The nagging buzz of the alarm clock penetrated my dreamless sleep. Shoot, 4.30 already……..
Waking up at “O-dark-thirty” was never pleasant, but it would be more unpleasant if I didn’t make it in on time. (O-dark-thirty is military jargon for “earlier than the rooster crows”)
Automatically I sat up, eyes fuzzy with sleep, and fumbled in the dark to still the alarm, unaware just then that I had woken up to a day that would change my life forever.
As good as on auto-pilot, I showered and shaved, and dressed to face a freezing wintry morning in Washington DC. The biting wind stung my face as I stepped on to the snow-covered streets with caution to negotiate the short walk from the Metropolitan mid-rise apartments in Pentagon City to my office at the Pentagon. The normally invigorating ten minute walk seemed like eternity that morning.
As my boots scrunched on yesterday’s snow, my mind had already wandered into my office, letting my thoughts slip lazily over the job that awaited me at this early, silent hour. Privately I had categorized it as 5th grade menial. My crucial task was to surf online, seek out Navy-related articles or ones of relevance to the Navy. In particular, I would have to scrutinize the 5 major metropolitan papers that CHINFO, or the Navy Office of Information, subscribed to daily: The Washington Post, the Washington Times, USA Today, Baltimore Sun and the Christian Science Monitor. I have always been baffled by this particular combination, but it never once occurred to me to ask why. This “CHINFO News Clips” the twenty or twenty-five pages of culled security information of the day that I religiously prepared each morning, is electronically distributed to the entire Navy leadership every morning. Some of Washington’s exalted decision-makers are also privy to this information.
In the distance I could see the Pentagon, the bright lights beckoning, enticing me to the warmth of its secure fold. I quickened my pace, my chilled body longing for the almost maternal embrace of the heated atmosphere within. As my breath steamed in the frosty air, I imagined the pampered feeling of being enveloped by the pungent aroma of freshly-brewed coffee. My near-frozen body yearned for my first mug of steaming java. Just a few steps more …….
I headed to my office located in the B ring, the 4B463 ring which arose like the proverbial phoenix, from the ashes of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Now looking at the cozy interior, still shining with the fresh glow of newness, it struck me anew as it does every time I enter the building, as symbolic of our resurrection from the brutal onslaught of terrorism.
As I settled myself down comfortably in my office with my mug of steaming hot java, my thoughts sobered as they dwelt on the prevailing global political arena. There was no doubt that trouble was brewing in the Middle East drama, with hostilities escalating at dizzying speed. The US was poised to unilaterally strike Iraq at any moment now, and all the tension, the suppressed excitement, the anxiety of an impending war was almost tangible around me at the Pentagon. It was getting translated into laborious top level meetings, long hours and lots of pizza deliveries. As much as it got the adrenaline pumping, I felt a tinge of fear mixed with anxiety. Several of my buddies were forward-deployed to Kuwait and Iraq. What would be their fate in a war? Would they survive? What about their young families? An unsettling feeling of disquiet tugged at me as I reviewed the news of the day – so slow, so lethargic, as if everything was holding its breath in anticipation. This feeling of calm before the storm was unnerving.
As these thoughts and feelings swirled in my consciousness, I opened the Washington Post and began browsing its contents. One section, then the next … suddenly I stiffened, my attention riveted by the Feb 13, front page story of the Metro Section. It was a two-page spread on the plight of a community east of the Anacostia River. The graphic story of this economically-distressed neighborhood tugged at my heart in the most peculiar way. The writer’s passion and sensitivity added depth and poignance to an already heart-wrenching story. My attention was caught by the accuracy of the information and the upbeat tone that hinted at a better future around the corner, for the residents.
Such are the contrasts in the hilly neighborhoods of Bellevue, Washington Highlands, Congress Heights, [Frederick Douglass] and Shipley. Together, these five neighborhoods fill the bottom of the D.C. diamond, just east of Bolling Air Force Base.
It was sparsely populated until the middle of last century, when doctors, engineers and other professionals arrived to new neighborhoods of brick houses and bungalows. Many worked at nearby Bolling Air Force Base, just across Interstate 295, or at St. Elizabeths. Some of the public housing projects now being demolished were constructed as temporary government housing during World War II.
In the 1970s, thousands of poor African American families were relocated to these neighborhoods and the rest of [Ward] 8 to clear the way for “urban renewal” on the Southwest waterfront. Many were the children or grandchildren of an earlier generation of families moved to Southwest from Georgetown, Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle, to clear those neighborhoods for affluent whites.
