In a block of 40 pastel-colored townhouses near Dupont Circle, Dick Nugent mediates tenant-landlord troubles, straightens out food stamp problems and organizes permit parking. In short, like any small-town mayor, he keeps the peace.
Richard P. Nugent, 45, is the unofficial "mayor" of Newport Place. "I house-sit, baby-sit, cat-sit, dog-sit, sit for the whole neighborhood. I have keys to practically every house on Newport Place," he says. Then, pausing nervously at the information he has just revealed, he adds, "but they are all well-coded and hidden to avoid possible theft."
His "term of office" began about 10 years ago when Nugent, two cats and a dog moved into a 20-foot-by-20-foot, two-bedroom house with a backyard the size of a postage stamp. He paid $19,500 for his home and says it is worth about $100,000 more than that now.
An on-the-job injury when he was working for the C&P Telephone Company forced Nugent to retire at 30. With time on his hands, he busied himself watching over the neighborhood, keeping it clean, making sure packages got delivered and helping people through the city bureaucracy.
Since then, Newport residents readily admit, he has become an indispensable neighborhood fixture and is the street's unofficial, but widely acknowledged, potentate.
"I'm Mr. Neighborhood Fix-it," he says, with a self-mocking chuckle that begins at his crinkled eyes. "I think there is probably one unofficial mayor in every neighborhood. I'm the only one on the block who's not working, so I can take care of things."
Ask Nugent about his 10 years "on the job" and the boyish-looking "mayor" plunges his hands into a pile of newspaper, books and photographs that is only a small part of the clutter accumulated during his tenure.
After a successful foray into the organized disorder, Nugent returns with mementos of the Street's accomplishments under his leadership.
He pulls out trophies for the Newport entries in the Potomac River Raft Race, poster-size photographs of resident get-togethers and worn newspaper clippings. His home is crowded with television sets being repaired for constituents and books-Berlitz Teach Yourself Spanish, police manuals-that he says he's never seen before.
Nugent, whose light brown hair is flecked with gray, organizes block parties twice a year. At the last one, he cooked up a 150-pound batch of chili that the neighbors still talk about.
Newport residents say they rely on Nugent for tenant and homeowner advice, newspaper recycling, admitting water meter readers, introductions of new neighbors, leaf pick-ups, parking problems and solutions to furnace troubles, among other services.
"He's our liaison with the outside world," says William Ferster, a freelance animator who has lived in three townhouses on Newport Place over the course of three years.
"The street is a pretty lively one, and a lot of action happens on the stoops. Dick will sit out all day and talk to people, amuse the kids," a two-year resident of Newport Place says. "If you have problems, he gives you a common-sensical solution."
Robert M. Kaus, an editor at Washington Monthly magazine, says that Nugent is responsible for "keeping the neighborhood quality in what would otherwise be a very fragmented community" of professionals, students and a few remaining long-time Newport residents.
Every morning between 9 and 10 o'clock, Nugent leaves his turf on Newport Place, to walk, cane in hand, through an alley to N Street. His back injury, which has shrunk his height by four or five inches, is always painful and makes walking a more time-consuming enterprise. Every morning he carefully ascends the stairs to see an old friend and to give her a daily shot of insulin.
"She knows how to do it herself," he says, "She just like the company."
From then on, the days vary. On nice days he tends the Newport Place Park, a 6-foot-by-75-foot stretch of pebbles, irises, roses, anemones and a bench.
On rainy days, he'll sit at a crucial crime-watch vantage point, staking out the 40 or so townhouses on the street and the alley toward N Street, to make sure that strangers do not come to the area to cause trouble. Nugent says he recognizes everyone for blocks around.
At 4 or 5 p.m. the UPS truck comes by to drop packages, usually at Nugent's house since most Newport residents work during the day or go to school. Shortly after that, the news comes on TV, and people start to drop by for a cup of coffee, a chat, a package, some advice.
Why has Nugent accepted the unpaid appointment of mayor of Newport Place? "Where I grew up, the emphasis was on work, not school. I always worked as far back as I can remember . . . It bothered me to have to stop working. Who retires at 30?" he says.
"I get up earlier than I ever did, and I still have my jobs. I feel that people need me. When I'm away people always say, 'The place was dead without you.'"
Would Nugent like to get paid like most mayors? He looks insulted, aghast, at the suggestion.
"I was always told, and I believe very strongly, that you do these things for people without ever expecting any reward. The reward is that people appreciate it, and nobody has to talk about it," he says, as he figures out whose marketing he'll do that afternoon. CAPTION: Picture, Richard Nugent, left, and Newport Place neighbors Ed Albers, seated, Eric Ernst, center, and John Buckman. By Craig Herndon-The Washington Post