Menick explains his father's life as a grocer, and the operations of the DGS (District Grocery Stores) and AGS (Associated Grocers of Washington) organizations that helped his father and other small grocers compete with new grocery chains. Capitol Hill was a mixed, working class community, and Menick details how his father served and traded with his customers. He also describes his experiences growing up, and refers to Friendship House and the Boys Club. Menick also reflects on the Jewish community, including friendships, especially with Ben Rivlin and his family, the Orthodox Southeast Hebrew Congregation on Ninth Street SE, and recreation that they enjoyed on the Chesapeake, near clubs that they knew excluded Blacks and Jews. When DC schools desegregated, Menick attended Giddings-Lenox, at Fourth and G Streets SE, where he was the only white kid in the class. The Menick store closed in 1957 and Jeff's father operated a "service laundry" in the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE after that, before operating other businesses in Northeast Washington. This interview was conducted on two dates, April 6, 2017 and July 13, 2018.
Interview with Jeffrey Menick
Interview Dates: April 6, 2017; July 13, 2018
Interviewer: Maygene Daniels
Transcriber: Maygene Daniels
photo by Maygene Daniels
This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project.
Not to be reproduced without permission.
START OF INTERVIEW
DANIELS: This is Maygene Daniels. I’m interviewing Jeffrey Menick for the Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project. This is Thursday April 6, 2017, and we’re in the dining room of my home at 816 Massachusetts Avenue NE, in Washington, DC.
Jeff, could you start by spelling your name?
MENICK: First and last, or just last?
MENICK: Jeff is with a J and Menick is M E N I C K.
DANIELS: Great! Thank you so much.
Could you tell me a little bit about your family and how you came to Capitol Hill?
MENICK: What I know of course is what I remember being told by my family—sort of family history and anecdotes. My father immigrated to the United States sometime in the late 1920s, and he and his father and his eldest sister originally went to Detroit, Michigan. They were unable to find a way of making a living to provide for themselves, let alone bring the rest of the family over from what was then Poland and today would probably be Ukraine. My paternal grandmother had a sister living in Southwest Washington and so, sometime—I don’t know, ’28, ’29, ’30—my father came to Washington to go to work for his aunt, who had a bootlegging business. And she was not only able to provide for herself and her family, but my Dad worked for her. I’m not exactly sure when his father came, but between then and 1935, they managed to scrape up enough money and borrow money from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to bring my grandmother and my aunts to the United States.
My Dad served in the American Army both before and after World War II. And after he got out of the service in the mid-40s he came back to Washington and went to work in my uncle’s grocery store. My uncle had a store on Georgia Avenue Northwest, right across the street from Griffith Stadium, which is of course now Howard University Hospital.
DANIELS: Could you tell me your uncle’s name?
MENICK: Louis Finkelstein. Actually J. L. Finkelstein. Jacob was his given name but he went by Louis. And he and my aunt, my father’s sister, and their daughter came to Washington and bought this store sometime in the 40s. My cousin, Diane, who was born in 1940, was born in Detroit, and they relocated to Washington sometime in the 40s.
When my mother and father married in 1946 they lived with my grandparents and my father’s youngest sister—who was not yet married—and Diane and her parents, above the grocery store on Georgia Avenue Northwest. My mother said, “This will not do,” and my father found this store at 601 E Street SE, and it was a DGS—District Grocery Store—store. It had living quarters behind and above the store. We had a kitchen on the ground level behind the store and three rooms and a bathroom above. My parents had a bedroom, I had a bedroom, and I believe we had a living room with, fairly early on, a black-and-white television. I certainly remember watching the Friday night fights with my Dad after he closed the store, when that was our family recreation on Friday nights. After dinner we would watch the boxing matches.
I was born in July 1947, and I think they bought that store in October of ’47 and we moved here from Georgia Avenue.
[Here are] my earliest memories of the family stuff going on in our house or playing with children in the neighborhood. There was a park right across the street, catty corner, from the store, that still exists [Marion Park]. On the northwest side of that park was the number 5 Metropolitan Police Station. And I believe that that’s still the police station, although I have no idea what district it is. But that building was there and the park is still there obviously. The store [on the other side of the park] was owned by somebody else back then, but the Weisfeld family bought the store and so there was another Jewish immigrant first generation family in the same neighborhood in a corner grocery store on Fourth Street. And the Rivlins had another corner grocery store just east of us at Seventh and E Street [SE].
Ben Rivlin and my father became very, very dear friends. Bella, the mom, and my mother were also very, very dear friends. They had three kids, the youngest of whom is a couple months older than I am. And we were the only Jewish kids living in that part of Southeast at that time and so we were together, because our parents were friends and it was sort of the natural thing to have happen.