Like other financially struggling areas of the city, the neighborhoods in the southern tip suffer from a lack of retail shopping. Martin Luther King Avenue, across from the gated east campus entrance of St. Elizabeths, today offers little more than a barbershop, a convenience store, a discount general store and the Player’s Lounge, a local and political watering hole. There is no dry cleaner, drugstore or hardware store, no place to sit down with a cup of coffee. The gaps remind Avery Thagard, the city planner assigned to Ward 8, of the mouth of an old man who has spent a lifetime without good dental care. “It’s like missing teeth,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to fill these gaps with the type of neighborhood conveniences that other communities take for granted.”
Even as I gobbled up the information, savoring every nuance of expression, I was mentally shaking my head. No, not there, I thought. I had heard way too many horror stories from way too many people in different social strata. And this was even before I had ever stepped on the soil of Washington DC. Anacostia, the armpit of the nation’s capital, ironically, seemed saturated with crime and as sleazy as any downtrodden community could get. Not to be touched with a barge pole …… that was the unspoken conclusion I had drawn over and over again.
The day dragged on, and with the passing hours I was conscientiously monitoring the overseas news, tracking each incident as it arose. And all the while, an inner voice was nudging me, trying to steal my attention to the dilemma of Anacostia. My mind was focused on the glimmer of hope I detected in the story. “That community is on the verge of a turnaround. This could be a diamond in the rough.” The thought waves ebbed and flowed, and being a good military officer, I was determined to do my own reconnaissance.
It was like was jumping head on into an adventure in the wilds. The danger and the forbidding elements only whetted my appetite further. Anacostia was calling me in mysterious, unfathomable ways. No work week had seemed so long. Never had time dragged this way. I was impatiently counting the hours till the weekend when I would get the opportunity to do my own windshield tour of Anacostia.
I used every bit of my spare time during the week to surf the web and learn about Anacostia. It seemed like the beginning of a mysterious love affair. I was delving as deep as I could into the history of Anacostia, to get to know her, to understand the myriad complex facets that make her what she is today.
Anacostia, known as Uniontown in the 1800s, was once home to an all-white workforce from the nearby Navy Yard across the Anacostia River. A stone’s throw away was the Barry Farms area where the descendants of slaves and freed Blacks lived. As the 1880s wore on, the blacks began moving into Uniontown. The home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass is currently a major tourist attraction in the area. In the early 1900s, Anacostia’s economic wellbeing was hitched to a hub of barber shops, small drug, grocery and hardware stores, and family-owned furniture shops.
In the years leading up to the 1960s, Anacostia was a thriving, vibrant community with quaint and dignified suburbs in the outskirts of Washington DC, with predominantly white people, good schools, plenty of parkland and clean air. With the gradual development of the outlying areas of Washington DC in the 1950s and the 1960s, longtime white residents moved out of Anacostia, and waves of blacks began to move in. Many of the small shops put up shutters or followed their longtime customers to the suburbs.
As I read on, I realized that the deprived community of Anacostia came to be, not by choice but by chance and through a woeful lack of vision. As the once wealthy neighborhood began to collapse, day by day, the affluence was getting replaced by stark disrepair. The city leaders of the 1960s lacked the vision and foresight to realize the negative consequences of what they did in order to make space for revitalization of the southwest neighborhood across the river. Supported by the federal government, they literally dumped the poor and under-privileged across the river to the newly-built but congested tenements that were sprouting like mushrooms around every corner.
Before long, the city fathers realized the gravity of their error, but it was too late in the day to retrace their steps. The shift in populace and the new bussing regulations that swept the nation, led to white people leaving Anacostia in droves. Following close on their heels were the middle class blacks who couldn’t stand how bad the streets had gotten and how unsafe the schools had become. The neighborhood was almost unrecognizable after some time. The safe and trusty Mom and Pop stores and the family barbershops gave way to vandalized houses, vacant lots and liquor stores.
Over thirty years, the upscale neighborhood fell from its middle-class perch to a poverty-ridden, crime-infested community where the common sights were check-cashing outlets, liquor stores, drugs, crime, homeless people, storefront churches and abandoned buildings. When Interstate 295 came into being in the 1960s, there was fervent hope that might bring a change for the better. Hopes were miserably dashed when all the beltway did was to give Anacostia a sense of being little more than a shortcut from the suburbs to downtown.
