Eugene Byrd and his sister, Flossie McMillon, were surprised to see old neighbors, friends and coworkers reaching for the free plates of food they handed out to homeless and destitute people at Les Nieces restaurant Friday and yesterday.
Byrd and McMillon, who often pitch in at the family-owned restaurant at 14th and Crittenden streets NW, are part of the middle class now, but they are not so far removed from the cold, nightmarish world of poverty to forget others who still are there.
Times have changed for Byrd and McMillon and their relatives, Teresa Byrd, Tirzah Swails and Sonya Davis, who own the Les Nieces Restaurant at 4622 14th St. NW.
Having grown up in a row house in a Georgetown alley, they are accustomed to giving and receiving neighborly handouts in order to survive. So, they said, it was "no big deal" for them to close their restaurant and nightclub to paying customers Friday, yesterday and today to serve only the homeless.
Friday afternoon, McMillon said, "I saw a GS-9 counselor whom I used to work with at the narcotic treatment administration from 1972 to 1975. I was handing out plates of food and, when I looked up, he was right there in line. I said, 'Come right on in. Everybody's welcome. You don't need to be ashamed of a thing. Everybody gets hungry.' "
With a smile that would make anyone feel at home, McMillon, who helps her brother manage the club, said, "In my family, we were taught that human beings need to stick together -- black, white, or whoever -- and to always make people feel that they are somebody. Because they really are, you know. We were all made by God."
As the homeless mingled, plates of food in hand, in a lounge decorated with smoked glass mirrors, tropical fish bowls and a brick bar, Byrd, the 47-year-old manager of the restaurant, added, "You can never forget where you came from."
Hundreds of hungry men, women and children, most from Washington's inner city, streamed through the doors of Les Nieces. Byrd said that the three days of free meals would cost the restaurant $1,500. The food, arrayed on a long row of tables just inside the door, included fried chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables and corn bread.
"Thank, you, ma'am. It was very good," said George Bayliss, 50, a resident at a shelter for the homeless, after he finished eating. "I lost my job nine months ago. I've been looking for work, but they always say 'We'll call you.' "
Most of the people who received the free meals yesterday arrived at the club in vans from an 800-bed shelter operated by the Center for Creative Non-Violence.
Byrd said that they had called Mitch Snyder, the organization's director, "and told him that we wanted to help." The restaurant plans to hand out its last free meals today between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., Byrd said, to "anybody who is hungry and can't afford food."
Greg Hessel, a 22-year-old counselor at the shelter, said: "A lot of people help out on Thanksgiving Day, but Byrd called us and said he wanted to do something extra. This might start a trend. Maybe other restaurants will open their doors at different times throughout the entire year. Except for holidays, the homeless tend to be forgotten."
In the club's small kitchen, three chefs were busy cooking a meal to feed another 500 people. Cook William Lewis, 35, looked through the portal window at the line of dispirited faces and thought about the days when he, too, was hungry and needed help from strangers.
One of those strangers was Byrd, he said.
"I've lived in this kind of environment, I understand this very well," Lewis said. "I've been on the other side. I've lived in a lot of foster homes. When I came to Washington from Richmond I met this guy, Gene, and a friend of his. They looked out for me. Now, I'm working in his kitchen. I was fortunate, that's all; lucky, I guess."