In the suspended moments before the guests arrive — will they arrive? — Andy Shallal sits at the bar of his newest restaurant, Busboys and Poets in Hyattsville, collecting his thoughts and typing them into his ever-present MacBook Pro. At 56, tall and gregarious, he is Washington’s most successful entrepreneur-artist-activist. So few, in any city, excel in all three fields. There is something marshaled and a little tense about his manner.
“My job is to worry,” he says.
Cornel West is among the first to arrive, all the way from Princeton, in a gust of French cuffs, ungoverned hair, inspired riffs and bear hugs.
“My brother Andy!” he says. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
In swift succession follow Bernice Johnson Reagon, Marian Wright Edelman, Barbara Ehrenreich, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, and some 400 other members of the civil rights, antiwar, environmental, labor, arts and academic crowds.
“I’m not nervous anymore,” Shallal says, though he’s still watchful as folks fill the hipster warehouse-style establishment. They’ve come for a heaping helping of cross-racial progressive reaffirmation, marinated in that ineffable Busboys recipe of communal tables and couches, groovy music, quirky slide projections, politically inspired art and a not-too-politically-correct menu.
“Isn’t that Andy’s genius?” author and emcee David Zirin asks the crowd. “At the end of the day, he brings together Thai dipping sauce and radical politics.”
The purpose of this evening in early autumn is fourfold and high-minded to within an inch of its life, as most Shallal productions are. It’s a fundraiser for the Zinn Education Project, based on the work of the late Howard Zinn, a mentor of Shallal’s, whose “A People’s History of the United States” is a touchstone of progressive pedagogy.
It’s also the dedication of the restaurant’s Zinn Room, with its huge mural by Shallal. The work is a collage, Shallal’s signature style, composed of famous dissenters and their words entwined with the four rivers of Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
And it’s the International Day of Peace, so Shallal has everyone fill out postcards with peace messages to President Obama. Finally, the festivities are edged with outrage over the approaching execution of Troy Davis, set for later this night in Georgia.
Drawing on words Shallal typed at the bar, he says to the group: “Tonight is our practical act of peace. We have gathered all of you, our peace community, to share, to inspire, to entertain and to feed. ... To remind ourselves that we are not alone in this never-ending quest.”
Not alone. It could be wishful rhetoric. Or it could be the essential piece of the collage that is Andy Shallal.
One of the most improbable business models in restaurant history was greeted with a question.
“Is the owner black?”
Shallal first heard it on Sept. 7, 2005, the day the first Busboys opened at 14th and V streets NW, to almost immediate acclaim, profits and lines out the door.
People didn’t know what to make of this unexpectedly bustling homage to Langston Hughes, just off Washington’s old Black Broadway, the U Street corridor, on the ground floor of a gentrifying condo project called the Langston Lofts. Hughes had been a busboy in a Washington hotel in the 1920s when he famously slipped a sheaf of poems to a white guest, poet Vachel Lindsay, who hailed the young man’s talent.
In the restaurant’s Langston Room, Shallal created his “Peace and Struggle” mural collage, topping it with the words of a Hughes poem.
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be. ...
A restaurant themed around a literary figure was already bracingly different. And, as it turned out, the owner of Busboys was not an African American steeped in the culture and history that inspired Hughes, but a naturalized Iraqi American who had encountered the Harlem Renaissance poet in his summer school English class as a child.
Shallal doesn’t fit the business mold, either.
Any given business owner might, say, get arrested in front of the White House to stop an oil pipeline; or serve breakfasts and dinners to protesters occupying Freedom Plaza; or host a series of searingly honest conversations on race; or write checks for thousands of dollars to liberal causes; or pop over to Cairo to teach free expression through murals to post-revolutionary artists.
Few would do all of the above within a typical four-week period, as Shallal did this fall.
“I don't see myself as a businessman at all,” he says. “I’m an activist, and I happen to be in business.”