Vortex (vor-teks) n. a whirling mass of water forming a vacuum at its center, into which anything caught in the motion is drawn; whirlpool; a whirl or powerful eddy of air; whirlwind; any activity, situation or state of affairs that resembles a whirl or eddy in its rush, absorbing effect, catastrophic power, etc.
"You don't have mints?" a man in a blue jacket and black horn-rimmed glasses shouts, squeezing the words through the small openings in the bulletproof glass. "The kind you put in your mouth," he yells, gesturing as if the thick barrier is blocking the clarity of his words.
"Why would you go over there and get a pack of potato chips when I said mints? He got a [expletive] bag of potato chips when I said mints. Why would he try to give me a pack of potato chips when I said mints?" he says to no one in particular as he walks out the door.
A woman in a pink knit poncho with white fingernail polish orders 10 small bottles of vodka, as if the request is normal.
The Big Ben Liquors cashier, standing high on a platform behind the glass, repeats: "You want 10?"
"Yes," the woman says, "as in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10." She presses her fingers with each number, making sure nothing gets lost through the barrier. The cashier wraps her bottles in brown paper and the customer leaves.
"Give me two packs of Dittos," another woman says. "No, I didn't say pickles, damn it."
The misunderstandings over words and accents at this liquor store at New York Avenue and North Capitol Street give way now and again to promises:
"Give me a pack of Skittles. I'll bring a nickel back. I'll give you 5 cents tomorrow, promise. Please. Pretty please."
"I'm short a dime," a man instructs after lining up his coins to buy a bottle. He turns and asks a customer who speaks Spanish whether she has one to spare. "You got a dime? You know, 10 cents?" -- explaining the figure as if she, too, can't understand.
A woman in a black hat and red jeans enters: "Anybody want to buy a watch for a mother or sister?" She digs into her purse and pulls out a watch with a pink plastic band. People look. Nobody says anything.
"I guess ya'll goin' deaf around here," she announces.
Nobody says anything.
"Anybody want to buy a watch for a mother and sister?" she repeats.
"No," the cashier finally says.
The woman slides the watch back in her purse and leaves.
Inside the bulletproof fortress protecting seller and goods from those who enter, Harjinder Singh, the owner of Big Ben, barely smiles. He is not here to judge people but to provide their daily bread, whatever is needed to sustain. "We sell mostly beers and alcohol, not candy," he says. "People tell me what they need. They said, 'I need bread.' I get bread. They said, 'I need oil.' I get oils."
Singh, who came here from the Punjab region of India 20 years ago, lives in Fairfax, and after buying this business he has spent the last year "learning to talk to people and figuring out what they wanted. If they yell at you, you know it doesn't mean anything. Sometimes they bang the glass. Now, it doesn't bother me."
Singh bought the business -- not the building -- for $300,000 plus inventory from a man who was shot in a bloody robbery that left him paralyzed. "It's a very hard business," he says. "You can talk to intoxicated people not in their senses."
On the other side of the transparent divide between two distinct cultures are his customers, regulars who come every day in need of something, getting something else. There is a rhythm in their search for life's necessities. Not a word is spoken about politics or a new administration. Nobody is talking about red vs. blue America or the price of health care or how the Democrats lost. What is sought most are "forties" and vinegar and salted potato chips, PimpJuice energy drink, blunt paper, bleach, toilet paper, Ice Blue malt liquor, cornstarch and lottery tickets upon which they scribble random figures, birth dates, Social Security numbers, any combination that might bring them luck and a ticket out of here.
If one were to stand there in Big Ben every day for a week, in the corner quietly, looking, this is what one might learn: There are two kinds of people in this room -- those who seek and those who have what is sought. Each awaits the neighborhood to be gentrified around a new Metro stop. Each awaits the newcomers to transform this place into their likeness.
