Living in the basement, but looking at the light

Rep. Grace Napolitano lives in a basement apartment, but hers may be among the brightest, cheeriest spaces on Capitol Hill.

Located a few blocks from Eastern Market, Napolitano’s three-day abode is a quaint walking commute down tree-lined streets between flower boxes and rose bushes.

At Napolitano’s (D-Calif.) front door is an array of aloe plants that she harvests and gives to her aides for skin care. It’s a far cry from her first accommodation here; for three months after arriving on Capitol Hill in 1999 she bunked with her chief of staff in a condo in Pentagon City.

On a recent Thursday morning, Napolitano, 69, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, is moving happily around her kitchen, chopping tomatoes and other vegetables for one of her signature breakfast dishes, called migas, a Texan concoction of egg, tortilla, green onion, tomato and a pinch of chili.  

She mentions that her landlord, Texas Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer, who bought the place last December, told her the exterminator is coming. The congresswoman doesn’t seem disturbed by that. She adores her place and knows that, possible bugs and all, the apartment will be in good order.

“Come on guys, I know I don’t have to ask you twice,” she says, beckoning the two aides lounging on flowered sofas in her living room watching TV. The lawmaker, looking motherly in bright-red pants and a white blouse, hands the young men heaping plates of migas.

“This is a recipe to fill kids’ stomachs — all guys,” she says, referring to her five sons. “I still do it at home, and they love it.”

She looks to her aides — her chief of staff, Daniel Chao, 31, and her press secretary, Jeremy Cogan, 23 — who have nothing to drink. “Want some soda or something?” she asks, no matter that it’s 8:45 a.m. “How about some apple juice?”

Napolitano has taken great care to make her apartment a restful space ideal for winding down after long days of congressional business. There is the blue-and-yellow painted ceramic cross on her stove, and colorful wreaths and hats adorn her walls. The carpets are red and white; the big wooden kitchen table is covered with a bright-yellow cloth.

Napolitano has not always lived so comfortably. She and her first husband lived with his parents for a year. She evidently didn’t like it, and the couple joyfully moved into a trailer park.

“It was a dumpy place, but it was my own place,” she says triumphantly. “You didn’t think it was hard. You didn’t think it was easy. You kind of just did with what you had.”

When she was 3 years old, Napolitano’s mother and father divorced. He father was a mechanical engineer for an airline; her mother was a teacher.

Their daughter went to work at 12 to supplement the family income; her jobs included baby-sitting, working at a five-and-dime and selling shoes and women’s clothing. Later she worked as an office clerk for a county judge for 25 cents an hour. “I didn’t know we were poor,” she says. “I didn’t know we were what’s now termed [a] dysfunctional family.”

She had one pair of shoes and one meal a day, mainly beans.

“You don’t think about it,” she says. “It’s part of your life.”

With a drill-sergeant demeanor and a tough, no-nonsense attitude, Napolitano recalls life back then.

“You went to work. My mother handed me a newspaper when I was 12 and said, ‘Here, find a job.’ My father paid $38.50 a month” in alimony.

They lost their house and moved into an apartment in town — again, just another reality for Napolitano, not a hardship.

After graduating from high school, she attended Texas University for three months but dropped out because her mother couldn’t pay, so she went to work — taking dictation and answered phones at a law firm, working as a clerk for a county government, accompanying foster-care visitors as a translator fluent in Spanish and more clerking, for probation and parole departments.

At 18, she married a man she had met at a high school football game four years earlier. “First impression? Oh, nice guy. He’s nice to talk to, very respectful,” she says. By the time she was 23 they had five children.

Politics was something she had heard about, but all she heard were scandals. “To me, you couldn’t trust ’em,” she says of politicians.

In 1960 she went to work for the Department of Employment as a stenographer. By then she and her husband were living in Norwalk, Calif.

She began attending night school and was a secretary by day. After her last child was born, she momentarily decided to retire. She bought a house close to a school, close to a hospital and close to shops.

Soon enough, she returned to work while simultaneously attending Seritas Junior College. In 1970 she went to work as a secretary for Ford Motor Co. Around that time she was asked if she wanted to take in foster children two weeks a year. She agreed without hesitation.

As a mother, she admits, “I was the disciplinarian. I was the witch. I was the bad guy, if you will. I was the cook. I did the shopping. I did the finances. I took care of the family.”

Meanwhile, her husband was developing a drinking problem. “I wasn’t sure,” she says, looking back. “I didn’t know. Alcoholics? They will never admit that there is a problem. It hurt because when you saw him he was a young man with a lot of vitality. He was in his own world.”

Sometimes she didn’t want to go home after work, but there were children to worry about. “In the latter end of his illness they were afraid,” she says, but there was no violence. “Once I was home he knew that I wouldn’t tolerate a lot of stuff.”

Her husband hid his alcoholism well and even worked at a liquor store up until his death in 1980.

“Life has taught me survival,” the lawmaker says, retelling the adage, “If you get lemons, you make lemonade.”

Speaking of lemonade, her fridge is fully stocked. It’s crammed with juice, and everything from boiled eggs and tortillas to soda, peanut butter, rice, beans, tomatoes, bacon, sliced ham, chorizo, hot sauces and beer.

“Once in a while I have a beer, but only one,” she says. “Otherwise it puts me to sleep.”

In 1982 Napolitano remarried. She met her husband, an Italian chef, dancing one night. She had not thought about remarrying after her first husband, saying she wanted to focus on herself for a change.

“I certainly did not want to,” she says. “I wanted my freedom. It was always taking care of husband, family and kids.

“I wasn’t looking. Neither was he. He loved to dance. He loved music, and so did I.”

Every Friday they’d go out for dinner and dancing, until one Friday he was down in the dumps. So she decided to cheer him up.

“You have a choice,” she told him. “We can go to Tony Roma for ribs, or we can go to Vegas to get married.”

The couple flew off to Caesar’s Palace and got married in the Crystal Cathedral.

“There were a few tears at the wedding,” she recalls, “and they weren’t mine.”

Breakfast has ended; the plates are scraped clean. It’s time for Napolitano to begin her day on Capitol Hill. On her way out of her basement she breaks off a piece of the aloe plant and, as her final gift, squeezes the clear substance onto my hand.