Government Girl, 1948

As the B&O Pullman porter gave me a hand down at Union Station, straight ahead and rising above the trees was the U.S. Capitol dome. My legs grew weak. This was heady stuff for a 22-year-old from Springfield, Missouri.

I’d had an unhappy, unsuccessful previous year as a first-year (and only-time) English teacher in a rural high school in Missouri. I could hardly wait to relocate East. Washington, D.C., was then a manageably sized city, and my favorite aunt lived nearby at the end of a bus line to Mount Rainier, Maryland. Even though I had a bachelor’s degree, I’d gladly been recruited as a clerk-typist for the Veterans Administration (VA) in D.C. My train fare was at government expense, and my aunt had lined up an affordable studio apartment for me on Eye Street, within walking distance to the old Munitions Building on Constitution Avenue where I was to work.

I had arrived at the end of the summer of 1948 when Washington was still at its hottest and steamiest. Only the administrative offices of the VA were air-conditioned. The rest of us lowly rated GS stff melted in long bays where one could barely see through a sort of misty haze into the next bay. I was not used to this combination of heat and humidity. When I happened to see my reflection in a mirror, I was shocked to see a clammy face with a greenish pallor. Someone told me I had heat exhaustion and that I should go to the Health Room. The nurse gave me salt tablets, a long drink of heavenly cool water and made me lie down on a cot in the air-conditioned room.

Until autumn arrived, I learned to stop off after work at one of the cool, dark student haunts on my homeward walk past part of George Washington University. I would nurse a coke and watch the wonders appear on a TV set with rabbit ears (an antenna) positioned at the end of the bar. World War II had only ended three years before and my family didn’t yet have television.

On Saturdays I used to meet my aunt at Garfinckel’s Department Store for lunch in their tearoom. ( In those days major department stores often had tearooms. The aroma of toast used to drift out their doors, making my mouth water.) They always had a fashion show while we savored our chicken salads. One model we especially enjoyed watching was an older woman with a mature figure; she was still shapely, no doubt under the tight control of a girdle that most women still wore in the 1940s. She often wore a fashionable hat and gloves to match her outfit (for sale on the third floor in a range of sizes that a saleslady brought to a customer who had been shown to a comfortable chair). Shopping was an enjoyable, leisurely experience then, and I always tried to look chic when I shopped at Garfinckel’s. A hat and gloves were de rigueur.

The Navy building was next door to the VA on Constitution Avenue. On my lunch hour I often met young, handsome officers who gave me a lot more attention than my hometown boyfriends had. I was happy to accept their invitations to dinner. One of my favorite places was the dining room at the Washington Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue I never grew tired of their Shrimp Newburg. Bonet’s, a middle-class French restaurant (I’ve forgotten where it was located), made the most delicious Beef Burgundy. I had my first taste of vichyssoise at the Statler Hotel on K Street, and I became an ardent fan of cold soup after a long hot day. I learned that the only beer I actually grew to like was Bock beer. The first time I tried it was with a co-worker from the VA at a little place on the outskirts of GW University

Many an evening was capped with a movie at one of the cinemas like Warner’s on F Street or a small theater near Dupont Circle. I remember seeing Laurence Olivier in “Hamlet.” I can still hear the eerie music from the film and begin to feel melancholic.