At Ben’s Chili Bowl, A Week After Barack Obama

Picture the scene, a crowded restaurant in an upwardly growing neighborhood. There is a line from the front door all the way to the dinning area. A week earlier the 44th president of the United States had walked into the historic landmark eatery known as Ben’s Chili Bowl and put the lovable, local establishment into the minds and hearts of an awestruck public. The tourists have been flocking ever since to the Ben’s Chili Bowl as they slowly undo their meaty claws from this city.

I sit, tucked away in a corner with my friend, eating a delicious plate of veggi-chili cheese fries (the number one reason why I just can’t seem to commit to veganism, Ben’s veggi-chili cheese fries have been a part of my diet for 16 years now). Across the way from me sits a family, and for the purposes of this story it is important to notate that they are an African American Family, mom, dad and daughter. This family of three is quietly finishing their meal seated at a table made for six. In line, waiting impatiently, filled with the entitlement I am sure the mid-west has brought her, is a white woman. I’d say this woman is in her early sixties. Tired and weary from a week of imprinting her carbon foot print all over the nations capitol, this woman doesn’t so much ask as imposes herself upon one of the empty seats.

“We heard that Barack Obama came here,” the woman says with the kind of boisterous kindness that would make most decent people prone to incidental violence. “Is the food really worth the wait?”

The mother, not particularly animated, presumably answers the woman kindly. I stare down the line of people, so many of them unaware that this is fairly typical, if not slightly exaggerated for the local business. The line seems to fluctuate in length as some of the curious bail out, too impatient to wait for the now historic meal.

“So, you all must come here all the time,” the white woman says to the mother and daughter. Her face has the kind of grin that makes small children cry. It lacks depth or sincerity in a way that leaves me ill at ease as I scarf down on my lunch.

“No, this is our first time. Were from out of town,” the mother says, louder then any other words she has uttered before, but not hostile or impolite. They are tempered words, spoken from a slighted person. Without missing a beat, the middle aged debutant begins to rattle on, unstoppable in her quest to talk as much as possible, as loud as possible to a woman she has surely just offended, nary one week after this great country has seen the first non white male take the oath of president.

The woman and her daughter finish the last of their meal under the barge of this woman’s ceaseless talking. As she expresses her love for and admiration for this great president the woman and daughter politely get up from their seats and follow their husband, previously absent from paying the tab and not privy to this conversation, through the crowed and out the front door into another of DC’s crisp winter days.

So if you needed any further evidence that we still have a long long way to go, then I offer you this tale. It’s bad enough that the city I have lived, loved and loathed for most of my life is constantly overrun by tourists and congressional aides who are only pausing through this pit stop of their life. But to have to be subjected to this kind of stupidity in perhaps the greatest testament to perseverance I have ever known just breaks my heart.

Anyone familiar with the U street neighborhood that Ben’s Chili Bowl has called their home for more than 50 years now, has seen the homogenized, gentrification that has over run it. In the days of my youth, visiting the Bee Hive or even playing shows at the Kaffa House this neighborhood wasn’t what your suburban mother would consider safe. In those days, Ben’s Chili Bowl offered a welcoming arm to pieced punk rock kids, so far from their own neighborhoods tucked in suburban Maryland and Virginia. There was a time when only our pale, young faces were the only white ones that could be found in Ben’s. Today, as the old town homes are gutted for condos, or bulldozed over for multi-purpose commercial lots the faces of the patrons have slowly changed.

I wonder what is to become of the U street neighborhood, how it will hold on to it’s history. While it certainly is becoming “revitalized” it’s also becoming a lot more “white”. I wonder too what role my and my peers played in the transformation of the U street corridor. After all, we began to move in to the houses, set up clubs and situate ourselves, welcomed or not with in the streets, playing our music and hanging out. Did our invasion make this neighborhood “safe” for the upward moving, working upper class? Was it our presence that made developers take a look at the streets and think about ways in which they could “rejuvenate” the neighborhood. Sure former mayor Anthony Williams had a lot to do with it, and it would be unkind of me to say that he had done more damage than good. But I can’t help wonder what happened to the people that used to live there, because they don’t live near U street anymore.

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