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D.C. employee delivers Christmas tree to snowbound family

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009; B01

Until Sunday, Victoria Dawson's faith in the District government -- epic snowfall or not -- hovered somewhere around zilch.

Then Toran Felder, a gust of holiday magic dressed as an employee of the D.C. Department of Public Works, rang her doorbell.

"Oh, my God," Dawson said, bursting into laughter. "Oh, my God."

The man from DPW was holding a Christmas tree.

Like a lot of people in the Washington region, Dawson, a public school teacher, awoke that morning on a street buried under a foot or two of snow. She spent hours outside with her two kids and their neighbors, kibitzing as they drank hot chocolate, ate brownies and shoveled.

After 14 years on Asbury Place NW, a one-block street in American University Park, the last thing she thought she'd ever see was a District snowplow. One year, the neighbors chipped in $20 each to hire their own. "We were trained by the Barry administration to expect nothing," Dawson said.

On Sunday, about 11 a.m., a rumble could be heard around the corner.

Could it be? Dawson ran toward the racket, jumping up and down, flailing her arms as if she were being rescued from a desert island.

Here came the snowplow driver, making the turn onto their street until . . . he got stuck.

Eventually, he backed out, promising that another plow would be along.

"I thought, 'Yeah, it's not possible to be lucky twice with the District,' " Dawson recalled, "not in one day."

Two hours later, a second plow arrived, only to get stuck as well, which is what brought Felder -- a burly, $54,000-a-year supervisor -- to the rescue, barking orders with the booming voice of a stage actor.

Turning to the neighbors, Felder joked that another 18 inches of snow was on the way, which prompted Dawson, a single mother, to remark that she'd probably never get herself shoveled out, she'd never get her kids' Christmas presents, she'd never get a Christmas tree.

The man from DPW turned to her and launched into a sermon of sorts, the one he delivers to each of his seven children, his two ex-wives and anyone else who will listen. Every day that there's food on the table, every day that there's a roof overhead, that's Christmas, Felder said.

"We were just charmed," Dawson said.

And then he turned to her and asked, "Do you need a tree?"

She blanched. No! she stammered. Yes! No!

"I'm going to get you a tree," he said, and before Dawson knew what was happening, Felder had jumped into his pickup and disappeared. He didn't say when he would return -- he was a bit busy that day, to say the least -- but he promised it would be before Tuesday.

Felder, who has worked for DPW since 2000, said he is prone to random acts of charity. During a recent shift, he said, he came upon a bedraggled man going through garbage and took him out for a meal at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.

"It's the way I grew up," said Felder, who was raised in Seat Pleasant, the son of a construction worker.

In Dawson's case, Felder said when reached on his cellphone Wednesday, buying her a tree "just felt like something I needed to do. I wasn't looking for any kudos, believe me."

An hour after leaving Asbury Place, Felder was on his regular route when he spotted a tree lot on Massachusetts Avenue. "Man, I got a lady who needs a tree," he told the tree man. "Can you give me a nice price?"

For $30, Felder drove away with a tree nearly six feet tall. A co-worker in the truck with Felder looked at him and said, "Man, I don't believe this."

Dawson had a feeling that Felder would return, but seeing him there in her doorway, holding that tree, was astounding.

The visitor asked about her kids and their ages -- 11 and 15 -- and promised to return with gifts, which he did Wednesday -- a Michael Jackson CD for one, Earth, Wind & Fire for the other, and a scarf for the teacher.

Dawson offered him money for the tree, but he waved her off, leaving her slightly embarrassed over her good fortune and reveling in the magic of a Christmas week encounter on a snowbound street in Washington.

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