Big Ben sits at the intersection of two major roads in Washington and into Washington, a convergence of people who travel through and people who never leave. What is it like to travel a road every workday, looking at places from the outside in but never stopping the car to get out, walk into that corner store and find out that the man you may think is a dealer is really a poet, and the girl who is walking to the liquor store is going there not for a bottle but to pay a utility bill? And that she has dreams about living in a big house if only she could get some education.
Get out of the car in this particular vortex and one may learn that the man sitting on the corner is a millionaire and the barbershop owner down the street bought up prime properties in the neighborhood long ago, before prices skyrocketed; therefore, he's now sitting on a gold mine. Park the car on North Capitol and one may smell the mixture of liquor and fried chicken -- then discover Ella's, a middle-class coffeehouse and art shop, and the Soul Spa, which could rival any five-star hotel boutique. And all the while, listen to the noise of the street and realize it is poetry in commotion.
Daily, streams of commuters pass them: the barbershop, the coffee shop, a church attached to a row of houses, a dress shop with pretty hats but no customers -- landmarks on the way to someplace else, sitting on corners watching life pass. Some corners are sacred. Some corners mark dividing lines. Some corners hold their own little worlds of supply-and-demand economics, places where those who stand there can carve out places of relevance.
Traffic in, Traffic Out
Before the door opens one recent morning on this vortex, we hear traffic over wet pavement, snatches of conversations, the banter of drug addicts leaving the methadone clinic and heading to the soup kitchen around the corner.
"They serving . . . what's that? Tuna fish casserole. You don't want that."
There is a rhythm in the store, a symphony in the cacophony.
"You got some shorties? Can I get a 10-12?"
"I want some PimpJuice. Give me a bottle of that."
"Give me a roll of toilet paper, the Scott kind."
"And a box of sugar."
"Give me Smirnoff Ice and a box of Red Hots."
"Give me some hot pork skin."
Cashier: "We have bar-be-que?"
Customer: "No, I said hot pork skin, man. That'un right there. Hot-pork skin, not bar-bee-que."
"Hey, mister," a drunk man says, trying to maintain what is left of his dignity. "Please let me go to the bathroom. I'm about to piss on myself."
A woman in a red coat who wants a $75 money order looks at the man, who races out of the store. "He done already peed," she says, like a narrator.
A man walks in with three sticks of incense burning. He has a nail clipper hanging from his belt. He sets down his cane and takes four wrinkled dollar bills from his wallet. He separates the bills, spreading them into a fan. He puts them back into his wallet. Then he walks out, never having asked for anything and never having received it.
In walk two men in mid-conversation. They stand beneath the green sign advertising Newport Pleasures for $3.85, tax included. "They speed through the street and run over us and they be like, 'Sorry,' " one man says with mock sympathy.
"But your ass is dead and they be like, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' Still your ass is dead." Their point is made in a succinct way that could never be captured by a safe-city campaign.
There is steady traffic in Big Ben. The ones who want liquor, soft drinks and PimpJuice go to the right. The lottery players go left. The most beautiful regular lottery player is an older woman with a golden wig on top of black hair, wearing black Nike shoes. She arrives in the afternoon, glances sideways at the winning numbers flashing in red neon. She takes a slip of paper, squeezing it as if for inspiration. She does not give her name or talk about her method. "I need all my attention for that," she says, and there is not a hint of kindness reserved for strangers in her voice. She is always just a number away from winning. Yesterday she was just three numbers off. It's always that close and just that far away.
Albert Freeman, 59, comes here every day. In he lumbers, then leans, and the counter holds him up.
He speaks in a low monotone. To emphasize a word would require energy, which he "don't" have. Bud Ice, he orders, although the cashier saw him coming and already has a bottle for him. "I like it cold." What does he do for a living? "I just stay at home." He has been off work on disability, an accident from an auto repair job. "A two- or three-ton crane fell on my leg." That sounds awful. How long has he been recuperating?
"About 30 years," he says. He slides the money on the glass turnstile and leaves.