The first real memory I have vividly of being some place unique and special is the inaugural parade for Dwight Eisenhower’s first inaugural celebration in January of 1953. So I was five-and-a-half, and they assembled the floats for the parade in and around that park in front of our store and by the police station. And I just remember standing outside and watching the floats being assembled and the balloons and the hoopla that surrounds every presidential inauguration. And that’s one of the earliest images that I have in my memory bank from being located where we were, at Sixth and E.
DANIELS: What language did you speak in your home?
MENICK: English. My mother was born in the United States. Her parents had come over. Her father actually came fairly early on. He had served in the czar’s army in the Russo-Japanese war and when he was conscripted to serve again at the outbreak of World War I he deserted and came to America. He landed in Galveston, Texas, and found—I don’t know how to translate this word into English but in Yiddish, the word was landsman—someone who had come from the same part of the world that he had come from, who had work, working for the railroads in St. Paul, Minnesota. So my grandfather settled in St. Paul. He had left my grandmother back in their little village with two children, a son and a daughter. And in 1916 the son died of scarlet fever. So my grandmother took her daughter, who was then around eight, and her sister, who I think was 16 or 17 at the time. They could not come out across Europe, so they went across Siberia and sailed from Manchuria and landed in Seattle and worked their way across to St. Paul, where she reunited with my grandfather.
My mother was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her parents insisted on mastering English and insisted on speaking English at home. My mother actually graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1940 with a degree as a recreational social worker, and she worked in Army hospitals around the middle of the country during the war doing recreational things for the soldiers who were rehabbing. And that sister of my grandmother’s had met an itinerant peddler who traveled across Alberta Province [Canada] and came into the northern United States. And they fell in love and moved to New York.
In the summer of 1946, my mother and grandmother went to New York to visit my grandmother’s sister and her family. And it turned out that a cousin of my grandmother’s was living in Washington, and they decided to come to Washington so that my grandmother could see her cousin, whom she had not seen since she left the old country during World War I. That woman turned out to be my father’s mother. And so my parents were distant cousins. But they met in the summer of 1946, fell in love, got married in St. Paul in October 1946, and I was born in the summer of 1947.
DANIELS: Do you know the name of the place in the old country that they came from?
MENICK: I can pronounce the Yiddish name of it. I have no idea how it would be spelled in English, but it was “Zsalutzk”(?). And the reason that I know that today it would be in the Ukraine is that I grew up knowing that it was 90 kilometers from Kiev. But it was Poland when they left. And only now that Ukraine is independent and Kiev is clearly the capital of Ukraine that we recognize that in today’s geopolitical world that has been assigned the name Ukraine.
DANIELS: Yes, yes. Excuse me for not hearing clearly enough, but they were “landsmen.” Did that mean with all these connections they were from the same town?
DANIELS: So ultimately they sort of carried the connections back to the United States.
DANIELS: Very interesting!
MENICK: And even my uncle Louie, the one who had the grocery store on Georgia Avenue, his family was also from Zsalutsk (sp?).
MENICK: Not my cousin, but on the other side of the family there is a woman by the name of Barbara Cullen. Barbara is a Finkelstein and Barbara has actually visited Zsalutzk (sp?) and has a videotape of her visit. I guess that must have been in the 1990s. And when she came back, she said that it looked then exactly as her parents had described it as looking when they left in the 1920s.
DANIELS: Fantastic. Did your mother keep a kosher home?
MENICK: When they first married, they did not. I jokingly say that the great liberating factor in my life was my father’s service in the American military, because he learned to appreciate real food and loved seafood.
When I was a kid, the store was only open a half a day on Sundays. I think the Jewish Historical Society of Washington made a movie about the corner grocers, that wave of immigrants who were the small business people in this city. “Half a Day on Sunday” was the title of the film, as typically they would be open all week and a half a day on Sunday.
And we would go out to dinner on Sunday nights, and my Dad loved shellfish. And even after our home became kosher, my Mother used to say my home is kosher but not my stomach.
And we would go down before they did the first redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront. There used to be a collection of seafood restaurants near where the current Wharf is. One of them was called the Flagship and it was like the hull of a boat that went out into the harbor. When they did the southwest redevelopment, both the Flagship and Hogate’s were relocated. Hogate’s I think ultimately was acquired by Marriott and became the kind of restaurant that busloads of tourists from out-of-town got taken to. But back in the day, certainly in the early 1950s, they had wonderful fresh fish and seafood and rum buns. If you don’t know what a rum bun is—cinnamon and sugar glaze on the top and cinnamon and raisins. And they would bring these out to you before the meal, so it was quite a treat.
