Our Old Alexandria: Barney’s Delicatessen

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A POUND OF PIMENTO BALONEY AT BARNEY’S DELICATESSEN

by John C. Schoeni

An original cartoon by John Schoeni, remembering Barney's Delicatessen in Alexandria, Va.
An original cartoon by John Schoeni, remembering Barney’s Delicatessen in Alexandria, Va.

Grown ups getting off the bus in front of Barney’s, home from work in D.C., spot me with my new haircut. James A. “Dick” Schoeni, who lives at 1402 Mount Vernon Avenue, has just arrived home from Gunther® Brewery and is the first to make a verbal comment. We call him Uncle Dick, but he’s my father’s first cousin. Dick injured his leg around 1922 when he was playing basketball and bumped it on the radiator. He put on a black dyed sock and the wound got infected. Over a long time of pain and prayer, he lost his leg but never let it get him down.

 

My mother and I are about to go into Barney’s when Uncle Dick’s voice stops us. “My, my, my. Boy got his ears lowered. I hardly recognized him. It’s a wonder his head isn’t falling to one side with all that weight loss.” I’d just as soon not stand there and listen to jokes at my expense as my mother and Uncle Dick catch up on all the family news since last Christmas. But what can a kid do?

Uncle Dick is on his way to Barney’s to get a “buster” or six, as he calls them. Beers. No doubt Gunther® Ale. In later years, he ventured out to other brands, like Hamm’s® (from the land of sky blue waters). He holds the door for us. It’s a tan screen contraption that slams if you don’t watch it, then everyone in the store stops and looks around as much as to say, “What idiot let them in?” It’s a warm, spring evening and Barney’s airing the place out and getting cool too.

The plain, hardwood floors don’t seem like a big deal. Who would have thought a store with wooden floors (much less a pot-bellied stove with a checkerboard in front of it, which Barney’s did not have) would conjure up memories now?

Barney’s at his usual place; one leg propped on a shelf behind the register. He’s chewing on a cigar and when he takes it out to say, “How you doin’?” his missing tooth shows. But he flashes that winning O’Dwyer smile anyway and everyone smiles back. No one knows that smoke is bad for you and even I enjoy the one-of-a-kind smell when Barney first lights up his moist stogie yielding all the sweetness it has to offer. He’s concentrating on the newspaper, either reading the events of the day or making his picks at the track. I’m too little to pay attention or understand, but I think I heard the words “show and place” in his conversation with my mother. Mom asks for a pound of pimento baloney and Barney happily leaves his post to accommodate the order. He dashes to the white metal counter next to the register and slips out a big loaf of meat. Then he turns on the motor of the meat cutter and it whirs. No holding up a slice and asking if it’s okay, or asking if you want it thin or thick or if you want it for sandwiches. No gourmet shoppers here. The unspoken guarantee at Barney’s is: “Meat’s pink, fresh, and plenty of it.” The pimentos are red speckled and look unique stuck in the slices of meat. I wonder to myself if someone at the meat factory sits at a table carefully placing little pimentos into the loaf. The olive loaf is also dabbed with reds and greens.

“What else can I get for you, Mrs. Schoeni?” “A pound of roast beef. Is it fresh?” “Yes, ma’am, came in today.” My mother always asks in front of everyone if the meat is fresh. Why, I think, would it be stale, and even if it was, would Barney say, “No, ma’am. It’s been in here for over two weeks now, and it has a few moldy places next to them pimentos. But I am sure glad you asked for some of it because I was afraid I’d have to throw it out!”

In the front of the store by the big picture window to the right of the door – a rack of magazines. Nothing like today’s massive shelves. No impure publications. No girlie magazines here. Barney’s a good Catholic, and so’s his wife, Pat Rang O’Dwyer, and his son Thomas and daughter Monty. They’re parishioners at St. Rita’s Church on Russell Road. Anyone would blush to think of such a thing. There’s the Washington Times Herald®, the Daily News®, and the Alexandria Gazette® with “all the news that’s fit to print,” at least for Alexandria.

I suggest a six-pack of sodas for tomorrow, Saturday, and Mom lets me make my picks. I get out a cardboard holder and unfold it then reach into the red metal cooler that says Coke® on the outside but has lots of other drinks inside – Royal Crown Cola (RC)®, Nehi® Orange, Hires® Root Beer, Coke®, Grape Drink. And on the other side, beer for the grownups – Gunther®, Pabst Blue Ribbon®, Schlitz®, Miller®, Budweiser® and Blatz®. I’m always opening the cooler and studying the names. My father likes Pabst®. His nickname in the 50s was Pabst Blue Ribbon®. While I’m making my soft drink selections, the men are lined up for cigarettes. Old Gold®, Lucky Strike® (L.S.M.F.T., Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco), Kent® with the Micronite filter®, Pall Mall®, Camels® without filters, Raleigh® and Phillip Morris® (the same company that advertises on Your Show of Shows. Remember the little bellboy with the loud voice: “Call for Phil-lip Mooor-isss!”)

Must have a loaf of Wonder® Bread. “Builds strong bodies eight ways!” (It was later changed to 12 when four other ways were found). A pound of Land o’ Lakes® butter. One can of Spry®. One quart of Sealtest® milk to tide us over until Thompson’s® Honor Dairy makes their delivery Monday.

There’s no grocery carts or hand held baskets at Barney’s. Put your things at the edge of the counter and Barney will keep them separate. Most people only get a few things anyway this time of day.

The bill comes to $2.25. No mention of sales tax. No credit cards or waiting for approval. No sliding debit cards in a machine. No checks. No personal accounts that we know of – just cash and carry. Cash on the barrelhead. Ringing up’s quick and the groceries are in a brown paper bag (Barney calls it a sack) and you’re out of there for the walk home.

It’s a nice evening for a walk and my mother still takes my hand crossing the street. When you’re five you think you’re a big man, but you aren’t. We decide to turn right this time on Monroe at the Safeway® parking lot. We pass the D’Elia house across the street. I go to St. Rita’s with their daughter Maria. Then there’s the little church with the hand and finger pointing to the sky – the Hand to Heaven Church. A left on Wayne Street and past Tooker’s Store. We walk quickly. We don’t want Tooker to think we’re traitors buying at Barney’s when Tooker’s was only a few doors down from our house. We pass the Rang’s house and the elderly Mrs. Rang is in her bed by the picture window waves to us. The Butler house. Mr. Butler is a switchman at Potomac Yards but likes to work outside of an evening in his railroad overalls tilling his flower garden. Mr. Ed, his son-in-law is outside with his dog Tojo. Tojo greets me with a nudge and tries to lick me but I run off. The Varners are getting in their car and Mrs. Edna Prisaznick is in her front yard weeding the garden.

My mother and I return to our house at 211 East Nelson Avenue and get ready for dinner. I know Barney’s pimento baloney or any other lunch meat will not be on the menu at dinner time. So I can only long for lunch tomorrow when I will have a pimento baloney sandwich with all the trimmings. I always wish now when I walk down Memory Lane that the delicatessen was still there after all these years.

John Schoeni
John Schoeni

John C. Schoeni is a retired writer, artist, cartoonist, Graphics Manager and sign man. John is a native Alexandrian who heads up a Facebook group: “Our Past. GW, Del Ray & Alex.” He and his wife Linda live in North Carolina with their two children.