The little boys are pedaling as fast as they can, trying desperately to keep up with the whipped-cream-white SUV as it cuts through the sunshine. Marion Barry is in the back seat, wearing sunglasses, grinning.
"Mar'nbarry . . . Mar'nbarry . . . Mar'nbarry."
The little boys are yelling and shouting as loud as they can, their bicycles swooping through the streets of Southeast.
"Mar'nbarry . . . Mar'nbarry . . . Mar'nbarry."
He squints at them, into the morning. He hears them fine enough, and he's grinning the big country grin that served him so well over so many years as a riveting, polarizing and beguiling politician of the nation's capital.
These are hard and gritty streets, and sometimes it seems as if they're still in a slumber, from the '70s, from the '80s, from Mayor Marion Barry's glory years. Frozen in the amber that is Marion.
He bends out of the GMC Yukon as it comes to a stop. The grin's so wide, so churchy. Screen doors are being pushed open, and stout women and skinny men are coming out to offer greetings.
"Hi, baby." Barry has walked up to a comely woman. "How you doing? What's your name? Where you live? You married? Gimme kiss." Barry has an easy way with the language of the street and uses it to his advantage in a way that other politicians can only envy. He bends down and receives his kiss.
Barry is one of seven candidates running for the Ward 8 D.C. Council seat in Tuesday's Democratic primary. The winner is likely to sail to victory in November. Of course, Barry is an old story, a nostalgia act -- like the Dells or the Stylistics singing groups, some say. A 68-year-old man with a mess of a history. Still, those who would author his political obituary have been fooled before. Both Barry and his main opponent, two-term incumbent Sandy Allen, predict the vote will be close.
The perpetual pol is wearing a white-and-blue sweat suit and a billed cap. There is a puppet's looseness to his movements, but sometimes, when he has to bend, a grimace will cross his face. And so here he stands, swallowing the pill that all aging and proud politicians have swallowed for years across the American landscape: time.
On this sunny day -- "Mar'nbarry" ringing in his ears -- it goes down just fine.
This is how he put it a couple of days earlier: "This guy in prison told me, he say, 'Marion, do the time. Don't let the time do you.' "
He started out the morning late -- first it was 30 minutes, then an hour.
But then there he was, at campaign headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
"Where my credit card?" he asks a staffer. Last night the campaign was running low on cash. Money was needed for gas and supplies.
His headquarters sits next door to Capitol Fried Chicken and across the street from ACE Cash Express. It's less than 30 yards from Allen's headquarters. Her forces are out this morning, too, preparing their own campaign caravan.
The first salvo, over the loudspeaker, comes from Barry's people. "Somebody's gonna be lookin for a job in 10 days!" bellows Muhammad Abdullah. He's a volunteer, visiting from Las Vegas, wearing a skull cap and a flowing shirt.
"Salaam alaykum," Barry says to Abdullah. Peace be upon you.
Abdullah's wife, Imani, is busy handing out leaflets. "Praise to Allah," Barry says to Imani.
Linda Greene is there. She once lived with Johnny Carter. He sang with the Dells. They've got a daughter together. Now she's Barry's spokeswoman and political adviser. Actually, she runs the ship. Greene's in a huff at the moment. She claims the Allen camp has been snatching Barry signs from yards and replacing them with Allen signs. She's holding a copy of a certified letter she sent to the Allen camp. "I'm filing a complaint with the board of elections," she hisses.
The sun is shining. She needs a cigarette.
"Okay, come on. Let's go," instructs Barry. "Linda, where you want me to sit? Huh. Just give me some direction. Tell me where to sit."
Barry is folding himself into the SUV's back seat, hooking his right hand beneath his knee, lifting the knee as he bends. The knee hurts. Soon he's talking about growing up in Mississippi and picking cotton. His head's rolling side to side like a balloon a few hours after the birthday party ends. "You could never see the end of the rows of cotton. You know, for a young boy, that's frustrating."
Then the former mayor says -- he'll switch thoughts in mid-sentence like a rabbit changing direction -- "There's no question I'm ahead in the race. The job is easy. Go to the committee meetings. Come out here and talk to the people."
