“What is that?” a woman asks. “Deer? Uh-uh. I’ll take chicken.”
“I’ll try it,” says another woman, coincidentally wearing a sweater with reindeer on it.
“I just love it,” says a man in glasses. “If you cook it right, it tastes just like beef.”
A meal to share
His name is Charles Whitley. He is 51 years old, thin. Seven months ago, he was fired from the job that enabled him to move out of the homeless shelter. Now he lives three blocks away. He put two pounds of venison inside a brown bag. He has big plans for it.
Whitley walks past a candy-colored collection of renovated rowhouses with expensive cars parked outside. His place is in the alley behind them. He climbs up the stairs above a garage into a makeshift efficiency apartment that can hardly hold his queen-size bed.
“Things are still tight right now, so I don’t have much,” he says.
It is spotless but stuffy, crowded with boxes packed with clothes and legal documents. A collection of baseball caps hangs on thumbtacks pushed into the wall. The bathroom door is unhinged, held up by tape. A towel covers his window, which looks out on a neighborhood richer and whiter than he ever could have imagined. This isn’t the Northwest Washington he grew up in.
As the city changed, life has gotten harder, the Wilson High grad says. Three years ago, he started bouncing between friends’ houses and homeless shelters. It took him two years to find a $9-an-hour job churning gourmet ice cream.
His rent was $600 a month, but his landlord wants $900 now. The lawyer-less Whitley’s been battling him about the rent increase in court, but he knows it’s just a matter of time until he loses the fight and some young professional snaps up the chance to live here.
“I know it’s not just me; it’s happening to a lot of people,” he says. “D.C.’s comin’ up.” He tries not to resent his city’s success, despite the fact that he may be a casualty of it.
“I spent so many days going to court, trying to find a lawyer, doing all these things that they laid me off” from the ice cream job, he said. His voice starts to tremble. “Now I’m back at square one.”
He plans to share the venison. Seven months ago, Whitley was waiting for a bus when he caught the attention of a North Carolina woman named Patricia White at a bus stop. She is unemployed, too, because she hasn’t been able to secure money and training for a license to do home care in the District.
But they fell in love, so he asked her to move in. She said yes. They’ll be married soon.
Tonight, he wants to cook a special dinner. It is Valentine’s Day.
He brings out the meat.
The night before, he soaked it in water and salt. Earlier that day, he sprinkled it with spices he pulled out from his doorless cupboard. He chopped up some carrots and potatoes and stuffed it all into the oven they use at night to keep warm. The aroma perfumes the house. Whitley’s Uncle Billy has asked if he can join them, and his nephew can’t deny him a meal.
That evening, Whitley places the meat, well-done and tender, on a small wooden table. He pulls up a chipped wooden stool held together by tape. Uncle Billy takes the office chair with torn cushions. Patricia decides to stand. There’s no more room in the kitchen.
One bite is enough.
“I’m sorry, I can’t do it,” she says. “It tastes good, tastes just like roast. But I can’t get over the fact that it’s deer. I like them too much.”
Her fiance and his uncle continue eating. The conversation doesn’t stay light for long.
“We don’t have nowhere to go, baby,” Whitley worries. “We could be kicked out any day.”
“Don't worry,” she says, “we’ll make something work.”
Uncle Billy tries to change the subject. He reminds them that in tough situations — though they may not understand how or why — blessings can appear. The latest is the meal in front of them.
“The deer meat is delicious,” he says. “The Lord provides.”