My mother’s parents moved to Washington from St. Paul in around 1954, I’m thinking. I was about seven, so that would have been 1954, and my mother’s dad passed away in 1956. That’s what spurred her deciding to make the kitchen kosher, because the family couldn’t come to our house to eat because we didn’t keep kosher. And she didn’t want to not be able to have her in-laws and all of my grandparents and family come to eat in our home. So from that point until she died, my mother kept a kosher kitchen.
DANIELS: Who lived in the home with you?
MENICK: My mother and father and me.
DANIELS: So you’re an only child.
MENICK: I’m an only child. As an aside, my mother had a total hysterectomy three months after I was born. It was fibroid tumors, but in those days they didn’t know any better.
DANIELS: Could you talk a little bit about the Jewish community at the time. The synagogues, the people.
MENICK: Okay. So right here on the Hill was the Southeast Hebrew Congregation, which was an Orthodox community. My grandfather had trained as a cantor and would come to Southeast Hebrew on the high holy days to sing for one of their supplementary services.
DANIELS: Paternal grandfather?
MENICK: My paternal grandfather. Yes. This is before my time and certainly before my memory. I know that he had a small grocery store near Uline Arena at Third and M [NE]. And I am assuming that they lived there and that is how he became affiliated with the Southeast Hebrew Congregation. But by the time I’m old enough to remember, he lived with the Finkelsteins in Shepherd Park, at Fifth and Peabody NW, near Paul Junior High. I would take the streetcars up there to visit, and he would come by streetcar before the holy days began. He would stay at our house to walk over to the Southeast Hebrew Congregation building here on the Hill to pray.
That community still exists, although it relocated to Potomac [Maryland]. Or maybe that’s the one on Lockwood Drive in Silver Spring. It’s in one of those locations. It moved out to an outer suburban area fairly late. Certainly later than many of the other synagogues. B’nai Israel for example went from Fifth and Emerson to Sixteenth and Crittenden before moving out to Montrose Road in Rockville. It had moves within the city. B’nai Israel is, I think, now with Adas Israel one of the two largest conservative synagogues.
We belonged to a conservative congregation in Anacostia. I know that in the early 50s there were three conservative synagogues across the Anacostia River. We belonged to B’nai Jacob. There was also Beth Israel. And those two synagogues merged, I’m going to guess sometime around 1955, because I know it was before we moved. And there was an effort made to get the Xenia Street, Washington Highlands Congregation, to also merge, in an effort to keep one viable congregation in the southeast part of the city for the Jewish families that stayed here. Washington Highlands did not merge with B’nai Jacob and Beth Israel at that time. Many years later, by the time most of the Jewish community of Southeast had moved to Montgomery County, some to PG [Prince George’s County, Maryland], there is still a remnant of that community that I believe is in District Heights. There’s a synagogue in District Heights that serves that part of Prince George’s County and again a small remnant of a Jewish community that stayed in Southeast.
My paternal grandparents are buried in the Jewish cemetery off of Alabama Avenue. It’s a beautiful cemetery. I have only been there once, in modern times as it were, when the Sixth and I Historical Synagogue first opened. The first Executive Director, Judy Levy, asked me to share with her some of what I knew about some of the historical remnants of Washington’s Jewish community, and we went out to the Alabama Avenue cemetery. It was the first time that I had been there since my grandmother had been buried there, or maybe the unveiling of her headstone back in the early 1960s.
DANIELS: How did your family get to Anacostia? Did you have a car? Did you walk?
MENICK: My dad had a car.
There were two organizations that helped the small corner grocers compete with the burgeoning chain stores that came into Washington, I think in the late 30s. Giant Food, which was owned by two Jewish families, started in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and became the dominant force in DC supermarkets back then. But there were still a significant number of corner grocers.
DGS, the District Grocery Stores—from where the restaurant on Connecticut Avenue and N Street NW sort of got the idea for its name—had a warehouse on Fourth and D [SW], which later became the Design Center. It’s now something else. The DGS organization folded because there were no longer enough merchants to keep it alive. But that’s where my father would get up every morning at 4:00 and go and get the things that he needed to sell in his store.
The AGW, the Associated Grocers of Washington, would get supplied by people who operated out of something now known as Union Market. Where that came from, who made that name up, I have no idea. Because again, as a kid growing up, that was just the Northeast Market. They had lots of little independent businesses there, fruit vendors, and vegetable vendors. I can remember on Jewish holidays going there with my father and grandfather and buying a live bird and taking it to the kosher slaughterhouse there in the Northeast Market and that would be our holiday meal.
Ben Rivlin was an AGW store and my dad was a DGS store.
