At the head of the table, the perfectly tuxedoed waiter from Ridgewell's stood still and stern last night, calmly pouring clam chowder into styrofoam cups as the worn hands of the homeless reached out again and again.
Farther down -- past the raw vegetables and the flower arrangements and the slender silver candelabra, past the apricot tarts and marscapone cheese with pine nuts and basil and the strawberry cake that read "Gimme Shelter," past the crowd pressing against actor Martin Sheen -- a clump of TV cameras recorded one man stuffing a foil tray with delicate roast beef and country pate' sandwiches.
At the shelter for the homeless at Second and D streets NW, the Community for Creative Non-Violence was having a party.
"It's a celebration," said CCNV leader Mitch Snyder. "We're celebrating because these nice folks are here to make a movie about us and they're going to provide 135 jobs a day. We're celebrating because there's nice food and nice friends here."
The nice folks were people like Sheen, in Washington to star in a TV docudrama about Snyder's life, which will begin shooting today with Washington homeless as extras. The nice food came from caterers around the city; a plump and purple Ridgewell's truck was parked just outside the decrepit shelter. The nice friends were an amalgam of hundreds of shelter residents, volunteers, members of the press, politicians, one woman in mink who worried about her purse and whether "you could catch something here" and a good number of highly rouged teen-age girls there to see Cicely Tyson, who didn't show, and Sheen, who finally did.
"There's a little incongruity, but it's okay if you have a good sense of humor," said CCNV founder Ed Guinan, who was standing in the street watching with a bemused smile as the crowd jostled to get into the basement party. Guinan, no longer affiliated with CCNV, works at a private residence for mentally retarded adults. "I think the people enjoy it. They've been ignored all their lives and for a few brief moments they're getting some attention."
Inside, a gospel group was singing. Volunteers passed out sodas, cider and grape and mango juice. The sandwiches and tarts were definitely more popular than the raw vegetables.
"You look around and you see a lot of the people have mental problems -- they were deinstitutionalized -- and they can't compete in the housing market even if they do get a check," said Connie Ridge, who has worked with the homeless as a volunteer for years. "I don't know what the answer is. No one does."
But of the party, she said, "I think it's great. I saw one table with people who were obviously from the suburbs sitting with the homeless and they were having a nice conversation. They're seeing the others are not all devils."
"Where's Cicely?" someone shouted, although few could hear the cry through the air thick with smoke and noise.
Sheen arrived after a day spent wrapped in blankets and sitting on a heat grate, talking with Snyder about the life of the homeless. ("While we were sitting there," Sheen said, "a very kind and generous man gave us 45 cents.") The actor was instantly mobbed. Only his hair, rising up from his scalp in a deliberately ragged fashion that looked more Sunset Boulevard than Second Street, could be seen above the microphones and autograph books.
"Very strange," said one photographer. "Very strange. Warhol should be here."
Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md.) was thrust next to Sheen and Snyder for a picture, as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Mayor Marion Barry would be later.
There were other, less recognizable Hollywood faces than Sheen's.
"Deborah Levine and I are producers -- the two Debs, they call us," a woman in a pale silver, full-length down coat said. Her name was Debbie Robins. "We initiated this project two years ago, the two Debs. We only do issue-oriented movies, so it was right up our alley."
The Debs became part of the Mitch Snyder story after seeing a piece about the activist on CBS' "60 Minutes"; 37 other production groups also watched the show and rushed to Washington to meet Snyder, according to the Debs. The second Deb (Levine) remembered, "There was a joke in Hollywood: 'Have you been to the shelter?' "
But the Debs and producer Chuck Fries, whom Levine and Robins work for, got the deal. Fries was at the party last night too.
"The two Debs called my attention to the story," he said. "They're the gals who got us involved."
Levine was surveying the surrounding activity: A singer was shouting "Mitch Snyder -- You are our hero!"; a hunched-over Sheen slouched in his chair and signed napkins; a pin-stripe-suited Barnes signed congressional business cards. "It may look a little Hollywood to some," Levine said, "but they know how to use the press here, and they need all the help and attention they can get because there are forces trying to close the shelter down."
The status of the shelter has been uncertain for several years. In response to a Snyder hunger strike in 1984, President Reagan promised two days before his reelection that the shelter would be turned into a model facility. But after difficult negotiations with CCNV, the Department of Health and Human Services last year ruled the building a safety hazard and ordered it closed, to be replaced by a shelter in Anacostia. Reagan rescinded the order in late December, and Barry pledged the city would spend $250,000 for emergency repairs. Snyder thanked the mayor last night, but he and his followers also remembered Reagan's promise.
"If that promise were made to anybody but homeless people . . . that promise would be kept," Snyder told the audience, which obviously agreed, "but it was made to us and it wasn't kept!"
The crowd roared.
And then, suddenly, the evening was ending. Flowers were taken away, chocolate macaroon crumbs swept up.
"I was just going to donate some food," said Ridgewell's partner Jeff Ellis, as the candelabra and silver soup tureens left the tables, "but I came down and I'd never been here before and I was really taken by it and I decided to do something more. It's just something that I fell upon and it felt good. You look at the homeless, and they're not treated like this. I thought I'd like to give them a treat, show them how others live."
Standing in the back guarding Ridgewell's temporary kitchen was Daryl Cohen, 25, a shelter resident of four months.
"I think it's a tremendous opportunity for the residents of the shelter," he said about the party. "I'd say a majority of them have never seen anything like this."
But it was, he added quickly, "not glamorous. It's superficial glamor. They have four candlesticks, but you still see the lights above them."
And for shelter residents, he said, the movie about Snyder feels about as insubstantial as the fancy candles.
"It's just another something that's just blowing by. These people are paying attention to surviving."