A week ago, Mayor Marian Barry and his 6 percent tax on Washington gasoline sales were at the top of Bill Brooks' political hit list. "We're going to get Marion Barry," Brooks threatened from his tiny Gulf service station at Georgia Avenue and Hamilton Street NW, where sales plunged after the tax was imposed last summer.
Monday, Barry cried uncle, admitted the tax was a flop and asked the City Council to dump it right away, which it did.
But Brooks still hates Barry's political guts, giving testimony to the deep-seated problems Barry has with some of Washington's mainstream voters who were aggravated by the gas tax. In the view of some, that anger is not likely to be resolved as quickly as the tax was repealed.
"Barry is going to be a one-term mayor ," Brooks said firmly, biting the stem of his unlit pipe inside his cluttered station where plant vines curl around dusty quart-size cans of oil and a Hustler magazine sits atop a copy of the Wall Street Journal. "He's no good."
Brooks is a gasoline big shot. He was the first black president of the Greater Washington Area and Maryland Service Station Association and he is slated to be the next president of the National Congress of Petroleum Retailers.
But what makes Brooks' blood boil when someone mentions the mayor comes from something deeper than Brooks' pocketbook.
Brooks may make his living pumping gas, but before that, he is a middle-class black and native Washingtonian who lives only a few blocks from his station in Brightwood, a rolling Northwest neighborhood of old, brightly painted houses with porch swings, small yards and short iron fences. Brooks is angry because he says Barry has forgotten the "core" of this city -- middle-class blacks, the poor and bootstrap businessmen like himself.
"No one speaks for us anymore," Brooks complains. "When he ran, Barry had a program for helping poor people purchase homes, but that went out the window fast. Barry isn't one of us.
"When you invite Barry somewhere, he doesn't show, but he always has time to go to gay affairs, every time they call."
"The 3rd Ward and Georgetown crowd elected him; he is manipulated by them, by wealthy white folks," Brooks says. "Don't get me wrong. Color don't mean nothing to me. A man is a man until he proves otherwise.
"But I'm afraid whites are taking control of the city. They are moving back in, and when taxes keep going up, well, the thing's going to fall. They're going to put pressure on Congress to take away home rule and with [Ronald] Reagan in office, I'm afraid of that."
Brooks' lament is one man's blues and, admittedly, some self interests are involved. He claims Barry's tax took $1,000 per week out his cash register.
Still, Brooks' complaints can be heard in different ways from a surprisingly wide spectrum of blacks in Washington: people who remember the city's not-so-distant segregated past and who are uncertain and confused about the sometimes powerless and ineffective young home-rule government that leads them. s
Barry, so this theory goes, was pushed by politically powerful whites because he was the easiest to manipulate. He was the best choice to drive the city back under the thumb of Congress, opening it up to developers and wealthy whites and blacks who are now invading Capitol Hill, Shaw, Southwest, Logan Circle and even the old 14th Street NW riot corridor.
It may sound crazy, the theorists acknowledge. After all, the District is 76 percent black. But Brooks worries about it. He says he has seen white power brokers, who change with each election, control this city in the past, and he knows that many of these temporary string-pullers have more influence on District government than he does, even though this always has been his home.
Brooks' Washington is different from the Washington that tourists flock to see, and far different from the Mercedes and designer-jeans Washington of Georgetown, the three-piece suit crowd on Capitol Hill or the flashy night-stalkers and flesh peddlers of 14th Street.
Brooks' Washington is the home of middle-class blacks who often feel they make news only when they are born, marry, divorce, die or cause trouble. His city is a place where friends gather to play poker and drink beer on Wednesday nights in neighborhoods that realtors describe as "transition areas."
"Mayor [Walter E.] Washington understood us," Brooks says. "Barry don't. I could pick up the telephone and call Mayor Washington, and if he said he would do something, then he did it. I've seen Barry at several functions, and he tells me to call if I have trouble, and if you call -- well, I just gave you a million dollars if he answered me.
