Etta Davis was among the throngs who attended the wake for Bruce Wazon Griffith, the small-time drug dealer turned suspected cop killer who was guned down by police on Feb. 4 after a massive, three-day manhunt.
Mrs. Davis, a nutrition education aide at the University of the District of Columbia, says she had seen Griffith with other young men on the streets near her home, but really did not know him. But, by way of explaining why she attended the wake, she pursed her lips, reached into her pocketbook, which she carries everywhere, and produced two Polaroid snapshots -- one old with peeling ends and in color, the other a recent photograph in black and white.
She showed the old one first.
"See my boy," she said. "Easter Sunday, 1971. That was his first holy communion." The boy, clean cut with a new suit and tie, stands next to his mother who is dressed in white and beaming.
Without a word, she passes on the next picture. Her son is older now, but wears the same close cut hairstyle. He is seated on a bench smiling. He is in prison. He had robbed a store.
"He's coming home in six months," Mrs. Davis said, worried. "Lord, I hope they've straightened him out. I used to make him cakes and pies and jello, anything to keep him home. But Lord, my child."
At the wake for Griffith, Mrs. Davis was one of 2,014 persons who signed guest books. Hundreds of others attended but did not sign.
"From what I hear [Griffith] came from a good family," Mrs. Davis said. "He must have just met those boys who never had anything and they introduced him to those corrupt streets.
"These boys are drifting, drifting, drifting. I know how his mother must feel."
On that Monday night, four days after Griffith's death, mourners streamed in and get out of the Jarvis Funeral Home off 14th an U streets NW for more than four hours. Solemn and stern faced, some leaned over the dead man's casket and whispered their sorrow to him.
Many were friends who had gone to school with Griffith. Some knew him as "Reds" on the streets. Others did not know him but were friends of his family. Among the crowd were persons widely suspected of being the informants who reported Griffith to police. "Fakers, fakers and hypocrites," one man, referring to them, cried as he was led from the casket. There were those who merely curious and there were the teenagers who saw in him a modern day Jesse James.
William Griffith St., the father saw this when he stepped outside the funeral home that night to smoke a cigarette.
"I heard little boys standing on the curb. You know what they were saying?
I couldn't believe it," the father said. "They were saying, "I want to go out like Reds did.'"
The extraordinary turnout at the wake for Griffith has baffled and outraged many people, especially police and those city residents who live in the middle-class neighborhoods west of 14th Street NW.
What has been most puzzling to them is why working class men and upstanding middle-aged women would turn out to mourn a man who had served time in prison, been involved in heroin and was accused of murdering a policeman.
Using the funeral home visitors books containing the signatures of those who attended the services, a reporter and a photographer set out to determine who some of these prople are and why they came to mourn Bruce Griffith.
In many ways, it was an odyssey through forgotten neighborhoods, through shabby, run-down apartment buildings in Shaw where Griffith grew up. But the journey led to upper Northwest Washington, areas of large two-story homes and on to a small, neat cottage in Prince George's County where a family who had once lived in Shaw had managed to get out.
Many people refused to talk. A knock on one apartment door in Shaw was answered by a young man, his posture bent forward, his face peppered with stubble, both hands cupping his groin.
"No comment," he said, as he slammed his rotting door.
At another house in the Trinidad neighborhood, a well-dressed man answered curtly, "Let him rest in peace."
But there was one group who invariably spoke up, who had, in fact, a lot to say.
They were the mothers, working class women trying to raise teen-age and older sons to walk the straight and narrow in a city where the odds are that they will wind up in trouble, in jail or dead.
For them Bruce Wazon Griffith was more antihero than hero, his record of crime and involvement in heroin representing the worst nightmares they had for their sons.
But they did not see Griffith as a villain, either. They would talk about how they read he had gone to Catholic schools, had a father who worked hard for years at Walter Reed, a mother who was a laundress at the Washington Hospital Center. The tragedy, as they saw it, was not brought about by his family or, really, by Griffith himself. The real villain as they described it was the powerful lure of drugs, crime and easy money on Washington's mean streets.
"I felt so bad for the mother," said Ada Jolley, who attended Griffith's wake. "I know parents try so hard to raise their children right, but once they get into the streets all you can do is pray. So many of our young men end up on the wrong side of the tracks and, you know, ain't nothing a mother can do. Schools don't seem to be doing them no good and when they're done they just go to the corner."
Many of the women interviewed had come up from the South during the 1940s and 1950s seeking better opportunities in Washington. There were women who had been in the same jobs for 30 and 40 years. After each day, they come home, cook clean up, pay the bills and raise the children, mostly without the help of a man.
Inflation and crime threaten the modest life styles they have attained. But these worries rank small when compared to their despearte concern for their sons.
Estelle Thompson, 51, who works at a commercial film processing plant, lives below Howard University not far from where Griffith was killed in a blaze of gunfire.
