The Bench Warmers

The Bench Warmers

A Chevy Chase couple finds that sometimes the best seat in the house is right outside.

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“You just missed the egg sandwiches,” Danny Zwerdling calls out as I approach.

Not to worry. There’s plenty to chew on here. Marc Blackman passes around a fresh baguette. Danny’s mother, Alice, nibbles on coffee cake after arriving with a walker and a health aide. Drew Baden helps Danny’s wife, Barbara Zwerdling-Rothschild, tweak her new iPhone. Kathy Turner pays bills on her laptop and worries about a talk she has to give at Stanford. Baci, an overgrown bath mat of a dog covered in creamy curls, sniffs and snuggles and scrounges for crumbs.

It’s another Saturday morning at The Bench.

Several benches, really, placed in front of Quartermaine Coffee Roasters and Bethesda Bagels on Bethesda Avenue. Almost every weekend morning that they’re in town, Danny, a 61-year-old investigative reporter for National Public Radio, and Barbara, a 68-year-old psychotherapist, spend several hours there drinking coffee, eating breakfast, talking to friends, reading the newspaper and answering endless questions about Baci, a 60-pound, 6-year-old goldendoodle, a cross between a golden retriever and a standard poodle.

A dozen or so regulars usually join them, including Baden, the head of the physics department at the University of Maryland; Turner, an official at the Department of Energy; and Blackman, a professor at George Washington medical school. A shifting cast of friends drops by for a cup and a chat, but not Baden’s wife, Donna. “Donna doesn’t get it,” Barbara says with a laugh, “she just thinks we’re all nuts.”

Donna might have a point. These are busy people with demanding jobs who spend a huge amount of time just hanging out. When I ask why, Danny—a sprightly fellow with more hair on his face than on his head—answers thoughtfully: “I really ask myself that a lot. Are we total losers? But I get such pleasure every week out of spending hours and hours on this bench, looking across at a car dealership.

“What I concluded is something that sounds kind of corny. It’s not about the beauty of where you’re sitting, it’s the people. As much as I wish we were in Italy right now instead of Bethesda, in some beautiful ancient piazza, as long as there’s a bench and trees and good coffee and really interesting people, it’s really satisfying.”

Baden chimes in: “Barbara put her finger on it once. She said this is one of the rare places we can go and have a sense of community.”

Community is something most of us seek and few of us savor, especially in the suburbs. Neighbors park in their garages, sit in their backyards, stare at their TVs and computers in their air-conditioned media rooms. They seldom meet, let alone talk.

It’s different in Europe (I spent four years in Greece), where most people live in overcrowded, under-ventilated apartments. If they want to catch a breeze or see a flower, they go to a public space—a park, a piazza, a promenade—where they spend time visiting with friends and relatives. Most Americans are more like Donna Baden, who gets antsy after five minutes on The Bench. “I must have some Parisian ancestry,” muses her husband, Drew. “What I like to do best in the world is sit and drink coffee and watch the world go by.”

Years ago a student of mine at George Washington University wrote a piece about a campus bench where smokers gathered. Her story made me realize that every student needs a bench of some sort, a place to belong, a group to join. It can be almost anything—a team, a sorority, a newspaper (my “bench” in college)—just as long as you’re not alone.

Logos and labels serve the same purpose. On this particular morning, Danny’s T-shirt promotes the Educational Theatre Company (run by his stepdaughter) and his cap reads Quisisana (a camp he loves in Maine). I usually sport a New York Yankees cap, my team for more than 60 years. I suggest that The Bench regulars need their own T-shirts, and I even have a name for them: Baci’s Bunch (Baci is an Italian candy).

This all started in 1995, when Quartermaine’s placed two teak benches on the sidewalk. Five years later Federal Realty, which owns the whole block, put out more benches. In 2003 a tree fell on the Zwerdlings’ house on Thornapple Street in Chevy Chase, and while it was being rebuilt they moved into an apartment on Wisconsin Avenue near the Bethesda Theatre.

“We felt very insecure and fragile,” Danny says. (“Not so fragile. I was a psychotherapist!” Barbara protests.) In any case, they found themselves gravitating to The Bench. “We just needed an anchor,” Danny says. “We kept running into people we knew,” Barbara adds.

Gradually they started pulling chairs out of Quartermaine’s (with the owners’ blessing) and forming a circle. Since The Bench faces south, the sun hits the window behind it and keeps it warm, even in winter. So the Zwerdlings come in all seasons. They even walked over in the middle of last year’s blizzard, and though only two other people made it through the snow, that was just enough to keep the candle of community flickering.

Discontent occasionally slips into a seat here. The sidewalk is increasingly jammed—with strollers, bikes, customers at the bagel store. The regulars fantasize about closing Bethesda Avenue to cars. Riders from the Capital Crescent Trail nearby are a particular peeve (“lots of people in spandex trying to look slender,” Danny sneers), and Barbara is constantly telling them to stop chaining their bikes to the trees and smashing the flowers planted around the roots.

Still, The Bench endures. The Zwerdlings recently learned that an old friend was sick, and they took the news hard. “I could get into bed and pull the sheets over my head,” Danny says, “or go to the Quartermaine bench, where I feel stable and secure and can just hold on.”

We’re all holding on. And a bench in the sun feels better than a bed in the dark.

Steve Roberts’ latest book, From Every End of This Earth, was published in paperback this fall. Send column suggestions to svroberts@aol.com.

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