He's waving out the window. "Hey, darling. Love you. Need your vote." He's unwinding, getting started, sipping coffee from a yellow mug.
Then the words come pouring from the loudspeaker: "Ladies and gentlemen, come on out and greet Marion Barry, the man who marched with Martin Luther King, the Muhammad Ali of politics, your champion!"
The SUV and a van roll to a stop, volunteers hop out, exchange quick words with some residents, then proceed to pound Barry signs into yards. Donald Sobokhan is one of those doing the hammering. He's 73 years old. The hammer hangs wobbly in his hand. He's wearing shorts and his socks are pulled up to his kneecaps, tight. The mayor is getting out now, opening the door. A second later he's deep in conversation with a woman, a potential voter. She's twentysomething, cute. She's smiling, he's leaning close.
"Bye, baby," Barry says, turning in his sneakers, having charmed the converted.
Several blocks onward, he's leaning out the window: "Awright now. Vote. Vote. Thank you, brother." The Bald Eagle Recreation Center is coming up on the right. "I built that. You know what I mean. My administration built it."
Around the corner -- with the loudspeaker drawing the curious -- a lady is running down off her front porch. She has a picture of Barry in her hands. Some people have pictures of Martin and Bobby and Jack in their homes. She has Marion. In the picture he's wearing an Afro. The Afro's gone now.
"Well, I'll be," Barry says. Then he turns slightly and spots a big guy. "You know you got my vote," says David Stewart, 30. "Ain't even gotta ask. When I was out there, in the nightclub world, Mr. Barry used to come to the nightclubs."
His Honor used to have a "Saturday Night Fever" penchant, which enthralled some city residents, while others were repulsed by stories of womanizing and drug use.
Stewart's a truck driver. He doesn't worry about Barry's past. "We all have had trials and tribulations. God gave him a second chance."
Barry hears it all, listening to the way people in living rooms listen to good music when the TV is off.
Ruby Bradley is suddenly in Barry's ear, talking about the past, good times, old times, time.
"How old you now?" Barry wants to know.
"I'm 60 now," she says.
"You're 60! No, you're not! Didn't you call me a couple weeks ago?"
"Yeah," says Bradley. "You know I follow you all the time."
"Gimme kiss. Bye, y'all. I gotta go now."
A knot of kids is across the street, staring, wide-eyed, as if they're watching something unfold on a movie screen.
Barry spots an elderly man standing behind a screen door. There's a "Barry Ward 8" sign in the man's front yard. "Hey, like that sign," Barry says, pointing. Barry waves, the man doesn't. Maybe he didn't hear him. Barry's voice is weak, like he's at the far end of a hallway. His communications with the elderly can be a painful pantomime of the hard-of-hearing and the weak-voiced.
Barry's riffing now about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and Hubert Humphrey, about Atlantic City and that 1964 Democratic convention. The rabbit is changing direction again. About his work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the '60s. "I was making $50 a week," he says. "Reginald Robinson was with me in Mississippi. I got him a job. He's still around D.C. I almost got killed in Mississippi."
Almost got killed?
"Yeah. I'll tell you about it in a minute."
Then he's talking about his diabetes and being sent "all over" to different doctors and insurance companies. And the medicine he takes. "That's why I lost all this weight," he says. In recent years, Barry's medical maladies have included anemia, high blood pressure and prostate cancer.
The price of "high livin'," he says, is costly. There's not an ounce of irony in his voice.
He's out of the SUV again. A woman is striding toward him. Already he's grinning.
"I was 17, 18 when he was mayor," says Vanessa Thigpen, now 36. "A friend of mine, Linda Moody, used to live on Oakwood Street SE. We lived in the house beside her. Well, she threw a party and the mayor came."
Barry cuts her off. No need for historical asides about partying.
"Where you working?" he wants to know.
"I'm not," she answers, hands on hips. "It's hard to find a job."
"Weren't you in my summer jobs institute?" Barry asks.
"No. Oh, wait a minute. Yes I was!"