Only residents know the miserable reality of life in Anacostia. Crime is a part of daily life, with one-fourth of the city’s murders committed in the area, according to police statistics for the Seventh District. Anacostia and Ballou, the High Schools of the area are among the District’s most troubled. In 1990, the only grocery store in Anacostia closed down. There are no sit-down restaurants in the entire Ward – just a sea of carry-outs that pass food to customers through bullet-proof glass. The Players Club on Martin Luther King Street, the only place that serves a decent lunch, has albeit, a Jekyll-and-Hyde façade, transforming by night into a sleazy, sordid strip club where people get mugged or stabbed perennially every night. The formerly famous and classy Nichols Street is now the infamous Martin Luther King Avenue, where open air drug markets, drive-by shootings and gang wars play out in squalid surroundings. Teenage boys regularly terrorize the town by stealing cars, burning them up and leaving the burned carcass on cinder blocks on the wayside. Crack or cocaine use is rampant on Galveston Place and Mellon Street and residents who brave the menacing behavior and threats in the light of day, are too scared to do the same at night, even though securely locked up in their cars. Fear is all-pervasive, and even the police delay answering distress calls, often waiting an hour or more to respond. The state of the main thoroughfare of Anacostia seems no different to the vandalism and waste of war-torn, terror-swamped Beirut or Baghdad after an insurgent strike.
When the weekend came around, I was sufficiently acquainted with the history of Anacostia for my first visit there to be meaningful. As I drove my truck down from Arlington, the dismal weather added to my somber mood in no mean way. The twelve inches of thick, wet snow dumped by the huge snow storm of the previous week was gone. What was left behind was a muddy quagmire of rocks, sand and mud and a bone-chilling, blustery wind that blew steadily from the east. I passed the Barry Farms, the last vestige of public housing in DC. My truck rattled crazily on the cracked and rutty road which was in an absolute state of neglect and disrepair like the dilapidated, pathetic-looking puke-brown houses at Barry Farms. Rough-looking, unkempt youth hung around the street indolently, while the children of the area played around them, shrieking and yelling as they ran hither and thither amidst crack needles and used condoms, innocently oblivious to the more sinister goings on around them. Every which way I turned, hopelessness stared me in the face and my heart kept sinking with every mile, even as the laundry hanging on makeshift clothes lines whipped about crazily in the cold blowing, as if desperately trying to lure me there. The feeling of abandonment, of overhanging danger, was so intense I began to wish I was in an armored humvee with ballistic glass, instead of in my simple Grand Caravan.
As I steered my truck down Martin Luther King Boulevard, the atmosphere turned tangibly formidable. The solitariness that seemed to pervade the area was enhanced by the silence that enveloped the red-brick walled campuses of the old mental asylum of St Elizabeths, which flanked both sides of the road. I had no idea where I would end up—perhaps this was a war zone …. With a deep sense of uncertainty I headed north on Alabama Avenue.
And then serendipity walked into my life. What a wonderful feeling of old-world charm, of warmth, courtesy and dignity flowed through my being! Not in my wildest dreams had I expected this kind of genteel neighborhood in such squalid, miserable surroundings. Leafless burly oak trees, like faithful sentinels, lined the street, their gigantic trunks offering security and stability to the ornate Victorian houses that stood beyond, gracious, spacious buildings, most of them orderly and well-kept. As I cruised by, bemused, enthralled, the years rolled back to an era of wine and roses in Anacostia. I imagined an environment of upper class living that matched the graciousness of their homes. A well-maintained playground and a softball field would have been favorite haunts of the children of the area as they ran and played with abandon, singing at the tops of their voices, the air filled with high-pitched laughter and joyous screams. The ting-a-ling-ling of the ice-cream truck on a hot summer day would have brought the kids out by the dozen, thirsting for ice-lollies and varied flavors of ice-cream. Kids mean schools – clean and well-maintained schools where the children of affluent white Americans in days gone by were given the foundation for their lives. As I drove past, I could not help the let-down feeling that engulfed me as I observed the leaky roofs, the sense of dilapidation and neglect that seemed all-pervading. The neglect outside was just a whiff of the unkempt condition that could probably be found inside, I said to myself.
