"I haven't been fishing for 20 years," said Randy Brachman as he settled back against a willow tree on the banks of the Potomac. "And I really don't know how."
He's 30, rode his bike down from 16th Street, handles inmate complaints for the Justice Department. He comes down to the Mall a lot. He bikes, Frisbees, plays softball, goes fishing.
"I don't expect to catch anything - that's not what it's about. Actually, it's mostly nostalgia. I've got my two peanut-butter sandwiches, just like when I was a kid," he said, patting his knapsack.
A sudden tug on his line. A bite? No, just a fishing jam. The kid next to him, Charles Boyd, 12, of Oxon Hill, wearing a tank top with HONDA emblazoned across the front, did the untangling. He'd caught a little six-inch fish that morning, Charles said, but he threw it back. Then he posed for a snapshot, holding his hands about a foot apart.
Every Saturday during softball season, March Proctor comes down to West Potomac Park to stand in the sun and keep score for the Long Shots. She lives in Kensington and works for the Energy Department. "This is our third year," she said. "It's a conglomeration of lawyers, Energy people, people from the Hill - basically friends." They were playing the Treasury Braves. And losing.
"Nah, I don't play," she said, sweat streaming down her face. "It's a men's league. It's serious business out there. All right Al, nice! Woo! What's the score? Well, at the moment it's 3-0, their favor. But our record is 5-and-0. Woo, he's out. I could've gone to the beach this weekend, but I didn't. I guess because it's friends here and it's relaxing. Nice and easy guys. Woooo-oo! All right! All right! We got a double play, Bernstein's up first, Wicker's up second. All right guys, nice and easy."
Behind her, shaded by a willow tree, three-month-old Beth snoozed in her carriage while Karen Dworkin, the catcher's girlfriend ("He usually drags me down here"), read a book - it really was all up to Proctor to cheer the team on.
When the players around off the field they were exuberant. Why wasn't clear. "This is the second half of the season and we've already slumped," said center field Mike Kaufman, 32, of Kensington. He said he was reliving his youth, "and that's the truth. This is an opportunity to rejuvenate myself. These guys are not quite up to my ability," he added, "but I still play with them."
We're all over 30 and we're all lawyers, except for Wicker. He's an MBA-type."
The Shots took the lead. Across the way, the Treasury Braves were getting nervous. "What's our record?" James Bailey repeated."I ain't gonna tell you that! But we have good spirit. We hang loose. Our first year we won one. Last year we won two. By forfeit."
About 700,000 people play sports on the Mall every year - about the same number as the District's total population - businessmen and bureaucrats, laborers and little kids, students and secretaries, united in their weekend scruffies and their inability to stay inside on a sunny Sunday.
Where do they all come from? All around the Beltway and, before that, all over the country. What do they play at? Everything, basically, but softball appears to be the biggest game in town, with 471 teams vying for 17 fields. This doesn't endear them to the soccer players, who also need more space, and they both spill over onto the polo field where, from time to time, they're both kicked off by the polo players. And who wants to argue with a 1,200-pound pony?
IN THE eastern edge of the polo field, six men with headbands were throwing boomerangs, getting ready for the Smithsonian festival. That is, Ben Ruhe, an expert from Australia, was throwing his boomerang and everyone else standing around in awe. Then they all start to throw, and there's no time for chitchat with a bystandder. "Fore," one said pointedly.
"Wow. I made it go farther that time Tom, and I let it down."
"This one with the grain pattern is best in less wind."
"What a beaut!"
"Okay, I'll do better this time."
"I'm just doing this for ego gratification."
IN THE northern edge of the polo field, a father-daughter game of catch kept getting interrupted by a gamboling two-year-old being chased around and periodically swooped up by his mother. "That poor kid is sufferin', boy," the man laughed. "That poor little kid can't even run around on the grass, I ain't kiddin', boy! Ain't nothin' out here but grass." The mother laughed and swooped the boy up again. "That's a good-lookin' kid," he called after them. Then back to the problem at hand. "All you gotta do is watch the ball, Kim," he told his daughter. "Just like tennis."
PATRICK FERRER, Curtis Washington and Bobby Hill, all 19, were strolling along Ohio Drive in West Potomac Park. Out for the air, they said. Maybe they'd do a little jogging. Given their walking speed, it didn't seem likely. Mainly they wanted their picture taken.
VOLLEYBALLISTS do not appear to be early risers. By 11 o'clock the softball players had been at it for hours, but the volleyball courts near the Kennedy Center were deserted.
By noon it was Beach Blanket Bingo revisited. The sand alongside the courts was littered with coolers, shoes, dogs, bodies and packs of cigarettes with keys and dollar bills stuffed in the cellophane.
The crowd is 30s-ish, professional, dressed in running shorts, tank tops, cut-offs. They work for the bureau of Labor Statistics, SEC, Navy, the American Bar Association. They do a lot of sports together - softball, rafting, ice-skating, biking, canoeing - and manage to fit volleyball in every third or fourth weekend. They don't have a name. "We're not really a team," they explained. "Wait'll you see us play. You'll see why."
They were right.
Some are more serious about their volleyball than others. It's instantly obvious that on the far side of the courts they know what they're doing.
"It generally shakes down that the better players play together," said Thomas Vonier, an architect who lives near Dupont Circle. He and his wife, Francoise, have been coming down to the courts for about five years. Now they bring their daughteer, Pascale. On watches her while the other plays.
"We don't go out of town on weekends," he said. "This is what we do instead. It's a good mix of exercise and socialization. We've made friends here that we see socially now. It's a very interesting game sociologically. There are professionals, military people, laborers, and most levels of ability can find a game to play in. It's fairly competitive, but it never really crosses the border of being enjoyable. There've been very few altercations, maybe two in the five years I've been down here."