"I didn't know the family," she said. "But I watched them gun him down. I never seen anything shot to death before, let alone a human being. It's the most horrible thing."
Stern and bespeckled, she appeared weary. Her eyes were puffy. She had reported to work at 7 a.m. and had come home around midafternoon, changed into a house coat and slippers and, with her chemical stained hands, began peeling potatoes for the night's supper. A stack of unpaid bills were piled on the dining room table.
"I went to the wake because I was sad for his family; it's so hard raising boys these days," she said, turning to a figure coiled into an S-shape in her parlor room easy chair.
It was her 23-year-old son.
He sat mesmerized for the duration of the interview in front of a television set, watching soap operas. It was a troubling sight: The bottom half of his face was radiation-blue from the television; the top half appeared to be missing in a dark shadow cast by a ceiling beam under an arched doorway.
"You push 'em to get an education, then they graduate and there's nothing out here for 'em," Mrs. Thompson said hopelessly."Junior been sitting in that chair I don't know how long. His name been on the Civil Service register I don't know -- three and a half years."
At several homes the scene was similar; idle sons glued to the television, sometimes waiting for their ride to go visit someone else's home from work, then on to some other house.
Lillian Austin worked with Mrs. Griffith at the Washington Hospital Center and knew her to be a "fine woman."
"You can raise one just like the other and somehow they turn out different," Mrs. Austin said. "I know how she must feel. Once you're a mother, especially in a city like this, it's just so many things you can't believe."
Griffith and Austin had known each other casually during their years at the hospital. But during Mrs. Griffith's ordeal, Mrs. Austin let her know she was not alone: Two years ago, Mrs. Austin's 16-year-old had been shot and killed by youths "caught up in those streets." She really did know how Mrs. Griffin felt, she said.
Down on the corner of North Capital and Bates streets, about a block from where Griffith grew up, Walter T. Macon mans the first chair at the Artistic Barber Shop were he has been cutting hair for 30 years. He gave Griffith his first hair cut. He knows what the mothers are talking about.
"I went to the wake because I was really surprised. I'm still in surprise," Macon said. "He came from such a fine family and nobody can figure out what the hell is going on. See, he's not the only one. A lot of young men around here are going to jail. It's just that they don't commit crimes of disaster and make headlines."
Macon flipped off his clippers and rested his chin on the razor's edge.
"Mind you, I'm no expert and I don't have much evidence for what I'm saying except for what I've observed for the 30 years I've been on this corner, but I will swear that it's not his [Griffith's ] parents fault. If you want to know the truth, from my very heart, I think what will really help to make dope legal and stop the whites from getting rich off the ruination of Negro people.
"If they can't get the dope out of our neighborhoods, then legalize it, sell it out of cans like beer. Those sons of bitches on Capital Hill let the dope come in and a couple of fellows from around here make a few runs and get a fast $1,000 and whose gonna finish school or try for a job when you got fast money around?"
Brends Woods, a 43-year-old bank teller, lived for 15 years on Todd Place NW, not far from Macon's shop. She moved out before it was too late.
Jackie Smith, a hostess for Amtrak, knew Griffith from her high school days. When her mother, an Urban League community organizer, died two months ago Griffith insisted on reading his poem at her funeral. It was his moving account of her life and his prediction that "I will see you when my day calls for its finest hour" that brought her to his wake.
"A lot of kids really liked Bruce's style. He was a Pied Piper to them, they would follow him anywhere. Some of them say he was a hero, but that's not a good image. I don't condone what he did, but he did make the papers and to them that's the only guy they know who was big enough to make the papers. And that's the problem. We have too few male role models. We have a real problem with male leadership in our communities.'
Linda Batts, 28, a security guard for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, had known Griffith since she was 12. To her, he was rebelling against a system that he did not believe was "fair".
"He just couldn't find a job," she said. "He tried Metro and some other construction jobs, but they kept saying you have to join the union. And he wasn't about to try to change to fit into that mold.
"He wanted to go into business for himself; so he started selling (dope) but only to the hardcore who was gonna get there's anyway. He counseled kids -- I mean, yeah, he was a walking contradiciton, but if you watched him long enough like I did you could see where he made his distinctions and in the end I came to believe he was right. He wasn't against society, just society's rules."
The Rev. William Wilson, pastor of the Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, did not know Griffith or his family.
"I went to the wake because I empathized with the family. I see in that situation a reflection of the temper of the times and this country and how conditions have been created that make it possible for a person to end up like the young man did.
"All too often, the conditions that make the man are overlooked, and I think that the great turnout at the wake is a reflection of masses of people becoming aware of who the real victims of the system are. That's not to condone the act that he allegedly killed a policeman. But so far as our people are concerned, we have, in the past, constantly identified with the oppressor rather than the oppressed, but now times are changing and the consciousness of the people has been raised."