AT 14TH STREET and Wallach Place NW, a pit stop on the way to hell, a man stood handcuffed in the street, his car in front of him, an empty lot behind him, people watching, radios blaring, kids dancing, whores selling, dopers nodding, cops looking, helicopter hovering and me, notebook out, asking a guy, please, sir, can you tell me why 4,000 or so people attended the wake of an alleged cop killer -- how the world got turned upside down so that the villain became the hero?
The man is dressed in blue sneakers and cheap blue pants. On his head is a white stocking cap and before him is his car, blue in color, Chevy by make and missing one headlight. He is watching the arrest across the street. Moments before, a woman exited from the car, pulling herself up from the back seat, exposing thigh and more, enjoying the moment, turning to me, smiling and saying, "Oh pardon me." And then giggling.
The question -- my question -- is on the lips of everyone -- everyone white and some who aren't. In the city room of The Washington Post, reporters who know this town are asking the question. They read the story: 4,000 people!
The story said middle-class people went to the wake. It mentioned mothers and government workers and secretaries and other respectable types. The story said that in the city of Washington 4,000 persons came to pay their last respects to Bruce Wazon Griffith, alleged killer of Officer Arthur P. Snyder, dope dealer, bank robber, parole violator and the centerpiece at the kind of sendoff usually reserved for Hollywood stars, Mafia biggies and pop singers who depart with a song still on the charts. Tell me, why?
Why? I ask a storekeeper. Why? He is a big man with a mustache. "Curiosity," he says right off. "Curiosity is why they came. Most of them didn't even know the boy." The storekeeper walks out into the street to look up at the helicopter hovering over V Street NW. A friend of his walks by -- an old man with a cane. The storekeeper asks his friend the same question.
"Curiosity," the old man says. He shakes his head. "Just a waste. Two dead and nothing to show for it. Just a waste."
Curiosity. That's the answer. That's the reason -- simple. But then, as we talk, something more comes out, maybe related, maybe not. The block is changing, whites marching east from Adams-Morgan, rehabbing the buildings, hanging their plants in the window. In the 1500 block, houses have sold for $110,000 and $100,000 and someone is paying rent of $500 a month. So it is said.
"This block is going to be all white soon" the storekeeper says. "This mayor is going to be the last black boss."
"You really believe that?" I ask.
"No doubt about it," he says. "Just look around." A laborer is next. His clothes are covered with dust. Why? I ask him. Explain it all to me. He stops. He says he can tell me why. It is because Griffith was framed. He is not the one who killed the policeman. It is as simple as that, he said. And he walks on.
A man opens a door to a car. He is young and on his head he wears a tennis hat, brim snapped down. I asked him why. Why?
"Griffith fought back," he said. "He did something knowing what the response would be. These people wanted to show support for someone who had the guts to hit back. It takes a great deal of courage to shoot a cop and know what the consequences are going to be." He gets into his car, a sports car, and drives away.
Down the street I go, pad out, asking my fool question. "Why?" I ask a kid and "why?" I ask a woman and "why?" I ask an older man. Why? Why? Why? Some don't talk and some don't know anything about it, but the answers are not uniform. I go back to the grocer.
"Ask 10 people, you get 10 different answers," I say. He nods and smiles.
At Wallach Place, the man in the stocking cap has a different explanation. It's all the cops -- the sheer number of them. They are on the street, trying to push the heroin dealers back into God-knows-where, but they are everywhere. He tries to make a point.
"Listen, you want to walk with me around the corner?" the guy says. "You want to walk down U Street, you put you pad away so you don't look like no reporter. We'll go there and you give me a dollar and see what happens -- a white man giving a black man money. We'll get busted. They think we dealing drugs."
We talk. We joke. A hooker comes up and asks for change of a ten and across the street the wagon comes for the man in cuffs. Kids dance in the gutters and drunks snooze on the stoops and the police in their cars glide by.
There probably is no single reason why 4,000 people went to that wake, just a collection of them -- good reasons and bad reasons, foul reasons and reasons that make no sense to outsiders. But one of these reasons has to do with the feeling of some people that when a small-time dope dealer allegedly kills a cop, he's fighting back. They have it all wrong.
The battered often do.