He's got affirmation now. The jobs program. Those were the days. He puts the sunglasses back on. "Linda, let's go."
"When I was growing up," Barry continues, back in the SUV, "I went to segregated movie theaters. Whites downstairs, blacks upstairs. Actually, you got a better view upstairs. My mother gave me a quarter every Saturday."
The driver is pulling to the curb. Potential voters have been spotted.
"Hey, man. You vote?" Barry wants to know.
They seem a little surprised: Marion Barry, standing in their front yard, easy like Sunday morning. His eyes shift to the woman beside the man. "That your wife? How you get so lucky? Ha ha ha. I need your vote now. Bye."
He's rolling again. Back to Mississippi: "So with the quarter my momma give me, I'd spend 12 cents on the ticket, 5 cents for popcorn, and 3 cents for a long piece of black licorice. See, they'd show serials, cartoons, before the movie. And they'd show you just enough of the serial to make you come back the next week. Ain't that something? Ha. And when I'd get home, I'd listen to the radio. The Shadow. 'The Shadow knows!' Linda, you too young to remember that."
"Dick Tracy on radio."
"Oh, yes. Way too young," she says.
"Dick Tracy had a two-way radio," Barry says. "It wasn't worth a damn."
He leans out the window, nearly singing his words out. "Hey, beautiful, I want your vote. Hey now. Need your vote. Hey now. Awright."
Minutes later, a man approaches the SUV as it slows to round a curve. The man is clearly inebriated. Barry looks at him with sympathy.
"That's what we need! Somebody bring pride back into the city," the inebriated man says, peering inside the SUV.
"That's right," Barry says softly. "Pride."
Barry's cell phone rings -- it's his son Christopher. The brief chat ends. "Christopher is deputy campaign manager," Barry says. A couple of staffers have looks on their faces as if that's news to them. "But he's in school now. Hard to catch up to him. He's in love now. It's the first love of his life. Sister Imani, we gotta hit it. Let's roll."
They come to a stop on Galveston Place. A woman stomps down to the van.
"Where Mr. Barry at?" she demands, looking right at the former mayor.
"Right here," Barry answers.
"Oh. Lord Jesus. You look so different," Veris McNeill, 42, says. It doesn't sound like a compliment.
Barry stays in the SUV, as if frozen by her tone.
She's arched her back and raised her voice. "We are homeowners. Right here. So I want you to represent homeowners! There are drugs on this block! After the election, people won't know nothing about Galveston Place. We got cars right here that have been burned up. Abandoned buildings where people go to have sex. I paid a lot of money to live in this building! And I love you Marion Barry. But I ain't supporting nobody. I been here 11 years and I have to sit in my window to watch and make sure nobody steals my car or bust my tires!"
This is not what Barry had planned on hearing. McNeill stares at him. "Okay, baby," he finally says, almost a whisper. "But don't blame me. I didn't do it." She's getting ready to launch another salvo but gets interrupted by her children.
Barry rolls down the street, smiling and waving. "I want your vote now. I need you."
Soon after, he's riding by a piece of vacant property, pointing. "All that, right over there, it's prime property. I tried to get the city to develop it when I was in office."
Back to Mississippi: "When I was out picking cotton, we'd take two baloney sandwiches to the field. That's all we had. And sometimes you'd have sardines and pork and beans. Let's go. I'm hungry."
They stop at a convenience store and Barry strides inside to buy some lunch. Back in the SUV, he tears open a package of turkey-ham, folding two slices and making himself a turkey-ham and cracker sandwich. The crumbs are flying everywhere. "I gotta send someone back to that store and ask for a campaign contribution," he says. The SUV is back on Martin Luther King. "In the 1960s, white people owned all this," he says, waving a hand with a piece of turkey-ham in it, pointing out the window. Then some apartment buildings come into view. "I got these built 15 to 20 years ago."
The driver's going too slow for Barry's taste. "Let's go." Looking out the window: "Hey now. Need your vote. Need your vote."
