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The Bar Near the Capitol Where They Could Settle the Debt Crisis

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WASHINGTON -- If you know me you know that I love The Tune Inn, a taxidermy-filled, three-generation-in-one-family hole-in-the-wall bar and grill on Pennsylvania Avenue three blocks from the Capitol.

The reason why is simple enough. The Tune Inn is like the favorite neighborhood you knew back home, wherever back home is or was -- and back when there was such a thing as a neighborhood bar.

The heads of deer and even a bear stare down on the patrons, who are waited on by crusty, no-nonsense but heart-of-gold waitresses who tend to hail from somewhere way out beyond the Beltway.

The key is this: when people come to the Tune Inn, they try to be nice folks, or they are shunned. They can talk politics -- hell, this is Washington! -- but they can't do it in a mean, exclusivist way. You can be childish but you can't be a jerk. You'll be shunned, or thrown out on your ass.

If the congressional super committee held its secret deliberations in a booth at the Tune Inn, under the watchful eyes of the dead deer and the salty waitresses of a certain age, we would have a deal well before the third pitcher of Natty Boh was served.

Like waves of Washington immigrants before me and since, the Tune Inn was my home away from home until I got my bearings. It was even the place a friend gave me the name of the woman I later married -- and, 30 years later, am still married to.

The Tune Inn is a can-do place for can-do people, and it's a good thing.

A kitchen fire nearly destroyed the place last June, but with the help of insurance money, community support and the determination of the owners, employees and patrons, the old joint reopened today.

I claim to be the first civilian (non-owner, employee, contractor or city inspector) to enter the place at what was supposed to be its regular opening time, 8 a.m. The door was open so I just walked in.

It looked pretty much the same, only cleaner and a little better upholstered. There were new flat-screen TVs above the bar, and all of the taxidermy had been steam cleaned to remove the soot that the fire and the firemen had left behind in the crisis last summer.

But the people were the same. My favorite was the crusty-motherly Markie Lydon, who had been a server there on and off since 1976 -- predating even me. She had once worked for a senator, but then got into waitressing. She had helped usher generations of Hill staffers, lobbyists, reporters and young House members (the bar is on the House side) into more or less responsible full adult hood. "They call me Mother Markie," she said proudly.

She said the secret to the place is that it reminded her of a bar back in her home state of South Dakota.

Another patron, Tommy Wells, said that the bar reminded him of a bar back in his home state of Alabama. "That's the point, it reminds everybody of home."

(In my case that would be the Squirrel Hill Café in my hometown of Pittsburgh.)

Wells arrived from Birmingham years ago with a master's degree and no job. He took up residence in a booth at the Tune with the Washington Post want ads in hand. The food was good and very cheap; the beer plentiful and cheap. Soon enough, fellow patrons were offering him help, and the waitresses were offering him encouragement. "Did you find a job yet Tommy?" they would ask. Not nagging, just asking.

He would up eventually working on the Mondale campaign, working several states, and was director in Arkansas for the general. A social worker by trade, he then worked in child services.

Now he is the 6th Ward City Councilman for the neighborhood of Capitol Hill, where the Tune Inn is located.

His big political headache is parking. Everyone is always yelling at him about the new money-sucking meters. If, as Tip O'Neill said, "all politics is local," and all local politics is parking, it means that all politics is parking.

One day someone in the bar got so mad at Tommy about parking, that they decided to take the discussion outside -- to fight but to talk. The voter was haranguing Tommy and he looked rather uncomfortable.

So the bartender drew a beer from the tap, gave it to the waitress, who took it out to Tommy on the sidewalk as a show of support.

At the Tune Inn you can talk politics, but it's not allowed to trump companionship.

It is a lesson this city has forgotten. And it is one that the bitter, manipulative and nasty people in the building down the street need to remember.