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Originally published Aug. 31, 2010, in The Washington Post

It gleams like a giant silver bullet lodged in the former site of a used-car lot, between a dumpy little liquor store and a rubbly, vacant property. It's a diner, that American symbol of both thriftiness and plenty, community and loneliness, where the well of coffee never runs dry, where you can eat alone and still feel part of something.

Every city needs a utilitarian district where life is staged, where cabs are serviced, trash is compacted and sand and salt are heaped, and this is where there should be a diner. Nail salons, automotive shops and blighty storefronts line this stretch of Bladensburg Road NE between H Street and Mount Olivet Cemetery, on the eastern edge of the unkempt-but-quaint neighborhood of Trinidad. Hardly an oasis, Trinidad still smarts from a rash of homicides that prompted police checkpoints two years ago. At that time, on the 1100 block, a bar called Jimmy Valentine's Lonely Hearts Club had taken root where an income tax service used to be. Shortly thereafter, a new 18-unit condo building opened on L Street NE. Next, in September of last year, Sullivan's Southern Style Seafood set up shop in an empty former deli spot. And then the diner appeared in February.

Something is slowly coming together in this part of Ward 5, short stack by short stack, condo by condo, crab cake by crab cake, Pabst Blue Ribbon by Pabst Blue Ribbon. Here are 24 hours on a single block of a neighborhood on the verge.

The early shift

The pre-dawn sky is velvety. The new streetlamps on Bladensburg flood the rusty strip with honey-hued light. Crickets chirp in thickets of weeds. Morning glories strangle barbed wire. The O'Jays sing from a single speaker beside the Capital City Diner's steel-grated steps, where a man in a button-up chef uniform awaits the man with the key. He's staring past the condo building across the street — the one with papered-over retail windows — up a slope toward 17th Street NE, where he's lived all his life.
It's 5:37 a.m. Friday, and Charles Caldwell, 46, watches August slip away with the night.

Three minutes later, Matt Ashburn, 28, pulls up in his sport-utility vehicle and jumps back into his 107-hour workweek. He lives around the corner on Morse Street NE, bought the 1947 diner for $20,000 on eBay last year, shipped it down from New York, opened it after an aggravating permit process, and manages it before and after his day job as an analyst at the Justice Department.

Stubbled and sleepy, he unlocks the front door, flicks on the lights, and Caldwell follows him in. The young white entrepreneur from small-town Virginia and the black, middle-aged, ex-Marine cook go about the business of the business: turning the fryers on till they gurgle, unloading tubs of waffle mix from the antique Frigidaire, spritzing cleanser on the teal formica counter, brewing the first black drops of a stream of coffee that won't stop till 5 p.m. Sunday.

Mornings have been slow lately. Caldwell and Ashburn think it's because there was a massive drug bust — crack cocaine, marijuana, PCP — four blocks behind the diner last month.

"Business is down 15 percent," Ashburn says, darkly amused. "When did Girly get locked up?"

"About a month ago," Caldwell says, shaking his head, recalling the loud, middle-aged woman who had to be the center of attention whenever she walked in, who always ordered biscuits and gravy.

At 6 a.m., as a baby-blue haze spreads upward from the horizon, everyone's favorite waitress walks in. This is Gloria Rucker, 48, who's been waiting tables since her IHOP days in Winston-Salem, N.C., when she was 14 and had to hide her job from her father, a strict Methodist minister. She moved from Maryland to 16th Street NE for this job. She's assumed the role of den mother, all "sweetie" this and "honey" that as she scoots up and down the narrow stretch of floor between the five booths and 16 stools.

The first customer walks in at 6:14. His order, as written in loopy letters on a ticket, is "3/scheese/BAC/wwtst" (three scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon, and whole wheat toast).

"Friday morning, Friday morning," sings Caldwell, scraping gristle off the grill, segueing into the chorus playing over the diner speakers: "And I think to myself, what a wonderful world."

Through the diner's front windows, the morning unfolds in widescreen. Rush hour flows to the right: School buses, the B2 to Anacostia, U-Haul trucks, whiny street sweepers, unmarked white vans, Bluetoothed commuters from Maryland with their windows rolled down. Schoolgirls in plaid uniforms hopscotch in to say hi. A hulking plainclothes detective orders pancakes and sausage to go. One cook and one waitress must simultaneously serve up to two dozen people during a morning rush.

