A still shows cops and firemen huddled alongside browbeaten activists at Ben’s Chili Bowl as the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rolls through the streets of D.C. in the form of a five-day riot. A photograph taken four decades later shows triathlete Mayor Adrian Fenty hosting President-elect Barack Obama in a booth toned bright as a stop light. Later, another will emerge featuring French President Nicolas Sarkozy with wife Carla Bruni. And here you are, twenty-four frames per second, in the diner that once served as safe haven from violence but now serves convivial crowds who are more likely drunk than ducking from fire. In person you know: Ben’s is a monument lost in photography, where Kodak stifles classics aired over jukebox and half-smokes are stripped of a funk all their own. Out of the B-roll, away from the booths and counter, a man in an apron wipes tables shared by parties of six or more where the occasional loner pulls strangers from the line for the quickest table service known to man. You sit for a bit and catch them on film. They compare security clearance, complain about D.C.’s bagels, bemoan the shootings that spread through the district like pollen in Spring. Every city needs Jackson 5 and chili-cheese fries late at night but a woman will say she plans on moving back to wherever she came from, ignoring little Michael who wants one more chance.
Not much later, you make your own lonely way a few blocks over, past walls tagged “Borf” to the base of a hill where Florida Avenue Grill defines consistency, at least if you’re able to ignore the veggie-sausage addition defacing the wall. This is your spot after shooting wraps up. Here there is also humble food under proud proclamation. This place has also survived the riots—not by way of police blessing, but because the owner’s son stood watch with prayer and a shotgun before extinguishing flames brought by the hellfire of protest. Few remember the original owner, Lacy Wilson Senior, or gun-toting Junior because, unlike Ben Ali, they muted their names to promote their location. But Florida Avenue has its own myths too. They call it “the oldest soul food restaurant in the world,” and a place “built two chickens at a time.” And just as those chickens’ eggs hit the griddle, the spatula chimes in with its own bits of chatter. Every now and then a pure tone rides through. Then comes a scrape that slides down your spine. Your posture sinks as the rhythm picks up. Drumming, they say, is the first form of music. And the oldest soul food in the world does well for the world’s oldest souls.