The door opens and in pushes Puggy, as he calls himself, with his friend. He won't say his last name but he wants to offer this: "Let me tell you the story of this neighborhood. The white people coming to take this over. White people want this neighborhood. We been here for centuries. And now they gonna get it."
His friend tells him to shut up, that he already said too much. Don't be talking to people he don't know. They leave.
There is strength in secrets, a power. If you open up, people can take your power away. Few walking this street will allow that.
Then there is someone like Yohaunce Walker, 28, who sums his life up in 10 minutes, standing in a corner at Big Ben. He turns it into his own slam stage, reciting a poem he wrote in prison. The words tumble out: "Life's not caring what's wrong or right. We leave our women in society to accomplish things we didn't. In times of inconvenience and struggle, she stands up like a real man on her head, feet, legs and hands; most religions believe a woman's distant religion is a man; well, can someone please explain to me how someone conceived can be stronger than its original seed?"
A white woman in a Subaru station wagon with Virginia plates and a baby seat in the back pulls up and carefully parallel-parks along North Capitol as if she is stopping for a leisurely lunch. A man hustles out of a green-and-white building, opens the passenger door, sits down as if he's going for a ride in the burbs. Then he gets back out and walks away as if he forgot something. Except he doesn't come back to the car and the woman doesn't wait for him. And you wonder what he forgot and what she came for. But everybody on this corner knows.
In KB Barbershop next to Big Ben, owner Kevin Bowman has a particular education to impart about this corner. "It's a heroin spot, selling heroin, hustlin', shooting each other in the head. They just waiting to die. Abscesses on hands," he says sitting in the building his father bought for $5,000 in the late 1960s, right after the Martin Luther King riots that prompted white flight and left these buildings abandoned. For years the building sat boarded up, and when his father passed away, Bowman got it in the will. He smelled the new development coming. So he took off the boards and turned it into a barbershop to generate income.
From inside the glass, he watches the druggies maneuver in their own economy, marveling at how they live longer than their life expectancy. "They might live longer than you and me, and they been doing it for 20 years," Bowman says. He has no sympathy for the users or the hustlers, who sell without conscience. "A hustler can sell drugs for years and years until it gets in his family," he says. "That's when it will hit them."
On the corner three men sit -- an impeccably dressed man sandwiched between two drunks. The man -- he won't give his name -- tells the story of how he, too, bought up some shells of houses. Sold one for $350,000 and another for $500,000, he says, to some men who didn't care about moving into a place where the elementary school was attached to a homeless shelter. He has two more houses he reckons he could sell for $500,000 a pop, and that would make him possibly the only millionaire who hangs on this corner.
There are poets on this corridor, too, and living philosophers who try to make meaning of the nonsense. One is RasD. He strolls what he calls the vortex of New York Avenue and North Capitol as if he were a king, greeting the people as "my beloved" or "my king" or "my queen."
His own crown is a swathe of cloth. An embroidered robe flows behind him as he walks. In his left hand he carries a wooden tray of essential oils, an armor against the "energy" that he says is left on the corner by people driving past on New York. He wants to help restore dignity to the undignified, who he says are left that way by the forces that have brought drugs here, thrust them upon people and given those people no way out. He wants the commuters to take notice, to look beneath the obvious at what is left of the people.
"It" -- the corner -- "is an atmosphere that is totally anti-life. . . . Death is sold every 24 seconds in 40 ounces, in the next six-pack or straight firewater they consume when that store opens. . . . You have people who capitalize on greed."
He walks south on North Capitol. The Capitol's dome rises in the distance, looming like a mighty mecca, so far away from this corner and so close. RasD motions to the cars that whiz by. "The traffic flows through without any connection to the spaces and places," he says. "They just pass by. They would rather not see the obvious, the displaced, the homeless, the confused, the hungry. . . . There are brilliant minds at that vortex: incredible mothers, fathers. The homeless are no longer scorned and they are not faceless at that vortex. They are only a blur and an eyesore to those passing through."