"I remember my first job, crying in the middle of the IHOP with plates in my hand because they were so busy," says Rucker, taking a quick smoke break outside. "My manager — she's not with us anymore, God rest her soul — said, 'You need to toughen up. You're a street girl.' And I said, 'I don't wanna be mean.' And she said, 'Not mean. Tough. Do it. They'll respect you.' "

They have. They do.

"I found my grill, on Blueberry Hill," Caldwell sings near 9 a.m., adapting Fats Domino and edging a spatula under pancakes the size of your face. "Liquor store's about to open. It's gonna get interesting."

Photo by Dan Zak / The Washington Post

Photo by Dan Zak / The Washington Post

The swing shift

Diner time is measured in ladlefuls of butter substitute, in jingling coins that round out tips, in strange encounters with strange people, the latest of whom has wandered up to the counter in search of crab balls for lunch. He's tall, dressed in black, his hair exploding in a giant gray frizz. He seems lost, in every sense of the word.

"No crab balls, sir," says second-shift cook Sandi Reaves, a playful, irrepressible 44-year-old who lives in Anacostia, looks forward to Friday night games of gin or spades, and believes food preparation is an art.

"I used to come here years ago," the man says, looking around.

"Unlikely, sir," Reaves says. "This place just opened up six months ago." She placates him with a club sandwich, which she expertly assembles between three slices of toasted white bread brushed with mayo. She folds together an origami of turkey and ham until the sandwich towers seven inches high.

"That's sexy, isn't it?" Reaves says, toothpicking the sandwich and pushing it toward the man. "I got you covered, Mr. Crab Ball."

Ray Charles pops onto the sound system and Mr. Crab Ball starts to shimmy his way behind the counter. (His impairment isn't chemical. It just is.)

"That's a buckle-up," Reaves says, after coaxing the man out. "This feels like one of them buckle-up days."

Work and school start letting out after 3 p.m. One young, stylish diner ducks into her BMW after paying the check; another clearly lives on the street and orders only a cup of ice. Poverty and affluence share counter space. Mechanics in gray jumpsuits and nurses in floral-patterned smocks shuffle off with takeout orders. In front of the neighboring liquor store, a woman lies on the ground, her shoes off, her feet gnarled. She repeats, between hacking coughs, a supplication:

"Hey baby spare change?

"Hey baby spare change?

"Hey baby spare change?"

In the 6 o'clock hour, as the light fades slowly behind the diner, teenagers gather on the hoods of cars underneath a Rémy Martin billboard ("Things are getting interesting," it says in Spanish). They've got earbuds in their ears and clean their nails with switchblades. Big-band jazz wails from the diner's outdoor speaker. Across the street, a mayoral candidate in white shirt and tie heads back to his condo.

"The community seems to want to do better," says Sulaimon Brown, 40, whose top campaign issue is unemployment. "The Safeway and CVS down the street have been remodeled, the streets have been resurfaced, there's increased police presence, the streetcar is coming, equity will go up, different types of people are being attracted here."

Inside the diner, Reaves fries up three pieces of whiting for a wisp of a woman perched patiently at the counter, bantering in her sweet, brittle voice with anyone in earshot. Eleanor Hill, 77, has lived on 16th Street NE all her life, since before families had to lock their doors. Things changed, of course, and they're changing again.

"The fifth district is gettin' it together," says Hill, a retired cafeteria worker, before turning to Reaves. "Don't make mine too hard, baby."

"You know I won't."

"I know you won't."

Photo by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

Photo by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

Around 8 p.m., a blond, L.L. Bean-type family of four takes the corner booth at the diner. These are the Howells, mom and dad and two young boys, all khaki'd and polo-shirted. They're in from Phoenix. For Glenn Beck's rally. They are staying in a rented condo at 18th and M streets NE, which Ashburn, the diner owner, considers one of the dodgiest intersections in the city. The family found the rental online and it was affordable, they say. So far, the trip is going well.

They are sitting one booth over from a couple in full Islamic garb (black abaya and hijab for her, white dishdasha for him).

"That's why I fucking love this neighborhood," Ashburn whispers from a stool at the other end of the diner, where regulars titter over the juxtaposition. By 8:45, the Howells depart and begin to walk north on Bladensburg, hand-in-hand, sitting ducks in motion.

