FIVE in the afternoon at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street. It is cold; a wan sunlight glints off the golden dome of the Riggs Bank Farmers & Mechanics Branch.
Just up from the corner, on Wisconsin, Skip and Zero squat in the shadow of the bank. Skip has his guitar case open on the street, for change to be thrown in by passersby, and he plunks an unrecognizable air on his battered instrument.
He saw Fred yesterday, he says. He can't remember what time of day it was. But you can catch him around here most days, says Skip.
"Fred is the mayor of Georgetown, you know. Everybody knows him."
Skip is 27 years old, has been out on the street for four years. He still has long hair and a hippie's manner, but the act is growing threadbare, as are his basketball shoes. He's a bum, one of the increasing number of younger bums one sees nowadays. His friend Zero, also 27, looks 40, despite his long hair.
"Yeah, you know, I like to write too," says Skip. "Maybe one day I'll write about all this."
Somebody throws a quarter into the guitar case. That makes three quarters, two nickels and some pennies. Skip has been at it all afternoon.
The next day we met again, at Hector's, a fast food place on M Street. Skip, Zero and Louise, a teen-age runaway, were sharing one large coffee.
"Yeah, I'm into booze" says Skip. "More out of monotony than anything else. It livens up the day. Zero here is the undisputed champion of Wild Irish Rose."
"Yep, I drink it all," says Zero, "from water to rum." Skip and Zero have been staying in an abandoned warehouse in Georgetown. They have three dogs and their clique of "street people," as they like to call themselves. Sometimes as few as two stay at the warehouse, sometimes as many as eight. Louise is the only girl in the group.
"We pass her around like a bottle of wine," Skip laughs. Louise glares at him.
If looks could kill . . ." puts in Zero.
"I've got four years of college," says Skip, "I went to Berkeley. I dropped out before finishing. My sister got me a job as an accountant but I couldn't handle the bull - at the office. I hitched to Boston, then to Richmond and ended up here. All I can get here are dishwashing jobs, so the hell with it."
What about his parents? "The last time I spoke to my old man he told me 'tuck in your gut and keep on walking.' That was two years ago."
Skip, Zero and friends have to pan-handle to live. "Handpandle" corrects Skip. "Panhandling is against the law. People who give you money do it because they feel like it. Others ing nasty to be clever in front of their girlfriends. Right, Louise?" The girl laughs.
"When I first go here I felt very alienated at times. I'd just glare at people. Standing in front of the Food Mart, right? After four or five hours you've got five dollars if you're lucky. People in D. C. pretend that they're hard-pressed, but they come out of there with steaks, caviar, you name it. Now I'm used to it."
Later that evening they were all at Roy Rogers, another fast food place on Wisconsin. Skip was reading the funnies. They had been there a long time; they were waiting for an unspecified somebody or something. Bums spends a lot of time waiting . . .
Why don't they work?
"I refuse to pay taxes" says Zero gamely. Everyone laughs, but they've heard the line once too often, it seems, and the laughter is tired.
"I believe in the work ethic," says Skip. "I like to be busy, believe it or not.I think in terms of an ultimate direction."
Where is Fred? They still haven't seen him. Do they want to like Fred when they are in their sixties?
Zero says "I hope not."
"Fred is a loner," Skip says. "The older bums" - he uses the term for the first time - "have their scene, but some of them are loners. Frank, you know the guy who sleeps in the doorway on M Street? He's a loner. As far as I can tell, he doesn't drink and hardly ever talks. He's a walker, he walks out to Besthesda and back every day, on his crutch. I'd say he's 55 or 60. He suffers pretty horribly from the cold, I'd guess. But he's working out his dharma.
"I could tell you a lot of stories. Like one time, a couple of years ago, when Zero went off with this couple to join the carnival. Rumors went around that he'd been shot in the head in North Carolina. When I heard that I said 'Bull -, he won't get off that easy.'" Zero flashes a puckered grin from his closed fist face. He is missing three front teeth.