DANIELS: Interesting. You mentioned that the neighborhood was very integrated in the 50s when you lived here. Could you talk about that a little bit?
MENICK: Yes. It was very much a working class neighborhood. I think the wealthiest family that I knew in the neighborhood was an African American physician. The family name was Wade. They lived across the street from us in this really beautiful house. It wasn’t quite grand but it had ante-bellum design elements with columns and things like that. It was charming. He was a lovely man. They were customers of my dad’s.
As well as a fisherman, an Irish family of fishermen, the Belanga. Mr. Belanga would barter with my dad. He’d come in with fish that he couldn’t sell and trade with my dad for things that he needed for his family.
DANIELS: Do you have any idea how that name was spelled?
MENICK: I’m going to guess, this is a total guess. B- E- L-A- N- G- A
DANIELS: He was African American?
MENICK: No. He was a working class white man.
DANIELS: He had a boat on the Potomac?
MENICK: On the Patuxent. I think that most of the fishing was done off the coast. PG [Prince George’s] County, Charles County, that area.
DANIELS: Chesapeake Bay then?
MENICK: It’s not really the Bay, it’s the Patuxent River. It’s on the western shore of the Bay, but most of the tributaries are really part of the Patuxent, where the Naval Air station was.
There were clubs—this is an aside, not about Capitol Hill—down there before the Bay Bridge was built, that people would go to in the summer time to cool off. Slot machines were legal in southern Maryland at the time. There was an amusement park on the Maryland side of the river across from Mount Vernon called Marshall Hall. And Marshall Hall had rides for the kids and the one-armed bandits for the adults, and a little sandy beach area where you could go in the water and swim. But those other beach clubs like Triton Beach and Bay Ridge and a number of others I can remember—I think it was Chesapeake Beach—having a sign right at the front saying “no niggers, dogs or Jews allowed.”
MENICK: Okay. That’s Washington. My mother coming from St. Paul, Minnesota, was flabbergasted at living in a segregated, southern city in the early 50s. We would go downtown to go shopping for clothes to one of the department stores, and I remember her insisting that I drink out of the colored only water fountain, because she did not believe in segregation. If we rode in a streetcar or a bus, we would always go to the back of the bus because she just couldn’t buy into the whole concept of segregation.
DANIELS: You mentioned the sign with no Jews allowed. Did that have an impact on your life?
MENICK: You know, as a kid I don’t think you’re very aware of overt prejudice. I think that I always felt that I was picked on because I was so inept athletically. I was always the last kid chosen for any team because nobody wanted me on their team. I loved every single sport, but I couldn’t play any of them worth a darn. I couldn’t even master the art of learning how to ride a bicycle. [laughter] I wore glasses from the time I was eight years old and in those days glasses were made of glass and if you fell and broke your glasses, you could get hurt, and it was expensive and all that kind of stuff. So I was terribly inept and I felt picked on not because I was white, not because I was Jewish, but I simply couldn’t defend myself.
DANIELS: Could you talk about going to school?
MENICK: I’m aware of this only in retrospect. K through three was prior to the Brown v. Board of Education decision handed down by the Supreme Court, and I went to John Tyler Elementary School. It was an all-white elementary school. I didn’t know any different. It was just where I went to school. I would walk, usually with one or the other Rivlin kids, from our house at Sixth and E over to Tyler.
After Brown v. Board of Education, the DC public schools integrated, and I got to go to school at Fourth and G. I had a five minute walk instead of a 25 minute walk, and I went to Giddings-Lenox in fourth grade. I was the only white kid in the class. By that time I was old enough to recognize that I was the only white kid in the class. The teacher—and this is going to be terribly politically incorrect—but the teacher had red hair and freckles, a very light-complexioned black woman, that in those days they referred to as being “high yaller.” And I think we both know enough about African American history in our country to know that at least at one period of time, the lighter the skin color, the higher in the social ladder you were able to climb. She was a wonderful teacher. Hazel B. DeMouy was her name, and I loved her.
DANIELS: Do you have any idea how that’s spelled?
But she was wonderful! For me, I mean I liked school. I loved to read, and so I was sort of the ideal student for these elementary school teachers. I wasn’t a discipline problem except to the extent that they had to keep me engaged. I had skipped a grade at Tyler because of the teacher, the principal. Again this is what my parents told me later on. The principal was concerned that I wasn’t being challenged, and so the principal moved me from first grade to third grade to attempt to keep me intellectually challenged. The problem was that it was in second grade that they taught penmanship, and I cannot write legibly to this day. I suffer the after-effects of not having mastered penmanship in second grade. [laughter.]
