The other times were bad enough, but the last one still makes Ola Sheckles shudder.
It was about 9 p.m. on a hot Friday night last summer. Ola Sheckles had just stepped off an L-2 bus near her home on Cliffbourne Place NW. She was returning from the job that has been her passion for more than 25 years -- working as an usher at the National Theatre.
In the darkness, a young man approached and asked where he should stand to catch the bus to Stanton Road. As Ola began to answer, another young man came up behind her and grabbed her tote bag.
"Give it up," said Mr. Stanton Road. "We don't want any trouble. If you give us trouble, he'll shoot you."
Ola turned around. In the palm of the second man's hand was a pistol.
She released her grip on the tote bag. The men ran away. And Ola Sheckles stood there on Calvert Street -- alone, 74, frail, trembling, wondering what she wondered all the other times: Why couldn't they just take the money and leave an old widow's dentures and personal effects behind?
When you have been robbed six times in the last 18 months and 21 times since 1970, it isn't easy to summon up outrage yet again. Ola spends more of her energy being happy that she's alive, and lately she's been happy for another reason. At last, she is beyond the reach of robbers -- although not in the way she might have chosen.
In February, on doctor's orders, Ola moved from her apartment in Adams-Morgan into a nursing home on Georgia Avenue, across the street from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Under house rules, she cannot leave the premises without permission. The practical result is that she seldom leaves at all.
Like many nursing homes, the one in which Ola Sheckles lives seems a discouraging place. At 9:30 on a recent Tuesday morning, eight women sat in the living room, half-watching Phil Donahue on television. The nurse said Mrs. Sheckles was in the back yard, taking her morning walk.
She comes forward to greet you, her walk halting but her smile shining and her right hand outstretched. Ola Sheckles may have been robbed 21 times on the streets of Washington, but her personality hasn't done an accordion act.
But the combination of her illness and the difficulty of persuading the nursing home staff that she can get home at night in one piece has prevented her from working as an usher.
Ola recognizes that her evening theater work and her size make her particularly vulnerable to holdups. "I'm five feet tall and 94 pounds," she says, "and I guess I'm smaller than most of the other women who are out at night alone." But, she says, she would go back to work at the National or Constitution Hall or several other places she has worked in a minute, holdups or not.
In fact, if treatment for cancer doesn't prevent it, she will go back.
"There's something drawing about it," she explains, in her native West Virginia twang. "I just like working with the people. And I never actually retired."
Ola began work as an usher for $2.50 a night. "Tonight, if I was working, I'd get $7 if I got off at 8:30 and $14 if I stayed to check for lost and found," she says. "That doesn't sound like much, and maybe it isn't, but I always looked at it this way: It's the icing on the cake, not the cake."
Isn't she angry about being robbed so often?
"Not really. You get numb right afterwards and after a while. I try not to hate."
Isn't she concerned about her financial situation?
"I try not to think about it. But without the income from my theater work, all I have is savings and Social Security."
And if they run out?
"I don't have the slightest idea what I'll do."
Ola Sheckles escorts her visitor through the kitchen and back into the living room. Donahue has become "Edge of Night." She shakes hands, just as firmly as before.
"I guess I'll go walk awhile more," she says. "Then I'll set awhile.
"It's not as much fun as being an usher. But you can't be much of an usher if they keep pointing guns at you, can you?"