Bonding over Bagels

Bonding over Bagels

Chevy Chase's John Spencer was looking for a quiet place to have breakfast and read the paper. He found a lot more.

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John Spencer, left, a regular at Einstein Bagels in Chevy Chase, has formed friendships with many of the eatery’s employees and customers. He’s shown with Francis Nenwola. Photo by Michael Ventura

It’s 5:30 in the morning and John Spencer walks into the Einstein Bros. bagel shop on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase. “Do you have John’s usual?” the manager calls out. A clerk tells Spencer the poppy seed bagels are just out of the oven. “Do you still want it toasted?” he asks.

Yes, he does. Spencer describes himself as a “creature of habit.” He’s been coming to this store almost every morning for 20 years. His “usual” is a poppy seed bagel with lettuce, tomato and cheddar cheese, but it has to be toasted. Twice. “I like it crunchy,” he says.

He brings his own Einstein’s mug that entitles him to discount coffee. He sits in the same spot, at the end of the counter on a tall stool under a light—the better to read his Washington Post. By 6 he’s usually at the gym and by 7:30 he’s at his desk at Victory Housing, a nonprofit that builds apartments for the elderly, where he is senior vice president.

Bagels are only the start of this story. Over the years Spencer has grown close to many of the folks who work at Einstein’s. They come from Morocco and El Salvador, Chad and Senegal, and he’s evolved into their in-house counselor and mentor. They call him “Mr. John” and ask advice about insurance and money. They complain about the boss. And they talk about the countries and families they’ve left behind.

About 30 percent of Montgomery County is foreign born, and the people who work at Einstein’s are just the sort of immigrants who keep many local businesses functioning. Those workers are often invisible to the public but not to Spencer. He traces his sensitivity to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned extra money by serving food to fellow students and learned a valuable lesson. “I saw a lot of the students on the other side of the buffet line, how rudely they treated the people,” he recalls.

After college he earned an MBA at the University of Maryland, married a woman from Montgomery County and bought a house next door to her parents in Chevy Chase. His wife’s sister lives on the same block and he needed a brief break from family obligations. It was 1996 and the bagel place had recently opened a few blocks away.

“I had little kids at the time, a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old,” he says. “I was looking for a place just to steal away for an hour and have a little ‘me’ time, so I happened to become a regular.” And that ritual changed his life. As he puts it, “The Einstein experience opened up a new world.”

He’d always wanted to travel, but after college lacked the money. Then he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his mid-30s and his wife urged him to indulge his interest. “She was like, we don’t know where you’re going to be when you’re 50, so I want you to travel now,” he recalls.

But his main motive came from all those early-morning conversations with his bagel buddies. “Even if they live here, they refer to ‘my country,’ so I wanted to go to their country and say I’d been there,” he says. “Going to their country is honoring them.”

One of his first trips was to Morocco in 2007, where he shared a long lunch with the family of a woman who worked at Einstein’s. “I’d never been to an Islamic country,” he says. “I’d never been to Africa.”

Since then he’s twice visited El Salvador, where he helped build houses through Habitat for Humanity in Morazán, which has an ongoing relationship with Montgomery County as a sister city. “I could get away from my desk job and actually do something with my hands,” he says.

Spencer bonded with fellow customers as well as the employees. He began noticing a man who would sit in a corner by himself. One day the man wandered over and asked, “Would you speak English with me?”

His name was Juan, a native of El Salvador, and even though he was undocumented he worked regularly for a construction company. Each morning his bus dropped him off in front of the bagel shop and his boss would collect him there. Those halting talks in very broken English led to a friendship—shared dinners, soccer games, summer pool parties. Bagels were not on the menu.

Perhaps Spencer’s closest connection is with Francis Nenwola, who emigrated from Chad in 2006 and worked at Einstein’s while earning a master’s degree in finance. Nenwola had trouble breaking into the American system—“They don’t teach you how to get a job, that’s a class in itself,” says Spencer—so he took on the young African’s case.

He hired Nenwola as a summer intern in his own company, introduced him to others in the housing field and encouraged him to apply for an open job as an asset manager at a friend’s company. When Nenwola procrastinated and didn’t get his résumé together, Spencer wrote it up and sent it in himself.

Nenwola got the job and he gives Mr. John all the credit: “He didn’t give up on me. When he befriends you, he befriends you all the way through life.”

Spencer is now 56, and as we sit in his usual spot, finishing our breakfast, he reflects on his journey. “I was looking for something and it morphed into something else,” he tells me.

“Like a lot of things in life, you didn’t plan for what it became.”

Then Mr. John gets up to leave. It’s time for the gym. He waves to the staff and says, “See you tomorrow.”

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.

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