By Marc Fisher
Sunday, April 26, 2009
She had heard all the lines, knew all the games. So when Dante White's first words to Nhiahni Chestnut were "I want you to be my wife," his chances did not seem strong.
"I said, 'You are really putting it out there,' " Nhiahni recalls. But her retort came with a smile. Something about Dante made his preposterous opening line seem not just plausible, but a downright heart-melter.
Such are the mysteries of love: Come Saturday, Dante and Nhiahni will marry. People will journey from every corner of Washington to see them exchange vows -- wealthy Georgetowners and people who live on the city's rough edges, all joining hands to celebrate the marriage of two gentle souls whose only address is the steam grates in the shadow of the U.S. Department of the Interior headquarters.
This is, says the Rev. John Graham, pastor of Grace Episcopal Church in the heart of Georgetown, a story of love -- of two people who have survived for nine years by leaning on each other through their misfortunes, and of a congregation coming together to add joy to lives of enormous difficulty.
For some months now, Dante, 28, and Nhiahni, 38, have attended Grace's Table, the church's Saturday program of lunch and Bible discussion. Dante likes it because Grace is one of the few churches that let him use their facilities to wash up. Over time, church members got to know Dante and Nhiahni and learned of their quiet yearning to be together forever.
It was church member Margaret Davis who started the ball rolling, taking the couple to Virginia to buy a ring. Then the wedding planning snowballed. Lenore Reid brought Nhiahni to shop for a gown. Dante will wear a tux, thanks to Josh Studl. The invitations are printed, elegant lilac cards in formal script. The reception will feature a three-tiered wedding cake, made by Kristin Killoran, and music by two of Washington's finest jazz professionals, Marshall Keys and Herman Burney. The newlyweds will have a honeymoon, two nights at the Key Bridge Marriott, a gift from church members and the hotel.
Peabo Dante White, who says he has lived mostly on the street since he was 14, and Nhiahni Abeena Chestnut, who has six children living with relatives in three states, have led complicated lives. Dante, who never finished at the District's vocational public high school and spent some time in jail, struggles to find words to express himself. Chestnut, who started college but detoured into drug problems, says she has been clean for several years. They share Dante's $675-a-month disability check, a result of his mental illness, but they remain stuck on waiting lists for subsidized housing.
Their Washington is a circuit of breakfasts from meal trucks, alleys and building vestibules that provide a few hours of shelter before men in uniforms come along, and hiding places where they try to keep cherished belongings from National Park Service cleaning crews. It doesn't always work: A few weeks ago, all of Dante and Nhiahni's clothing and documents vanished in a park cleanup.
When they were first together, Dante and Nhiahni rode city buses from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. each night, back and forth, trying to stay warm, sleeping as best they could while sitting up straight. "The bus drivers would never say anything as long as we sit up," Nhiahni says. But she got tired of never being able to lie down, so they found a park, near Union Station, then another, on E Street NW. The city's shelters were out of the question: Both of them had been jumped, robbed and harassed there.
"We stay by ourselves, to each other," Dante says. They live in fear, especially since their friend, Yoshio Nakada, a homeless man who sang to his fellow citizens of the street, was murdered, beaten in his sleeping bag across from the Watergate complex last Christmas Eve. For protection, Dante and Nhiahni depend on Missy, their chocolate-brown pit bull. Dante found Missy, bone-thin and whimpering, in a trash bin outside a Georgetown McDonald's. Dante says he has never known a love like he has for Missy -- well, maybe for the woman he has long called "my wife."
Missy brings safety, company and money. "It's tears in my eyes when I saw her first time, her bones," Dante says. "On the street, I don't ask for nothing. Never. But people give me money because Missy is there. I go out with Missy and people say, 'Are you homeless? Is your dog homeless?' I don't want to use my dog, but people want to give to her. I got $45 one day."
Nhiahni has had a string of short-term jobs; she was a cashier for the Washington Nationals when they were still playing at RFK Stadium. But like Dante, she's been unable to find work the past couple of years.
"People ask for your address, your number they can call," Dante says. "All things I don't know."
After next weekend, the tux goes back to the shop, the cake will be eaten, the hotel stay will end. The people of Grace Church want to make this a glorious week, then focus on helping the couple live under a roof instead of over a grate.
Dante is tired of the sidewalks. "My plan is to find a place to make my family safe and get a key and you can go in and out," he says.
Nhiahni hopes marriage will help them qualify for subsidized housing. "I know, after everything dies down, we'll still be on the outside. But I still can't wait for the wedding day. I just know I'll be crying and laughing and crying all together."