"If you want to see Fred, go to the Little Tavern on M Street around seven or eight in the morning. Fred crashes in an old car and he's an earlybird. That's when you'll catch him."
"Be sure to bring some wine," advised Zero.
"Italian Swiss Ruby Port."
"Are you guys going to be around in case I need you again?" I asked.
"Yeah. Unless our tickets for Florida come in."
Just as I was leaving, Zero asked me when the article was coming out.
"I think I'll send a copy to my parents," He smiled toothlessly and turned to Skip. "You know, there's a way of sending stuff without postage."
The next morning was very cold. The sun hung in the sky, like an icicle ready to drop. It was Saturday and there were few people in the streets.
The counterman at the Little Tavern was all business."Fred? You mean, 'the mayor'? He went into a hospital last night. I called the ambulance myself. Listen, mister, I ain't got time to talk about bums. You want information, you call the hospital. Coffee? That'll be twenty-seven cents."
About five minutes later a bum walked in. Joe Eunis. A handsome 62-year-old, full-bearded, blue-eyed, fairly clean bum who seemed serene. I bought him a cup of coffee.
Joe was waiting, too. He was waiting until 9:30, when his friend, "the former governor of New Jersey," would be up and around.
"I know him well," said Joe. "I sweep out his garage sometimes, polish brass. But I gotta wait till 9:30." Joe exuded the particular odor that bums share, a rank smell of terminal poverty. It blended with the sour, steamy aroma of the diner.
Joe survives as best he can. He lives here and there.
"Plenty of people wanna take me home. Won't go if I don't know 'em. Go to somebody's home and get your damn head shot off."
Eunis was raised by farmers in southern Virginia.
"My father was cussin' all the time, runnin' me. He wanted me to work alla time. Dad expected a lotta work fer nothin'." So Joe moved to his grandparents', laid bricks and did construction work till his forties, when his grandparents died, causing his roof and security to vanish. That was more than twenty years ago. He was never married and has no family. He drinks a lot of wine.
Joe sipped voluptuously on his coffee and shook his head.
"Last time I seen Freddy, he was pitiful: no underwear, nothin' but a shirt, pair of pants, two little old coats, standin' over by the radiator shakin'. He'll drink anything he can drink to get drunk on. I known him a long time.
"I'm happy. I'd be happier if I were workin'. When yer broke you ain't got no money comin' in. You're wonderin' how yer gonna get it.
"It's rough survivin' especially in the winter. Ain't nobody likes freezin' you know that. People who got cars, homes, money, naturally they're more satisfied. I ain't got a damn thing to bother me and I got no regrets. You die broke or with a million dollars. You die anyway. Old Joe Kennedy, he had eighty billion dollars when he died, what did he get out of it? Shoot, might as well die broke as have the world." Joe pulled a Camel out of my pack and accepted my match with dignity. He inhaled deeply, then exhaled as though he had tested ambrosia, his eyes half closed. I saw happiness in that gesture, but I forced the point. Was he ever happy, did he ever have a good time?
"Get him a bottle of wine, he'll have a good time," said the counterman, wiping up spilt coffee. He chortled to himself. There was no one in the place but us three.
Joe's impassive face moved slightly in a half-smile. He was thinking about his old friend, the elusive Fred, and seemed to be eulogizing him for no one in particular.
"I known Freddy for a long time. We go back ten, twelve years. I 'member meetin' him," said Joe, in his own world now. "Summertime" - and I have never heard the word, laconically uttered though it was, so charged with sweetness and languor - "we was settin' under a tree, with two or three bottles of wine. Everybody knowed him." He looked at me then, like Omar Khayyam, as if that said it all.
"Old Freddy'll be lucky if he makes it," said the counteman, putting away pies. "He's damn near dead."
Joe roused himself from his reverie.
"Goddamn shame. All the money this country has, buildin' bombs to kill people. All these people with no money."
Has he ever tried to change, to "rehabilitate" himself? The phrase stuck in my throat and I quickly thrust another cigarette on him, very much like the man who gives alms and then walks away, trying to think of something else.
