You'll forgive me for not waking the guy up. You wouldn't have, either. He was clutching a pint of Something Strong in his right hand. His clothes looked as if they hadn't been washed, or changed, in a month. He was asleep on a bench. He was a bum.
Nor was he alone. On a September Tuesday afternoon, about a dozen bums were sitting (or napping) near the two gray marble fountains that stand, waterless and full of dust, outside the Martin Luther King Library at 9th and G Streets NW.
The fountains began spouting in 1976. But funds to keep the water coming were knocked out of the D.C. budget when it came before the House and Senate Appropriations Committees in 1978. The fountains have collected dust -- and bums -- ever since.
It would be easy to rock back on one's heels and declare that, if we had true home rule in the District of Columbia, the fountains would be gushing and would never have stopped. It would also be wrong.
In their waterless silence, the fountains shout: Be sure you can pay for what you build in this day and age, regardless of whether city taxes or Capitol Hill committees are paying the tab.
It would be no small tab to get the fountains going again. According to Tara Hamilton of the D.C. Department of Transportation (DOT has jurisdiction over public fountains, curiously), it would cost $150,000 to repair the fountains, clean out the debris and reconnect the electrical system. It would cost another $9,000 a month to maintain and operate them once they were going. It would cost even more if anything broke.
Why such big numbers? "There's a pretty elaborate electrical system that runs all of this and that has to be overhauled," Hamilton explained. In addition, a lot of debris tends to be thrown into the fountains. To fish it out requires a fulltime maintenance worker. Salary and benefits for him or her, added to the cost of electricity and water, bring you to $9,000 a month rather easily.
Few of us would begrudge the $300,000 the fountains cost originally. They are extremely attractive. They sit in front of the city's main public library. They began life during the Bicentennial, a time of national celebration.
But few of us would have guessed, either, that in six years the city's budget crunch would force us to choose between running fountains or some more vital public service.