DANIELS: What happened to the other Tyler kids after desegregation, who didn’t go to the integrated school with you?
MENICK: To be honest, I don’t know. My sense is that there were relatively few non-Catholic white kids in my section of the Hill. So, even back then I had a number of friends who went to Catholic school. I’m blanking on the family’s name, but one of my dad’s customers with whom we were very, very, close, his son grew up to become a priest. My mother kept in touch with them for many, many, years after we moved away from the Hill. But you know the pride that an Irish Catholic family took in having a son become a priest. I certainly can recall, as a kid, being at the ceremony where he was ordained, and how proud his family was of that accomplishment.
So the other kids in the neighborhood, I don’t really remember them being schoolmates. I went to Hebrew school two days a week after school, so I was being driven out to Anacostia. And my play dates, such as they were, were often with the kids with whom I had gone to Hebrew school, not so much the kids who went to school in my neighborhood. Because there weren’t, other than the Rivlins, other white Jewish kids living in our neighborhood on the Hill.
DANIELS: Was the racial division pretty much 50-50, white and black, as you remember it?
MENICK: I simply don’t recall. I can recall white families. The Cressmans who were involved with Friendship House. And there was a man who lived on E Street between Fifth and Sixth, right off an alley on the east side of Sixth Street, who raised birds. He had like his own botanical garden with the birds behind his house in the alley back there. But I had no sense. Who paid attention to skin color? I mean the reality is that when you’re three, four, five, six or seven years old, you don’t pay attention to that stuff.
DANIELS: Right, right. How about Friendship House? What do you remember was going on there, and the Cressmans also.
MENICK: They were customers of my family and so even though I was too young to qualify for their programs, because they were friends of the family I got to go and participate with other kids and their activities, whether it was during the school year, after school programs, summer programs, going to sleep-away camp when I was like five years old. I’m sure I didn’t go for weeks, but I probably got to stay with them in the camp for a couple of nights at the end of the session, because I can remember how exciting it was to be at camp. And again I don’t remember if I was ever told the actual facts of how this came about, but by the time—around the time—we moved from Southeast in ’57, the Cressmans were no longer working at Friendship House. They started their own summer camp near Camp David out in Frederick County, Maryland, in the Catoctin Mountains. My grandparents helped them buy the camp, and so I got to go to that camp because my grandparents had helped fund it. So I can remember being nine or ten years old and going to sleep-away camp and staying for at least a week at that camp.
[I went to] Friendship House when I was really young, and then by the time I was old enough, the Boys Club. You know, Donny Rivlin and I would walk over to the Boys Club and play basketball and whatever the activities that they had. That was another place to spend time that wasn’t completely unsupervised.
Saturday afternoons were spent at double- or triple-features at the Penn Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue on the north side, between Sixth and Seventh. And the Avenue Grand on the south side.
I remember getting caught shoplifting baseball cards from the People’s drugstore, now CVS, that’s on that corner. What is it? Seventh and Penn? [laughter]
What is now referred to so elegantly as Barracks Row, that was always commercial. Always retail stores there. There was a kosher butcher shop that was there, certainly in my earliest memories. Going into that butcher shop that not only sold meat but also smoked fish. They were associated with what were called “appetizing (?)” stores in New York. They couldn’t sell dairy because they sold meat, but they could sell smoked fish. The [shop] relocated to upper Northwest on Georgia Avenue north of Piney Branch Road in the late 50s.
After my Dad closed that store at Sixth and E SE in ’57, he was in the laundry business for a couple of years. And he then went to work for the Silberts in their store on Georgia Avenue. By that time we were living in Silver Spring, and it was certainly an easier commute to work than commuting back down to the Hill.
And I also remember, because they lived in that neighborhood, that some of the Cuban ballplayers for the old Senators were customers of the Silberts. And I may still have autographs from baseball players of that era who played for the old Senators.
DANIELS: That’s great! You mentioned the library?
MENICK: Yes, I can remember. I was an early reader. I don’t remember not reading. But I remember very vividly going into the library and somehow or other there was a librarian who became aware of the fact that I was able to read and understand books that were way beyond my age or grade level. And I remember her encouraging me to take out and read books that she thought would be of interest to me that weren’t designed for first and second and third graders. I don’t remember actually reading the Hardy Boys, but I think that John Tunis was the name of a guy who wrote tons of books about sports. I read those books from the Southeast Library. We moved when I was ten and I know I didn’t find them on my own. I can just remember the librarian finding books for me to read that would be on topics that would be of interest and challenging enough to encourage me to develop my vocabulary and reading skills.
DANIELS: Do you have any memory of whether the library was segregated. Were black children welcome there?