My exploration of Anacostia continued with more passion and determination the next weekend. During the week I had filled my after hours with intensive homework. I read up voraciously on Anacostia, past and present, I spoke with people who had grown up in Washington DC. And by the weekend, I had valuable insight into why Anacostia is what it is today.
When I drove down to Anacostia the next weekend, I was deeply aware of the area’s notoriety for drug turf wars on the streets and drive by shootings for no reason at all. You were in danger of getting shot at just because you were not from the area or were from a different street. High schools pitted against other high schools. Streets versus streets, block versus block. That seemed to be the only line of segregation. There was just one race in Anacostia. Black Americans. A white man would not dare even drive through. At worst, he would be shot at. At best, the cops would pull him over and inquire whether he was buying drugs.
Driving down Martin Luther King Ave, I could see a group of about twenty ruffians with dirty, disheveled appearance, milling around the run-down liquor store at the corner, whiling away their time by staring and yelling at passing cars. In an unexpected move, an elderly man with an unkempt grey beard that fell to his chest, jumped off the sidewalk gesturing wildly. I instinctively stepped on the brakes. “No carryout,” he commented in a jeering tone, referring to the ubiquitous carry-out Chinese food shops all over the city. This joke at my expense provoked a wave of derisive laughter from the rest of the men. I shot him a look of pure disgust. The car behind me honked violently, jerking my attention back to the traffic I was holding up. I shrugged off my annoyance at this uncalled for provocation by the street corner drunks, and hesitantly turned right to head down Lebaum Street, unsure of where this would lead.
I remembered my trip down memory lane last week and the remnants of gracious living down Alabama Avenue. That seemed a world away as I courageously continued down the rough and pitted Lebaum Street. Neglected, dirty-looking apartment buildings and empty soda bottles appeared to be the signature of the area, as were the formidable-looking ghetto youth who hung out outside and in the back alleys.
Amidst the squalor and lurking danger of this street, my attention was captured by a forlorn-looking, worn down red-brick house – 500 Lebaum Street. The walls of this two-story Cape Cod house appeared near collapse, the sidings were about to fall off, and the weather-beaten roof had layer upon layer of broken tile. A couple windows were boarded up, and shattered glass lay scattered on the unkempt grass. Malicious sprays of graffiti smeared one wall and empty beer bottles and crushed soda cans littered the sidewalk. The front yard was cluttered with a worn and scratched dining table and four dirty-looking half-broken chairs. Close to the retainer wall were boxes overflowing with untidily packed clothes. The very air was filled with desolation and abandon. I was intrigued. Was this house up for sale? Was it an eviction? It had seen better days – that was for sure. I parked my truck right by the house, and sat debating the wisdom of leaving the safe confines of my vehicle. I had been part of Operation Enduring Freedom and served with the US forces in Israel and the Middle East, but this time the tasking was different and more mission essential. I felt my pocket for the pocket knife I carried just in case and my cell phone on ready in my other hand. I opened my car door cautiously, stepped onto the premises hesitantly. The boarded up windows were dirty and eerie-looking. I felt a shiver of apprehension run through me. As I trod warily to the backyard, I was accosted by more shabby furniture and many more boxes of clothes thrown willy nilly. It gave me the creeps. My inner being revolted, I could feel. I needed to get away, now. The scary, isolated atmosphere was beginning to penetrate my very being. I should forget the experience entirely. I turned to retrace my steps. Suddenly I froze in my tracks. Images of some soulful moments of a while back came flooding to my mind. Could I walk away from some of the most awesome views of Washington DC? Moments ago, on another road, I stood among the trees on an incline gazing spellbound at a panoramic view of Washington DC, stretching as far as the eye could see, beyond the Capitol “Hill”, beyond the Washington Monument, over the heads of the rich and the powerful, towards the bleak, wintry skies. It was as if a profound statement was being made by the poor and forgotten of Anacostia.
Immersed in my musings, I suddenly realized where I was and decided it was about time I made myself scarce. I had barely turned on my heels when a lanky man, probably on the good side of his fifties, with a deeply creased face that reflected the trials and tribulations of this community over the years, walked out the door, and dumped yet another box on the yard. As I looked at him with undisguised interest, I could see that the box was not filled with clothes like the rest, but with some old books and photographs. I felt like an interloper, an intruder, even an opportunist – driving in from out of state in the safety of broad daylight, to exploit the depressed socio-economic conditions of this once stately area, but not having to live with it at night. Is that how I would be perceived?
