By Tyler Currie
Sunday, November 27, 2005
For almost two years, the Magazine has chronicled the everyday dramas of ordinary people in a series called The Adventures of . . . Now we catch up with six of our characters -- a women's basketball coach, a restaurateur, a deejay/dog walker, a comedy show producer, a paralegal and a charter school principal -- and learn where their lives have taken them
From restaurateur to evacuee
Previously: With no experience running a business, free-spirited Frank Connell sank every penny he had into opening a Tex-Mex and Cajun restaurant in Mount Pleasant. He and his cousin Mike Clements struggled for months to keep the Red Bean from folding, straining their friendship and leaving Frank physically and emotionally exhausted.
Frank Connell holds a manila folder stuffed with papers, including a letter from FEMA saying that he's ineligible for disaster assistance. "They probably think I'm trying to scam them," Frank says.
He takes a seat in a nearly empty waiting area at D.C. General Hospital, where the Red Cross and FEMA have set up a makeshift office to help people who were affected by Hurricane Katrina. Frank, 45, sets down the green knapsack that he calls his jiggy bag. Its usual contents include a worn passport, a change of clothes, water, a first-aid kit, some rope and a green plastic wand for scratching his back. For years Frank has kept the jiggy bag close at hand in case he needs to skip town on a moment's notice, arguing that doomsday events can strike with little warning. If his jiggy bag once indicated a minor case of paranoia, it now suggests a Boy Scout-like prescience.
Frank had moved to New Orleans after he and his cousin Mike Clements were forced to close their Tex-Mex and Cajun restaurant, the Red Bean, in January. They had missed months of rent payments before the landlord pulled the plug. On the cousins' last night in business, it seemed that every lively soul in Washington was crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the small dining room in Mount Pleasant, partying with the doomed restaurateurs. Frank made the rounds, wearing his trademark black leather cowboy hat, and he confessed a bit of relief that his flirtation with responsibility was over.
Soon Frank was back in Louisiana, where his debts from the Red Bean forced him to file for bankruptcy, he says. He went to work for a friend who owned several small restaurants, including the one advertised on Frank's mesh baseball cap, Juan's Flying Burrito. Frank, who grew up in Alexandria, has lived in the Big Easy on and off for much of his adult life. At Juan's Flying Burrito, his job as a host-busboy-office clerk brought him more satisfaction, he says, than he'd felt for a long time: It was a steady paycheck with no threat of real responsibility.
Unfortunately, Katrina rained on that parade. At least Frank was ready. He grabbed his jiggy bag before the storm hit land and eventually made his way back to Washington. For a while, he slept on the couch of cousin Mike, who is now a bartender in Columbia Heights. After a few weeks, Frank moved across the river to his mother's house in Alexandria.
Now his mother has sold the house and is getting ready to move to Hawaii. Frank isn't sure where he's going to stay after that. But he's heard that the Red Cross will put him up in a hotel, which is why he has arrived at this makeshift disaster relief center. He also wants to figure out why FEMA declared him ineligible for a cash benefit.
A Red Cross worker becomes available and calls out to Frank, who shows the man his final pay stub from Juan's Flying Burrito and a copy of the lease on his New Orleans apartment. These documents, the man says, prove that Frank qualifies for a hotel room. Soon Frank is booked at a Motel 6 on Georgia Avenue NW. His eyes sparkle, and he whispers, "I love Motel 6."
Next Frank sits across from a FEMA bureaucrat, holding out the letter from the federal agency that declares him ineligible for disaster relief. The man looks over the paperwork, including a printout of Frank's online relief application. "You filled out question 17 incorrectly," says the FEMA man.
Question 17: "Do you own a home or rental property affected by the disaster." Frank, who has no real estate, answered no.
"You should have said yes," says the FEMA man.
"But I rented it," Frank says referring to his apartment. Exactly, says the FEMA man, circling the word "rental" in question 17. Frank is still skeptical, but he doesn't argue when the man makes a phone call to alter Frank's application.
