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City Hall, and Step On It

"Well, I'll be," Barry says. Then he turns slightly and spots a big guy. "You know you got my vote," says David Stewart, 30. "Ain't even gotta ask. When I was out there, in the nightclub world, Mr. Barry used to come to the nightclubs."

His Honor used to have a "Saturday Night Fever" penchant, which enthralled some city residents, while others were repulsed by stories of womanizing and drug use.

Former Washington mayor Marion Barry, campaigning in Ward 8 for votes, is running for a D.C. Council seat in Tuesday's Democratic primary. The winner is likely to sail to victory in November. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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Stewart's a truck driver. He doesn't worry about Barry's past. "We all have had trials and tribulations. God gave him a second chance."

Barry hears it all, listening to the way people in living rooms listen to good music when the TV is off.

Ruby Bradley is suddenly in Barry's ear, talking about the past, good times, old times, time.

"How old you now?" Barry wants to know.

"I'm 60 now," she says.

"You're 60! No, you're not! Didn't you call me a couple weeks ago?"

"Yeah," says Bradley. "You know I follow you all the time."

"Gimme kiss. Bye, y'all. I gotta go now."

A knot of kids is across the street, staring, wide-eyed, as if they're watching something unfold on a movie screen.

Barry spots an elderly man standing behind a screen door. There's a "Barry Ward 8" sign in the man's front yard. "Hey, like that sign," Barry says, pointing. Barry waves, the man doesn't. Maybe he didn't hear him. Barry's voice is weak, like he's at the far end of a hallway. His communications with the elderly can be a painful pantomime of the hard-of-hearing and the weak-voiced.

Barry's riffing now about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and Hubert Humphrey, about Atlantic City and that 1964 Democratic convention. The rabbit is changing direction again. About his work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the '60s. "I was making $50 a week," he says. "Reginald Robinson was with me in Mississippi. I got him a job. He's still around D.C. I almost got killed in Mississippi."

Almost got killed?

"Yeah. I'll tell you about it in a minute."

Then he's talking about his diabetes and being sent "all over" to different doctors and insurance companies. And the medicine he takes. "That's why I lost all this weight," he says. In recent years, Barry's medical maladies have included anemia, high blood pressure and prostate cancer.

The price of "high livin'," he says, is costly. There's not an ounce of irony in his voice.

He's out of the SUV again. A woman is striding toward him. Already he's grinning.

"I was 17, 18 when he was mayor," says Vanessa Thigpen, now 36. "A friend of mine, Linda Moody, used to live on Oakwood Street SE. We lived in the house beside her. Well, she threw a party and the mayor came."

Barry cuts her off. No need for historical asides about partying.

"Where you working?" he wants to know.

"I'm not," she answers, hands on hips. "It's hard to find a job."

"Weren't you in my summer jobs institute?" Barry asks.

"No. Oh, wait a minute. Yes I was!"

He's got affirmation now. The jobs program. Those were the days. He puts the sunglasses back on. "Linda, let's go."

"When I was growing up," Barry continues, back in the SUV, "I went to segregated movie theaters. Whites downstairs, blacks upstairs. Actually, you got a better view upstairs. My mother gave me a quarter every Saturday."

The driver is pulling to the curb. Potential voters have been spotted.

"Hey, man. You vote?" Barry wants to know.

They seem a little surprised: Marion Barry, standing in their front yard, easy like Sunday morning. His eyes shift to the woman beside the man. "That your wife? How you get so lucky? Ha ha ha. I need your vote now. Bye."

He's rolling again. Back to Mississippi: "So with the quarter my momma give me, I'd spend 12 cents on the ticket, 5 cents for popcorn, and 3 cents for a long piece of black licorice. See, they'd show serials, cartoons, before the movie. And they'd show you just enough of the serial to make you come back the next week. Ain't that something? Ha. And when I'd get home, I'd listen to the radio. The Shadow. 'The Shadow knows!' Linda, you too young to remember that."

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