I wanted to dispel such thoughts at the outset. I went towards him with hand extended, and I was touched when he responded warmly.
Hello, I am John,” he said, beaming at me as if he had always known me.
Welcome,” he added simply.
As I introduced myself, I found myself asking if his house was for sale. As soon as the words were out of my lips, I felt a little ridiculous. After all, there wasn’t even a “For Sale” sign there, but the whole day had seemed barely one step away from the ridiculous. I had better watch my step, I thought.
“Yes, this house is for sale. You seem destined to buy it.”
Meantime, John was trying his best to play the gracious host. “Please come inside,” he invited in a friendly, easy style, “If you don’t mind the mess.”
I felt a little uneasy at this unadulterated friendliness. Could there be strings attached? Was it exactly what it seemed to be? After all, I was just a moment away from stepping into an unoccupied house with a total stranger. Varying degrees of ominous thoughts assailed me. Was he genuine? Or was he trying to lure me inside – to do God knows what. To shoot me? Stab me? I felt panic rise up to my throat.
I paused for a long second. My belief in human nature won over my fears. I followed him warily, almost reluctantly inside. Standing at the threshold, John turned to me, his face awash with pride. “This is my father’s house. This is Alphonso Williams’ house –he owned and maintained it for 40 years.”
As my eyes took in the dim interior of the house, I could see that it looked as old as he claimed. It appeared to be nothing but a mound of haphazardly dumped junk, as if intruders had barged in and raided the house, overturning everything he owned.
If there was a description of perfect chaos, this would be it. The hardwood floor was ugly and bare, the loose boards creaking with every step. The floral wallpaper in the living room and foyer which would have once lent grace and beauty to quiet living, looked sad and forlorn, stained an ugly brown from the smoke and grease of decades. The shabby, threadbare sofa, the broken down bookcase, the chipped dining table and dirty wobbly chairs were pathetically thrown here and there, as if they had outstayed their welcome long ago. A monstrous Sylvania black and white TV almost as big as a bed, sat dejectedly in the living room. It had obviously outlived its usefulness and now merely served as extra area to store more junk. Amidst the thick coat of dust on the TV top was a dusty old RCA record player and an equally dusty collection of old records: Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley. It was a peculiar feeling of having got stuck in a groove in the past, being an uninvited guest witnessing the historic remorseless decline of Anacostia, the whirlwind transformation from genteel, upscale living to this pathetic “down and out” community.
I was bemused, filled with a certain wonderment as I absorbed the dirty, neglected surroundings. The dark drapes jealously kept the sun’s golden rays away, allowing mere flickers of light to heighten the feeling of age and degradation. I breathed in the musty odor of stale air and dusty junk. The bedrooms were simply crying out for attention and long-forgotten memories were flung over the dresser in the form of scattered old photographs, a few hanging on the wall by frail nails ready to give way at any time. It was a dismally decrepit house, to be sure. But what character it revealed! If the walls could talk, what poignant tales of unsung heroism they would relate.
The remnants of bygone energy of Alphonse Williams penetrated my consciousness in the most peculiar way. An honest-to-God hard-working family man who had tried to do his best for his wife and kids and for his community. A few of his local civic awards, dirty and tinged with age were carelessly scattered with the mess of clothes on the floor – trash like the rest of it – irrelevant and forgotten.
John followed my gaze as it rested on his father’s bygone achievements. He looked a little guilty, a shadow of regret flitting across his face. “This is all Pop’s,” he muttered. “Back when he was still active, he was a civic man and very popular and considered to be the Mayor of the Block.” I felt a pensive flash of regret sweep through me as my eyes fell on a youthful photograph of Williams in his 20s, fresh and energetic in army fatigues, looking upon the world with winning eyes. His energy was still around, as if he was brooding over why he had lost everything and reliving the idealism of latent dreams.
I never knew Williams, had never met him, but felt a certain affinity with the man who had had so many dreams for a glorious future for his family, for his community – a man who believed in compassion and humanity. I felt a surge of strange desire to know more about him.
“How is your father doing?” I asked gingerly, almost afraid to put my thoughts into words.
John shook his head. “Pop is in the hospital now, not doing too good.” I had been afraid of that.
“Will he return to his house?” John shook his head again more vigorously. “I’m afraid he lost his mind. He’s in the VA and he’s in good hands. My sister Tracy just wants to put the house on the market.”