MENICK: I doubt it. I don’t remember, but I have no recollection of it being integrated at all.
DANIELS: I’d like to ask you about the circumstances of your moving off the Hill. But I wonder if we should stop now rather than rushing through.
MENICK: And pick up next time. Okay.
BEGINNING OF SESSION TWO
DANIELS: This is Maygene Daniels, and I’m with Jeff Menick. This is the second of two interviews. We’re at my home at 816 Massachusetts Avenue NE and it is July 13, 2018. We’re going to be continuing the interview in which Jeff spoke about his childhood and the Jewish community on Capitol Hill.
Jeff, you mentioned that your father closed the corner grocery where you lived in 1956. Do you know why he chose to do so?
MENICK: Actually, I think that it was ’57 and he lost the lease. The man who owned the building decided to repurpose the use of the building and so the store closed. The building was remodeled and I honestly don’t know the entire timeline but sometime between when my Dad closed the store in 1957 and when I began working for an insurance industry trade association in 1973 the building was designated as a national historical site because they realized it had served as the offices of the attorney general in the Lincoln administration. The last time I was over there there was a Native American rights organization [in 2018 the Indian Law Resource Center] and some other civil liberties organizations that had offices in that building, which once housed my Dad’s grocery store and the three rooms above where we lived.
DANIELS: Did you know that it had been a government office?
MENICK: No. What did I know? I was a kid when we moved away.
DANIELS: Do you know who owned the building?
MENICK: I probably did at one time but that name escapes me.
DANIELS: Were similar things happening to the other small stores in the area? Do you know?
MENICK: Yes. The independent grocery store business that really thrived, particularly in urban neighborhoods, was going through dramatic transition, even though the big chain stores were reluctant to open stores in what I will just generically refer to as “the ghetto.” They existed. And business was shifting away from the corner grocery store to more and more of the supermarkets, whether they were proximate to the neighborhood or not. People were going to Giant and sometimes to A&P or Kroger or Acme. All the grocery store chains had some stores in Washington but, as I’m sure you know, Giant Food, which started in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, really became the dominant food chain in Washington beginning in the 1950s and lasting until after the death of Izzy Cohen when it was sold to the Dutch company that I believe still owns it.
DANIELS: Was there a Giant in the neighborhood that you remember going to?
MENICK: Not a Giant. Safeway.
DANIELS: Yes, Safeway, right. That’s my memory.
MENICK: I don’t ever remember there being a Giant in this part of Capitol Hill.
DANIELS: You mentioned the Rivlins. Do you know how long their store lasted?
MENICK: I know that we moved to Silver Spring in ’57 and they moved in ’58, right down the block. So the families remained one block apart, but living in Silver Spring. And I think that Ben Rivlin had that store and kept it open for several years after my Dad had to leave our store, but I don’t remember exactly when. It’s too bad that you didn’t ask me this in advance, because Don, my contemporary, now lives in Toronto. [He] was just here in Washington a couple of weeks ago on his way down to Greensboro, North Carolina, to visit his middle sister. His oldest sister is actually in Israel attempting to get the cooperation of their cousin, who’s now the president of the State of Israel, to make a biographical documentary film about him.
MENICK: His name is Reuven Rivlin. And he’s the President of Israel, which is a ceremonial position, not the head of the government.
DANIELS: Even so, it’s really important. How about other businesses? You mentioned a Kosher grocery.
MENICK: On what we refer to now as Barracks Row, there were a number of small merchants. The regular corner grocery store, I think at Eighth—and it might have been E—was Star Market, Mr. Star’s Market. And Silbert’s was a Kosher meat market on Eighth Street between D and E. That was where we went. Sometime in the late 50s, they relocated to a storefront on Georgia Avenue NW, just north of Piney Branch. After my Dad closed the grocery store, he had two laundromats. One was strictly coin-op out in Northeast, on I think Division Avenue, somewhere off the Benning Road area of Northeast. Then we had what was referred to as a “service laundromat,” the kind where you could go in and you’d give us your laundry, we would wash it, dry it, fold it, do whatever you wanted done to it, for a fee. That storefront was on Pennsylvania Avenue between Sixth and Seventh on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue in the space that I believe is now occupied by the Citibank Branch. We were across the street from Berlin’s Hardware store and across from what later became Mr. Henry’s and to the north of the Penn Theater, which was on that side of the block. The Avenue Grand was on the other side of the street. And the Peoples Drugstore, which is now a CVS—there’s always been a drugstore associated with that brand because CVS bought the People’s chain many decades later—was on that corner of Seventh and Pennsylvania Avenue.
DANIELS: Was it a successful move for your father?
