Doc Higginbottom and Ray Ragland wanted a ride to the nearest soup kitchen yesterday, so I chauffeured them while they talked about their plans for the new year.
"I'll be sleeping outdoors and using the bathroom in the bushes," said Higginbottom, 47.
Ragland, 39, added, "I'll probably have to fight for a peanut butter sandwich that tastes like dirt."
Both men laughed, then fell silent, embarrassed by what they had just said.
"I've been on the streets for three months," Higginbottom said with a pained look on his face. "You start doing things that you never thought you'd do."
Becoming homeless made last year a disaster for Ragland and Higginbottom. But what worried them most was the future. If they don't get a break in 1991, both men fear, they could easily be doomed to the maddening existence of Washington's street life.
"I have seen people go crazy out here," Ragland said. "It doesn't take long. You start talking to yourself, and the next thing you know, you just lose it."
Walking the streets, Ragland and Higginbottom look like your average, hard-working handymen. Neither fits the stereotype that labels all homeless men drug abusers or mental patients.
But seated around a fire barrel near Sixth and K streets in Northwest Washington, which is where I met them, they fit right in with that burgeoning group of panhandlers and steam grate sleepers.
"People just don't understand -- there are ex-policemen, former schoolteachers and college students among us," Ragland said. "There are lots of young people, almost children. They are not bad people -- or at least they weren't before they were forced to survive on the streets."
Higginbottom said he had been a respected supervisor at a warehouse in Landover, but lost his job after suffering a stroke. Ragland said he had worked at a steel mill in Pittsburgh.
The fall from gainful employment to despair in the streets was rapid and uncushioned. The men had been only a couple of paychecks away from poverty -- and it took only a few months before they were reduced to urinating in bushes and fighting for scraps of food.
Ragland said he came to Washington when the mill closed. A friend had sent him a copy of The Washington Post classified advertisement section, which he said was "yea thick" with jobs.
But he didn't find a steady job, and now, he says, he feels trapped on the District's grinding homeless circuit, which saps more of his energy each day.
"Being homeless is the hardest job I ever had," Ragland said.
He said he used to give quarters to homeless people and did not give much thought to their existence once they were out of his sight.
"The reality is worse than anything I could have imagined," Ragland said. "If it wasn't for the kindness of shelter and soup kitchen operators, this city would be in total chaos, overrun by starving men, women and children."
"You go for a job and don't have a telephone because you live in a shelter and that's the end of that," Higginbottom interrupted, noticeably depressed. "It's a Catch-22. Nobody wants to help me because I need help."
"Don't think like that," Ragland calmed his buddy. "We can't give up."
"I feel like I'm a part of a cattle drive, being herded from one soup line to the next," Higginbottom complained.
Higginbottom has been on medication since his stroke. And the latest dosage appeared to be wearing off.
"Here I am sick, hard of hearing, and they kick me out of the shelter at 6 a.m. -- rain, shine, sleet or snow," Higginbottom said. "If I get to the soup kitchen a minute late, they slam the door in my face."
As we approached the soup kitchen -- in time -- Ragland thanked me for the ride. It was a welcome respite from their daily trek to food lines, a circuit the men said sometimes covers 20 miles.
"I used to have a nice car," Higginbottom mumbled. "One day I had a home, a car, a job -- and then I had a stroke, and no medical insurance."
Higginbottom's voice trailed off. "No damn insurance," he repeated, sorrowfully.
"We went to Bible study on Sunday and prayed for the weather to hold," Ragland said. "I also asked God to give Doc a hearing aid and both of us a job. But we'd settle for a room and a hot plate."
"If I only had medical insurance," Higginbottom repeated.
"At least we haven't gone crazy. Right, Doc?" Ragland said, patting his buddy on the shoulder.
But Higginbottom did not seem to hear him. "Maybe something will break in the new year," Doc said, talking to himself.