The old man and The Schenley: Sitting in the morning sun

It’s just after 9 a.m. on a Tuesday and the sun is shining, which is about all it takes to make Eddie Bieber happy.

Wearing a scruffy pair of Reeboks, khaki shorts and – at least for the moment – a thin white t-shirt, the 93-year-old resident of The Schenley has been sitting on a wooden bench outside the residence hall since dawn, just glad to be outdoors.

“I’m a sun guy – been that way my whole life,” he said, recalling a summer job as a lifeguard in Virginia. “I’m a beach guy, too. Sun, sea, sand and saltwater. That’s where you’ll find Eddie.”

It’s a routine he’s repeated nearly every day for as long as he can remember, which explains his deep tan. Though it’s been a while since he’s been to the beach, Bieber has found his paradise amid the crowds of cars and people on H Street across from Kogan Plaza, in the heart of GW’s campus.

There, as any regular Foggy Bottom pedestrian knows, the Washington native relaxes in his usual spot for hours – tanning, reading the newspaper, feeding pigeons and chatting endlessly to anyone who stops to listen.

“I make friends pretty easy with most people,” Bieber said. “I like talking to them. You sit here and watch hundreds of faces walk by, the same people every day. It’s very pleasant around here.”

Amid the crowds of students shuffling between classes, Bieber – affectionately referred to by many as Old Man Schenley – hardly looks like he belongs. His scraggly white hair and walking cane stand out in a building that houses mostly college sophomores.

Yet if anything, it’s the students who are treading on Bieber’s territory. While most residents of The Schenley stay just nine months, Bieber has lived in the same apartment for 63 years, paying $203 a month. Compare that price to the about $9,000 students pay to live in The Schenley for one school year. The University’s grandfather

clause has allowed him to stay in the building and pay a rent-conrolled price ever since GW acquired it.

“I never wanted to leave,” Bieber said. “Regardless of the noise, you can’t beat this place. For what I pay a month, and I’ve got benches and a sunroof. You can’t beat that.”

Believed to be Foggy Bottom’s oldest resident, Bieber is a celebrity of sorts within the community. Those who’ve never spoken to him probably know his face. Those who have probably know his life story – or at least some version of it.

Much of what Bieber tells you can’t be verified, while some of it is simply untrue. He is full of stories of dubious accuracy. Though he needs help just to get out of his building, he claims to still ride his bike 18 miles to Mount Vernon every Sunday.

“He’ll tell you about how he goes to Cape May for vacations, but he hasn’t done those things in years,” said Fiona Druy, a social worker with Family and Child Services, who works with Bieber. “It all sounds very convincing, but it’s not all true.”

It’s perhaps that lack of clarity that accounts for rampant speculation about his background. One rumor holds he invented the atomic bomb, while some think he’s a former CIA agent.

True story

Getting at the truth is a slippery process. To piece together Bieber’s tale, one has to rely on a blend of his own narrative and an incomplete secondhand record from those who know him best – all taken with a heavy grain of salt.

Born in the District in 1911, Bieber was raised in Southeast Washington by his mother along with one younger brother. His father, a firefighter, died on the job when he was 9 years old.

When he was a teenager, a neighbor gave Bieber his old bicycle and all the equipment, jumpstarting what would be a lifelong passion. He would spend hours every day after school riding around the old Yiddish neighborhood where he lived.

After dropping out of high school a few years later, Bieber turned his childhood hobby into a part-time career. Working a day job at a printing press, he began entering races around Washington, gradually making a name for himself in the cycling community.

In his apartment, Bieber keeps a scrapbook full of photos and newspaper clips documenting his long career as a cyclist. He competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a member of the American cycling team, and he still holds the record for biking from the U.S. Capitol to downtown Baltimore.

After joining the Navy for six years, Bieber became a welder for the National Security Agency, moving into The Schenley in 1942. Over the years he’s watched the community grow tremendously as the quaint residential neighborhood gave way to the expanding University presence.

Talking to Bieber is like taking a history course on the Foggy Bottom area. He remembers the smoke stacks of the industrial factories that gave the neighborhood its name and talks nostalgically about when Quigley’s, now vacant, was still a neighborhood drug store.

“I used to go there with my wife to get black and whites – a scoop of vanilla ice cream with the chocolate on top,” Bieber said. “Cost 10 cents. You can’t buy a shoelace for that now.”

Life passes by

As the landscape has changed, Bieber said, so too have the students.

“It used to be noisy, but know you don’t even know there are students in here,” he said. “They’re here to study and get an education, not to play. You can’t waste your parents’ money that way.”

In fact, Bieber’s neighbors have become one of the best parts of his days. Students frequently join him on the bench in between classes to hear his anecdotes and digressions.

If he doesn’t remember their names, it’s probably because names don’t really matter to him. With a new class coming in every year, someone he met this morning is just as much of a friend as someone he’s known for years.

“They come and go, every four years a new group of them,” Bieber said. “After all those years you get used to it. You miss them when they go, but then you just pick up a new banner again.”

Though Bieber has no known family in the region, a small group within the community has more or less adopted him, supporting him through his older years. A social worker delivers him groceries and medication once a week, while a few friends help him with financial matters.

Today, friends and service providers handle most of Bieber’s day-to-day responsibilities. However, those close to him say he’s stayed happy by keeping his daily grind as unchanged as possible.

“As you get older it’s more difficult to handle change, but he’s been able to keep to his routine,” said Annette Eliasberg, a Foggy Bottom resident who visits Bieber twice a week and helps him pay his bills. “I’m sure everything is pretty much the same to him as it was years ago.”

Though it’s hard to get a complaint out of Bieber, friends say his health is in decline. He spent several weeks in rehabilitation last year after a bad fall and now lives with a nurse five days a week. Caregivers aren’t sure how much longer he’ll be able to stay where he is.

Yet if his body is not what it used to be, Bieber doesn’t seem to let it bother him. With his 94th birthday coming in November, the lifelong Washingtonian is simply enjoying his time in the sun.

“I’m a fixture here, like a statue,” he says, as he gets ready to call it a day. “Stop by any time. I’ll be here.”

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