It usually takes a great motoring sin, or a great sex object in the next lane, to make a rush-hour driver honk. On a country road, the honk is a simple hello. In the urban demolition derby, to honk is to say either "I'd like to do more" or "You've done too much already."
But most mornings along MacArthur Boulevard NW, the beeping is benevolent. And how could it not be? As Hemingway might put it, Jake Hammond is for whom the horns honk.
Hammond stands and waves at MacArthur's commuters every weekday morning, and then again in the afternoon. He doesn't want anything and he isn't selling anything. He's just killing time until the soap operas come on -- and reflecting the fact that he has the sunniest disposition this side of Sarasota.
They call Jake Hammond the Mayor of MacArthur Boulevard. But they could just as easily call him the Character to End All Characters.
Hammond is 73 years old and about 63 inches high. He incessantly smokes nine-cent cigars. He lives on $225.50 a month in Social Security benefits, but supplements that by looking for coins in the gutter.
"People done got wise and sewed up their pockets more lately," laments Jake. "But don't kid yourself. I find money."
Hammond customarily wears five layers of clothing, topped off by a baseball cap, regardless of the weater. He got a raincoat for Christmas one year, but refused to wear it because it looked too new. He might have shaved this month. Or it might have been last month.
His favorite meal is a Coca-Cola. His favorite pastime is watching soap operas. In the 12 years since he retired from work as a tile setter, Hammond has not worn a tie, driven a car, eaten a vegetable or read a book.
He is "mayor" only because the shopkeepers and his friends around MacArthur and Dana Place jokingly decided he should be. Hammond has never run for anything or voted for anything or anybody. Asked if he knew who Marion Barry was, Hammond guessed he was a guy who used to play for the Redskins.
"I don't know a damn thing about politics," says Hammond. "But neither do politicians."
What Hammond does know is his neighborhood.
Born and raised in Georgetown, Hammond moved to the MacArthur Boulevard area known as The Palisades in 1949. Then as now, he lives with his sister, Ruby Sailor, who is 76. She charges him $20 a week for room and board.
According to Jake, they get alonge famously. She doesn't fuss about his cigar smoke any more, and he pay up on time.
"She knew she couldn't convert me from smokin'," explains Jake. "And I knew if it weren't for her, I'd have to go to work."
But that is a retired man's bravado. Jake Hammond knows about work; he started fulltime when he was 16.
He began as a waterboy on the C&O Canal for $18 a week. He linked hot dogs at a plant in Rosslyn for 25 cents an hour. He did sheet metal work all over town. To pick up odd change, he did handsprings and somesaults at Glen Echo amusement park on weekends.
One day in 1924, he hired on at Stevens Tile and Marble Co. at $5 a day. He stayed until 1967, when he had graduated to $22 a day. "It was good, honest work," says Hammond, "but I don't miss it."
What he does miss is cigarettes. The old kind of cigarettes.
"I always smoked them," says Jake, "but when they started putting filters on 'em, I'd light 'em backwards. So that's when I started with cigars.
"They cost more, but how good is money? You just spend it."
If that sounds like a slogan suitable for framing, consider the rest of the Gospel According to Jake:
Women: "I don't fool with 'em any more. Bad for you."
Taxes: "Well, I guess the government's got to live. But they're too high."
Weather: "Worse every year. Can't they give an old man no mercy?"
Kids Today: "Can't stand 'em. They use language my Daddy wouldn't have stood for."
Television: "The best thing that's happened in my lifetime. I could win all those quiz shows if I could just get on one of them."
But to do that, the Mayor would have to leave his domain. He does that occasionally, but only to go as far as Georgetown, site of his boyhood exploits. Further? Not on your life.
"Why would I want to live in Florida?" asks a man who has never been there. "I got all my people right here."
As if to prove it, Hammond says hello to several people sitting around the small coffee shop that he visits 20 times a day. Some are retired men, like him, in windbreakers. Some are young professionals in snappy suits. But all say hello to Jake by name.
The burning question for Jake Hammond these days is whether he will quite looking in gutters for coins. All "his people" want him to stop. They claim he will get a hunched back, or a disease, or a dogbite, or run over.
But Jake Hammond has figured all the angles, as always. "I like looking down," he says. "If you look up, a bird will you-know-what on you."
With that, the Mayor quietly steals the sports section of the paper from the next booth. He buttons his coat.And he swaggers off down MacArthur Boulevard yet again. The rush hour is beginning to pick up. Time to go wave.