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Tight Corner

He speaks in a low monotone. To emphasize a word would require energy, which he "don't" have. Bud Ice, he orders, although the cashier saw him coming and already has a bottle for him. "I like it cold." What does he do for a living? "I just stay at home." He has been off work on disability, an accident from an auto repair job. "A two- or three-ton crane fell on my leg." That sounds awful. How long has he been recuperating?

"About 30 years," he says. He slides the money on the glass turnstile and leaves.

Poet RasD says the corner exudes "anti-life." (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

The door opens and in pushes Puggy, as he calls himself, with his friend. He won't say his last name but he wants to offer this: "Let me tell you the story of this neighborhood. The white people coming to take this over. White people want this neighborhood. We been here for centuries. And now they gonna get it."

His friend tells him to shut up, that he already said too much. Don't be talking to people he don't know. They leave.

There is strength in secrets, a power. If you open up, people can take your power away. Few walking this street will allow that.

Then there is someone like Yohaunce Walker, 28, who sums his life up in 10 minutes, standing in a corner at Big Ben. He turns it into his own slam stage, reciting a poem he wrote in prison. The words tumble out: "Life's not caring what's wrong or right. We leave our women in society to accomplish things we didn't. In times of inconvenience and struggle, she stands up like a real man on her head, feet, legs and hands; most religions believe a woman's distant religion is a man; well, can someone please explain to me how someone conceived can be stronger than its original seed?"


A white woman in a Subaru station wagon with Virginia plates and a baby seat in the back pulls up and carefully parallel-parks along North Capitol as if she is stopping for a leisurely lunch. A man hustles out of a green-and-white building, opens the passenger door, sits down as if he's going for a ride in the burbs. Then he gets back out and walks away as if he forgot something. Except he doesn't come back to the car and the woman doesn't wait for him. And you wonder what he forgot and what she came for. But everybody on this corner knows.

In KB Barbershop next to Big Ben, owner Kevin Bowman has a particular education to impart about this corner. "It's a heroin spot, selling heroin, hustlin', shooting each other in the head. They just waiting to die. Abscesses on hands," he says sitting in the building his father bought for $5,000 in the late 1960s, right after the Martin Luther King riots that prompted white flight and left these buildings abandoned. For years the building sat boarded up, and when his father passed away, Bowman got it in the will. He smelled the new development coming. So he took off the boards and turned it into a barbershop to generate income.

From inside the glass, he watches the druggies maneuver in their own economy, marveling at how they live longer than their life expectancy. "They might live longer than you and me, and they been doing it for 20 years," Bowman says. He has no sympathy for the users or the hustlers, who sell without conscience. "A hustler can sell drugs for years and years until it gets in his family," he says. "That's when it will hit them."

On the corner three men sit -- an impeccably dressed man sandwiched between two drunks. The man -- he won't give his name -- tells the story of how he, too, bought up some shells of houses. Sold one for $350,000 and another for $500,000, he says, to some men who didn't care about moving into a place where the elementary school was attached to a homeless shelter. He has two more houses he reckons he could sell for $500,000 a pop, and that would make him possibly the only millionaire who hangs on this corner.

There are poets on this corridor, too, and living philosophers who try to make meaning of the nonsense. One is RasD. He strolls what he calls the vortex of New York Avenue and North Capitol as if he were a king, greeting the people as "my beloved" or "my king" or "my queen."

His own crown is a swathe of cloth. An embroidered robe flows behind him as he walks. In his left hand he carries a wooden tray of essential oils, an armor against the "energy" that he says is left on the corner by people driving past on New York. He wants to help restore dignity to the undignified, who he says are left that way by the forces that have brought drugs here, thrust them upon people and given those people no way out. He wants the commuters to take notice, to look beneath the obvious at what is left of the people.

"It" -- the corner -- "is an atmosphere that is totally anti-life. . . . Death is sold every 24 seconds in 40 ounces, in the next six-pack or straight firewater they consume when that store opens. . . . You have people who capitalize on greed."

He walks south on North Capitol. The Capitol's dome rises in the distance, looming like a mighty mecca, so far away from this corner and so close. RasD motions to the cars that whiz by. "The traffic flows through without any connection to the spaces and places," he says. "They just pass by. They would rather not see the obvious, the displaced, the homeless, the confused, the hungry. . . . There are brilliant minds at that vortex: incredible mothers, fathers. The homeless are no longer scorned and they are not faceless at that vortex. They are only a blur and an eyesore to those passing through."

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