After Saturday's nuptial extravaganza, the Potomac Gardens public housing project on the southern edge of Capitol Hill, may never be the same. More than 100 curious neighbors--some in hair curlers and bedroom slippers--clogged the complex's dirt yard to glimpse the bride as she made her way from her second-story apartment, past the rows of drooping clotheslines, past the Polaroid cameras that flicked as she tipped her white lace parasol, past the graffiti-lined tenements, to a Victorian horse-drawn carriage waiting to trot her to the church.
In many ways, it was a scaled-down, shoestring version of last year's lavish Royal Wedding, and as matron of honor Jackie West put it, "a fairy tale set in the ghetto."
The bride was Willie Mae Barnes, 52, a welfare mother of nine who spent her nights cleaning high-rise office buildings part-time and her days mothering neighborhood children. The groom was Luther Earl Bullock, 49, a reformed alcoholic who fathered two children but vowed he would never marry.
Members of this unconventional bridal party, including the bride and groom's 11 children, formed a white and lavender lineup of 14 bridesmaids, 14 groomsmen, two ring bearers, two flower girls, one train carrier, one runner, a headmaster, the best man and the matron of honor.
To Barnes, the $7,000 formal affair was worth every penny she had borrowed, saved and solicited since her November engagement, worth every silk flower she had hunted at Murphy's and Woolworth's, worth all the nights she slept on the edge of her bed to make room for the boxes of purple ribbons, ring bearer shoes and "Honk, We Just Got Married" signs that cluttered her cramped bedroom.
It symbolized an official rite of passage from the public housing project at 12th and I streets SE to the yellow-shingled bungalow her husband owns in quiet, suburban Mount Rainier, Md.
It was, she said, the wedding she never had.
But it would not have gotten off the ground had not a few friends and unlikely contributors come to her aid.
A seamstress, for example, made the 14 purple satin bridesmaid dresses from a Diane Von Furstenburg pattern at a cut-rate price ($31.75 each). Two funeral homes each dispatched a Cadillac limousine for the wedding processional free of charge. Barnes' closest friend--West, the matron of honor--coordinated the affair. The brides' $3,000 dowry was money she saved from winning the Maryland Lottery four times.
With that, Barnes set out on her eight-month plan of action. She bought $400 worth of food for the reception at discount food stores. She found an eight-tiered, white lace wedding dress at Morton's, put it on lay-away and paid $5 every two weeks until it was hers.
"I've waited and dreamed and hoped for this as long as I can remember," she said, recalling the rough time she had rearing her kids alone. "I need to be happy. I was wracked up, very wracked up. There was a time when I couldn't make a move without breaking out two or three strollers."
The romance began seven years ago in the empty halls of the Coast Guard Building near the waterfront where Barnes worked nights as a cleaning woman and Bullock as her crew leader.
"I thought he was a nice man," Barnes recalled. "But," Bullock explained, "it wasn't love at first sight."
"First of all," Barnes said, "I figured he was married since I saw the pictures of these kids and all."
But whenever Ship Shape Maintenance, the company the two then worked for part-time, transferred Barnes to another location, she would find excuses for Bullock to move with her.
"I would tell them [Ship Shape] that I didn't have any transportation," she said, "and I needed him to take me home at night."
The strategy worked, and eventually Barnes found herself spending more and more time with Bullock, even helping him move into, paint and decorate his new home four years ago.
"I planted a garden--had collards, tomatoes, squash," she said, "and I painted the whole house all by myself. Sometimes I thought I was doing too much. I mean, I didn't have my name on anything. I took a big chance . . . and I really spoiled him. But I thought it would work. I saw the chance for companionship."
But, in the meantime, Bullock was introducing her to friends and neighbors as his maid, rather than, as Barnes would have preferred, "his honey."
Last November, she got up the nerve to tell him so.
"I told him, 'Luke, I can't go on like this,' " she recounted. "I'm tired of looking at the preacher's face come Sunday morning, and he's talking about fornication and all. Then I come right back here and look in your face at night. . . . You don't think I'm good enough, do you? . . . I don't want to be your maid, I want to be your wife.' "
Bullock was, by both accounts, caught off guard.
"Well, go ahead!" he replied. "Set the date! Set the date!"
Bullock said he since has gotten used to the idea. "I did a lot of running in my time," he said, "and maybe age slowed me down. But I did feel something was missing in my life. Or maybe it's just that the timing was right. I know one thing: I don't feel I could do any better than with Mae."
Short, rounded and chocolate brown, Willie Mae Barnes is a whirl of motion, constantly straightening a tablecloth, wiping a kitchen counter or stroking the nearest toddler.
"She spoils everybody rotten," said her oldest daughter, Catherine (Puddin') Ross, 29. "She's steadily on the go. Always working. Never sits down."
That, Barnes said, comes from her childhood days as the eldest daughter of a tobacco farmer in Rocky Mount, N.C. "I worked in the field, picked the cotton, shook the peanuts, shucked the corn--did everything," she said.
At 17, she graduated from George Washington Carver High School there. Three years later, when she was five months pregnant, she married her first husband James Barnes in May 1951. "Don't ask me what day it was. I can't remember," she now says. "It wasn't a big deal. We just went to the justice of the peace in Tarboro (N.C.). Paid $3 for the license and $5 for the dress."
Their first child, a son, was born two months premature that July and was named Claudius Bernard. The second, a daughter, died shortly after birth a year later; and the third, Catherine, was born in 1953, the year Barnes' husband died of a gunshot wound during a street fight.
