Before he starts playing flute music for the rush-hour crowd at the McPherson Square subway stop each day, Carlton Moxley must get out of his house.
He lives in one room on the third floor of an abandoned building near 11th and H streets NW and has to carefully maneuver the slanting stairs, hop through a room filled nearly waist-high with debris, scale a wall, climb a fence, then head down an alley to the outside world.
Colorfully dressed and traveling by roller skates with a sack of clothes and a flute strapped to his body, Moxley, 29, bobs and weaves through the morning traffic, smiling effervescently at passersby who alternately smile and frown at him.
If it takes a brave man to live in surroundings that would make Mitch Snyder's Second Street shelter for the homeless seem like a Holiday Inn, it takes an even braver one to go through what follows in the life of this self-made street musician.
This is no joke sideline gig for Moxley. Music is his bread and butter, literally, his means of survival in a town not known for sympathy to ragtag troubadours, street bums and tramps. But he doesn't just want to survive. He thinks he has found something that he can do well, so while others laugh and shake their heads and even spit at him, he keeps on smiling and playing his songs.
Every now and then, he hits the right note at the right time and the sweet jingle of change in his money cup provides an inspirational accompaniment to this tunes.
"I said to myself that when you played a tune that I recognized, I would make a contribution," said Ed Rose, director of voluntary services for the Veterans Administration, as he laid a dollar in the cup. "Some of these guys don't play music; they just play scales. But I thought I recognized a tune just then."
It was Moxley's version of "God Bless America," part of his patriotic repertoire, which he had prepared for the city's Fourth of July activities.
More heads appear on the escalator up from the subway trains and another fan arrives -- Lorien Jaxny, age 2. With parents Barbara and Henry in tow, she smiles at Moxley's latest tune, "Star Spangled Banner," and waits for someone to hand her money to place in his cup.
"Listening to music is a good way to start the day," says Henry Jaxny.
Moxley pats the little girl on the shoulder and says, "Thanks for being my fan."
His spirits lifted, his money cup almost full, Moxley packs up and heads for his bank, Columbia Federal Savings and Loan. "Peace," he calls out as he skates through the door. Tellers Ingrid Scott-Currie, Melissa Gibson and Saundra Mitchell look up and smile. In unison they reply, "Peace to you, too, brother," and wait to receive his sack of coins.
Despite an occasional good day in earnings, these are hard times for Moxley, a native Washingtonian, son of a minister and clerk, who did poorly in school, joined the Army and quit, then joined the Navy and quit, and just couldn't seem to get his mind set on anything until he hit rock bottom.
His father, Aquilla Moxley, says he was awfully worried about his son and prayed for him, "prayed for days," he says. And now, while his son's life is not all he had hoped it would be, "at least he has finally found something -- and I am proud."
The younger Moxley says he has been making ends meet as a street musician for the past three years and thanks his father for the prayers.
"Sometimes I get disgusted when people look a me and say I'm just a bum," says Moxley as he makes up a grocery list that consists of a can of beets, a can of mackerel, a can of pickled vegetables and a jar of Gatorade. "But I am going to make it. People come up to me and say, 'You sound terrible, but I'm going to give you money because you got guts.' "
He shakes his head with a hint of despair. Right now he needs the money, and he'll accept a contribution for whatever the reason. In his gut, he's knows he has to keep on practicing, because in his heart he wants to be good.