Streets And Ways
( Originally Published 1922 )
Sidewalks enlivened with officers walking home for exercise on Connecticut Avenue in the latter part of any pleasant afternoon are always a reminder that this has become a military city, though strangely, there are fifty officers to be seen to one private soldier. There are no barracks centrally located, and marching troops are not to be seen.
It is a customary sight to see famous folk, as in mid-forenoon to see an alert, heavy-set man, alone but pleasantly on the verge of smiling, gray-gloved, with tight-buttoned coat and carrying a cane, walking actively cityward; this being Taft, the Chief Justice of the United States; calling to mind the remarkable fact, that for the first time in the history of the nation, there are one President, Harding, and two former Presidents, Taft and Wilson, in formal residence in Washington at one time.
Besides the army officers so in evidence on the sidewalks, giving a military air, there is daily the frequent droning of army airships, piloted for practice above the city. Another familiar military street sight is that of Quartermaster's army motors, picturesquely canvas-covered over a broad frame, delivering purchases of great variety of fruit and vegetables and provisions as well as clothing and other household supplies, bought at Government stores by those in Government service. So familiar is this sight that it almost seems as if half the city must be supplied with all marketing at the low rates of the Government stores.
There are many motor cars in the broad streets, with an unusual proportion of fine, closed types, and an unusual proportion, also, of women driving.
In the best residence sections the pretty girls to be seen make a charmingly colorful feature in their suits and hats of gray and rose and tawny, of lavender and petunia. They are like flowers ! They are pupils in numerous finishing schools, and come here from excellent families in all parts of the country in addition to the day pupils from the city itself. They are slender and trim and young and happy. Some wear a blue approaching the horizon blue of French officers. Others wear that queer new color, jade green. Their youth and their loveliness make a marked Washington feature. They lighten and brighten the way.
A heavy snowstorm is a revel—perhaps because the white population is all of one race and more thoroughly amalgamated than in many other American cities.
Girls of good class come out in riding breeches and neat knickers with tight sweaters or mannish coats, come out in bright colors with woolen scarfs, to revel and walk on the street-car paths, all that are open, for sidewalks are abandoned to deep snow. I have seen on a spring Sunday morning a score of college girls leaving their clubhouse, all clad in knickers and shirt waists for a morning walk. And this is the city whose streets were trod by earnest Doctor Mary Walker, wearing her plain and muchstared-at pantaloons.
One of the prettiest street scenes is that of a large number of gay colored toy balloons, carried by prettily dressed children or floating from baby carriages, in the little squares and parks in the spring time. All Washington seems to love colored balloons in the spring. I have seen an old gentleman stop and buy them, green and blue and pink, on long threads, for a whole group of children.
A familiar morning sight, and a thoroughly characteristic one, is that of a fine car driving up to a good-class house, followed by a shabby car, which takes away the driver of the fine car. At some time after dark the mysteriously shabby car again appears, stops for a moment, drops a passenger, and away goes the fine car followed by the shabby car. The mysterious transfers, of one kind and another, fascinate and intrigue you—the explanation being that the morning delivery and evening return of cars are included in garage service and are done in this double-car way for economy of time.
Calling hours and days for entertainment are divided, in the season, by various social and political groups. You get an impression of an unusual number of engravers, which carries its own intimation of orders for cards and invitations.
This is a great dining city. The President, Cabinet and Ambassadors seem to dine out seven nights a week. No other city in America has in proportion to its population nearly as many formal dinners, teas and receptions. Pick up any news-paper and you find columns of them. The intermixture of the best American taste with the taste of a great number of Europeans has made for a high order of epicureanism. It is really a Court city. One resultant feature is the number of fine shops which supply exquisite cakes rivalled only by the best-known French bakers. One caterer's shop in particular maintains traditions as to little French "madeleines," and "langues du chat," and little curtesying chocolate ladies, with exquisite bows of ribbon for table decoration; a delight to the eye and the taste. There are shops gay with choice candies and extravagant and lovely favors. One single fine grocery carries a stock of pate de foie gras in the earthenware pots of Strassburg, that looks as if the geese of the whole place must have been killed to fill them; there are thousands of sandwiches made here every week "in the season," with much spreading of "foie gras."
A young college woman, familiar with many cities, said to me that she had never known of any other city with so many pretty places to eat! And these not the famous hotels or great clubs where luncheons and dinners go on constantly on a grand scale, but the smaller, simpler places of picturesque attractiveness and good food. One of these is so popular as frequently to have a queue extending far out upon the sidewalk. One Sunday evening eighty waited in line.
"Raw-bar" luncheon is a way of expressing oysters and clams opened to order on the spot. There is a sign "Fruit Cakes! Take one home. She wants one!" And you notice that the place calls itself a "gastronomic symphony."
