It was 6:20 p.m. Sunday, a night of bitter cold outside the Roy Rogers Family Restaurant at 13th Street and New York Avenue NW when Aletha Elaine Reeves, 28, gave birth to 5-pound 2-ounce girl between two parked cars and took off running.
"Big Jim" Fortenberry (6 feet 2, 250 pounds) was crossing the street, on his way to pump draft beers for post-Super Bowl fans at Cafe Naples, 1225 New York Ave. when he heard what sounded like the screams of a cat run over by a car. He pushed aside two "street dudes" who had lost their swagger and saw the baby in the street.
"I've seen a lot of things in my life, but that was a first," said the Vietnam veteran and former paratrooper. Fortenberry, father of three girls who commutes to work 50 miles from Leesburg, tore off his blue cotton sweater, bundled up the baby and whisked it into the Roy Rogers.
"I can understand a woman not being able to make it to the hospital when a baby is on the way, but what really appalled me was how a woman could just walk off and leave her baby in the street," Fortenberry said. He lay the baby gently on a table, next to the ketchup and mustard.
The dinner crowd holstered their fries, shoved aside their $2.05 Pappy's Chicken Platters and gawked.
"Give the baby some room!" shouted night manager Earl Carter, 25, father of a 2-year-old boy. Carter called the ambulance and parted the sea of rubberneckers.
"I've seen some strange things in this neighborhood but that tops them all," Carter said.
"She just came out of nowhere, squatted down in the street, had her baby, yanked the umbilical cord and ran off into the night," said a retired businessman who witnessed the birth from his parked car, between the Silver Slipper strip joint and an X-rated movie house.
"She looked like a very frightened person, like she was running away from something," the man said.
The D.C. Rescue Squad raced the baby girl to Washington Hospital Center. She was breathing rapidly, gasping for air through the fluid in her lungs. When she reached Dr. M. Y. Park, a neonatologist, her body temperature registered 94 degrees and she appeared to be two to three weeks premature, he said. Park rushed the baby into an incubator in the intensive care nursery.
"She's doing just fine," Jane Snyder, a Washington Hospital Center representative, said yesterday. "She's a beautiful baby."
A police cruiser picked Reeves up a block away from the Roy Rogers, she said, and took her to D.C. General Hospital. She told police she left the baby in the street because she was trying to get help.
"I'd like to see my baby," Reeves said yesterday, biting her fingernails and staring out the window of her second floor room at D.C. General. "I want it. I'm supposed to keep her . . ."
She seemed as bereft of details about the baby as she was about her own life. An unemployed D.C. street refugee and former clerk-typist for the General Accounting Office, Reeves said she was sitting inside Burger King at the Trailways bus terminal sipping on a soda, when she went into labor and ran into the street.
"I walked until I couldn't walk anymore and then I had the baby," said the woman, her mood flitting from carefree to troubled. "I wasn't scared, just in pain."
She said it was her first child, that there had been two abortions.
In recent weeks, Reeves had sought refuge from the cold on a rubber mattress in the chapel of the Luther Place Church, which runs a women's shelter on Logan Circle, she said. She also spent some nights at the House of Ruth, another street shelter.
She wanted independence from living with a cousin in Bladensburg, she said, so she moved into the streets. "I just wanted to be on my own."
She saw the baby's father last week, she said, but she doesn't know what he does for a living. She doesn't know what she's going to do, she says.
"I'll just go somewhere when I get out of here,' she said.
Her mother, a former department store clerk, died 10 years ago, leaving her and a sister alone. Her father "ran off" when she was 6 years old. She can think of no one she wants to call and has lost track of her older sister, Jenetta.
She said she grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Southeast Washington, moved to a small house her mother bought across town, attended John Burroughs Elementary and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1970.
She has bounced around the streets since she quit her job as a GS 3 clerk-typist for the government, living off welfare and friends.
D.C. police have taken temporary custody of the baby. But Reeves denied abandoning the infant. "I wanted it then and I want it now," she said, pulling the sheet about her.
In the next bed, Constance Robinson, 22, a secretary with the Labor Department, rocked her sleeping baby girl, Tiffany, as the radio purred gentle soul music. Her husband was on his way to take her home. "Six years ago, the doctor told me I'd never be able to have a bady," said a beaming Robinson. "I'm so happy I don't know what to do."