D.C. wilderness: Taking in a street show with the homeless
As I turn the corner I am astonished to see that the park has been commandeered by a small group of evangelists. They are banging tambourines and taking turns preaching sermons.
Shouting above the conversation, a preacher rants on about the evils of drugs and alcohol. He turns to the evils of fornication and homosexuality. A transvestite casts the evil eye at him.
Taking in a street show with the homeless
By Michael Stamper
L Street and 5th N.W. is an undistinguished Washington, D.C. intersection. It is the apex of two lightly traveled streets, with no notable architecture, no traffic signal, and no association with an historical event. Indeed, much of the land adjacent to the corner is vacant. However, each evening dozens of hungry men and women come to this place for sustenance. Around 5:30, a white van called “McKenna’s Wagon” (named after a legendary D.C. priest) stops to serve soup and sandwiches to those who have no better meal ticket. I know this corner well, as I am often the driver of that van.
This Sunday, however, I plan to view things from the other side—to wait with the homeless and hungry to be fed. My spiritual advisor has suggested to me that God can be found by venturing into the wilderness. In the district, this corner qualifies as wilderness. I leave home with a spiritual intent.
I drive into the area and park on 5th, several blocks south of L Street. After locking the car, I walk up 5th, past vacant lots and abandoned buildings. A stray dog zigzags down the street, nose to the cement, sniffing for a lost scent. There are few signs of business activity among the ruins of this neighborhood. Its last working economy was the lowest rung of the sex and drug industry—third- rate topless bars and dingy adult video arcades, supplemented by bargain basement prostitutes and small-time crack dealers. When the host businesses had to leave for non-payment of rent, the parasite entrepreneurs moved on with them.
As I approach L, I expect to see familiar faces. Most will be black, most will be men, and most will be middle-aged or older. Many will be suffering from untreated physical illness. Others will be suffering from mental illness, drug addiction and/or alcohol dependency. They will be lounging in the little triangular park formed by L Street, 5th Street and New York Avenue. Perhaps, I think to myself, I will gaze into one of these familiar faces and see Jesus or the Buddha.
However, as I turn the corner I am astonished to see that the park has been commandeered by a small group of evangelists. They are banging tambourines and taking turns preaching sermons. Respectfully, they stay in the park and do not pursue the men, who for the most part, have escaped the preaching by crossing to the other side of the street.
There is no sidewalk on “our side” of L. If one had existed, it was long ago covered by mounds of dirt and rubble from construction sites elsewhere in the district that had been dumped along the side of the street. I sit on a piece of broken concrete perched on top of one of the mounds. A few yards down the street, a stripped car sits on its axles. I wonder about my car.
On my side of the street are a dozen or so men, plus a couple of transvestites. More men are meandering in from every direction, sometimes coming in small groups, sometimes as individuals. Several women walk as a group towards us along L, coming from the woman’s shelter on 4th Street. It’s cold, and expected to get colder. A few of the men clutch blankets. One is wrapped in an old carpet pad. These hermits will be spending the night somewhere in the immediate vicinity, most likely in a boarded up building.
Most of the men stare blankly at the evangelists, but a few nod their heads approvingly and tap their feet. The cold and the wind keep the conversation to a minimum. There will be no arguments or fights tonight. I check my watch, wondering when the van will arrive. No one waiting for McKenna’s Wagon seems concerned. They have no other appointments this evening. Whether it arrives at 5:15, 5:30 or 5:45 is of no concern.
The white van finally turns onto L. Instinctively, everyone gets up and forms two lines, one for soup and one for sandwiches. The driver’s door opens and a middle-aged white man steps out. He opens the back door of the van and a few of the men help unload two large containers of hot tea. Inside, a crew of bright, white teenage faces nervously look out as they prepare to earn their community service credits by “feeding the homeless.” A preacher across the street offers a prayer, thanking God for the food we will soon be eating.
Because it’s cold, I go to the soup line in the back. The soup will at least be hot. I am not particularly interested in the bologna sandwiches or two-day-old pastries that are distributed from the side of the van. Once the lines are formed, the conversations pick up. Shouting above the conversation, a preacher rants on about the evils of drugs and alcohol. Most of the men are oblivious to his entreaties, but others look over to him, silently acknowledging his message. He then turns to the evils of fornication and homosexuality. A transvestite casts the evil eye at him.
I go back to the curb with my soup and cup of tea. The tea is too sweet for my taste, but the soup isn’t bad. Not all of the food is appreciated—a few stale sandwiches and pastries get thrown on the ground. The pigeons, comfortable in close proximity to humans, move in to salvage the scraps. The seagulls and starlings wait their turn in the background. They will make their move when the people thin out.
The evangelists now become more theatrical. A female puts on a wig and the mask of an attractive young woman. She prances around while the preacher talks of her as a temptress, a metaphor for life’s addictions.
“And in your hour of need will this temptress, these addictions, be there to comfort you?” At this point the woman pulls off the wig and mask only to reveal another mask, a Halloween devil’s mask. “No, you will find out that the addictions are Satan himself!”
It’s a good show. It makes me smile. But few others are watching.
Eventually, the hunger for food is sated. The van packs up and pulls away. Many of the men and women begin leaving too, straying off in different directions. The lead evangelist now asks for someone to step forward to testify, to accept Christ as his or her personal savior. I look in his direction with ambivalent feelings. I both admire and am offended by his enthusiasm. Even though we are at a distance of 20 yards or so, our eyes lock onto one another. For a few brief seconds, I am no longer an observer. He and I are connected—locked together as if we were two halves of the same person. My consciousness feels vaguely distorted and is expanded past my skin boundaries. The atmosphere around us takes on a thickness, as if we are submerged in the warm water of life. The moment feels magic, but a few seconds is all I can take. Instinctively, I look away. With the simple movement of my eyes, I break the spell and the connection. I notice tension in my body dissipate. I also notice a feeling of grief for an opportunity lost—an opportunity to experience the joy of really connecting with another human—an opportunity to experience the joy of connecting with God. Instead, I reestablish my distance, and get back into the safety of my head.
I notice that the seagulls have now moved in. They are swirling around the heads of the remaining people, as if auditioning for a Hitchcock movie. The starlings sit in the trees waiting their turn. The heavy cross-town traffic on New York Avenue rumbles by in the distance, oblivious to the entire scene. The evangelists hold on to the hope that one amongst the flock will step forward. For my part, it is time to move on. §
Mike Stamper is a former business executive who worked in D.C. before retiring to Melbourne, Florida, where he lives with his wife. He can be reached at email@example.com.