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.