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Life lessons in D.C.'s 'Old Post Office'

Donald Trump dropped in Forbes' annual ranking of the 400 wealthiest Americans.

Growing up in Baltimore, Washington D.C. was a fairyland, the object of field trips and family visits to the monuments, museums and hallowed halls of government. I recall seeing the Apollo 11 space capsule for the first time at the National Air and Space Museum. As one who'd counted down its rocket launch, flames blazing on TV, I was enthralled. D.C. was a place of education and even thrills — not a place where people lived and worked, ate and sent their kids to school.

This view was challenged in the early 80s when, at age 20 or so, I was hired to do occasional work at D.C.'s Old Post Office for Mel, a friend who owned a typewriter repair business.

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The Old Post Office was itself a hallowed hall. Still, awed as Ifelt gazing upon its grand atrium, the thrill subsided when Mel and I ascended to the upper floors. Here were rows upon rows of desks with typewriters, the letters on the prominent keys worn clean.

Armed with Windex,I proceeded to clean 20-some typewriters. Beside one machine sat a half-finished mug of coffee, cream nearly curdled on the surface.

"Dump that out," barked Mel. "Spills on the machines, the whole works gum up."

I knew this to be true. My mom worked in the office of Belsinger Sign company in Baltimore.She drank coffee at her desk and had once spilled it on her typewriter. It dawned on me then that D.C. women were like Baltimore women. They worked at desks with typewriters, like Mom. And if their office was in the Old Post Office, maybe they lived on the outskirts of D.C. — like Mom lived on the outskirts of Baltimore.

In 1999 I moved to Denver, where I remained for the next 16 years. Though I flew home at least once yearly during that time, only twice did I go to D.C. Once was when my husband, John, and I were a new item. The second time was whenMom and my 8-year old niece, Claudia, met us at the Hotel Harrington, where I'd booked two rooms. Mom was arthritic by then; we needed a place to rest after showing Claudia everything that had thrilled me as a child.

The Old Post Office, by then called the Old Post Office Pavilion, beckoned with food court fare, and we got egg rolls and hot and sour soup.

After lunch,Claudia wouldn't be deterred from exploring the galleries. I coaxed John into accompanying my niece so Mom and I could chat. The topic steered toward work.

"I worked here once," I offered. "In '81, I think, for a typewriter repair business."

"Oh? And how is it you hooked up with a D.C. typewriter repair business?"

"A friend, Mel, from the Block," I said,bracing myself for the tongue cluck, the audible dismissal from Mom before she changed the subject. I'd cleaned typewriters for Mel on several occasions but never mentioned it. Mom had discovered by accident that I stripped on the Block. She didn't like hearing about the place.

Some seconds passed.

"Well, aren't you something," she thensaid. "Working in DC at what — 19? And now Denver. Pretty impressive, the way you get around."

Impressive? Was Mom too tired to say how she really felt? Or had her feelings changed in light of all the "getting around" I'd done?

Mom passed in 2013, and two years later, I flew into D.C. on a trip to Baltimore. With an appetite and a few hours to kill, I made my way to the Old Post Office Pavilion. What I found was an 8-foot plywood wall plastered with a nameall-too-familiar in this election year.

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"It's going to be so great, so beautiful," said Donald Trump when talking about the Old Post Office, which last month re-opened as his newest luxury hotel.

Beautiful? Sure. But great? Will grandmothers with arthritis be able to rest in the grand hall there while visiting with family? Will they have moments of lifelong reconciliation with their wayward daughters, while their granddaughters explore a historic public building?

If they are of the class that works for office wages — the class that truly made that building great — I suspect not.

Margo Christie (www.margochristienovelist.com) is an author, artist and educator from Baltimore who now lives and works in Florida. Her novel, "These Days," chronicles her time on the city's famous "Block."

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