I’m having a series of epiphanies as I read my way through the Capital Hill History Project, an oral history of the neighborhood I grew up in for 19 years before coming to Germany. The memories of many of our old neighbors are there, going back to the the 60s, and it’s simply amazing for me to read what they write now, in retrospect, and me looking at it all from this vantage point so far removed from theirs, and to think about how they must have experienced those very same streets I called my home that even today look and feel and smell like home through I hardly know anybody.
I’ve been reading Rosetta Brooks’ story today. She was my second ballet teacher at St Marks, after my first year in the baby classes – I started at two and a half, she came in 1965, so she got me at three and a half, and I stayed until 1969. That’s when I changed schools to go to the German school out in Potomac, Maryland. It meant that I subsequently spent little time in my own neighborhood, and became rather alienated from it. I later did go back to take ballet classes with Rosetta as a teen, around the age of 14.
I now see that St. Marks was Rosetta’s first job. She says that she began dancing as therapy after having her clubfeet operated on. That she tried studying it at Howard, in the Athletic Department. That is was horribly painful, so she got a business degree instead. But then St. Marks advertised for a teacher. Respect.
The Capitol Hill History Project naturally focusses on how people experienced integration, from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech on the Mall to his assassination and the ensueing riots. Rosetta talks about how in 1968 her soon-to-be husband was the shop manager at Kinneys Shoe Store on H Street – “it was his first store that he actually managed. Like I said, this was a guy who — went from stock boy — was not allowed on the floor, because he was black — to own his first store. It was at 11th and H Street NE.” And she describes how the two of them watched as that store was detroyed, fully stocked with merchandise, by a molotov cocktail. So this was 1968, and I must have been in her classes when it happened.
She has been working at St. Marks ever since, with other jobs, too, on the side, putting her two daughters through college on her own after her husband’s death. She no longer lives on the Hill, having moved out to Vienna, where the public schools are better than in DC, for the sake of her daughters.
Something she says strikes me: She notes how children’s bodies have changed over the last 10 years, saying they’re no longer limber. Limber. That word resonates. She’s till going strong.
Other people I remember so well from my childhood are Chris Calomiris, the Greek grocer at Eastern Market, across from where my mother had her dresshop; Pat Driscoll, mother of three brothers I was friendly with as a teen, who it turns out was a real actress at one point, though she never talked about it, and her close friend, librarian Joan Keenan; Barbara Held (Reich), one of the early realtors working on Capitol Hill as gentrification got under way; she at one point gifted me with her gorgeously flamboyant 60s earrings; historian and project head John Overbeck, who shared his house with Boris, an artist friend of the family’s I learned silkscreening from (who doesn’t get a mention); Peter Powers, a friend of the family whom my mother admired because he had the kind of culture she could place, and who worked at the Smithsonian; and our Irish parish priest, Father Michael O’Sullivan, who came in 1970, injected life into the parish and started rebuilding St. Peters from the run-down school my parents had taken me out of, to create a secular charter school.
I want time off just to dive in and read all of these stories. This is simply amazing, I haven’t thought about these people in years because I lost touch in 1981, and in fact hadn’t been in touch for all those years before, when I was at the German School, so it’s like that part of my identity has been amputated. Now it’s coming back, emerging from a dense fog.
I love imagining hearing the voices in these dialogues. Longing to belong.
My family isn’t in this picture. Anywhere. Noone mentions them.
There’s a story bubbling up inside.