Monday, June 03, 2013

Skipping School

As soon as the weather turns nice, John Payne, one of my local heroes and the prefect of discipline at the Duke Ellington School, is on the move. He does't just sit in his office- he goes out and tracks down his prey whether the errant students are in Georgetown or enjoying a park just down the street. A lot of people in my family have attended DC public schools including my parents, and during my son's tenure at Ellington, I noticed another theme running through our family: truancy.

First there's my mother and father- they met at Western High (now Duke Ellington) in the 1930s. My mother remembers skipping school to have picnics with my father. He had a a Model A Ford for a quick escape, and more importantly,  two sandwiches in his bag because my Greek grandmother was sure he would starve while away at school all day.

For my oldest brother, Peter, skipping school in the 1950s meant he and his buddy Pete Stone would head for the movie theaters like the RKO, the Capitol and the Palace. Back then going to the movies also included not only a newsreel and a cartoon, but often a stage show, and my brother swears he once saw Peggy Lee. Unfortunately for my brother, our father's spies were everywhere, and he was caught more often than not, but despite the consequences, it was worth it to him. 

My sister also remembers skipping school with Pete Stone, Wilson's expert truant at the time. This is what she remembers:

"Back in the day, skipping school was easy if you knew the right people. Pete was a senior, and I was a lowly freshman. He plotted with me one evening to go to Fletcher's Boat House, and the next day, he handled the attendance records by commandeering the girl in charge. She erased my name and his from the absentee list. We then drove to the boat house, rented a canoe, and down the Potomac we went at lightning speed.

That should have been our first clue that things would end badly.

We spent the rest of the day trying to paddle back against the current. Finally, somewhere around the Tidal Basin, we were able to get the canoe out of the water. We carried the friggin' thing all the way back to Fletcher's. Returning home much later than usual and in agony with the aches of hauling a canoe over my head and a fresh sunburn, I now had to explain to the parents where I had been. I was astonished when they accepted my tall tale about too much sun during the field hockey game, but I never risked skipping school again."

Finally in more recent years, the very first time my daughter, Zoe skipped school at Wilson, she became a victim of Homeland Security. She and a friend had snuck out out,  just for a quick run down the block to get a soda, but during her very brief absence the entire city went into lock down mode. (Remember the Bush Administration?) Getting out was easy, but to Zoe's horror, when she returned the doors were locked, and she couldn't get back in. That's when the truancy officers picked her up, took her downtown and made her call her parents. This cured her until senioritis set in, but I am happy to report that all of the truants in this story recieved their diplomas.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Memorial Day Story

Back inthe 1930s, the little town of Elkton, Maryland was a happening place if you needed to get married in a hurry. Maryland did not have the waiting period that other states had imposed, and Elkton conveniently located in the Northeast corner of the state is close to the Pennsylvania line, and not too far from New York and New Jersey. Wedding chapels and hotels stood at the ready on the main street just waiting for business. Both Debbie Reynolds and Joan Fontaine got married here as did Cornell Wilde.

So did my parents, George and Bebe Cokinos. As it turns out, unlike the celebrities, my parents' marriage actually stood the test of time, even though it was a long shot. My father was Greek American, and he was not supposed to marry outside the Hellenic community, but when he was just 17, he fell in love with my very pretty, very white mother.

My parents were both teenagers when they snuck away to Elkton on Memorial Day 1935. (Back then the holiday happened on May 30th, and was not the weekend event it is now.)  The newlyweds did not have enough money to spend the night, but they did get a fried chicken dinner before heading back down to D.C. Neither of them told their parents what they had done, but they might have been less nervous if they had known that, despite the odds, their marriage would last until death did they part- a mere 72 years later.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Life on the Runway or How to Save with an Electric Range

My mother spent half of her life raising children, working in the family diner, and coping with all things domestic including various dogs and a parakeet from Hawaii, but once the early hard ships of the Depression and World War Two were over, Bebe Calvert Cokinos was ready to do something completely different. The Pepco ad above featuring Bebe appeared in 1950 in the Washington Post. By this time she had three teenage children at home and was just embarking on a modeling career which would lead to fashion shows at DC's now disappeared department stores like Woodies and Garfinckel's. She also did runway shows at the Mayflower and the Shoreham.
(Click on the pictures to enlarge... I love the expression on that woman in the front row.)

Bebe made many modeling friends, all of whom were on the "mature" side, so they called themselves the Model Ts.  I don't know who the dude in the middle is, but wouldn't you think he'd be happier? Maybe his knees were killing him.

In May 1955 my sister and grandmother got into the act at a Mother's Day show for Lansburgh's Department Store. "Three Generations in Size 9!" exclaimed the caption. Both Bebe and her mother were asked what a mother might like for the occasion of Mother's Day. My grandmother replied that she wanted to take her whole family back to Honolulu where she was living at the time, and everyone would get a "pikaleili lei." My mother's dream was to spend the whole day in bed with meals brought to her, then out dancing that night. I'm pretty sure those weren't the answers the reporter was looking for because "getting down to brass tacks" my mother also added that models could always use "thousands of stockings."

Dig the crazy lids on these gals.

My sister had a daisy perched on hers.

The picture below carried the description: "Dedicated to the Woman Who Cannot Make Up Her Mind. These two forward looking suits can go South now or do summer duty here later on."

