Indeed, some down-on-their-luck-looking men were hauling large objects out of a house, under the direction of armed federal marshals in bulletproof vests. This was not your ordinary eviction, if there is such a thing. The items being laid on the sidewalk were stupendously ostentatious. Nude Grecian statuary. Grand, floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Marquetry-inlaid tables. Bejeweled cigarette cases. Dangling-crystal candelabra. A scowling Napoleon lithograph in a heavy gilt frame. A 19th-century French marble clock. A fussy, plush, single-seat sofa. Wedgwood. Limoges. Massive funerary urns. Dainty stemware. Etageres, armoires and other items of furniture of indeterminate purpose with names that are surely known to someone more sophisticated than I.
I knew it must be Michael’s house. Michael is a neighborhood presence, an effusive, 60-ish man given to wearing gaily colored short-shorts and who sometimes holds yard sales on his front lawn. He works as a chef, sometimes. He’d served in ’Nam. Everyone knows Michael. Some people don’t like him much — he can be an acquired taste — but many of us like him a lot. When Kim the political activist lost almost everything in a house fire a few years ago, Michael took her in, free of charge. “Only woman I’ve ever lived with,” Michael told me, with an oversold wink.
On this morning, Michael was not evident, but his life was rapidly filling the sidewalk. Cars slowed to gape. Some in vans parked and watched, sensing an opportunity to scavenge.
Many people in the neighborhood were familiar with these objects; Michael often gave impromptu tours of his home. He’d once shown my wife and son a huge painting on the wall, of a regal-looking, older woman with a porcelain complexion. It was his grandmother, Michael said — she had used Pond’s Cold Cream every day of her life. Now here she was, on the street, propped against a lamppost.
This is Eastern Market, a leafy, Capitol Hill neighborhood of modest brick rowhouses radiating from the city’s oldest remaining public market, built in 1873. We feel like a little village inside a big city. When the market nearly burned to the ground one midnight a few years ago, neighbors stood outside in the ugly glow of the flames, many of them in tears. But the neighborhood was most recently in the news for a 2 a.m. baseball-bat mugging that left a young father severely brain-injured. The victim had staggered away from his assailants and knocked on doors for help, but had the misfortune to try two empty houses before collapsing on a porch, where he lay all night as his injuries worsened. Had he made it a few more feet, he’d have reached Michael’s house, and Michael would have taken him in, nursed his wounds, and called the police. No one doubted that.
Now, on the street, a marshal told me that they’d protect the furniture only until the house was empty, but that once they left, in the absence of the owner or a protective order, there could be a free-for-all. A picker’s melee. Indeed, would-be pickers hovered.
“It’s not right,” someone said. A gathering assembly of neighbors agreed.
My wife asked around, got a number, reached Michael on his cellphone. His voice was uncharacteristically emotionless. Michael said he had come back from the gym that morning to find the marshals there with an eviction order and a ragtag army of workers. They didn’t allow him in, even to shower. So he just wandered away. He couldn’t face coming back, he said. Couldn’t face the scene, or the shame. He didn’t care what happened to the stuff, he told my wife, resignedly: Let it all be scavenged, except his grandma and another painting of his grandfather. Rescue them, he said, and the hell with the rest.
We grabbed both paintings, and, with the marshals’ permission, hid them under a tarp. Then we started furtively pushing more things under that tarp to be saved for Michael, things he hadn’t mentioned but that we judged particularly valuable or particularly private. Our daughter had just moved out; we had some space. Someone e-mailed a neighborhood group list to get volunteers for this reclamation task. Some came. We plotted a salvage operation: a sprint or bucket brigade from the street to my front yard. All the neighbors had evidently reached a consensus, without ever saying it out loud: Michael had been too distraught to think straight. We’d do the thinking for him.
But we realized the fight might not be winnable. For one thing, my house wasn’t big enough. For another, the scavengers kept coming; there were more of them than of us.
“This isn’t fair.”
I recognized the man beside me from somewhere, but I couldn’t place him. It happens to me sometimes, when I see someone I know outside a customary context. He was wearing an apron.
“I’m Mel,” he said, “from the Market.”
Of course. The poultry guy! Mel Inman and his family have been selling us ducks and chickens and turkeys ever since we’ve lived here. Every year, early on the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, the line of neighbors at Market Poultry snakes out the door and around the building.
Another familiar face appeared. The sausage and pupusa guy! Juan Jose Canales and Mel were deep in conversation. Years ago, these two had had a professional disagreement, but they’d patched that up and now are the unofficial deans of the Market vendors. They both knew and liked Michael as a customer and a friend, and now they were head to head, and on the phone, plotting something.
The street was nearly full of furniture, and the house was empty. In an instant, the marshals departed, and the race to get stuff into my front yard began. There weren’t enough of us, as the pickers closed in.
And then something amazing happened. A D.C. police car showed up. Someone had called them and told them that the owner of the property wanted it saved. This might have been completely true, or partially true, or arguably possibly semi-true in a conditional or metaphorical sense. One neighbor told the cops that the owner of the furniture was in the hospital, which, okay, wasn’t exactly defensible, as a strictly true statement of actual, verifiable fact. Eventually, someone did reach Michael, and the phone was handed to a cop, and Michael did tell them he wanted his stuff preserved. The police ordered the scavengers to retreat and cordoned off the furniture with yellow tape. A testy silence ensued; the situation was fluid, since Michael had also said he would not be arriving in person. The police presence would not be indefinite. The people in vans waited to see what would happen next.
This is what: A big U-Haul truck pulled up, driven by Mel. He and Juan Jose had split the cost of it and of the rental of some nearby storage space. Some of the same workers who had trudged cheerlessly in and out of the house under the eyes of the marshals were now hopping to the task of loading the truck. This was partly because they now found themselves working for the underdog, and partly because Mel had just offered them far more for their time than the marshals had. Working alongside them, not angry or muttering at all, was Darrell, the guy of whom I used to be a little afraid. A neighbor named Lisa, with a Pomeranian under one arm and a drill sergeant’s gift for bossing people around, put herself in charge and was more than capably choreographing the cleanup.
What with the capacity of the truck, and the capacity of my house, we got most everything of value off the street before the police tape came down and the public at large descended.
As I write this, Michael’s been out of touch for a while, but we’ve left messages assuring him that his stuff is safe, and we are waiting for him to claim it.
I’m writing this at home, in a small room of exposed brick that we usually keep sparsely furnished with a few simple wooden antiques. On the mantel right now, beside our old clock, is a large chrome Russian samovar, a silver candelabrum ornate enough to embarrass Liberace, a hand-painted, gilt-edged porcelain bell in the shape of a yellow rose, a Korean urn large enough to bathe a midsize dog, and a string of pink Mardi Gras beads festooned with plastic crayfish.
Michael, if you’re out there, give me a call. We’ll both be glad you did.