Monday, August 1st, 2011
“I grew up most of my life as a minority in reverse. My family stayed on Varnum St after all of the white families left. My grandmother, Lottie who was from Tashkent, ran a boarding house for soldiers there. I grew up in that house with my parents and brother who is seven years older. We used to get all kinds of characters and alcoholics staying with us.
Back then, I didn’t know white, Jewish, or black, I was just a kid trying to run around and have fun, get a few numbers, play cards, shoot dice, and maybe smoke a little something.
“When the neighborhood started to change, we stayed because my grandmother was old and my Dad was working two jobs and too busy. Growing up, I was looking for my own identity. My parents were busy and my brother was much older than me. I didn’t know white, Jewish, or black, I was just a kid trying to run around and have fun, get a few numbers, play cards, shoot dice, and maybe smoke a little something. I was like Huckleberry Finn and Dennis the Menace.
“I started hanging out with the older black kids in the neighborhood and those are some of my happiest memories. We would get together in the alley behind my house and play catch, throw ball, and match book. Back there, the residential manager had a locker room filled with pin ups of old black stars, and I would hang out there with the older black guys talking and playing cards.
“As a kid, I used to shovel snow and cut grass to save money so that I could play cards with them. I mean, you could only get so many Playboy magazines and Portnoy’s Complaints under your bed. I wanted to get into something else, and be with people who would tell me about things.
“I really started to learn about things around 5th grade when my parents couldn’t afford to send me to the Washington Hebrew Academy on 16th and Rittenhouse anymore and I got sent to Rabaut Junior High School. I was the only white kid in my class and one of the few white kids in the school. It was cool for a while, though, because I always knew how to change my voice depending on where I was.
“Things were okay until one day when some black kids threw a staple gun at a substitute teacher who looked like Woody Allen with a bow tie. Me and this other kid were the only white kids in that class and then they came for us. I got hit on the neck and the other kid was hit, too. My Mom wasn’t one of those super liberal parents, but got me transferred to an integrated public school in Georgetown.
“It was one of those happy, hippie places where kids had long hair, smoked weed, and listened to music. My problem was that I never really fit in with the white or black kids. Just as I am trying to figure that out, with my luck, the riots happened. I remember seeing the newspaper that King got shot and still heading to school that day. I took my three buses there, changing at Varnum Street, at Mt. Pleasant Street and at MacCarthur Boulevard. They let us out of school early, and I caught a ride home with a black teacher. I remember driving home, hidden under the seat, but looking up to see people walking around with TVs and coats.
“While things were bad around the city, we were fine in our neighborhood. People left us alone, and Jimmy, one of our neighbors, looked out for us. We survived the riots, but the drugs and crime eventually pushed my parents out of the neighborhood. When Lottie died, the house got too much for my parents and then my Dad was mugged a few times when the heroin and weed started to take over.
“My parents sold and moved to 7700 Georgia Avenue in 1972 and lived happily ever after until they died. I ended up getting my own place by the zoo on Connecticut Avenue and made my life as a salesman. From 1982 until 2006, I traveled all over selling pretty much any alcohol you can imagine to the stores around here. Now, I was lucky to get a job through my friend at the Lee Irving Liquors on Mt. Pleasant Street.
“I look back on my life and realize that my upbringing is a little different than most. We were the only white family with blacks and everyone in the neighborhood was okay with us. Hanging out with those older black guys taught me about the richness of DC. I remember seeing shows at the Tivoli, and going to cabaret’s where you would bring your own vodka and grapefruit juice and try to get a girl’s number. I remember dancing to Marvin Gaye and the Temptations.
“If I could recreate anything, I would go back to being that little Jewish kid, hanging out with the older black guys, playing cards and doing stuff in that locker room. Those times were the happiest for me. To go back would be my dream.”
Below is a photo of Herman’s fifth grade class at Barnard Elementary. As he says, “Can you guess where’s Waldo?”