Frank soon leaves the relief center with the tepid assurance that he'll get some government money, assuming that nothing else goes wrong. For now, he plans to earn some much-needed cash by bartending at a private party in Mount Pleasant. And the Red Cross will pay for his hotel room for at least a month. After that, Frank says, he may return to New Orleans, where Juan's Flying Burrito is already back up and running.
New home, new baby, new identity
Previously: After coaching the women's basketball team at Catholic University to a 20-7 season last spring, Maggie Lonergan announced to her players that she was leaving. Her husband, Mike, had taken a job as the head coach of the University of Vermont men's basketball team. It was a dream job for him, but it meant that Maggie would have to give up her job and move from Bowie to Burlington with her husband and two young children.
Maggie Lonergan is eight days past her due date, and her doctor has decided that it's time to induce labor. "I'm getting antsy," Maggie says. "I'm a little sick of being pregnant." Early this morning Mike Lonergan, Maggie's husband, drove her to the hospital on the University of Vermont campus. Now she's stretched out in bed, hooked up to an intravenous drip, listening over a monitor to the lub-lub of her infant's heart.
She and Mike casually banter. They don't yet know the sex of their baby, although Maggie strongly suspects that it's a boy, in which case he'll be named Michael. They've also agreed on a girl's name, Maurisa. It's the boy's middle name that's contentious. Maggie likes Thomas; Mike prefers Robert.
Suddenly Maggie goes quiet, and her lips purse from the pain of another contraction. "It's not the most comfortable feeling in the world," she says. But she's not yet in agony, which is, in a way, unfortunate. The birth doesn't appear imminent, and Maggie's hope for a speedy delivery is fading.
"I think it's going to be one of those 3 a.m. births," Mike says. Maggie frowns -- it's not even noon yet. "What's that expression about boiling water?" Mike asks.
"A watched pot never boils," says Maggie. "But I'm not a pot." And, for the first time in a while, she's not a basketball coach, either.
Last spring, shortly after moving to Burlington, Maggie started getting unsolicited job offers from local high school basketball programs. News of her coaching prowess seemed to arrive on Mike's coattails. As the new head coach of the men's basketball team at the University of Vermont, he was already a minor celebrity in town.
But Maggie wasn't ready to jump back into coaching. For the last four years she'd been going full throttle, running the women's basketball program at Catholic University and caring for her two children, Jack, now 6, and Margaret, now 5. She often felt torn between being a coach and being a mom.
"I wanted to give both 100 percent all of the time, but it was tough," she says. "I love both so much." There's a certain sense of relief that her time isn't being divided anymore. "But now I miss coaching so much that I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision," Maggie adds.
Leaving her job has enabled Maggie to spend more time with the kids. She's been taking Margaret to weekly ballet classes, soccer practice and story hour at the public library. In the evenings, Maggie and Jack sit on a couch, reading books by a window with a view of Lake Champlain. Last year in kindergarten, Jack was just learning to read. Now Maggie says, "I can't believe how much progress he's made."
Maggie has also become friends with two women who live in the neighborhood. "I actually feel very close to them," she says. The three of them have lunch together every week, and Maggie's new friends threw her a baby shower.
Still, Maggie hasn't forsaken hoop dreams. Over the summer she was paid to help run Vermont's basketball camp for kids. And earlier in the fall, when NCAA rules limit coaches' interaction with their athletes, Maggie would attend informal shoot-arounds and report back to Mike on how his players were shaping up. "She might not be coaching, but she's going to be at practices," Mike says. "She gave up her job to come up here, so I want her to be part of the program."
Mike is supposed to hold practice at 4 this afternoon. By 3, Maggie's contractions have hardly intensified. But Mike is worried that if he leaves, even for a couple of hours, he'll miss the birth. "This will be the first practice I've missed in my coaching career," he says.
The afternoon turns to evening, turns to night, turns to morning. And Mike' s prediction comes true: The baby, at 7 pounds and 7 ounces, is born at 3 a.m. Maggie and Mike have always been competitive with each other. When both were coaching, they cheered each other on, but each also wanted to boast the better record. So Maggie gains a kind of victory when their new son is named Michael Thomas Lonergan.
