The old man in the paint-splattered pants was spooning rice and collard greens on the front porch, watching the pope on TV. Cars careened around Grant Circle, squealing past the yellow brick row house on Illinois Avenue NW, his home for years, and the man had to shout over the traffic to be heard.
THE WHOLE COUNTRY NEEDS WHAT THE POPE PREACHES -- LOVE!"
"Go on dahlin,' eat your dinner before it gets cold and gnats get in the collards," said his wife, Gereatha James, 65, relieved that the pope, via video tranquilizer, was soothing the fragile nerves of her husband, Edward.
Suddenly he was up, blowing a whistle and recounting tales of bravery at Pearl Harbor. "I'm tough. I'm a killer," ranted the old man, who once drove a truck for the Army before returning to Washington after World War II, taking a job as a government painter and earning a reputation for his sure, steady hand before ruptured discs and seizures permanently disabled him.
"Lord have mercy," she said, shaking her head and beckoning the stranger into the kitchen, where framed prayers, a plastic Jesus and the face of Martin Luther King Jr. stared from a wall.
He hadn't been himself for 15 years, she said, ever since doctors removed three ruptured discs and he'd had the seizures. "I take care of him" she said. "I come home every day and pay the bills. I do the best I can. Sometimes, I feel like I've got to be living the life of a saint."
his nerves are easily upset, she said, and often, he flies off the handle. He interrupts her when she sits down to read the Bible, and she feels like screaming when he opens the mail before she gets home from work and misplaces the $182 monthly disability check. "Nobody can stand him but me."
But watching Pope John Paul II on TV has soothed him in recent days, she says. She could care less that the pope pleaded with bickering nations to beat their swords into plowshares. All she knows is that somehow, the pope smiles beatifically from the black-and-white TV and mesmerizes her husband.She is grateful for some temporary peace on earth.
On his birthday, Sept. 15, she took him out for lunch to the basement cafeteria of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. He was calm for weeks afterward she noticed. She would like him to be able to attend the special ceremony the pope will hold for the handicapped on the lawn at Trinity College tomorrow. But he wasn't invited.
Not that it matters, she shrugs; they would probably have trouble negotiating the crowds.
A short woman who neither drinks nor smokes -- "God sent her to me," he says -- she is one of about 35,000 black Catholics in a city noted for Baptists. Neighbors in the tidy, brick row houses of Upper Northwest represent the backbone of the Washington's middle class values: conservative, hard-working, earnest. She has been married to the same man for 42 years -- the last half in sickness, the first half in health -- and if she could be accused af any sin, it would at most be mild vanity: she absolves the gray from her hair with Grecian Formula.
hNonetheless, she takes her husband to attend mass every Sunday at St. Gabriel's around the corner, where she says her prayers, then his prayers.
"He can't carry out the Catholic faith like he should," she says. "But he can't help it."
Recently, she bought him a 10-speed bike and, sometimes, he rides it to the store. He spends most days at home alone, watching TV, washing clothes, chatting up the neighbors or dabbling with a paint brush. "I was born with a paint brush in my hand," says Edward, 65, the son of a South Carolina sign painter.
The alarm rings every morning at 5 and she wakes up praying. For two hours, she prays.
She asks Jesus for relief from "all my suffering at home and my suffering during the day," which includes inspecting -- and plucking rejects from -- the crisp $50 bills rolling off government printing presses at the Treasury Department.
"When I think of all the poor people around the world, it seems like such a shame to burn all that money."
Next come the novena prayers flowing through her brain like a salve, then the 23rd Psalm, followed by special words for the Virgin Mary and a prayer of bereavement.
Her daughter, Lucille, an only child, died in the spring.
Her faith, she says, is all she has left. After her daughter died, "the priest said something good would come of it. I hope he's right."
He asked if she was angry at God. "I feel He let me down," she confessed. The priest tried to comfort her. He told her even Jesus felt as if God had foresaken him in his final hours. He gave her a special prayer.
The old woman looked up from chopping her greens. Tears rolled down her cheeks. "I pray so much, I think God must get sick of me," she said.