I'm sitting in a cozy little coffeehouse in Clarendon, Va., listening for whispers of evil. It's an important journalistic mission; I am trying to rescue an endangered literary cliche, the one about how places carry "echoes of their past." Every journalist depends on this cliche when we write our crappy stories about Civil War battlefields, or the razing of some venerable stadium, or some neighborhood that was once great and is now grim.
I'm here at the Java Shack because I've been told there are no bad echoes. And yet, by the solemn rules of my craft, there must be. The building that the Java Shack occupies used to belong to the American Nazi Party. Back in the 1960s, a fulminating racist named George Lincoln Rockwell held court here, plotting world conquest.
How bad was Rockwell? Well, he kept a candlelit shrine to Adolf Hitler. He wore a swastika armband, believed that black men just want to "loaf, loot and rape," and he publicly advocated the imprisonment of homosexuals and the gassing of Jews. He did have a softer, artistic side: He also founded a music company called Hatenanny Records, featuring the song stylings of Odis Cochran and the Three Bigots.
So I'm hoping for the worst, aura-wise, but so far, things are not going well. The Java Shack seems like a friendly place, with a wooden rocking horse for children, a featured quiche of the day, yogurt muffins and "free trade" coffee that costs a little more because the South Americans who harvest the beans get a living wage. The light bulbs are energy-savers, and the foam cups are made from corn, not petroleum. The guy behind the counter is dark-skinned, as is the woman in the corner, talking to her white friend. The owner, Dale Roberts, is gay.
Hey, Dale, do you let Jews in here?
You know, money-grubbing Christ-killers?
"Oh. Right. Sure!"
Dale's laughing. He still gets letters sometimes, addressed to the Nazis. There's a pile of them next to the cash register.
These could be the evil vibes I am looking for, except they're too pathetic to qualify. They're all postmarked from prisons and are mostly written in curlicued, second-grade cursive, like this one that begins, "I've been a racist since March of '95 . . ."
Here's one that ends, "Heil Hitler," then, politely, "Sincerely, Mark Evans."
I tell Dale I'm looking for echoes of the past. They're gone, he says. He got rid of them with magic . . .
"In the first few years after we opened, there were eerie sounds. Things were spontaneously falling off the shelves. I hung a pink neon triangle in the back of the shop, and one day it fell off the wall for no reason and shattered into 40 pieces. So this reiki master came in, and she purified the place using burning sage. Then all the stuff stopped."
This isn't helping my cause. "Echoes of the past" can't be so weak a cliche that it can be negated by some mystic lady with a burning herb. Newspapers don't even recognize the supernatural. It's not part of Our Mission.
I am about to give up hope when I decide to visit the Java Shack again. Bingo! In the corner sits a bearded man in a long coat, muttering to himself, hunched over a laptop that the store makes available for its clientele at a buck an hour. He is literally pounding the keys, stopping every once in a while to glance furtively around. He looks like a 1920s anarchist. The guy comes in from time to time, Dale says, and types so intensely that he once actually broke the keyboard. No one knows what kind of stuff he is sending onto the Internet.
I tap him on the shoulder, and he whips around like he has been assaulted.
Can we talk a sec?
"No!" he snarls. "I'm busy, doing important work."
What I do next is not taught in journalism school. It is rude and sneaky. But I have to know what demonic plans he is hatching, helpless in the thrall of whatever foul auras linger. I stealthily creep up behind him and peep over his shoulder. This is what he is typing into an Internet discussion group:
"In my opinion, Edwards, Paul, Obama, Huckabee and Kucinich are the best choices for real change."
Gene Weingarten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chat with him online at noon Tuesdays at www.washingtonpost.com.