"Washington knew how to talk to folks. Sure, he was a ceremonial mayor [and] he shouldn't have done those things for his personal friends -- but that's how life is in the streets. Blacks have been watching out for each other since the beginning. But Barry, whew, you got to know how to handle people to survive. He don't."
Brooks' past provides clues to why he prefers the former mayor, whose administration was clouded by accusations of longtime inefficiency and cronyism. In Brooks' world, a person does not succeed by following the book, but by knowing which parts to ignore and how to twist a predicament into opportunity.
Consider the time Gulf closed a station Brooks managed at 17th Street and Bladensburg Road NE. Brooks wanted to move to where he is today, but Gulf balked. Brooks contacted Shell because it wanted to build a station in his neighborhood. Shell offered him a job, but rather than accept it, Brooks used the Shell offer to push Gulf not only into giving him the station he wanted but also promising to expand it. In return, Brooks rallied his neighbors and kept Shell out.
You learn that sort of scrappiness when you get out of the Navy with a wife and son, no marketable skills and lots of ambition. That was Brooks in 1947.
He became a District cabbie, taught himself mechanics and within 10 years had his own cab company with a small garage where he pumped gas and collected a 50-cent kickback for every tourist he sent to certain downtown hotels. "Taught me that everyone has a racket," Brooks chuckles. "Everyone."
Brooks made more money pumping gas than running cabs, so he joined Gulf, which moved him to his current station in 1961. "I waited four years before I allowed Gulf to put my name on this station," Brooks recalls. "Ninety percent of the customers were white. I told everyone that the owner was in Florida and I was running it for him." When Gulf put his name above the service bay, a white woman exclaimed, "Why, you run this as well as any white man," Brooks recalled.
Gulf planned to expand Brooks' station, but some neighbors complained to the city, which rejected Gulf's plan. Months later, a massage parlor opened across the street. "Everyone asked me to help get rid of them," Brooks said, "I didn't do a thing. They hadn't helped me. If I helped them, they wouldn't help me the next time either."
Word got around. "Mr. B" was the man to see if you wanted something done. And his station prospered. "I built this business around me. Sometimes people won't leave their cars unless I'm here," says Brooks, who at age 60 still opens his station each day at dawn, counts the cash and locks up at dusk. s
"I carry a gun at night," he says. "I'm more afraid of what the hoodlums would do if they caught me without it than what a judge would do if he caught me with it."
Brooks also winks at a city law that requires stations to use expensive forms when making repair estimates. Brooks keeps a few in case an inspector comes by, but he uses forms that he gets free from Gulf. "A form doesn't guarantee good service. People do." Brooks grumbles.
"That's right," interjects a customer. A few seconds later, one of Brooks' neighbors arrives to pay her $135 repair bill. She slips $50 out of her worn pocketbook and slides two $20 bills from behind a wallet photograph of her grandchildren. "Should have more later this week," she says.Brooks hands her the keys. "Bye-bye sweetie," he calls.
"I like to think of my station as a little Detroit," he says. "I take good care of my friends and they help me."
Brooks learned the importance of friends after the 1968 riots."My white customers stopped to say goodby; they were moving out," he remembers. Had it not been for his black friends, he says, he would have gone under.
"I miss the sense of community we had in the old days," he says. "Blacks could go into any business because other blacks needed their services. Blacks couldn't go anywhere else. Now, blacks run everywhere, but whites do not generally support a lot of District businesses owned by blacks, so it's much harder for blacks today. There is no black community that watches out for blacks."
In 1970, Gulf decided to throw out Brooks and change his station into self-serve. Brooks fought Gulf and decided to buy the station with help from the United National Bank, a new bank started by blacks who later asked Brooks to be on their advisory board.
But none of his past problems was as serious as Barry's 6 percent tax, Brooks claims, which cut his daily sales from 1,400 to 475 gallons.
When Gulf tried to oust him, Brooks says, he understood. "That was business," he says. But the tax was politics. "When push came to shove, Barry turned on us and pushed us out the door," he said. "You don't do that to your friends.
"Washington wouldn't have done that to us."