Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. You can read his previous columns here.
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“For me, the only way to eat corned beef is on rye bread with mustard. Maybe put coleslaw or Russian dressing, but that is already pushing it. Now, the shvartzes will walk in here and ask for corned beef with bacon, lettuce, tomato, swiss cheese, and mayonaise on white bread. It don’t make no sense to me, but I make it.
“I got my first job working in a Jewish deli 37 years ago. I was 16 when I moved to D.C. from Saint Mary’s County, Maryland. We were 21 kids and I am the oldest girl. My Mom was 15 when she had her first and 42 when she had her last. I moved out because my parents were alcoholics and I couldn’t live with my family anymore. I had an aunt in D.C. who let me stay with her while I tried to get on my feet.
“The first job I applied for was at the Baltimore Delicatessen on Bladensburg Road. There were two Jewish guys working there and I asked if they were hiring. It was 8:30 in the morning and they told me to start that minute. I came from the country and knew nothing about no Jewish or corned beef and gefilte fish. On my first day, I messed up everything. At the end of the day, they said, ‘You don’t know nothing from nothing, so we are going to have to teach you everything.’
Continues after the jump.
“Over time, they taught me how to speak Yiddish and how to be a waitress and a manager. I learned more here than I did from my family. In 1979, the two guys split up and one went to open Deli City on Bladensburg Road, where I have worked for 31 years. The other place has since closed. This place is my life. When I came at 16, I didn’t think that I would stay there. I wanted to stay until I got an apartment. At 17, I got my first apartment. and then thought that I would work some more until I got some furniture. After I got furniture, I stayed. Now, I have stayed all of this time working as a waitress.
“When I started, the neighborhood and clientele were all Jewish, there were no shvartves nowhere. We used to have stuffed cabbage, chopped liver, tongue, gefilte fish, potato pancakes, and a whole special Passover menu. In the 80’s is when the blacks started coming in. Now, we still get a few Jews, but it is predominantly shvartzes. As the clientele changed, the menu changed, too. When I started, you couldn’t mix corned beef with no cheese or serve any pork. With time the menu changed because people kept asking for pork chops or swiss cheese on their sandwiches. We had to change things because the shvartzes were the ones who were buying our food. Most of the Jews had moved away or died and young Jews aren’t eating corned beef every day. If we didn’t change, we would have been in bad shape. Even with all of the changes, we still have the best food in the area.
“All of my girlfriends ask me why I still work here. I work here because I love it and I make just as much money as a waitress as they do in their jobs. I always make sure the customer leaves with a smile on his face. I don’t know if being a waitress is good for everyone, but it has been good to me. I love to kibbitz with the people who come in here every day and I am proud to work in one of the last Jewish businesses on Bladensburg Road and one of the last Jewish delis in the District.”
Deli City Restaurant is located at 2200 Bladensburg Road Northeast.