She moved to Washington five years later and gave birth to nine more children. Like her second child, two others also died in infancy.
Barnes already has raised four grandchildren--three of whom were born out of wedlock. Another grandchild is on the way.
"My mother's had it rough," said Ross, who married five years ago and has an 18-month-old son. "She's been through a lot of changes with men. She was always afraid she'd never get married. But, out of all her boyfriends, Mr. Luke was the only one who cared about her and the children."
A tall, stately man with hazel eyes and a warm, but snaggled smile, Luther (Luke) Bullock talks openly about his heretofore confirmed bachelorhood, the twins he raised as a single parent and his 10-year bout with the bottle.
The eldest of five children, Bullock was born where Barnes was raised, in Rocky Mount, N.C. His sharecropping family moved to Washington 18 months later, and Bullock has spent most of his life here, aside from a stint in the Navy from 1952 to 1956.
"I mostly bummed around after that," he said, "and spent quite a few years getting drunk. My life was just one big party, and I got locked into it. But then the fun went out of it and drinking became a necessity."
In 1971, one of his supervisors at the U.S. Surgeon General's Office, where Bullock worked as a messenger, referred him to the Headway Community Counseling Center at Fort Myer Army Base for help with his worsening alcoholism.
He said he took his last drink on May 13, 1972, and eventually the center hired him as a social service assistant. Bullock is working on an associate's degree in community service at American University in addition to his job at the center. "I've had a lot of people pulling for me," he said. "You just take it one day at a time."
He fathered twins--one boy, one girl--in 1963 and, along with his sister and mother, raised them because their mother wasn't "economically able to care for the children.".
He said he never married because he "just hadn't given it any serious consideration. Life centered on freedom, and I was pretty much set in my ways."
"But I always knew he'd get married," said his son Darryl, 19. "It was just a matter of when."
After 15 years in the now run-down Potomac Gardens complex, no one knows Willie Mae Barnes better than her running buddy, next-door neighbor, matron of honor and closest friend Jackie West.
She didn't mind staying up every night last week making 300 rice holders, picking up the tuxedos, securing a soloist and comandeering Friday night's rehearsal, just for starters.
"I've grown 50 gray hairs from this wedding," she said last week. "It's driving me crazy. You'd think I was getting married. I'm a nervous wreck, she's a nervous wreck. I'm coordinating the whole thing. She's already got enough to do. She's just following my instructions. My job is to keep her quiet and cool."
That's no easy charge. As soon as Barnes opened the front door of her cramped three-bedroom apartment one night last week, she started cleaning up. She picked up lint from the blood-red carpet in her small-but-tidy living room, wiped the plastic-covered, blood-red velvet sofa, checked the red feathers shooting from a red vase on her cocktail table, then plopped in her easy chair
"She's always moving. Never sleeps. If she sleeps, she sleeps with her eyes open," said West, who fondly remembers the days before Luther Bullock when she and Barnes frequented local discos and trekked to CB conventions. "She's my best friend. Anytime I need something she's there and vice versa. We've been through too much together for marriage to change anything between us."
The wedding was set for 1 p.m. Saturday. But a crowd started to form outside Barnes' apartment building hours before.
Barbara Ferrell was one of the scores of neighbors who said she wouldn't believe it until she saw it. She staked out a strategic position near Barnes' door, armed herself with a pocket camera and decided to wait as long as necessary to see Barnes make her promenade to the horse and buggy.
"I'm not going anywhere--even if I fall out," she vowed, keeping her eye on the door. She already had waited more than an hour. "I'm staying right here until she passes through that door. People haven't even gotten dressed for the wedding yet 'cause they're so worried they might miss her."
"This is just something that doesn't happen everyday, especially around in here in the projects," said another neighbor, Carolyn Lipford.
"Plus," said Ferrell, "everybody knows her. She's the clean-up lady. I've seen this woman on my way to work before the sun gets out, and she's out here cleaning up the whole parking lot."
Minutes later, the bride emerged and those in the crowd scrambled to get a closer look, practically knocking each other down to snap her picture.
"Oh, my God, she's beautiful," some neighbors exclaimed in unison.
"You're killin' 'em, Miss Mae!" said another.
"All right! Get it, Miss Mae!" shouted a teen-age boy. "She looks good, don't she, man," he whispered to a friend.
The crowd followed Barnes as she boarded the vintage 1860 carriage, courtesy of Coachman Ltd., hitched to a brown horse, driven by Gail Conley, decked in a black British riding habit topped by a black derby hat.
Galloping toward Mount Airy Baptist Church on North Capitol Street NW, the horse and buggy passed run-down storefronts and boarded-up row houses, drawing incredulous looks from rubbernecking drivers and pedestrians along the way.
At the start of the ceremony, to the solo accompaniment of "You Are So Beautiful," Barnes made her way down the aisle, accompanied by her oldest son Claudius. After the traditional exchange of vows, rings and kisses, hundreds of guests and the 40-member wedding party spilled onto the street, as dozens of onlookers from the nearby housing project watched the spectacle.
"I don't know who they are," said a woman passer-by who tracked the bridal couple as they got ready for the processional to the reception. "But I sho' will give credit where credit is due."
With that, the horse-drawn carriage trotted off, taking the couple to a reception at the Elks Club behind the Safeway at Third Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW, where the newlyweds cut their cake and where Willie Mae Barnes Bullock, at long last, got the chance to throw the bouquet of silk flowers she'd been gathering since November.