Previously: Freddy Williams talked about selling his business, SouthPaw Personalized Pet Care, to focus on his real love, deejaying. But, at 33, he was still digging himself out of a mound of debt from college and couldn't afford to give up the reliable income that his dog-walking business generated.
Freddy Williams zips up his jacket and walks toward his Adams Morgan apartment. The sky threatens rain, but at least there are no more dogs to walk this afternoon. He wants to take a nap before his regular Wednesday night deejay gig.
Freddy, now 34, is still a professional dog walker, but music remains his real calling. For most of his adult life, he's been playing "house," a style of electronic dance music, at venues around Washington. But he realized long ago that deejaying wasn't a path to prosperity. A few weeks ago, he quit his Thursday night gig at an Adams Morgan club where for five months he'd been working without pay. He started off thinking that he could attract a regular loyal crowd and, in turn, persuade the owners to share a slice of the revenue. But when Freddy finally approached them with his proposal, he says, they balked. And so he walked.
Now he scolds himself for having worked so long without pay, for getting played. "I think a lot of times, because I'm such a character, people don't take me serious," he says. He adds that he's got to approach his art more like a business. Which explains why, a few days ago, he canvassed the city with fliers for a one-time Saturday night show at a downtown club that he's putting on with his friend Alex Gray, aka BigSEXY.
En route to his nap, Freddy walks past a kiosk where he hung fliers for Saturday's event. "Damn," he mutters. "They took down my fliers." The kiosk has been stripped bare, except for one old, tattered paper. Freddy looks closely. The lone flier is one of his, from 2004. How ironic, Freddy says, and tears down the old flier, continuing on to his bachelor pad.
Until recently, he had a girlfriend. But he says that she couldn't stand his work schedule, which frequently keeps him out until 5 a.m. "She continued to nag me and try to change me, and I'm not willing to do that," Freddy says. "The problem is not with all these women that I've dated. It's got to be me. Maybe I'll find someone, maybe I won't. I'm not really pressed about it right now."
Freddy has also dropped some pooches from his dog-walking roster. When the Magazine said goodbye to him 18 months ago, he had 12 canine clients. Now he's scaled back to eight. "I needed more time to rest," he says. "The pace I was going, I'd be dead by 50."
His Saturday night gig with BigSEXY is at an after-hours nightclub in Adams Morgan called Five. First, though, Freddy deejays at 11th Street, a venue in Clarendon where he spins every week. Afterward, as Saturday night gives way to Sunday morning, he races downtown to meet BigSEXY.
Now the two deejays stand in a tiny room, apart from the crowd. It's almost 4 a.m., meaning that the club has stopped serving alcohol but the dance floor is still packed. They peer out a bank of small windows overlooking Connecticut Avenue NW, where a stream of limousines deposits and retrieves partygoers.
"Man," Freddy says with a laugh, "I love partying for a living." Then he heads off to the turntables.
Slowing down, growing up
Previously: At 23, Mizuki Tanabe maintained a frenetic schedule, working as a paralegal at the Federal Trade Commission and partying with her friends from the University of Virginia. When she was not out with them, she was at a Bible study or visiting her parents. She sometimes went weeks without grocery shopping.
Getting older can be a good thing, or so it seems to Mizuki Tanabe. She's 25 now and says, "I finally feel like a real adult."
For a while after college graduation, she found herself trying to re-create the kind of life she had led at the University of Virginia. She frequented crowded, obnoxiously noisy bars with packs of friends and could play a mean game of beer pong. "For a long time," she says, "I thought that being an adult was such a scary thing."
Now she says her social life is more subdued, tending toward evenings with small groups of friends. They get together and watch the last season of "24" or "Lost" on DVD. She also has been spending lots of time training for an upcoming marathon with a friend. She has recovered from a twisted ankle, is now battling a sore knee and admits that "my legs just don't have the muscles to carry me that long." Nonetheless, she managed to run for 3 1/2 hours straight on a recent weekend. (Actually, she planned to run for about three hours but got lost somewhere in Alexandria: "I was really freaked out.") She hopes that she's going to meet her goal of finishing the 26-mile race in under 4 hours 46 minutes. Why so specific? That's the time one of her guy friends clocked in during a recent marathon. "We're trying to beat him," Mizuki says.