Ashburn jumps in his Ford SUV and tails them through an alley parallel to the road, cats darting out of the way. This honeycomb of shortcuts used to be fenced off to discourage drug-dealing, he says, flicking off his headlights, watching from a distance as the four blond heads bob their way up Bladensburg. He sees them safely home, then swings into a U-turn.

On the way back to the diner, he passes the unmarked plexiglass door to Jimmy Valentine's Lonely Hearts Club, through which steampunks and Goth-clad revelers slip out of sight after disembarking the shuttle bus from H Street NE, which recently began making stops up Bladensburg.

Inside the bar, it's David Lynch meets Anne Rice, a faux bordello awash in deep crimson lighting, knickknacked to the hilt with gilt, the walls plastered with rococo mirrors, the Cure moaning over the speakers. Owner Mark Thorp moved to Trinidad in 2003, opened the bar in 2007 and is now seeing the development dominos start to fall — first come the bars and takeout joints, then eateries and condos, then actual restaurants and, finally, a commercially viable, self-sustaining neighborhood lifestyle.

But we're not there yet. Jimmy Valentine's faithfuls love the out-of-the-way-ness of the bar, the come-as-you-are-ness. This vibe might be endangered, though, if the explosion of nearby H Street is any indication.

"Adams Morgan has its own douchebags, but at least they're local douchebags," says NoMa resident Debron Kokobu, 27, who drinks canned beer at the bar as midnight closes in. "Down on H Street, the Georgetown crowd has found it, the frat boys have found it."

"It'll happen here," says 23-year-old bartender Tom Meagher, with sad certainty.

Photo by Dan Zak / The Washington Post

Photo by Dan Zak / The Washington Post

The overnight shift

The waning moon vaults over the streetscape, which has "all the charm — and promise of adventure — of a demilitarized zone, but without the ethnic cleansing," muses mustachioed Sterling resident Howard Brown, 31, who wears a bowler hat inside Jimmy Valentine's around 1 a.m. "But I never come here without a knife." He turns around, lifts the back of his satin vest and reveals a stiletto sheathed in a leather holster around his waist.

Blue and red police lights twirl as cars are stopped, searched and released. Addled vagrants and tipsy hipsters pace up and down Bladensburg, speaking in tongues. Michael Jackson's "Bad" pulses from the diner's speakers.

The neon vibe radiating from the diner is warm, welcoming, what-can-I-get-you. Last call at Jimmy Valentine's sends the late-night crowd across the street for greasy sustenance (the crispy chicken cordon bleu sandwich is popular among the drunk and/or delirious). Four-tops of 20-somethings — shoulders bared, noses pierced — cram into booths designed for body types of the 1940s.

Do-ragged servers James Williams and Kywon Datham twist their lanky bodies as they pass each other up and down the floor, topping off coffees, fetching ketchup bottles, scrubbing dishes. Together with barely 5-foot-tall, 20-year-old Silvia Mendez at the griddle, they captain the diner through the bleary night, slinging and serving hash and Bladensburgers (bacon, onions, cheese). The last two customers of the late-night rush leave just before 5 a.m., trailing a dispute with them.

"Get yo sassy ass out here," she says.

"I'll slap the shit outta you," he says.

Buckle up. (Just in case.)

In the breath between Friday night and Saturday morning, the waiters have time to think. Datham, 21, has a plan: Save his tips, start a landscaping business next year and eventually open a restaurant where he'll share his love of Italian cooking. Williams, 23, lives a block over on Lang Place and is also saving, for medical school (he wants to be a plastic surgeon, because he's fascinated by the ability to fix someone's imperfections).

Mendez, nearing the end of her very first solo shift at the grill, slices open boxes of frozen bacon. Datham sweeps straw wrappers into a pile, then funnels Tabasco into squeeze bottles. Williams restocks the Frigidaire with soda. Jimmy Soul shouts the rollicking refrain to "If You Wanna Be Happy."

Outside, the tank-topped teenagers have disappeared, the Goths and steampunks have zoomed off in their Scions and Mini Coopers, the barefoot beggar has abandoned her pavement outside the liquor store, leaving behind shelled sunflower seeds and three shiny pennies. Inside, the three young diner denizens count their tips and wipe their brows and wait for 6 a.m., when everyone's favorite waitress returns to command the early shift, ready to be tough (but not mean) to whoever walks in from the uncertain street. ⬛