THE BIG ACORN: Subterranean hometown blues

THE BIG ACORN • BY RICHARD JAEGGI • PHOTOS BY JULIE WAITT

[In honor of Richard Jaeggi, who passed away May 25, we are re-publishing this 2002 piece he wrote for his Big Acorn column. The Big Acorn was a regular Takoma/Silver Spring Voice feature until Richard quit to devote time to founding and running the Gandhi Brigade Youth Media.]

The Quarry House endures in a changing town

When I first came to Silver Spring with my family in 1986, it seemed a wholly unremarkable place. It was just a suburb to a city, which was, after all, the main attraction. I vaguely recall that the old Hecht’s building was still open then, as were the stores in the little strip mall at the intersection of Georgia and Colesville. I think there was a Rite Aid in what is now Red Lobster and some kind of wine and cheese shop in what is now Panera. By the time we bought our Indian Spring home in 1992, Hechts was gone, and transformed into City Place Mall. I was not much of a shopper so I never really explored the wonders of City Place, but I did—within days of my arrival—discover the Quarry House Tavern.

The subterranean Quarry House was supposed to have been the first legal bar in Montgomery County after the repeal of prohibition, and there was even a rumor that it was a speakeasy before the twenty-first amendment.

The Quarry House of 2002 looks virtually identical to the Quarry House of 1992 and probably the Quarry House of 1942. The hidden entrance with steeply descending steps, the beer posters, the tight bathrooms and the stuffed boars head all remain as sacred artifacts of another time. What has changed is the clientele.

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Back in the nineties, residents and developers were bemoaning the lack of vitality on the streets of Silver Spring (they liked to refer to the troubled inner-city suburb as Beirut)— but the world below street level in the QT never lacked for vitality. It was truly a neighborhood bar, which meant that anytime you went there you could count on meeting the same bunch of regulars—regular Joes, regular cases, and regular drunks.

There was PJ, the little person from Pennsylvania, who was there every evening perched high atop a three legged stool at the bar reading a thick paperback. Eddy was a house painter and frequent host to the after-hours parties. Chris was an electrician, who always knew the conspiratorial dirt about Montgomery County developers and politicians. Phil was a rocket scientist, but also the son of “Jim Dandy” who ran the Tuxedo store next door. Matt was an electrical wizard who owned a hearse and collected pinball machines for a hobby but made his living designing electronic body parts for the Universal Artificial Limb Company over onWayne.

Matt was a member of  “The Table.”  These were the Quarry House elite, who came every Wednesday night to do verbal battle over politics. Besides, Matt and Phil, this QT aristocracy included Bill the lawyer, Charlie the camo wearing libertarian (and federal employee), and John, the Mayor of Silver Spring who somehow inherited his title from Norman Lane, the original mayor of Silver Spring.  “The Table” was very exclusive, and there was even a little “Reserved” placard to alert newcomers who didn’t have sense enough not to sit there. If you were not too annoying and could hold your liquor and a coherent thought you might be allowed to join, which I did, on several occasions. I remember many heated debates punctuated with red faced curses and finger jabs, but “The Table” also had a rule that disagreements remained at the table, and as far as I could tell that rule was never violated.

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The staff was as colorful as the clientele. James the tattooed bartender was a literati who would come to work with volumes of Kerouac and Joyce. Sarah was sugar and spice until you crossed her, in which case it was time to clear out. Mara, who came from a family of singers and musicians, had a golden voice and played the role of connector by introducing patrons who really should know each other.

The lovely Lisa was small in stature but carried herself like a sailor. The rumor was that she had once gotten into an altercation with a MoCo cop and had induced him to sing soprano with a well-placed kick. I don’t know about that but I could always count on her to be at my table with a cold Bud and a ribald joke within five minutes of my arrival. By way of total contrast, the owners of the place, Jim and Esther, were quiet and reserved— perhaps through Darwinian adaptation.

The changes in the Quarry House reflected changes in Silver Spring but they also reflected changes in the country more generally. The Quarry House of 1992 was very colorful but it was not diverse. The clientele was overwhelmingly male and more overwhelmingly white. The hard-drinking, hard-smoking, you-don’t like-it-step-outside, man with a hammer in his hand white-maleness of it all was so ubiquitous to twentieth century bars that, to a white male, at least, it seemed eminently normal.

Of course, I realize now, it wasn’t normal at all, far from it. I am reluctant to glamorize the old Quarry House. Like watching an old movie there were moments of sexism, racism, and all manner of inebriated foolishness that I just kind of overlooked at the time—but still, looking back, there was something appealing about the authenticity and even the strange diversity of lawyers and rocket scientists drinking and carrying on together with painters and carpenters.  And if nothing else those old Quarry House patrons at “The Table” knew that politics was just politics and should never stand between drinking buddies.

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