by Donna Johns

My first adult job was at the Library of Congress.  The grand old lady with the verdigris dome looks out on the Capitol of the United States.  To her right sits the Supreme Court.  Spread out around her like a hug are the Senate and House office buildings.  The Library exists to serve the needs of Congress and the nation.

Back in the 1970s, Washington D.C. was an open and surprisingly casual city.  It was not unusual to spy Ted Kennedy or Edward Brooke strolling from their offices across the big lawn to a roll call vote.  Tourists and federal worker bees intermingled with the mighty around the city.  The Tune In, a greasy spoon on Pennsylvania Avenue,  drew clerks, congressmen, and the occasional movie star.  They all hunkered in to vinyl-covered booth seats to grab beer, burgers, and a dose of insults from Ginny, the waitress.

I started out as “Letter N” in the Serial Records Office.  That meant that any magazine purchased by or donated to the Libary whose title began with the letter N needed to be recorded by me in our paper files.  Some were fun to leaf through at coffee breaks.  The New Yorker, New England Journal of Medicine, The Numismatist.  Others were deadly dull–all the state publications of Nebraska, North Dakota, Nevada.

Once a week, I went to the “sorting room” in the back where enormous laundry tubs full of N magazines were waiting for me to put into manageable piles.  It was in the sorting room that I learned about life in Washington.  My tutors were Sam and Ben, two massive, friendly men with voices like Barry White who took a liking to the little white girl from Boston.

They told me were the best crab shacks were, what neighborhoods to avoid, which congressmen liked to pinch bottoms.  They spun tales about their salad days and teased me about my accent.  They taught me how to drawl and brought me a bowl of chitterlings just to watch me gag.

One day, while I was sorting, I needed to go to the bathroom.  I headed for the closest ladies room, one I had not previously used.  When I stepped in, two of my co-workers turned from the sinks and looked at me with something that looked like astonishment.  I shrugged and ducked into a stall.  I could hear them muttering outside, and it didn’t sound pleasant.

When I got back to the sorting room, I cornered Sam.  “So what is LaTonya and Ellen’s problem ?  When I was in the ladies room, I thought they were going to have a stroke.”

He busted out laughing, took me by the arm, and led me back to the Ladies Room where he pointed to the door.  There, I could just make out the faint adhesive remains of the word “Colored” which had been scraped off.

“But that’s illegal,” I sputtered.

Sam nodded in agreement.  “But old habits, they die hard.  Those girls weren’t made at you.  I’m guessing they were shocked.  Doubt if any white lady has used a toilet in their EVER.”

I continued to use that restroom, even if it was out of the way from my letter N work station.  LaTonya and Ellen got used to it.  But the rest of the white ladies?  They continued to use the “right” ladies room.

Old habits die hard indeed.

BOLLI “Matters” contributor and “BOLLI After Dark” feature writer Donna Johns

Teacher/librarian, writer of unpublished romance novels, sometime director of community theater and BOLLI member, Donna has two fantastic faux knees which set off the metal detectors at Fenway Park.


6 thoughts on “DONNA’S “DIE HARD” STORY”

  1. Hi Donna! You take me back…I worked for Senator Cranston during the ’70s and early ’80s, and probably saw you at the Tune In (although I preferred the Hawk & Dove). You describe Capitol Hill in those days very well (sadly and comically).

    1. I had my first (and last) hot buttered rum at the Hawk and Dove during a snowstorm. We decided to dodge the crazy traffic…Washingtonians really can’t drive in the snow. Sat by the window, watched the snow and the fender blenders and drank hot toddies.

      Yes, we were ships passing in the night…worked there from 1971 to 1981. Good times

  2. Working for the Library of Congress must have been fascinating. How long did you work there and did you become a librarian?
    Your encounter with descrimination must have been shocking. Happily nothing as blatant exists any more, but I am still shocked (after 2 years in Boston) at the the lack of diversity in the many Bostonian suburbs, especially considering that the vast majority of these suburbs are populated by intellectuals and liberals.

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