"Oh sure. One time, I got some money, $45, an' I went to see old Fred, to get him to go to the RCA (a rehabilitation center) with me. I'd been there, an' I didn't like it: niggers runnin' their mouths. Rather be in a zoo with apes. But they feed good at RCA - there's plenty to eat. Well, old Fred, he had the same notion as me. He said he'd rather set on the street an' die."
"How does society see you?" I asked, feeling silly.
Joe looked at me. "I don't know about that," he answered slowly. Then he looked out into the street, with that eternally expectant look.
"In the summer, there's lotsa work. I used to go out to the Middle West. I got friends out there. I got friends everywhere and I can get on the telephone and prove it to you."
One question nagged me. Skip and Zero had been ambiguous on this point and I decided to try Joe.
"But do you really like to work?" I asked. Joe looked at me as though I were six years old. But Joe is a gentle, mannearly man and he answered with the patience and without the condescension most people reserve for six-year-olds:
"Anybody with any brains at all would rather work than sit around broke. A man'd have to be plumb out of his brains not to work. I've never turned down work. I can't dig no ditch. I'm too old. Been outside too much: too much exposure. Now I'll eat anything that's edible. Sometimes you can get something to eat. Sometimes you can't."
But his mind wa on his pal, Fred. Perhaps Fred was what his boyish eyes searched for, in the empty street. Maybe Fred would come back. Maybe there would be another summer, sittin' under a tree.
The counterman seemed to sense this.
"Old Freddy, I don't guess we'll be seein' him anymore." He shot me a tight smile.
Joe turned to me, a man above this other man, above this situation, though constantly in it. He coughed.
"Damn, I feel bad. Here," and pointed to his chest. "I got so much cold."
The radio, which had been on, suddenly intruded on our conversation. It was an advertisement for life insurance and the voice cracked: "Tomorrow. Tomorrow. How many tomorrows?"
How many indeed? Just a few for Fred, we three supposed silently and Joe said:
"It'll be ten to twelve below freezin' tonight. 'Course it can change. Long time before night." A very long time, if life is measured out in coffee spoons. The wall clock said 9:15 a.m.
"Yeah. Fred. Last time I seen him he was all humped over, near dead. First thing he asked me for was a drink. I wouldn't give it to him, near dead as he was. Somebody'll give it to him."
Somebody who doesn't want to think about Fred, I thought, someone who - I offered Joe another cigarette.
"Freddy used to be stout as hell," Joe went on, "we was the same height, weight. I seen him in here, all dressed up. He finally got enough to get a bottle of wine with, good wine."
"Have you ever had any girlfriends?" I asked. Fred's eulogy was getting to me.
"Oh yeah, hell yeah." Joe did not elaborate. He sipped on his Camel.
"Did you ever stick with any of them?"
"No. I don't stay around nobody real long. I just don't, that's all I can say."
We sat silent for a while.
"I go fishin', you know," he suddenly volunteered. "Up in the mountains. Them big cold rivers. I catch mountain trout like that." He made a huge gesture with his hands. "The government says yer supposed to have a license, but they won't say nothin'." And he was in the mountains for another blessed moment, up near the big cold rivers.
I got up to leave. Joe pulled me back.
"I got this to say. About niggers. Talkin' about somebody - that ain't smart. That's dumb. See, I'm worse'n they are, fer talkin' about them. They some good colored, just like everybody else. You write that."
He walked over to the windowsill and peered out of the fake leaded windows of that plastic. Gothic horror show, the Little Tavern No. 14.
"I got acquainted with this feller, over from Bullins, West Virginia. Kelly Belcher. Big stout guy. We's in here drinkin' plenty of times. One day somebody told me he fell over dead, right across the street. Damn wine killed him. Big stout feller."
Joe turned to me with his slow smile.
The fragile, frigid winter light crept through the window. He put his fingers to the glass and all at once he looked like Charlemagne himself, with his great beard, gazing past his palace window to a summer nightingale.
"Feel that sun?" asked Joe Eunis. "Feels good, don't it?"