I couldn’t understand why I was getting drawn into a family situation which really had nothing to do with me. “Why don’t you just keep this house? You and your sister can live here. I’m sure you can fix it up.”
John shrugged his shoulders. “Tracy says there are too many memories. We live up the road at the foot of Lebaum Street. We’re fine there and we can always keep an eye on Pop’s house. Besides we’re behind in our payment and need to payoff the mortgage.”
I couldn’t really grasp the logic of this reasoning. But then who was I to judge? There was no way I could put myself in their shoes because I had not experienced the hardship and depravity that shook this community and tore this family apart.
If I had been shocked earlier, what I saw down in the basement absolutely horrified me. The miserable environment above had in no way prepared me for the hellhole down below. The basement was in impenetrable darkness, smelled dank and musty, with dirty, stagnant water creeping relentlessly up my ankles. The mold and the mildew told their own story and electricity in this household was very much a thing of the past. Pepco had turned the electricity off months ago.
John obviously didn’t realize the traumatic effect his house was having on me. He continued nonchalantly, matter-of-fact. “This is the recreation room where the tenants hung out. There was a kitchen, a bathroom and a living room down here. We had four tenants here at one time and this is where they watched TV and ate. There’s a heck of a lot of space.”
I shrivelled my nose in disgust. This was the last straw. The entire specter was nauseating. I couldn’t take anymore. How on earth was I to even envision six people in this house. Insane guests too!! The eeriness of the atmosphere was getting to me pretty badly. I felt chilly goose bumps as my eyes played tricks on me – shadowy images in the darkness…… Had anyone ever been raped or murdered here? Were there revengeful spirits lurking around to pounce on the unsuspecting? Ugghh……. I had to escape this prison and breathe in some God’s own fresh air.
As we stepped outside from the rear basement entrance, I filled my lungs with the cool air, trying to shrug off the dark moments of a while ago. The beautiful St Elizabeths red brick building with its boarded windows arose from beyond, symbolic and apologetic to this economically deprived community. In its heyday, this teeming campus had housed thousands of mental patients.
John looked at me quizzically. “Well, what did you think?”
What was I really supposed to say? I didn’t want to hurt his feelings so I tried to be diplomatic. “It was interesting.” Even as the words left my lips, I knew that all I wanted to do was jump into my car and drive off without a backward glance and leave Anacostia behind forever like a hideous nightmare never to haunt me again.
So much for my intentions. John appeared to have taken my words in their very literal sense. He was suddenly infused with energy and latent excitement. “Great. If you trust me, I can round up a bunch of guys and we can do all the renovation inside as well as outside for a grand total of $15,000.”
I have lived long enough in this world to recognize an untruth when I see one. And I knew that John was lying through his teeth. Did he really think this dump could be repaired for $15,000? That money wouldn’t pay to move all the junk out of the house. But then, on second thoughts, some of this junk might be worth something and we might be able to barter it. What was more, I wanted to believe this man. I desperately wanted to believe him. I needed to reassure myself of the genuine humanity of people living in the depths of degradation. God knows how skimpy my budget is. Probably $15,000 was all I could afford to spend without hurting my delicate financial balance. So I deliberately ignored the nasty nagging doubts that assailed my saner self. I had to make a gigantic effort to sound enthusiastic.
“Super, sign me up. You have good people?”
John appeared to be leaps ahead of me. “Well, I could do the drywall and refinish the floor. I could even do some of the exterior work: siding and replace some of the shingles on the roof. My good friend is an electrician, a former Sailor—you’ll like him. We don’t need new wiring just replace some receptacles and of course a new circuit in the basement, depending on what you want to do down there. We will also need a good carpenter to build the framing and to hang the doors. There’s a lot to do but all very manageable.”
As I listened to John’s plans, a strange surge of compassion and goodwill coursed through my veins. It was not for my benefit that I felt this intense motivation. It was for the sake of a man I had never even seen in the flesh. It was a deep compelling wish to complete the renovation for Mr. Williams’ sake. Alphonse Williams may be hospitalized and on a respirator and may never see the light of day. But something in me felt that if was a debt of gratitude society owed this man for his hard work for a better life for his community. I felt someone had to recognize the sacrifice this man had made for the sake of posterity, maintaining this house in stellar condition through lean and mean times, rejecting a more comfortable life for himself so others could bear the fruits if his efforts. Some one should be large-hearted enough to restore it to its original standard or better. Was that person going to be me?