Boom and Busted
It's such a staggering political drama, goes back so many years, with so much darkness and moments of brilliant light. It crosses all the potent intersections of race and sex and crime. It's part blaxploitation movie and part civil rights history. It began in the Mississippi Delta and flowered in the nation's capital.
A newcomer to the District might not know the contours of Barry's rise and fall. A gawker on the streets of Southeast might wonder how he gets those children to race alongside him -- "Mar'nbarry, Mar'nbarry" -- and the elderly women to ask him to take a picture.
Maybe it's because of the transit boycott he led back in the '60s to protest an increase in bus fares. Maybe it's because of the Free D.C. movement he founded, when residents were saying the city was being held in a colonial grip by Congress. Maybe it's from his D.C. Council run in 1974 or from being shot by those Hanafi Muslim terrorists who had stormed the District Building in 1977. ("Almost got killed.") Maybe it's from his first term as mayor. Or maybe the second and third terms. Mayor of Chocolate City. The folks out in Phoenix and Brooklyn and San Diego knew Chocolate City, heard of its mayor. Tune the dial to Melvin Lindsay and Quiet Storm and you might not only hear sweet Al Green but Marion Barry also, lauding his city. He wasn't Gold Coast, he wasn't high-sassiety. And when he got busted at what was then the Vista International Hotel in 1990 and went to prison for six months on a federal charge of drug possession -- released in 1991 -- it only added to his aura, to the cult of Marion. It would have deep-sixed many a political career. But not Barry. He was back on the council in 1992 and won a fourth term as mayor in 1994.
'I Came Back Strong'
Days before he took that campaign outing through Southeast, he is sitting in the outdoor cafe of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. He's dining on oysters, wearing a big Panama hat, wide-collared green shirt, gray slacks and lizard shoes.
When he first decided to run for the Ward 8 seat, he says, he phoned two people. His mother, in Memphis, and Greene. He and Greene go back many years, all the way to the '60s.
"She was fine as wine then," says Barry.
"And you were single then," says Greene, sitting at the table. "Very single."
Everyone, he knows, has wondered why he's running. Isn't there a book to write?
"Actually, I had a writer," Barry says. "He got me up to my first administration, then left on me. Anyway, I think I'd be better off with a fiction writer. Fiction writer can bring the dead parts of the story alive." He says this with a straight face.
Financially, Barry is not well off. "I'm a public servant," he says, alluding to his lack of savings. "I don't make no money. And I ain't gonna steal none."
So they launched a campaign on the cheap.
"For a normal candidate running a ward race, you'd need about $100,000 to $150,000," says Greene. "For Marion, it only takes about $50,000. He doesn't have to spend money on advertising. The people already know him." Greene goes on: "We gonna win. We were out in the rain a couple weeks ago. Folk came out in the rain, in pajamas. To shake this man's hand."
"Let me tell you a story," Barry begins again, sliding his big hand around an oyster, slurping it off the shell. "People in my neighborhood, when I was growing up, went to jail or to the cemetery. I knew nothing about college. My mother was a domestic. I was finally hoping I'd get a scholarship for college. I got accepted to Morehouse and Fisk. Morehouse wrote me. I finally went to LeMoyne College in Memphis. I was supposed to be commencement speaker at LeMoyne a couple years ago" -- the rabbit's jumping around again -- "somebody dropped the ball. Anyway, Morehouse told me to bring my work boots. Said I'd have to be working in some fields as part of work-study. I said 'Oh, no.' I'd had enough working in the fields. So I went to LeMoyne."
He's been married four times and now lives alone. There are all those physical ailments. Emerging from some hospital stays, he has looked gaunt, wounded. The past couple years have been slow. He was doing some consulting. "Some mornings I'd get up, go over to a school, and read to the kids," he says.
"I had retired in my own mind. Hadn't done much since '98 [when he left the mayor's office]. I was content trying to get through this divorce" from wife No. 4, Cora Masters Barry.
Then it started coming, those tugs at his elbow, whispers in his ear, complaints about the city's woes. Never mind that the city's economic woes and crime problems darkened under Barry's own watch.
