A Tunnel to Call Home

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

She lies here, sleeping on a cardboard pillow, the woman who climbed into a tunnel beneath the street.

Here, she built her bedroom, her chambers, a paper room, both eternal and temporal.

Beneath Wisconsin Avenue at the Bethesda Metro station, she lies, curled on her side, under that row of blinking mood lights that move from yellow to red to green and back again. Her shopping carts, overflowing with lotions, liquid soap, bleach, ammonia, Pine-Sol. Carts of baby wipes, empty bottles, full bottles, cans of spaghetti, black plastic bags, silver Mylar and yellow crocheted blankets.

Harried people walk by; the click of their shoes do not wake her. Men in blue suits, talking on BlackBerrys. Not seeing. Or perhaps pretending not to see. Teenagers thunder by on skateboards, giggling. An old woman passes quietly carrying plastic grocery bags, her head down. The lights twinkle. An old man is walking with a cane. Softly, carefully. The afternoon light peeks into the tunnel. A young woman passes in black pumps, so polished, so impeccable they don't seem to touch the tiles. A flurry of people flow through this public bedroom.

Some whisper. Some acknowledge. Some ignore. Some worry. Some simply want her gone.

And still she sleeps, Virginia Skinner, under her blue scarf and three hats, under a blue sweater, gray sweater, brown sweater and green on a bed of cardboard, behind cardboard walls, tied together obsessively with gray string.

What brought this woman to this tunnel, slipping literally underground into the darkness, sleeping all day, up all night? Tired, so tired. Where is her family? Where are her children? What made her curl up here underground?

* * *

Virginia, are you awake?

She turns on her side.

Virginia, wake up, it's daytime.

Just at the end of the tunnel, there is light.

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