MENICK: No. I honestly don’t know. I was a kid. I had no understanding. The coin-op store was repeatedly vandalized. Keeping the washing machines and dryers in working order enough to generate enough revenue to pay the expenses of the store obviously became problematic. My father had his first heart attack in 1959. And whether that played a role in the closing of the service laundromat, I honestly have no recollection of that. I know the timing of when my Dad had his heart attack, but I don’t remember exactly when that store closed. And I remember that after he recuperated from that heart attack, he actually went to work for the Silberts in their butcher shop on Georgia Avenue, probably late 1959 or early 1960. [He] worked there for a couple of years and recognized that he didn’t earn enough money there to even contemplate being able to afford to pay the tuition costs for me to attend the University of Maryland. And in those years, my fall semester tuition at Maryland was $213, which included all the student activity fees for the year, so the spring semester tuition was only $132. So it was less than $350 a year for me to get my undergraduate education. But my Dad knew that he would never be able to afford it if he stayed at Silbert’s and so he asked his cardiologist if it would be okay for him to go and buy another grocery store. And he did. He bought a store at 1730 Trinidad Avenue NE, one block in from Mt. Olivet Road. The Trinidad neighborhood was a troubled community then. I think that its drug-related problems have persisted. I know that neighborhood now—and going toward Ivy City where Doug Jamal is doing some unbelievable gentrification—is quite astonishing. In fact I had the experience a couple of weeks ago of going to a performance at the Atlas Theater on H Street NE and the friend with whom I went parked her car at the southern end of Trinidad Avenue, just above West Virginia Avenue. We walked from there to the theater. And when we walked back to her car after the performance, I said you need to take a little ride, and so we drove all the way to the other end of Trinidad Avenue where the store is still, a little corner grocery store. The name has been changed from what it was when my folks owned it. But it is still being operated as a little corner grocery store in that part of Northeast.
DANIELS: That is interesting.
Going back to the business on the Hill, do you have any memory of who the clients at the service laundry were?
MENICK: It was a variety of clients, both people in the neighborhood who lived nearby and didn’t have their own washer and dryer, and some businesses. I do not, to this day, know how they became our customers. But there was a Japanese restaurant in Silver Spring called the Sakura Palace. The Sakura Palace brought us their linens every other day to be laundered and prepared for use in the restaurant. By this time we were living in Silver Spring, so we were very welcome guests whenever we went to the restaurant for dinner. And I developed an early appreciation of Japanese food [laughter]. I believe the family’s last name was Kouji or Kougi—I have no idea how it would appropriately be pronounced or spelled. But they were always very welcoming to us and they were our biggest customer in the laundromat because they were constantly bringing us the linens from the restaurant to be cleaned.
DANIELS: Was there a carryover of clients from your grocery store?
MENICK: Not that I remember to any large extent. There were people who had lived in our part of the Hill, who had moved to other neighborhoods while we still lived there. So my Dad had some customers in Anacostia, and we would deliver groceries to them. I would ride along with my father when we went over to their homes. But in terms of remembering the people who were the grocery store customers and the people who were the laundromat customers, I wasn’t in the laundromat very much. I was too young to work.
DANIELS: And how about other buildings on that 600 block?
MENICK: Well, it looks so different now. That section of Pennsylvania Avenue has been completely redone from what it was like in the late 50s and very early 60s. I think that as the Hill itself became one of the first neighborhoods in the city to become gentrified and had a significant group of professional, working class people moving in to the neighborhood, that part of Pennsylvania Avenue was very early on in being changed.
DANIELS: For that business, did he sell it or close it?
MENICK: I just don’t know.
DANIELS: He just moved on to other things.
MENICK: I don’t remember whose song it was. “Got to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ’em.” I think he knew when to fold ’em. Kenny Rogers, was that who it was?
DANIELS: I have no idea! Did you work at your father’s grocery store?
MENICK: Not the one on the Hill. I did not work there. I was too young. I was 10 when we moved. The only thing I did there was snitch candy and cigarettes and soft drinks, whenever. [laughter]
DANIELS: And at the second grocery?
MENICK: Oh yes. By the time I was in high school, I was working with my parents quite regularly in that store on weekends and school holidays. The store was open six and a half days a week and my Dad had two employees, one fellow who helped with the general merchandise and all around, and one fellow who was the butcher. The butcher had Mondays off, so my Mom would go in to the store on Mondays, and starting while I was in junior high school, my job was making dinner for the family on Monday.
DANIELS: Interesting. When you look back on your early life on Capitol Hill and your family’s life there, what do you remember?