She usually begins and ends her runs at the two-bedroom condo in North Arlington that she just bought. Homeownership, she says, is a clear sign that she's entered a more mature phase. Her condo is just a few minutes from her parents' home, where she has weekly family dinners, along with her younger sister and 2-year-old nephew, whom, Mizuki says, she has a tendency to spoil.
Mizuki's best friend rents the second bedroom in her condo, helping to cover part of the mortgage. The rest of it Mizuki manages to swing with her salary from the Federal Trade Commission, where she still works as a paralegal, preparing cases for litigation. She had been considering law school. "But I don't think I'd want to be an attorney," she now says. "It's too adversarial for me."
When she took the job at the FTC as a newly minted college graduate, she never imagined that she would stay for more than a couple of years. Now entering year three, she still doesn't think this job will turn into a career, "but at the same time I can't think of any other job I'd want to work."
Mizuki is also volunteering a lot at her church. Right now she's organizing a retreat for the women's ministry. Unlike some young, single churchgoers, however, Mizuki doesn't see her congregation as a dating pool.
She's got friends who preach the gospel of Internet dating, but that makes her cringe. "I find Internet dating the absolute worst idea I've ever heard . . . I think it sounds like a form of torture." In fact, she's perfectly content to be without a significant other.
"I feel like my life's so full. I don't feel like I'm lacking anything. Maybe if all my friends start marrying off, I'll eventually start feeling differently."
Papa's got a brand new bag
Previously: Amateur comedy show producer Greg Estrada was in his late thirties before he ever asked a woman for a date. As a kid, he suffered from acne that left him deeply scarred, physically and emotionally. After plastic surgery that dramatically altered his appearance, he started meeting women through Match.com and became "like a kid in a candy store." But, at 41, he was getting tired of dating. He wanted a more serious relationship.
Greg Estrada stands onstage, scanning a thin crowd gathered at a Clarendon street festival on a sunny Saturday afternoon. He's looking for contestants for his $25 best joke competition. He locks eyes with a boy sitting -- almost hiding -- on the curb beside his mother. The kid cautiously climbs onto the stage.
"What's your name, son?" Greg asks, and he brings the microphone to the boy's mouth with an exaggerated gesture, a spoof of his own showmanship.
"You already know my name," the boy deadpans.
Greg turns to the audience, frowns, and admits that the kid is a shill named Jackson. He's the 8-year-old son of Greg's girlfriend, Lia, and soon he launches into a joke that Greg has helped him rehearse.
"What do you call a Mexican taxi driver?" Jackson asks the audience.
Uh-oh, ethnic jokes. Someone in the crowd groans in politically correct horror.
More than six months have passed since Greg started dating Lia, a single mother he'd met online who made no bones about what she was looking for: "I want a partner in my life and a partner in raising my child."
That was fine with Greg, who was smitten after just one date with Lia. He started spending every Saturday with her and Jackson. "Family day," he called it. He helped Jackson organize his schoolwork, reviewed his report cards, took him to the movies. At the comedy shows he produced, Greg sometimes turned down cigarettes and beer, explaining in half-jest, "I got a kid to think about now."
Then, a few weeks ago, something remarkable happened, Greg says. Jackson called him "Dad." The word rolled off Jackson's tongue naturally, Greg says, like no big deal. In fact, Greg liked his new identity. At 41, he'd never been married and had no children. But he also realized that Jackson's deepening attachment had altered his relationship with Lia. Not long after Jackson's utterance, Greg and Lia had a fight. Greg says Lia was upset that he was working so much, especially on comedy.
He told Lia that he absolutely could not scale back. "Comedy gives me purpose," Greg says. He suggested to Lia that perhaps they should reconsider their relationship. But talk of a split quickly evaporated. Why? Because of Jackson.
