The old joke goes that if a manager at Social Security headquarters can't find an employee, someone at Monaghan's Pub can. For federal workers in Woodlawn, the pub is their place - the "everybody knows your name" kind.
"Mom," a Social Security retiree known for her foul language and parent-like scolding, drinks a draft beer from her "reserved" bar stool. Co-owner Jack Milani of Ellicott City sorts out issues over "letterhead" for a worker-sponsored toy drive with another retiree. One of the local union bosses chats with "the boys," three federal workers sitting at the other end of the wooden bar.
Like many Maryland businesses, this smoke-filled, gritty institution couldn't survive without federal workers. When measured per-person, Virginia is the only state with an economy more reliant on federal contracts, according to U.S. Census data released this week.
But the ranking doesn't tally the cheese steaks, mugs of beer and burgers that more than three dozen current or retired federal employees ordered from the pub's "barmaids" during Wednesday's lunch hour. It also doesn't count the money reaped from retirement parties that the pub hosts or caters, or the donations raised at worker-organized charity events there.
The pub feels like a lodge for government workers. From floor to ceiling, wood paneling covers the walls. Green is the trim color. It's very unlike Washington: Phone orders are picked up at the pub's street-front liquor store, and a BlackBerry user would be mocked.
Tacked to the wall are a black T-shirt mocking the Yankees and two photographs printed on office paper - one of a regular customer asleep at the bar, chin to chest, and another of a Social Security employee in a Santa hat. The entrance door is covered with fliers announcing retirement parties for federal workers: $40 per ticket, "limited to the first 120 people" who RSVP. It will sell out, warn the hosts.
Milani knows from experience that he would be out of business were it not for Social Security or Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services employees, whose headquarters are within three miles of the pub. In the mid-1990s, when Congress and President Clinton clashed over the budget, the federal government closed for 21 days. On the day workers were scheduled to return, a snowstorm hit, keeping them home even longer.
"Every single one of those 21 days, I called then-Congressman [Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.] and Congressman [Elijah E. Cummings]," says Milani, 44, who has owned Monaghan's with John Griffith since 1989. "Ehrlich would blame the Democrats. Cummings would blame the Republicans. And I told them each day that `I didn't care whose fault it was. Just get them back to work because it's killing my business.'"
Milani and Griffith are the third owners of Monaghan's Pub. First was Sally Monaghan, who bought it for her son, Donald, known as "the Old Man," before Prohibition, Milani says. Dawn and Darlene, Donald's daughters, still live in the area. In 1983, a group of owners purchased it, and then Milani and Griffith.
Milani, the more outspoken of the duo, says that it was purely a business decision - Monaghan's Pub was already the place for Woodlawn's roughly 13,000 federal workers. But nostalgia had to play some role, if only a small one. Griffith grew up a street away from the pub.
"My father used to drink beer here for a nickel," he says. "Did you tell her we used to sneak in here and drink when we were kids?"
Embarrassed, Milani interrupts, "I told her we were customers first. That was sufficient."
Milani's regulars praise him for his commitment to federal sports leagues and their charities. But no one can really explain why the workers go to Monaghan's. It's just what's done, they say.
As Milani talks, he swivels his chair around to point out a group of six people waiting for a table. They aren't wearing lanyards or photo badges, which are the usual signs of government workers.
"They're my other big customer," Milani says. "That's the FBI."
President Bush approved a 3.1 percent raise for federal workers last week. With locality pay, Baltimore-area employees will get a 3.44 percent increase starting the first pay period of 2006.
The writer welcomes your comments and story ideas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-715-2885. Recent issues can be read at baltimore sun.com/federal.