Every place Alan Poe has worked has had its challenges. At old Griffith Stadium, there were no fixed seats out past center field, so Poe and the other ushers had to set up row upon row of metal folding chairs before each Redskins game. At RFK Stadium, there were so many obstructed-view seats that Poe was forever trying to mollify miffed patrons by finding them a more commodious location.
And at Nationals Park, Poe already knows what the grumbling will be about: parking, lack thereof.
He knows whatever whining occurs won't be about what's inside the ballpark, which officially opens with tonight's nationally televised game between the Nats and the Atlanta Braves. "It's a lovely stadium," says the Nationals' oldest and most experienced usher, a 78-year-old retired newspaperman who has helped fans to their seats at football and baseball games since 1953.
Poe has his solution to the transportation travails at the new park: He carpools with three other ushers who commute 56 miles each way from Warrenton, the Fauquier County town where he has lived all his life and where he worked for 52 years at the Fauquier Democrat. The route to work takes Poe and friends 75 minutes to 2 1/2 hours, each way, not including the shuttle bus from the RFK parking lot to the new ballpark.
Despite a workday that for a night game can last from 5 p.m. to midnight, Poe still believes in the magic of the job and the place. He may make more than 30 times what he got paid at Griffith Stadium, where ushers would line up after each game to collect a single dollar bill from the boss, but Poe does the work for the chance to pass on the lore of baseball, see the games and make some friends. Such as the season-ticket holders who asked the Nats' front office to assign Poe to their section at the new stadium, a wish the team happily granted.
"How you doing, friend," the diminutive gent greets fans, regulars and strangers alike. And then, if they'd like, he offers pointers on the game and the players. If you're lucky, he'll pull out his 1967 RFK Stadium usher ID card, which he happens to have gotten signed by Joe DiMaggio. (Over the years, Poe has had a slew of big names in his section, including Robert Kennedy, Don Shula and longtime Washington Post sports editor Shirley Povich.)
Although he has handled baseball only since the Nationals brought the game back to Washington in 2005, Poe has missed just eight Redskins games in the past 55 years.
Ever since high school, when he used to catch a Trailways bus for the 90-minute trip into the District to see the Senators, he has made it his business to be where the action is. His Redskins streak ended when, on a snowy day on the way to the stadium, his car skidded on a Fairfax County road and spun 180 degrees. After the car came to a stop, Poe says, a friend who was with him "said to me, 'Well, we're facing Warrenton, what do you say we just continue on that way?' And I had to agree."
But another car mishap in the 1980s did not deter Poe. When he and a friend, heading to work at RFK, were sideswiped by a tractor-trailer on Route 29 about 20 miles outside Warrenton, the friend's car ended up swerving off the road onto an embankment. Luckily, another friend drove by, headed toward the game, and offered Poe a ride. "And I said, 'Jesse, do you mind if I go to the game?' " Poe worked the game, but the Redskins docked his pay for being late.
Harsh as that may seem, the current Redskins ownership is even rougher to work for, Poe says, and that's why he's considering ending his streak at 55 years. "I'm wavering now," he says. Redskins owner Dan Snyder "has these new rules saying you can't watch the game. Well, if you couldn't watch the game, there wouldn't be a handful of ushers left."
The Nationals take a different approach; at the last training session before Opening Night, instructors urged ushers to be fans, cheering for the team and sharing their passion with the paying customers.
Poe is sometimes disappointed to see extremely casual fans show up in the fifth inning and then leave just a couple of innings later, and he's the kind of patriot who gets downright angry when fans fail to show respect during the national anthem. But he's no purist; he enjoys working the D.C. United soccer games as well as baseball, and some of his favorite ushering jobs have been at concerts (he loved working the Grateful Dead's annual RFK shows, although he could have done without Metallica.)
The other ushers love hearing Poe talk about the players he has seen -- Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder who played for the St. Louis Browns in 1945; Senators slugger Frank Howard, of course; and Bobo Newsom, a flaky Senators pitcher.
"Bobo who?" usher supervisor Bill Shackleford asked when he heard that one. "Alan's making them up."
That one's true -- you can look it up -- but Poe's got plenty of tales, and starting tonight, you can hear them for the price of a ticket to sections 208 and 209. He'll be there, every night.