"I think what is different this time is that we both recognize the investment we've made, and so bailing out when we do hit a bump in the relationship is not an option," says Lia, who is a mental health therapist. "It's been like Greg is dating both Jackson and me. To Greg's credit, he has been wonderful with him, especially for someone who has never been a parent. I think it's safe to say Jackson and I are both in love with him."
So, what do you call a Mexican taxi driver? Jackson stares at the audience, and a pregnant pause hangs in the air. Then Jackson delivers the punch line. "You call him a Mexican taxi driver. What are you people, a bunch of racists?"
Jackson doesn't win the $25 prize. The audience cheers loudest for a scrawny adolescent named Andrew, whose joke is short and sweet: "A dyslexic walks into a bra."
But one thing is clear when Jackson leaps from the stage. He's a ham. Just like his dad.
An education in persistence
Previously:After a year of struggles, Jallon Brown finally opened the doors to KIPP Harbor Academy, a new public charter middle school near Annapolis. The principal had her work cut out for her. Many of KIPP Harbor's students arrived reading below grade level. Most came from low-income families. And a few were chronically disruptive.
Principal Jallon Brown slings open the front door at KIPP Harbor Academy, a public charter middle school just outside Annapolis. It is Friday afternoon, and her fifth-grade students are eager to board the waiting buses. "See you tomorrow," Jallon says to the children as they begin to file out of the building. "Bring your brain. We've got Saturday school."
"I don't have a brain, and I'm not coming," growls a boy who steps out of line, drops to the floor and pulls his puffy winter jacket over his head.
"Yes you do, and, yes, you are coming tomorrow," Jallon says curtly. The coat muffles his retort into a disjointed grunt. He's one of Jallon's toughest students, often getting into trouble. In fact, he's not supposed to be going home on the bus. He's supposed to stay after school for detention. Jallon reminds him of this as he lies on the floor.
She learned a few months ago that this boy has a brother in jail. She's also learned that, on good days, he can be a terrific student. In short, he's exactly the kind of kid Jallon most wanted to reach when she was fighting to open this fledgling charter school.
But right now the child is just being a pain, writhing on the floor under his coat. Unfazed by his antics, Jallon continues reminding the other students to wake up early for Saturday classes, which are held about twice a month. She dishes out a few hugs and chats briefly about a paperback novel that one girl is clutching. Just before the buses pull away, the boy picks himself up off the floor and announces that he's going to walk home.
You're going to walk two miles? Jallon asks in disbelief.
Yes, he says defiantly.
He lingers at the edge of the parking lot. Standing nearby with several teachers, Jallon predicts that he won't get far. A moment later he spins around and, saying hardly a word, marches straight inside for detention.
More than two months have gone by since Jallon, 31, launched KIPP Harbor. It's been rough going. She originally enrolled more than 80 students. Now she's down to about 60. A lot of parents withdrew their students after learning that the school would occupy a building on the campus of Sojourner-Douglass College in Edgewater. Some kids would have spent two hours every day riding the bus.
Jallon herself is struggling with time. With roughly 12-hour workdays, she says that she's too often apart from her husband, Phil Croskey, and their baby boy, Malachi. But she's made up for some lost family time by persuading Phil to coach football at Saturday school.
Now, with the students gone for the day, Jallon convenes a faculty meeting. Back in the first days of school, the students took a standardized test to give their teachers a snapshot of their academic skills. The results have just arrived. Jallon passes out folders to the four teachers.
"So, look inside the folders," Jallon says. "You'll get the good news."
"I don't believe her," says one teacher wryly.
Indeed, the deficiencies are appalling. Overall, the students who arrived at KIPP Harbor in September scored in the 9th percentile in reading and the 16th percentile in math. The teachers stare at the scores in shock. "The good news," Jallon tells them, "is that there's nowhere to go but up."
For the next hour, Jallon and her teachers pore over the scores and devise plans for improvement. At one point, out in the hallway, the boy who's been in detention walks past. The school secretary is finally taking him home.
One teacher calls out, "See you tomorrow in Saturday school." He doesn't say anything. But neither does he drop to the floor and hide under his coat.
Tyler Currie is a contributing writer for the Magazine.