Will poetic justice be served?

February 7, 2011

Today’s literary mystery: the case of the purloined Langston Hughes.

To celebrate the American poet’s Feb. 1 birthday, Busboys & Poets on 14th Street NW ordered a $150 life-size cardboard photo of Hughes — just like the presidential ones tourists pose with near the White House. The restaurant was named after Hughes, who worked as a busboy at D.C.’s Wardman Park Hotel in the 1920s, so the cutout was a big hit with the artists and writers who frequent the place.

On Thursday night, Busboys was packed with customers, including a group from the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, meeting in D.C. over the weekend. Shortly before 9 p.m., one of the managers noticed that the cutout had disappeared.

“Who would steal Langston?” said owner Andy Shallal. “That’s sacrilegious, like stealing Jesus.”

Shallal speculated that some college student had swiped it for his dorm room, and put out an APB: A “Missing” notice on Facebook and flyers all over the neighborhood. No luck.

On Monday, Shallal and poet E. Ethelbert Miller had their weekly breakfast. Miller confided that he saw another respected poet walking around the writers conference Friday with the cutout under his arm. Miller assumed Shallal had loaned Flat Langston and was surprised to see all the flyers asking for its return.

Shallal said he scrolled through Thursday night’s security camera tapes and recognized the culprit: “He walks out the door, walks right back in, and snatches it.” Another poet, Holly Bass, told us that the man had mentioned to her that “I ought to take that.” “I thought it was just an offhand remark,” she said.

Miller told us he sent a couple of e-mails to the poet urging him to return Langston. On Monday afternoon, a restaurant manager received a cellphone photo of the folded cardboard poet, purportedly somewhere at the Wardman. But as of Monday night, Langston had not been located.

The alleged sticky-fingered poet did not respond to us by press time.

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