"This whole thing started a year ago," Barry says. "I'd go to the Safeway on Alabama and Good Hope -- I approved $10 million when I was in office to build that Safeway. Anyway, I'd go in there, trying to shop. I'm a pretty gregarious person. People would come up to me. I don't hear nothing but complaints about what Sandy's not doing, what the mayor's not doing. So I started looking around and talking to the people about Ward 8. Wasn't no sense of pride. I started praying on it. I do believe in prayer. For real. Instead of just listening to the complaints, I decided to run."
Oysters finished, he starts in on seasoned noodles.
"People are out of work, desperate," he says. "They feel down. God gave me a gift to uplift. I uplifted myself. We the worst ward in town. Dropout rate, cancer rate. Almost every area you name, I can do a thousand times better than Sandy. When I get in there, I'll get a bill going to renovate housing. Ward 8 has always been neglected. Except by me. When I was mayor."
The hurt souls walking around Southeast? ("We call it Soufeast," he instructs.) The problems with crack addiction and alcoholism? "I been there," he says. "I never been hopeless, but I been down. They saw me get up. Not let anybody break my spirit. I came back strong. When people see something like that, they get inspired. When you fall down, land on your back. With your head looking up. If you can see up, you can get up."
He orders dessert: strawberries and chocolate.
Poor Sandy Allen.
The dutiful public servant, a bee of a government worker -- Department of Public Works, D.C. Public Schools, D.C. Department of Corrections -- for more than three decades. Now she's the two-term Ward 8 council member, and chairman of the Committee on Human Services. And she's fighting for her political life.
She's sitting in her Southeast office, elegantly dressed in a lime green suit, sipping a ginger ale.
Barry called her: "Sandy, let's have lunch." Greetings, hugs, the country grin turned right on her. Then down to business. He was going to run. For her seat. "Surprised was not the word," she says now, steam in her voice. "Four years earlier he had been talking about what a good job I had done."
She whips out an endorsement letter Barry wrote on her behalf in 2000.
When Barry came out of prison and ran for a council seat, she was his campaign manager. Now she feels double-crossed. "It gave me another insight into Marion," she says. "But this is politics." She goes on: "I asked Marion before I took the job as campaign manager if he was going to be truthful to my constituents in Ward 8." Two years later, Barry launched a run for mayor. "I should have learned from then," she says. "He used us to become mayor."
She predicts victory. But everyone in her camp worries about nostalgia, about the cult of Marion. "Mr. Barry had a name. People have been hearing it for 20 years. Like Elvis."
She turns to his personal troubles. "Mr. Barry's alleged drug use -- this last time, well, there was no conviction. Maybe it's hearsay. I don't talk about hearsay."
She's referring to a March 2002 incident at Buzzard's Point, when Barry -- sitting alone in a Jaguar in a no-parking zone -- was questioned by police. Initial reports mentioned a white powdery substance that had allegedly been seen under Barry's nose. Police determined that whatever substance was in the car, there was too little to mount a prosecution. Just then, outside Allen's door, comes a voice from a loudspeaker: "Cast your vote for Marion Barry!"
"He has diabetes and hypertension," she says. "He says it will have no impact on the way he thinks. As lay people, we know those things have an impact on the way you think. Mr. Barry's just not as vigorous or articulate as he used to be. My biggest concern is why would he prey on the people who have the greatest need for counseling, for abuse treatment? My colleagues on the council follow me on these type of issues."
She's riled up. She takes a sip of her ginger ale to clear her throat. "The reason he picked this ward to live in is he thought the people were weak enough to fall for his game."
You ask Marion Barry if he aims to run for mayor if he wins. Silence. Then: "No comment." Then the wide grin, spreading slow like maple syrup on a dinner plate.
Barry has hopped out of the SUV again. He sees smoke. Someone's barbecuing. "I wonder if it's ready," he says of these strangers' barbecue, a family reunion.
A man standing over a grill sees Barry coming, feels his privacy is being invaded. "No pictures," he says. "Yes, we got hamburgers almost ready."
"Okay," says Barry. "You got any bread?"
"Only wheat bread," the cook says. "We don't eat white bread."
