.
And then there was Tippy.
Of all the “old” around me – from the Supreme Court site, to the building I lived in and the people upstairs — Tippy seemed oldest of all. The dog had no fur. This is different than saying he had short hair. He had no follicle apparatus, just a limping membrane suspended atop bowed legs and kept alive by saucers of warm beer.
Calvin and Grace took turns carrying Tippy up and down the steep stairs, a task that would have been hard on them even had they been dog-less. And this possibility nearly materialized one emotional night.
Tippy fell down the stairs.
I heard it happen. As I opened my door, he was on the floor, four paws to the light bulb. The wailing over his fate had begun at the top of the stairs and was at Grief Five by the time Calvin and Grace reached the bottom. They stood there sobbing over his body. I stood there, too, looking at Calvin and Grace looking at Tippy. Nobody made a move to touch the dog. Nobody knew what to do for a creature that seemed “most sincerely dead.”
Then the dead dog moved.
Truthfully, it was a frail act of respiration. He jiggled a little then very slowly got his front legs reasonably vertical beneath him. Calvin and Grace gave thanks, then picked him up and climbed back upstairs. My guess is Tippy had likely been cushioned by his membrane or disoriented by beer. One thing for sure: Tippy’s brush with death was among the chief domestic episodes of my summer. My parents would have been proud. They probably were, anyway.
It’s just that they didn’t know there was a little bit more to my nights than Tippy on the ledge of heaven.
My house mate was an exercise fanatic. An accomplished high school basketball player from Evansville, Indiana, he goaded me nightly to go with him to look for a game. Generally, I went. I had also played a little basketball in high school, a fact I did not share with him. He was, therefore, surprised at my skills, limited of course, but probably more than he expected.
We were an exclusive pair. We were nearly always the only two white people on any northeast/southeast playground. We had to earn our way to respectability. This involved taking an elbow now and then. It also involved giving a few, not to mention playing aggressive defense and getting a few rebounds. For my part, this was enough to compensate for the tendency of my shot to miss the basket by the length of a Buick. Eventually the seven or eight of us called ourselves “The D Street All-Stars.”
While we had earned acceptance, the D Street team had earned some recognition.
One night we went in a player’s car to a playground off North Capitol Street. There was a crowd. We were still the only white players. Elgin Baylor was there and he played a while. I was hoping I would not be chosen to play against him. I need not have worried. I came away from the experience with a diamond pattern on my back from a chain link fence, the result of spending the night leaning against it.
After the games, my housemate and I were ready to head home. The rest of the All-Stars were not. We were driven to a neighborhood that was well-lit but run down. Windows were open. Radios were on. There was dancing. This time, for reasons hidden in the secret shame of stumbling non-dancers, I was chosen. This was, in a phrase still some decades away, outside my comfort zone. Even so, I have “Quarter to Three;” “Let’s Twist Again;” and “Wah-Watusi” on my Ipod.
My housemate normally insisted on a post-game ritual of running from the Capitol building to the Washington Monument, climbing the stairs to the top and back down, followed by a relaxing walk home. Though it was very late, we still ran to the Monument. Fortunately, it was closed for the night. Anyway, when it came to running, I would have rather been dancing.
Jim Stasny, House, 1962, has compiled some of his memories of adventures on Capitol Hill as a 16-year-old from Whiting, Ind., and has shared them with the USCPAA. From the page corps, Jim went on to school at John Carroll University and then the Kennedy School at Harvard. He was a staff member for Sen. George McGovern, worked for six years on the Senate Budget Committee, and was a speechwriter at Fannie Mae.