MENICK: I think that it was the halcyon childhood that we all remember. If there was racial tension in the community, I was oblivious to it, even in the years when I went to Tyler because it was the white school and not Giddings where I went after the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down. I never felt—I was unaware of any—animosity, any differences. We were just kids and we played together in the park.
DANIELS: And you played, black kids, white kids.
MENICK: Yeah. Yeah. The fact that I was athletically inept and always the last person chosen for a team had no bearing on whether the kids with whom I was playing were black kids or white kids. It was just that I was totally geeky.
DANIELS: Understood! And how about your father’s view of the Hill?
MENICK: My parents were both extraordinarily accepting. My Dad was not born in this country, did not have an American education, and never felt that he was any better than any of his customers, black or white. Mr. Belanga, the fisherman, who would trade—barter—with my Dad and bring him fresh caught fish for other foods that he needed to feed his family. My Dad never treated him any differently than he treated Dr. Wade, the African American physician who owned the house across the street from us, which was far and away the nicest house in the neighborhood. And I can remember to this day, my Dad teaching me that everybody pulls their pants on one leg at a time. You know those aphorisms stay with you —because my folks never wanted me to think that I was any better than anybody else, or that I wasn’t as good as everybody else.
DANIELS: Right. Do you have anything else that you’d like to share with the oral history project?
MENICK: I love part of what my hometown has become and I worry terribly about what my hometown is becoming. I think that our city is on the verge of losing a huge part of its humanity because it is becoming too costly for working class families to remain in this city. I don’t care if you’re talking about the Hill or Petworth or Shaw or any other neighborhood. Some of them did not suffer very much during the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968—neighborhoods like those in Northeast around Catholic University and all of the Catholic institutions. They weren’t damaged by the riots. The riots had obviously major influence on the commercial corridors from Seventh to 14th Street and neighborhoods like that. And then the ravages of the drug trade and the crack cocaine epidemic that took hold in so much of the urban area, the inner city of DC, blighted the city for decades. But I don’t want our city to become like Manhattan or San Francisco where only wealthy people can afford to live. I want police and firefighters, I want school teachers and trash collectors to be able to live in the same neighborhoods where the lawyers and doctors and lobbyists live.
DANIELS: Just out of curiosity, was your father’s store affected by the riots?
MENICK: Yes. The store was badly looted. The police wouldn’t let us go back to it for a couple of days. I say unfortunately it was only looted and not burned. I think my family would have had a very different story arc had we not been able to reopen it right away. But we were. And during the summer of 1968, I had just graduated from college and I fulfilled a childhood dream and took the summer driving across the country with a couple of buddies. While I was gone, my father was held up at gunpoint five times in five-and-a-half weeks. I came home from my trip on a Sunday night, and on Thursday he suffered the heart attack that ultimately led to his death from congestive heart failure a year later, in June of 1969. But in between times, I had gotten a Fulbright scholarship to go to law school in New Jersey and I started out in September of 1968, commuting back and forth, helping my Mom run the store on the weekends and going to school during the week. And by Christmas of 1968 I was completely fried. I had been accepted to some of the local law schools, but without as much financial aid. So then I called the deans of admission. It turns out that in law school at least you can’t enter mid-year. The way the curriculum is structured, it begins in September and has a design and a structure that goes through the academic year, so I had to defer my reenrollment until September of 1969. So I was working with my mother in the store while my Dad was recuperating, and on the 21st of January 1969, the day after Richard Millhouse Nixon was inaugurated as the President of the United States, my mother and I were both shot during an attempted armed robbery of the store. I was in the intensive care unit of Providence Hospital for 13 days, and in the hospital for another week, and I had to go back for subsequent surgery. My mother fortunately just had flesh wounds in both legs and so she was home before I was. But in the aftermath of that event, we closed the store and sold the building.
DANIELS: And was this a simple robbery? Was the person caught??
MENICK: No. He never robbed us either. He came to the door and held the door open with one hand and he yelled “Give it up, give it up.” And just started firing. He fired eight shots that hit my Mom twice and me once. My Mom picked up a 7-Up bottle and threw it at him and he ran away. And somebody called an ambulance and in one of what I consider to be many, many blessings over the course of my life, the ambulance drivers decided not to take us to DC General Hospital but to Providence. And we received unbelievable care at Providence Hospital. And Dr. Stephen Erisgen [?] of blessed memory was the surgeon who saved my life. You know, you don’t forget those kinds of experiences.
DANIELS: Thank you very much, Jeff. The very interesting thing is that this project has focused on Capitol Hill, but you can’t really separate the neighborhood from the rest of the city or the trajectories of people’s lives. Yours is a touching story. So thank you, thank you so much!
MENICK: You’re welcome. My pleasure.
END OF INTERVIEW