Friday, July 28, 2006

Tales of Shaw (Back in the Day)

African-American writer (and Washington native) Edward P. Jones won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his Civil War-era novel, “The Known World.” But back in 1992, he published a collection of short stories called “Lost in the City.” Most of the stories take place in and around Shaw back in the segregated Washington of the 40s and 50s, and a few extend into the newly (and poorly) integrated city of the 60s and 70s. All of the people in the stories are black; whites are just a shadowy presence on the margins.

A friend lent me the book a few months ago, and I was immediately fascinated by the characters, their stories, and the descriptions of the neighborhood in which they lived. There are specific addresses in the stories that still exist. He talks about the streetcar line that ran down New Jersey Avenue, bars and shops on North Capitol Street.

One of the stories (“The Store”) revolves around a corner grocery store at 5th and O—the eponymous intersection of this blog. The first person narrator tells how he got a job stocking shelves, and then eventually took over ownership of the store. He talks about kids from the old Dunbar High School coming in to buy candy after school, and his complicated relations with the customers from the neighborhood.

I’m consumed with curiosity about whether the store was actually in the one building remaining from that era (on the NW corner), or if it was across the street and has since been torn down, or if it is just fictional. (I kind of doubt that Jones made it up, if only because he also referred to the store in another story later published in The New Yorker.) The remaining building—recently bought by a wonderful Ethiopian lady, who’s planning to open a coffee shop there—could well have been a store at some point. I’d love to have a chance to ask the author about all this, but failing that, I’m going to try to find someone who has been in the neighborhood long enough to know.

Anyway, try to find a copy of “Lost in the City.” It will definitely provide a new time dimension and richer texture to your experience of living in Shaw.


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