I don't know where they were going, but this duo does look ready for anything- in America in the 1950s at least. In a town. With clean sidewalks. On a sunny day.

In the late winter of 1958, Bebe made the news again by wading through snow drifts to hitch a ride for her and "her hatbox."

She made it just in time to change out of her boots and ski pants into spring togs for a fashion luncheon at the Shoreham's Blue Room.

Later that year in June, Bebe entered a bathing beauty contest put on by the radio station WGAY for women over 40. She won second prize- a backyard swimming pool the likes of which I never saw because she turned it down.

What? !

Yes. She turned it down and was quoted as saying: "I don't swim if I can help it. I'm strictly an indoor girl." A bit ironic considering how many bathing suits 'the mature mermaid' had to model for this event.

Here's a picture of the winner. No offense to Mrs  Rebecca Magnuson of Silver Spring, but  I think my mom got rooked. You be the judge:

Bebe pretty much hung up her guns after that one, not necessarily because she was over 40, but maybe because she got pregnant with me. She remained beautiful all her life of course- both inside and out, and now I know why my father never stopped giving her stockings.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Blob's Park Americana by Ben Pagac

Coming of age in the Maryland 'burbs in the 1970s inevitably lead many of us to a large, hill-side German polka joint within a stone's throw of the BW Parkway. It's curb appeal wasn't apparent at first. The name "Blob's" perhaps only drew those with a smirky sense of humor. (In fact, some might have been taken there by their parents. Ugh!)

But once discovered, it was natural to develop a soft spot for the place. One reason high on the list- cheap pitchers of beer. Even better, a weird policy of charging a $1 (returnable) deposit on the pitcher. (Did they really fit in a purse?) This turned out to be a source of much-needed income for those who closed the joint, capitalizing on the forgetful. If you were fast enough, your night could be free!

But it was more than just cheap beer. Despite bathing in the excitement of the creative Punk and New Wave DC scene bubbling during that time, there was something comforting about watching polyester-suited gentlemen and perfectly coiffed ladies move to the rhythmically predictable. And how could you help not join in the Chicken Dance, still secure in the knowledge that your ripped jeans and Ramones T-shirt made it very clear that you were just visiting-not one of “them.” It seemed so afar from what our ears and bodies were tuning into, that it sounded and felt...well, good!

Remarkably Blob’s still exists. And looks pretty much the same. Sadly no more pitcher deposits. But the mural of Prague (huh?) is still behind the bandstand. And it is now showcasing diverse, danceable music. Their once-a-month Honky-tonk night has been building steam.  The familiar neon “Blob’s” sign fell down 10 years ago, but rest assured, Blob’s is still there- for now.

*Addendum: Blob's made it for a few more years, but closed for good in 2014.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Anyone Remember the Madrillon?

According to my father, The Madrillon was the place to go in Washington in the 1940s. That's my dad, George Cokinos, with the wacky tie on the far left. They had bands there, too.

Bring your own memories or just your curiosity to the Historical Society this Saturday June 26 for a trip in the way back machine with Jeff Krulik:

Eat, Drink and Be Merry in 1950s-60s DC: 
A Panel Discussion
, Slide Show and Oral History Presentation
with the Photos of Emil Press  
2:30- 4:00
801 K Street, NW at Mount Vernon Square


Friday, April 16, 2010

Emancipated But Still Vote Free Here in DC

It's Emancipation Day here in the District of Columbia which is sometimes called " the capital of the free world." In reality our fair city is a bizarre little fiefdom where the denizens are still denied the right to vote basically because Republicans fear that one more Democratic voice will tip the world into the abyss. DC Vote is working to change that. Check it out.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Mayor For Life

Marion Barry. He got his comeuppance in DC yesterday when the council censured him for unethical conduct, but as a DC native, I feel a bit sorry for him today. He was just doing what he has always done.

I remember in 1994, when Barry was re-elected-post that little crack smoking incident- I was depressed that people would fall for this guy, again, but then I was driving around Ward Circle when I heard Mayor Barry on the radio saying that "White Ward Three" would just have to get over it. I had to laugh.

He was right, and over the years I realized this was a smart surprising man, an Eagle Scout with a Masters in chemistry, and a big problem with substance abuse. His penchant for cronyism stretches as far back as his years of public service. Even as a child I remember my father complaining about him, but Barry himself will be the first to tell you he has done nothing wrong from "the bitch set me up" to the latest girlfriend incident which got him censured."Those are all just distractions, efforts by the government and the media to distract me, to discombobulate me and separate me from the community," he said. In 1992 his campaign slogan was " He may not be perfect, but he's perfect for DC." How perfect, how DC is that?

His biggest problem is every now and then he gets caught.

Still the bottom line is Marion Barry spent most of his life as a public servant and a Black civil rights activist. He will always be a part of our landscape- a local legend captured in wax at Madame Tussaud's beating out the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Cal Ripken Jr in a popularity contest. The summer jobs program was a brilliant idea, and one that changed many lives for the better. He's also immortalized in a song by Jake Flack which I'd like to echo here: "Say what you will about him. I'll never judge that man except when I'm back in the alley next to my double wide 2 ply can. It's easy to form an opinion from the outside looking in, but Strosnider's, Hechinger's and Peoples Drug can't hold a candle to him. Marion Barry he's the man- he brought us the Supercan....and I just want to shake his hand and say thank you."

Thank you, Mayor for Life. We love you.