The men stood waiting like a row of disheveled cigar-store Indians, silent and sleepy and still.
Draped in blankets, surrounded by boxes and bags, these homeless people come each night to the K Street exit of the Farragut North Metro station. When the station closes shortly after midnight, they shuffle down the stalled escalators and, with a vaguely proprietary air, settle down in the room-like space below.
Everybody has to sleep somewhere.
All over the city, there are similar pockets, alcoves, makeshift bedrooms that the homeless seem to know about instinctively. Farragut North happens to be one of the preferred spots for passing the night. It is near their daytime haunts, such as Farragut Square, and it's also reasonably warm because of the heated air that blows through the locked gate of the station into the open space. Furthermore, while station attendants are aware of the shadowy lodgers, they tend to take the compassionate view and look the other way.
Some nights, only a handful of men show up; other nights, as many as 15 or 20. Always, regardless of the weather, there is somebody.
On this particular night, K Street was deserted and deadly cold. A few minutes before midnight, a dozen men gathered with their belongings. Among them was a tall, hulking figure with gray frizzled braids, a small, white-haired man who padded about in bedroom slippers and a fidgety fellow with dark glasses, a spotty beard and a friendly air.
The third man appeared to be middle-aged, but insisted he was "17 going on 18." He pointed to a shoebox at his feet and said it contained his identification papers and other important documents.
"We're all functioning individuals," he replied, when asked how he had come to be at Farragut North that night. "We're always on the go. Me, I've got eight college degrees. No, nine."
At this time of night, the escalators leading from the station to the street were only going up, to allow for departing passengers. One bedraggled man, disoriented or perhaps only impatient, tried to walk down the up escalator. His legs worked furiously for a moment and he almost lost his balance. Giving up, he hopped back onto the street to wait with the others.
In a few minutes, the escalators stopped. Bedtime.
The men descended silently and spread out over the brightly lit chamber. One immediately curled up, without cover, at the base of the escalator. Another carefully shook out his thin blanket before lying down on the concrete floor. Others arranged sheets of cardboard or spread out newspapers. No one spoke.
In a corner, an older man with dark flashing eyes and a heavy accent made his bedtime preparations. He said he was 65 1/2 years old and had come to America from Bulgaria 18 years ago. He fiddled with stacks of newspapers in a red plastic milk crate as he angrily discoursed about "this country . . . this Constitution . . . deportation . . . bah!"
Two men in heavy coats paused in the center of the room. One was a fresh-faced young man who described himself as "a suburban Virginia kid who likes to try and help these guys out." The other wore mismatched gloves and a green hood pulled tightly around his head. He described himself as "a former Golden Gloves boxing champion."
The latter man, who gave his age as 35, had a sad, lost air about him. In South Carolina, he said, his loving adoptive parents were tricked on their deathbeds into writing him out of their will. In the Washington area, his biological family "used me and plotted against me and turned their backs on me."
He would give anything, he said, to have a job.
On the streets, he is known as "Superman" or "Catman." He demonstrated how he acquired the latter nickname by emitting a trilling meow. He likes enjoys, when riding the subway, to pretend he's carrying a cat in a bag.
In another corner, a huge, bearded man in bib overalls and a green T-shirt lay on one side, his head propped on his hand. He watched the scene with a smile.
"They call me, 'Big Fat,' " he introduced himself pleasantly. "I'm a bum. What do you want to know?"
He is 38. He has been on the streets "off and on" since his divorce in November 1978. Before that, he worked as a welder and a truck driver.
"Being a bum's a good life," he said. "You get instant gratification. You don't have to work all week just to hear the boss say you didn't finish something. You bum a nickel, a dime -- that's instant gratification."
He outlined his options. He named a theater with $1 movies as a good place to spend an afternoon. For food, "the bum's best bets" are all-you-can-eat specials.
In a pinch, he said, he can doze all night at National Airport and claim that he's waiting for his wife who's coming in on an early flight.
Pizza restaurants are happy to get rid of damaged pizzas. "All I have to do," he said, "is stick my head in and say, 'Hey, got anything for Fatty?' "
Most men in his position prefer to avoid official shelters for the homeless, he said. "You gotta understand," he said. "Bums are fairly independent people.
"Life's real free," he continued. "What a bum is, is free of responsibility. Who wants to get yelled at for $5 an hour? Who wants to start a career at 38? When you have a wife and kids, you care, but, nah, I don't care.
"I call myself a sophisticated hobo."
Around him, most of the men were settled down. A shriveled figure in a red cap leaned on his heels, searching through his collection of plastic Safeway bags. The others slept restlessly, hitching and shivering.
In the corner, the man from Bulgaria sat on his upturned milk crate, eyes closed. For warmth, he had wrapped newspapers around his legs and thighs with twine.