Much ingenuity has been shown in street signs and particularly those of tea-rooms and restaurants. These are partly for the great number of strangers and sightseers but mostly for the clerks and officials in the Government departments.
There are such intriguing names as the "Allies Inn," "The Grated Door," the "Danish Rose," the "Lotus Lantern," the "Blue Mill." There are the "Fife and Drum Inn," the "Pagoda," "Old St. Mark's" for one in an old church, the "Caddy Box" for one in a little square house, the "Little Brown Teapot" and the "White House Lunch"—where, so the story goes, a poor countryman waited for hours to see the President come in to lunch!
In the fish season, in the humbler sections, a one-horse wagon and a plaintive cry of "F-r-e-s-h" and then a higher note of "F-i-s-h" suggests the cry of "haricots verts" in Paris. There are few street cries, however, but in the poorer sections in winter "Coal" is plaintively called and sold in buckets.
Covered fruit wagons are a residence street feature, with tiers and galleries of brilliantly piled fruit. The wagons display amazing Greek names, of rolling syllables, and proud charioteers.
A curious feature of sidewalk vending is the selling of white, pale-bleached celery on the shop-ping streets. The venders are Greeks and stand with great wicker baskets at their feet, full of the pale yellow and white of celery, and holding, in statuesque quiet, three bunches in proffering out-stretched hands. Purchases are made of these little celery bunches with as much freedom as if they were flowers, by returning shoppers and office workers.
The down-town corners on F Street, on Fourteenth, the corners facing the Treasury, and on G Street, are bright and gay and spring-like with great baskets and panniers of violets and daffodils and pale-pink sweet-peas, great luxurious baskets of them. No florist shows more lovely colors than these open-air vendors offer in spring afternoons: flowers at little prices, abundant and lovely, so that young and old, rich and poor, go home with spring in their hands.
Pennsylvania Avenue has a peculiar class of shoppers. Soldiers, sailors, and strangers abound, of course not exclusively, but markedly.
There are other shopping streets, G, Fourteenth, and H Street which has the specialty shops of hats and rugs and flowers and gowns, of the city, and a similar line of antique shops, decorators, caterers and tailors, and silver and art shops, in continuing block by block into the residence neighborhoods along Connecticut Avenue
Although this is not looked on as an old city, I noticed the other day a store advertising its forty-first annual sale and on the same day another announcing its ninety-first ! The great shopping thoroughfare is F Street. It is laid out on a slight rise of land above the tidewater level of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the shopping district extends from the Patent Office to the Treasury. It is a great street-car thoroughfare and its fine width permits the wooden platforms at the car stops, the "isles of safety" that are so successful in Washing-ton in solving the safety of foot passengers and motorist. It is a bright sparkling street with animated shops, and without the very high buildings that overshadow the pavements of so many business streets in other large cities.
It will be known and remembered in years to come that the proprietor of a quiet, reserved-looking silversmith and jewelry shop on Pennsylvania Avenue; an isolated sort of shop for its class; be-came not only the mistress of the White House but the only one who, while the wife of the President, had an international career throughout the European countries.
There is a sign associated with the Presidency in a shoe-store window, declaring that alongside of it is a chart from which Abraham Lincoln's shoes were made by this firm ; and you are interested in this "floor plan" of the President, and to see that his feet were long and narrow and his boots rather square-toed. But not often is so personal a note taken in advertising or signs, and it is the exception to have a painter announce himself as the one who keeps the "White House white."
One firm announces as its delightful fixed purpose : "To outdo, in what we do, all we did before!" —which certainly has a convincing sound.
The street cars show some interesting publicity work as, when a tigress has a family of four at the Zoo, there are posters in yellow and black of the family of five, calling attention to the free show, placed plainly in the cars and telling which car to take. The Easter Monday egg-rolling is similarly called attention to. And this with the idea that such delightful free shows need only to be called to public attention, the point seeming to be that the trolley users are not worn and weary factory hands but intelligent Washingtonians with time for amusement: and "though they are on pleasure bent they have a frugal mind."
Street car tickets are metal, are thin and small and are always spoken of as "tokens " a queer, pious-sounding word to most strangers. Each token has an openwork "W" in the center, and a customary way, with men and women alike, is to thread the elusive tokens on a safety pin, with which they begin to fidget as they ascend the back steps of a car.