The former mayor rips into a hamburger, his third helping of meat in five hours. He hasn't touched a piece of fruit or a vegetable all day.
Five minutes later, Barry's in a parking lot, about to appear in an anti-violence video that some rappers are shooting. An inebriated man comes over, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans.
"I love you, man," the man says, throwing his arms around Barry's neck.
Barry is bobbing as he makes his way to the stage, which is actually someone's balcony overlooking the parking lot. The music is loud and Barry is swaying with the kids. He glances to see what's hissing on the grill. Weiners and burgers.
"I love you, man," the inebriated man says again, keeping in lockstep with Barry.
"Love you too," Barry finally says.
Barry is on the stage-balcony. One of the singers hands him the microphone. Earth Wind & Fire's "Devotion" is playing. It was hot a long time ago, when Chocolate City was humming. When Marion Barry was the best known piece of chocolate.
"I been down, but I been up," Barry says, becoming a part of the video. "When you fall down, do like me, fall on your back. That way you can see up. If you can see up, you can get up. Now, I'm No. 4 on the ballot, got a good candidate in me. Good people around me. Thank you. God bless."
There's sweat on his neck and a bounce in his step as he strolls through the smoke of the grills into the parking lot, heading for the SUV.
A woman wants to offer her sentiments about Barry.
"When we had him in office, we got respect. I was raised right here in Anacostia," says Debra Harris, 40. Barry is standing inches away, listening to her endorsement.
"Debra," he says. "You cute. You married?"
"Where your husband at?"
"Right here," she says, grabbing the arm of a man who has come up behind her.
"Oh," says Barry. "Hi, husband."
He's moving on now, having traveled the length of the parking lot, to get to the SUV.
He's rolling past Matthews Memorial Baptist Church. The Rev. John Henry Kearney preached there for years. "I spoke there not long ago," Barry begins. "Rev. Kearney said, 'I don't want you to run, Marion, but if you do, I'll run with you.' The place went wild. Four weeks later, he died. Now that's a powerful story."
Minutes later the former mayor has nodded off. But at Minnesota and 16th he snaps awake. "I'm going to double the schools' athletic budgets when I get in office," he says. "You know something? Baltimore does a great job with their school athletics."
A woman is walking up to the SUV.
"How you doing, baby?" Barry says.
"I finished a school training program and you sent me a certificate," she says, beaming. "I'll never forget it. Thank you."
"See," he says, rolling away, "it's the little things. People don't forget."
Here comes a girl with a tattoo on her arm. Cameo Ooten is 29, a student at U-D.C. She's right in Barry's face. "I didn't get pregnant. Didn't have no kids. Didn't do all that wild stuff. But I can't get free food or a free apartment. What you gonna do for me?"
Barry starts to raise his hand, to answer.
"You don't have to answer now," Ooten says. "Just think about it."
Minutes later, A.D. Marshall, the advance man who has been riding in the caravan, comes walking back to the SUV. He's found a block party, fire trucks blocking the street off. "Oh, I done told them about you, Marion. They waitin.' "
"Let's go," Barry says.
Folks are coming up to him the moment he alights. A lady says he helped her get her nephew out of jail and on the right track. Another woman says he helped with a job. Another woman wants a picture. Barry is kissing cheeks, hugging children, walking like a wounded athlete.
"They try to hit him with everything they can," says Abdullah Muhammad, leaning on a fence, watching. "Call him a crack addict. All kinds of stuff. Well, there ain't no angels out here."
It's hot and the music is blaring. The politician doesn't wilt, but the advance man does. "My blood pressure," Marshall says, walking his wide body to a seat. A firefighter rushes to the truck and comes back with an oxygen mask.
Barry is leaning on a fence, chatting. A woman walks up to him, joining the cacophony.
"What's your name? Where you live? You married? I need your vote now."
Someone tugs him into the street where they're dancing the Electric Slide, one of those dances so popular a long time ago, when Marion Barry was bewitching the populace of his Soufeast, his Chocolate City.
Doing the time. Raising an arm, snapping his fingers. Grinning the country grin.