The whole situation was beginning to overwhelm me – I had to get away from here to clear my thoughts. I needed a neutral environment to make a decision, one way or the other. I turned to John to ward off any more attempts to influence me. “John, don’t say any more. Let me think about this and come back to you in the next day or two.”
In the safety and sterility of my truck as I rattled off down the road away from Anacostia and its troubles, my mind was buzzing with all the experiences of the past hours. The hodge-podge of events began to gradually settle themselves in a logical way in my thoughts. Somewhere halfway home, I clapped my hands on the steering wheel in fierce determination. Okay, my mind was made up. I knew what I had to do. No sooner than I returned home, I called my realtor and related the entire strange drama to him and my even stranger involvement in the future of this lost community. I sought his professional maneuvering to make an offer for the house, $5,000 below asking price. In other words, I would purchase it “as is” for $100,000.
As I spoke with my realtor from the cool of the balcony of my high-rise apartment, my eyes feasted on the Washington Monument in the background, with weekend crowds milling around restaurants and shops in Pentagon City. Two communities so close, yet so far. Was I going to be a catalyst for change? A harbinger of events to come?
My realtor delved into the history of Williams’ house and called me back. The house was actually in foreclosure, with Williams not having paid his mortgage for over seven months. The bank had already set in motion the process to repossess the house. What was more, the payoff was just a little below $100,000. For some strange reason, Williams had refinanced the loan a couple months back. It seemed such an unfair twist of fate, a bitter shame that they were losing the house. After forty years of struggle, after forty years of sweat and blood and reams of dreams, you would think that they would have something to show for it.
Came the next day, Monday, and soon after my work day I met with John at the house. He had beside him a youthful plump-looking woman with, honey-brown eyes and thick hair captured in a tight braid. There seemed to be a substantial age gap between the two. I thought she looked closer to my age. She wore a police uniform and I could tell right away that she worked as a dispatcher for the DC Police. John laid his hand on her shoulder as I joined them. “Chito, I want you to meet Tracy. Tracy has the power of attorney. You deal with her from now on as the seller and for the settlement. Just deal with me for the repairs and renovation.”
“Nice to meet you, Tracy.” Tracy’s glowing eyes penetrated my gaze and held eyes contact for a long moment. She was trying to tell me something, I felt. Behind the casual friendliness I could see an urgency, a desperation, a plea for help, to get them out of the mess they were in. I felt a strange invitation being silently extended to me, to join as an ad hoc member of the house and to become part of their family. There was no racial division. It didn’t matter that I was Asian. As she held my gaze she knew she could trust me. She knew I would end up being their saviour in preserving their father’s house.
It was all gone in a moment, though. Tracy grasped my hand and said, “Very nice to meet you. Where are you from?”
“I live in Virginia. Arlington to be exact.”
Tracy’s five year old son, Tevon gripping his mother’s skirt, looked me up and down in silent, intense absorption.
Tracy was suddenly all business-like. “So how much are you willing to offer for my father’s house?”
There were several offers on their house, I knew that by now – a couple of them over the asking price. Yet it seemed that she was more interested in the prospect of my involvement in their house. She seemed to be making a close assessment of me as a person.
“Not much over the asking price,” I replied. “But pretty close to it.”
I was trying to be cordial but I had to maintain a professional demeanor for the sake of the peculiar business transaction that seemed to be taking place. She gave me a hard look. Then her face broke into a warm grin and she gripped my hand in a firm, tenacious clasp. “You are in, that’s for sure.”
I thought I was dreaming. I had not really given a strong offer but it was obvious they had welcomed me into the family with open arms. This was really incredible. Almost against my will, I had got dragged into this family situation, and as much as I wanted to keep my distance, I knew I couldn’t. I was in it with them whether I liked it or not, the rapport and affinity I had felt from the start subtly changing to compassion and a compelling passion to save this house for this family.
As I reflected momentarily on what I was taking on, I felt a surge of panic arise in my throat. I had never tackled anything of this scope. I wasn’t even handy. But deep down in the core of my being, I knew I had to take on this challenge. Unswerving determination gripped me. I would learn construction. I would hire John’s team and together we would demo the basement, layout the floor plan and build the rooms to specs. A formidable task may be, but it was my calling both on a personal level and in recognition of Alphonso Williams for all his hard work and commitment.