City Paper is not for tourists
Alan Bisbort can recall a time when local sports fans waxed nostalgic not for the Redskins’ three Super Bowl trophies, but for the exploits of pitcher Walter “Big Train” Johnson, who helped the Washington Senators win the 1924 World Series over the New York Giants.
Fitting, then, that the victory—on Oct. 10, 1924, at Larch Street (now 5th Street) and W Street NW—is the sole sports entry to be among the four dozen 3-and-a-quarter-inch-by-4-inch cards that make up the What Happened Here? Washington D.C., Knowledge Cards set, which Bisbort, 51, researched and wrote.
Bisbort’s quiz-cum-tour of famous, infamous, and forgotten District happenings actually grew out of his 1994 departure from D.C. (his ambivalence about which he chronicled in a Washington City Paper article, “Adieu to the District,” 1/6/95). After he left his job in the publishing office of the Library of Congress, California-based Pomegranate Communications—a company Bisbort knew through his work at the Library—tapped him to work on an array of projects.
“They kept me busy,” he recalls. “I worked on all kinds of literary calendars. I did one on Bob Marley” and another based on A&E’s Biography. He also produced books on artists Charles Bragg and Barry Kite for the imprint.
It wasn’t until 1996 that the first Bisbort-penned set of Knowledge Cards appeared. He’s since compiled sets on topics ranging from famous last words (which he later adapted into a book) to notable events in African-American history. The D.C. set—his 12th, which he completed between spring and mid-summer 2004—hit shelves late last year.
The deck opens in 1793, with a Masonic-apron-clad George Washington laying the Capitol building’s cornerstone, and it ends in November 1986, with Fawn Hall stuffing incriminating Iran-Contra documents down her boots at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The intervening 193 years aren’t short on history-book requisites—the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (511 10th Street NW; April 14, 1865), Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (Lincoln Memorial; August 28, 1963), the Watergate break-in (across from 2600 Virginia Ave. NW; June 17, 1972)—but Bisbort’s signature comes through in some of the more offbeat selections.
For instance, Bisbort says he was “bound and determined” to include an item on Langston Hughes, a writer he admires. Consulting biographies of Hughes and of the poet Vachel Lindsay, Bisbort confirmed that on Nov. 29, 1925, at the Wardman Park Hotel (2660 Woodley Road NW), Hughes (then a largely unknown busboy) showed his poetry to Lindsay (then a largely known poet), who was so impressed he presented Hughes’ work at his own reading that night.
And rather than highlight the McCarthy era with a charged Capitol Hill hearing, the Dec. 12, 1950, card takes players to the cloakroom of the Sulgrave Club (1801 Massachusetts Ave. NW), where the Wisconsin senator assaulted Quaker pacifist and investigative reporter Drew Pearson.
“I was predisposed to find something nasty about McCarthy, and I did,” says Bisbort. “It really wasn’t that hard.”
Bisbort, who now lives in Cheshire, Conn., and writes a column for a group of alternative newspapers in New England, is currently working on a book about Caryl Chessman, a former cause célèbre for death-penalty foes, and a topic that falls “in line with the sort of minutiae of history that I enjoy researching.”
He’s also got two more sets of cards in the works—a deck on Boston locales and an overview of books of great historical impact. His earlier sets are all still in print, with one on American history selling particularly well.
“Every time I see the printout of the royalty [statements],” he jokes, “I’m sure there’s a typo in there.”—Joe Dempsey