"Put her hat on," Francoise yells from the middle of the game. Vonier grabs Pascale's floppy white sunbonnet from the ground and plunks it down on the baby's head. Pascale reaches up, takes it off, throws it on the ground.
People are walking up in droves. They kick off their shoes and park their coolers in the shade. Jeff Ponder, a guitar teacher from Fairfax, sits on the sidelines. "I was gonna play some two on two but I don't see a partner," he said. "I'll just wait. It's a nice day."
JOYCE ARANGO, who just moved here from San Diego, sat on the edge of the West Potomac Park polo field munching berries and watching her husband Roland play soccer. They biked down from the Palisades.
She's only been here three weeks and she is still in shock. "People in California are really organized around the ocean. They spend most of their time going to the beach. I lived right by the ocean, just eight blocks away." But she doesn't feel deprived. "This is fantastic! Who planned these open spaces? It really gives Washington a whole different air from other cities.
THE Sunday-morning soccer team looks as if it was put together by a crazed bureaucrat to satisfy an EEO requirement. On request, the players tick off the countries they represent: Italy, Sierra Leone, Argentina, Brazil, Taiwan, Panama, Peru, Germany, Chile, Spain, Wales and, in the distinct minority, the U.S. They are lawyers, housepainters, bureaucrats, students, laborers, businessmen.
They've been coming to this field more or less regularly for the last five years, and choose up sides "by shirts or skin." "except I keep my shirt on even if I'm skin," says Mary Lou Soller, 26, the only woman on the team.She works in the Public Defender's Office. Women aren't discriminated against, they all say, it's just that hardly any ever ask to play.
"We always welcome everybody," says Sorie Kamara, 25, of West Africa, a student at Howard, but everybody else yells, "Write that we play Saturdays in Bethesda!" "If too many people come the people who play regularly won't be able to get in a game," says Paul Levinski, 29, an "independently poor" student at Howard Dental School.
"I need a job," one guy moans to anybody who'll listen.
"Nothing is very precise about us," says Soller. "We play in the rain and we want to get rid of all the softball players." "We also want to get rid of the polo players," someone adds.
"We've all players in leagues," says Raymond Arango, "and most of us have found this to be the best situation. It's relaxed, we enjoy each other. We keep score, but winning isn't everything. You don't get hurt here playing kamikaze soccer."
"In a league team everybody gets upset," says Fred Rednor, 27, a computer programmer with IRS. "If somebody pushes you and a referee doesn't see, you'd get all upset. Here if somebody pushes me I know it's an accident."
Good luck for the job-seeker: "I have a construction company," a long-haired guy called over. "You a carpenter?" They arrange to meet on the site Monday morning.
No one on the team knows anyone else's last name or phone number. "The day we start exchanging phone numbers, we're gonna fall apart," somebody says.
AT THE east end of the Reflecting Pool, Jack Taylor of Marlow Heights was walking Bandit, his pet ferret. "I bring him down here for the trees and the water. He's carnivorous," Taylor explained with pride. "Kills snakes, rats. He'll tear a dog up in a minute." Bandit, three years old, was intricately harnessed and leashed. "I just wanted a pet I could leave all day while I worked. He's nocturnal. Got him from the Montgomery County dog pound. My neighbors love him - he doesn't bark."
Gabriel and Fleetwood, two dogs who'd just made each other's acquaintance, did bark. They barked at Bandit, who was pretty nonchalant considering, and at each other. They ran in and out of the Relfecting Pool while their respective mistress and master sunbathed around the edge. Up came a park policeman, with a lecture on the District leash law. Bandit looked smug.
THE west side of the Monument fsgrounds is Frisbee territory. It's a different atmosphere entirely up here, like a carnival. There's organ made music wafting down from some festival or other, vendors, and lots of tourists to jam up the words.
Down by the cherry trees a dozen or so students, most from George Washington University, passed a joint around and watched their friends play Ultimate Frisbee. "It's too loose," complained a girl wearing a bathing suit top and cut-offs. "Just tie it like you'd tie your shoe."
If you lie back and close your eyes. It's instant flashback. "Hello Dawn, you broke your hand, how'd you do that?" "Fell down." "Bet you were drunk." "That's the first thing my father said . . ."
"You a med student?" "No, pre-med . . ."
"I hated that class. I transferred here and they put me in it. I had my father call and everything . . ."
"You know what's really funny, you line up beer cans on top of the door jamb and they open their door and all the cans fall down."
"No, this is better, you take one of those metal bed frames, you know, from under the mattress? And you nail it to the front of the door, ad they open the door and they can't get out."
POLO-WATCHERS: A girl in minuscule cut-offs and waist-length brown hair. A dumpy guy in plaid pants. Lots of girls in sundresses. One black guy, wearing headphones and a long-sleeved warm-up jacket. A matron wearing real shoes and - gasp - stockings in the 93-degree weather. A beautiful Couple, tanned coiffed and gold-chained. Slobs off of bikes.
A young man with a bushy red beard, an arrogant manner and an adoring date. He's telling her the story of his house-riding days in Paris. His mother made him take lessons. The teachers were gay. He kept falling off. "That's terrible ," his girlfriend says, with feeling, at regular intervals. Luckily for all concerned, the school went out of business.
The ambience is a bit different from softball. You get swing music piped over the P.A. system, and a running commentary on the game by the announcer: This is a scrum, this is a chukker. "And it's Mr. Jack Whittemore with a nice off-side shot," he says. Only the planes flying low overhead drown him out. CAPTION: Chart, WHERE TO FIND PEOPLE DOING YOUR KIND OF THING; Illustration, no caption