Mortuary poetry is a strange feature of the news-paper advertising columns. One year after a death, two years, even a dozen years or more, you will see strings of memorial verse, eulogistic and regretful—and paid for! You will see the headings, "His aunt and grandmother," "His pal and brother Frank," "In sad remembrance of our loving Mary." There are separate verses, a year after the death, from mother and father, the sister, two brothers, each with separate stanza, an aunt and her friends each with theirs! Another widow "drops into verse" to say that her continued grief is for her husband, William John, but that he was known as "Jim Bilkins": and she adds :
"The rose that is the fairest and sweetest Is the one that is killed by the frost."
The newspapers also have an odd way of using cryptic abbreviations in their real estate advertisements, such as "a m i," "h w h," "v 1 h," "1 h k"; thus making advertising a house or an apartment for rent, a matter of intimacy among those who know the patter of the agent.
Add to this the letters that are names for streets and the repetition of N.W., N.E., S.W., and the frequent use of "Eye" for "I" and "You" for "U," and there is a sufficiency of argot. And there are many heavy, covered trucks on the streets showing nothing but the great letters, "U S Q M C!"
Washington is really a wonderful city for pediments on public buildings and im-pediments on the public sidewalks. Walk unguardedly on Pennsylvania Avenue in passing the White House and you will run into beautiful elm trees growing out of the sidewalk! They are fine trees and no one wishes them ill but they are certainly queerly placed. On Connecticut Avenue, unless you are watchful, you walk into iron pipes, ten feet high, set for the support of awnings. At other points there is iron fencing reaching from the shop fronts, a distance of sixteen feet straight out—some of these indicate a need of adjustment of side-walk level and are the result of building-line laws and quarrels, but are a little hard on pedestrians. You find low walls, looped chains and posts, and thousands of croquet-like hoops, that protect the grass corners and trip the incautious. Washington might follow Glasgow in its frequent street-warnings, "Gang Warily."
Dogs are common—but are not of common breed! A small fluffy white kind is frequently seen. It might be termed "the old ladies' favorite." All cities that have homes and children have dogs, but Washington has them in happy abundance ! There are great numbers of little dogs, or as a Washingtonian puts it, not so many watch dogs as wrist-watch dogs!
The dogs are extremely well-cared for; all look like household autocrats or favorites and go in the front door. The cats, on the contrary, are roaming, uncanny, furtive, dim-shadowed in the dusk, seekers after alleys and basement windows. You do not see live chickens except some prominently scratching between the Capitol and the Union Station, but they must be surreptitiously kept in other parts of town for they crow in the quiet of the early morning—a startling sound in city streets.
When you hear of this as "the city of magnificent distances," it seems grandiloquent, until you learn that the phrase was made by the Minister from little Portugal, a "Portygee" as they would call him on Cape Cod, who came from a capital which one day had a crack open in its main street, down which half the population disappeared!
For a city only a century and a quarter old, a surprising number of ghost stories have already begun to accumulate. This may be partially owing to the number of large, closed mansions in the city, gloomy and shuttered, and to the presence of so many colored people, to whom "ghoses" and "hants" are veritable.
The ghost story of the bells of the Octagon has already been told, and there is a still better story connected with a locality close by, where the Pan-American building stands. Burns, the old Scotch-man, who before the Capital was established here, owned a great tract in the vicinity of the future White House, became enormously rich and built a great mansion between the White House and the Potomac; and on the night of each anniversary of his death, according to the story, his six white horses used to gallop at midnight around the house. A variant had it that the galloping horses were head-less ! But the house and the ghostly horses long ago disappeared, and the queer story alone remains.
The early books of Washington reminiscences tell of a wishing tree in Lafayette Square, an old beech under which lovers made wishes that always came true. Lovers still sit and wish—and perhaps the fact that the identity of the particular beech has been lost will explain why nowadays the wishes do not always come true.
Old Kalorama, behind its horseshoe of box bushes, offers an ancient tale. After the death of the poet Barlow, his widow returned here to Kalorama, and in time a friendship arose between her and a Doctor Ezekiel Bull. They became engaged, but the family of Mrs. Barlow were averse to losing her property —she had no children—and bitterly opposed any marriage. The lovers, however, were persistent and several times set a wedding day, only to have postponement through interference. On the last of such days the Doctor came to the door, the old lunette-topped door, still there, in a carriage with a minister, at the appointed hour, but was made to believe that Mrs. Barlow would not see him and would not be married.
Meanwhile, sitting in her room in her bridal attire, she was made to believe that Doctor Bull had come to the door and announced that he would not marry her. She lost her mind, and waited and waited in vain at the front window for her lover, and in a short time died. He returned to his home in Charlestown, in what is now West Virginia—it is from this old town that the story comes to me—and frequently, at night, a figure all in white silently "fluttered" and wept at his window. Then he died, and for years it was believed that he and his coach came driving up and that he knocked long and patiently at the door—ghost looking for ghost at old Kalorama.