Officer Constant Pickett strolls briskly through the cold wind, walking the side streets and alleys that are his beat. As a foot patrolman in the ethnically diverse Adams-Morgan neighborhood, he has become something of an international police officer.
In this city, there is no beat quite like it.
"Say, hey, what it is, Pick," says a man who is half asleep in the doorway of the McDonald's at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. "Oh, Milton," Pickett says disappointedly. "You said you wouldn't take a drink for a week." A few days earlier, Pickett had found Milton choking on his tongue, the result of an alcohol-induced seizure.
"You saved my life, man," Milton says groggily, struggling to raise his hand for a shake. Pickett waves him away, and keeps on stepping. "You're welcome," Pickett says, shaking his head in sadness at the sight of this college-educated alcoholic who has become a fixture on his beat.
Pickett, 38, has seen the city at its worst during his 15 years on the police force. In 1980, while assigned to a beat on 14th Street, his partner was shot and killed during a drug bust in an alley.
The experience was traumatic for Pickett, and since then he has been shifted around the city, in search of a beat that suits a man on the mend. It seems that he has finally found it.
"I'm not as combative now," said Pickett between greetings to residents who know him. "It gives you a sense of pride when people like you, when kids wave at you, instead of getting hateful stares by junkies."
It's not all roses on his international beat, but Pickett takes most things in stride. Along Columbia Road are two buildings, supposedly abandoned but actually occupied by vagrants and immigrants. One of them is called "Little New York," and the other "Embassy of Havana." Marielita youths, recently arrived from Cuba, stand out front, listening to portable radios and drinking liquor from plastic cups.
They speak no English, and Pickett is just learning how to speak Spanish.
But they still communicate. They call him names; he goes home and looks up the word in his Spanish text. "They've been calling me 'nigger,' " Pickett says with the thrill of a detective making a breakthrough on a case. "Just wait until next time. I've learned a few words, too."
Inside Drazin Sidney's liquor store, Pickett helps himself to a Coca-Cola, then heads out the back door to check out the alley. There is a growing problem in Adams-Morgan with homeless people, elderly bums who fall asleep in alleys and risk freezing to death.
"Tramps," says Sidney, the hard-nosed liquor store owner. "They harass the pedestrians, especially the young girls. Why don't you do something about that?" he yells to Pickett.
Moving from despair to delight, Pickett need only cross a street or two. Suddenly, the neighborhood takes on an extraordinary richness, like the smell of Jamaican coffee and French pastries wafting from small cafes. He says he sometimes feels more like a tourist than a policeman, making his rounds.
At the Sun Gallery on 18th Street, the manager puts on a jazz album when Pickett stops by. "I like Coltrane," says Pickett. "He makes my day go smoother." Over at Hanfere Aliquz's restaurant, Pickett gets his morning coffee.
From Chinese, Lebanese, African and Spanish store owners, Pickett gets a wave and a smile. "They make me feel like I'm Officer Friendly," he blushes.
Pickett is aware of the fact that he is a real policeman. Two weeks ago, it seemed like deja vu for him when he witnessed a shooting near the intersection of 18th Street and Kalorama Road and chased the suspect into an alley, a situation similar to one in which his first partner, Arthur Snyder, was shot to death.
"I said, 'Oh, Lord, here we go again,' " Pickett recalled. But the suspect was arrested and no one was injured. And after a hot cup of Jamaican coffee, he was back on the beat.