When I was 13 or 14, my father and I moved from my grandparents house in Benning Heights to the first and only home he would ever own as a single man, a one-level two bedroom with a basement in Temple Hills, just a spit away from the Marlow Heights shopping center, which was the center of the world for anything you wanted to get into back in the day: movie theater, record stores, video arcade, Pizza Hut, barber shop, etc. Jammed into this hotbed of commerce was the Steak in a Sack Cafe, a greasy spoon hidden within the mall that you would have thought time would eventually take down.
The place had already been there for a decade or two. The walls had wood paneling from the 70s and no one on the staff seemed to be under 50. The same went for the customers, many of whom seemed like they should have been extras on an episode of Alice. All it needed was a waitress named Flo with a beehive hairdo saying “Kiss My Grits”. The Steak in a Sack was also a white folks hangout it seemed, something left over from what the county used to be before the Black middle class left DC to make it it’s own. The food was okay. The ambiance was acceptable. And it was right down the street from where we lived. Because of the many funny-looking characters we would see perched at the bar and in the booths my Pops nicknamed the place
Fast forward 15 years and we enter its doors again. This time there’s not a white face in sight. The headwrapped and noticeably pregnant waitress moves around at the speed of light, taking orders and dropping plates on tables as if the owners are holding her loved ones for ransom in the back. The paneling is still there. The booths are still cheap pleather. The food is still acceptable. Not much has changed.
As I go to work on flapjacks, turkey bacon and home fries, my Dad gives me a brief lecture on pastrami as he eats what would be considered a miniature version of the real deal at any Jewish deli in the 5 boroughs. But when he and I came there it was never about the food. It’s was about the convenience and the coziness of the place, as Pop was working hard to conquer and settle his piece of the brave new world beyond the city where he was born.
I remember the work we did renovating the house there, and the parties I threw in high school that were my first social success. I remember getting chased by ten boys from the neighborhood looking to jump a stranger. I did a Carl Lewis into the supermarket, ducked through the meat department and found an angel in the form of a clerk who let me out through the freight entrance so that I didn’t go home bloody.
It feels so close that I can still touch it, but nothing in that mall is the same anymore. Even the supermarket itself has been redone, leaving fewer and fewer traces of one of the many worlds from which I came. But Cafe Ugly is still there and apparently still making paper, which proves that some things never change. I’m just happy that my Pops is still here to dine with me, my best friend for life and the best teacher I ever had.