Sunday, June 21, 2015

Thanks to My DC Dad

Father's Day. A time to reflect. My dad was born at home on 9th Street Northeast to Greek immigrants in 1916. He grew up here and never left the DC area except to travel. We didn't sight see unless we had out of town guests. We didn't go to the Smithsonian or other museums,  but he did leave me an appreciation for living in Washington, and I'd like to thank him for many things like:

Taking me to the zoo.  A lot.  Sometimes just on spur of the moment, sometimes for a birthday.  It was uptown and it was free.  I remember parking right near the elephants, partly on the sidewalk. I know we weren't supposed to leave the car there, but his home made sign with he stencil "Modern Linen -Making Delivery" left in the windshield of our station wagon seemed to do the trick.

Taking me to the circus at the DC Armory. The circus was great, but I have always felt it was my fault we left so late because I couldn't make up my mind about a souvenir. As we walked down the now mostly deserted streets, it became increasingly obvious that the group of older boys behind us didn't want us in their hood in 1969. We crossed the street, and they followed. One threw a rock that hit my dad. It was at that moment that he turned around and froze, hands clenched at his sides, and he stared them down. He was five foot six, but he may as well have been the biggest guy in the world. We turned the corner, and the boys walked on.

Telling all those DC stories about how the Italian statues got into AV's yard on New York Avenue, or how Ulysses Auger ("Blackie") got his start after World War Two when everyone was craving meat after years of rationing. Blackie sold steaks from his trunk and worked his way up to a roast beef sandwich cart... which led to a lifetime in the restaurant biz.

ntroducing me to DC centric food by asking for a half smoke over a hotdog or a fried chicken wing sandwich at the Florida Avenue Grill. Bones n all.

Teaching me how to drive with impunity in Washington which included passing slow pokes, mind bending lane changes on the Beltway and bold U turns on avenues in the city. Even though he constantly scared my mother,  he gave me a lot of confidence behind the wheel.

Taking us to see a concert on that floating barge on the Potomac River. It was the same venue the kids went to in the movie "Houseboat." with Cary Grant, and it's a good thing they caught that era on film because few people can imagine stopping traffic for anything like that now.

Once it was called Watergate, but now it's just a strangely marvelous out of place staircase on Ohio Drive.

photo from Library of Congress

Introducing me to the irrepressible Lola Revis and her daughters at Sherrill's Bakery on Capitol Hill. Local film maker David Petersen almost won an Oscar capturing those crazy personalities and the scene there in a documentary- another place that is long gone. The "girls" as he called them always made a warm fuss, pinching cheeks and handing out cookies.

David Petersen's Film Title

Showing me how the linen service works and taking me in the back doors of restaurants all over town to meet the people in the kitchen. He gave me my first job pulling weeds for a penny a piece, and another one at the laundry when I was in older. Then when I wanted to be an artist my senior year in high school, I'm sure he thought I was crazy, but he let me paint the laundry trucks. 

Both my mother and father let me be me, which is often a hard thing for a parent to do, but was definitely one of the biggest gifts they ever gave me. Thank you.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Soliloquy for St Sophia

St Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral has always been a part of my life. It's the church my family didn't go to. At least, not very often. My grandparents- they were in it from the get go and rarely missed a Sunday, but my parents may have dodged that bullet partly because my mother was not Greek and partly because  they worked in a bar and grill until 2 a.m. However my dad paid his dues, and we did go there for all those important rituals like christenings, funerals and bazaars. A lot of bazaars. My dad always bought raffle tickets for the Cadillac even though in over fifty years he never won and had to buy his own.

Driving down Wisconsin Avenue it's easy to miss Saint Sophia sitting quietly in the shadow of the National Cathedral on Massachusetts Avenue. The bigger cathedral has held many a state affair, but St Sophia has waved over her share of presidents starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower who laid the cornerstone in 1956 including a time capsule to be opened in 2056. ( I'm probably going to miss that event just like I missed this one.)

She has seen the likes of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Clinton- even  a few football players.

(That's Father John- the one without a football or plaid pants)

St Sophia began humbly enough back in the early 1900s when a few hundred Greek immigrants scraped together enough coinage to rent a room downtown and to hire an itinerant priest. A Washington Star article in 1904 reported "In the heart of the Nation's Capital dwells a community of nearly 500 souls whose lives, customs, religion...are utterly alien to our institutions. It is the Greek colony. They are among us, but not of us."

Wonder where they got that idea?

By 1908 the parish was organized enough to have its own priest and to rent the upstairs of the former Adas Israel Synagogue at 6th and G NW where it remained for 13 years awaiting the construction of their own digs at 8th and L NW.

Though the congregation was small, differences of opinion soon brought on strife courtesy of the Balkan Wars. Father Alexopoulos asked the congregation to take a stand by separating- the Loyalists  had to sit on one side of the church and the Royalists on the other. (talk about division in the aisles) This is why even before St Sophia had its own building, another church, St Helen and Constantine came into being in at 6th and C Street SW.

St Sophia finally did land at 8th and L in 1921 and stayed put for 34 years. The convention center has swallowed those blocks now- including part of 8th Street.  A commemorative marker stands nearby on 7th Street and was blessed by Father Steve last fall in a ceremony held in room 140A exactly where the original nave of the old St Sophia's was.

Even the sign got baptized.

photo by Bill Petros
This weekend St Sophia will celebrate its 60th year on Massachusetts Avenue and will be consecrated with as much hoopla as only Greeks can muster complete with saint's bones, incense and a whole lot of chanting. (if you have ever been to a Greek ceremony you know this will take all weekend.) It truly is a beautiful place built with a lot of contributions, hard work and dreams.

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

And my parents, George and Bebe Cokinos. As it turns out, unlike the celebrities, their marriage actually did stand the test of time, despite the odds. My father was Greek American, and he was not supposed to marry outside the Hellenic community, but at 17 George fell in love with my very pretty, very white mother.

My Greek grandparents were not happy campers. My other grandmother sent Bebe off to live with Aunt Mary in Ohio for a while, but my mother wrote my father every day.  Finally, still teenagers, they took their best man, Fred Brown and snuck off to Elkton to be married 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 Fred sprung for a celebratory fried chicken dinner before driving the happy couple back down to D.C. where they had absolutely no plan. None. Neither George nor Bebe felt brave enough to tell their parents what they had done, so they went back to their own homes and hunkered down until they could figure out how to break the news. They might have been less nervous if they had had a crystal ball.  Their marriage, based solely on the passion and recklessness of young love, would last truly and exactly 'til 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 the first half of her life raising children, working in Churchill's, the family bar and grill on Macomb Street, 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 her as domestic goddess,  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 that woman's expression in the front row.)

Bebe made many modeling friends along the way, all of whom were on the "mature" side." They called themselves the Model Ts.  I don't know who the dude is in the middle, 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 personal 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 always needed "thousands of stockings."

Dig the crazy lids on these gals.

My sister had a daisy perched on hers.

The picture below featured in one of the Washington papers 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  ( miss number 2) got rooked. You be the judge:

Bebe pretty much hung up her guns after that one, not necessarily because she was over 40 or a sore loser, but probably 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