Last in a series of four articles.
In Southeast Washington, a nonprofit organization called the Earth Conservation Corps offers inner-city youths an exchange: If the young people work hard on the ailing Anacostia River, the corps will supply them with 11 months of training, a college scholarship and a stipend. Along the way, the bald eagle might be saved. So might a few troubled young people.
The ladies giggle and blush. The gentlemen walk clumsily. The ladies sit anxiously at candlelit tables, whispering and waiting. The gentlemen serve up curried chicken and greens, macaroni and cheese, good manners and chivalry.
It's almost noon. For a while now, the young men enrolled in the Earth Conservation Corps have been trying to make sure everything is just right in their makeshift restaurant, catering to their dates' every whim: Another dinner roll from the buffet. A paper plate of salad. White meat in exchange for dark.
"Got me a sugar daddy," one young lady says of her personal escort, chuckling.
Ronnie Rice walks toward the buffet table on another errand, shaking his head and half-smiling. "Flun-ky," he mutters about himself.
The ladies laugh, relishing the royal treatment.
The occasion is a pre-Mother's Day luncheon at Building 176 of the Washington Navy Yard, in a multipurpose room converted into a dining hall with floral tablecloths and soft candlelight. The luncheon is as much for the young men as for the women. It was supervisor Reginald Adams's idea. The men would learn how to treat a lady. And the women would see how a lady should be treated.
Four months after the class of 40 started, only a quarter have endured. Some of those who were kicked out for one reason or another--or who simply stopped coming--have been replaced with new recruits.
Donnell Whiteside, 23, a former crack dealer, had been one of the replacements. A tall, beefy young man who bears a scar on his neck from the night two years ago when he was stabbed with a broken bottle, Donnell joined the corps in April and has been at ECC for nearly a month now. He is still here in the flesh but is beginning to show signs of being absent in spirit.
Roshawn Thompson, a slender young woman with black satin extensions, has hung on since the beginning, despite the difficulties of rising each morning before daybreak to get her 16-month-old son DeQuan to the babysitter, then heading over to the river to do dirty, strenuous labor. Roshawn's chocolate eyes reflect the growing strain.
With every new year comes a new season for planting. And pruning.
This morning, Donnell and the other young men arrived hours before the "females," as they call them. The men set up the chairs and decorated the tables. The food was catered.
The plan was for each young man to select one of the young women and hand-deliver a single, red rose, then escort her to a table, maybe pull out the aluminum folding chair. They were to wait on the ladies, hand and foot. Serve them first. Put their desires before yours, Adams had instructed them. Be kind, especially kind today.
But the thought of being so nice to the females made many of the men squeamish. They thought: Why should we be a "flunky" to the females? How come we have to wait on the females? I'm not giving a rose to a female.
Then, when the females finally arrived, dressed in skirts, dresses or slacks rather than their usual boots and khakis, the macho turned to mush. The young men lined up sheepishly and handed their roses to the ladies. Ronnie Rice chose Lameke White, a short, brown-skinned girl with braids. Donnell chose Monica Davis, a smiling young woman.
That Donnell is even here today is a minor miracle. Yesterday afternoon, he had cursed out a female supervisor. She was disrespecting him, yelling, talking down, the way Donnell saw it. She was giving orders. So Donnell cursed her out.
ECC rules are clear and firm: Donnell was terminated. But by the end of the day, his supervisors had softened up. Maybe they had acted too hastily. Maybe Donnell deserved another chance.
Early this morning, they called Donnell into the office and handed him a contract--a 60-day promissory note: He couldn't miss work, couldn't get written up anymore, had to be on time, no more disrespect. One last chance.
"I know I'm going to make it. Having the dream is what keeps me going. That's all I got," he said. Now it came down to this. Donnell signed on the dotted line.
The luncheon ends, the lights switch on. The men clear tables, bundle up trash. They laugh and joke now that their duty to the females is finally done. Besides, it's payday.
Donnell collects his check--$397, minus taxes. He walks out the door. No one could say whether he'd be back.
Roshawn sits on a worn sofa inside her mother's brown brick town house in Northeast Washington. She looks tired. Her son DeQuan, carrying a bowl of spaghetti as he walks toward her, spills it on the floor. She walks over and picks it up. She lifts one of DeQuan's chubby legs. "You got some on your shoe."
The mother cleans up her son's mess. Moments later, DeQuan lies on his mother's lap. Roshawn rocks him to sleep. It has been five months of rising at 5 a.m. to get to the babysitter's house so she can make it to work on time.
Roshawn has made it almost every day. Her work has been steady, reliable, her supervisors say.
But Roshawn knows she still has a long way to go. And it doesn't seem to be getting any easier. For about two weeks recently, the water at her mother's house was shut off for nonpayment. Her supervisors never knew. Roshawn kept coming to work. The water is back on now and Roshawn is looking for a place of her own. Her mother, who owns the house but lives in North Carolina, says her daughter must be out by July.
On this cool, still night, classified ads clipped from the newspaper lie on Roshawn's burgundy quilt, prospective apartments highlighted in yellow or circled in blue. A one-bedroom in Southwest for $320 a month. A two-bedroom for $495. On the bed, DeQuan's freshly laundered clothes are folded in a neat pile. The digital clock on the dresser is set for two hours before sunrise.
"Sometimes I get tired, but I'm trying to hang in there," Roshawn says, her words heavy. "I want my GED and I want that scholarship, so I'm trying to hang.
"I'm trying to hang." She manages a smile.
On a wall near the dresser, a calendar counts the days she's worked, each one celebrated in ink with a big blue star.
It has been two weeks since the Friday luncheon. Donnell's supervisors haven't a clue where he is.
The game at Alabama Avenue and Naylor Road SE this afternoon is basketball. A handful of guys, every man for himself.
Sirens wail. The sun beams down on Donnell. He is the biggest man on the court. He is bearded now, his hair unkempt. He pounds the ball on the pavement, goes in for another score. This is where he spends his afternoons since dropping out of the corps, on an elementary school court with a lone basket, shooting hoops with his homeys. Donnell says he's living with a friend now, hunting for another job. No luck so far.
"I'll just keep on looking," he says. His words are soft and slow, heavy. "They say put it in God's hands. I guess that's what I do when I don't know where I'm going."
He stopped going to the corps because "I felt like I was getting a raw deal. Even though I could have used the money for an education, I felt like I was being treated a little different from everybody else."
Even though the corps gave him one more chance after he cursed out a supervisor?
"She couldn't just soften her voice a little bit," he says, sounding hurt. "Everything was a snap. She never said 'please' or anything."
Asked whether he has gone back to drug dealing, Donnell pauses. Finally, he answers. "Not at the present time, but I got to eat. You know? Now it's Friday and the weather's nice and my sneakers aren't."
Sirens wail. Donnell's breath is aflame with liquor, his eyes still red from the cup of Hennessy cognac and Sunny Delight orange drink he had for breakfast.
"I'm stressed out a lot," he explains. "I worry a lot. Even in my dreams."
Donnell snatches another rebound. Shoots another basket. Then he walks to the free throw line. As he aims for the basket, his ECC T-shirt looks a little faded.
Outside ECC headquarters, at the lot that lay bald a month earlier, grass has begun to sprout. Wildflowers of purple and yellow bask in the sun. There are apple trees, maple trees and five dogwoods planted alongside a path, in memory of five slain corps members. One for L.B. One for Bennie. One for Darrell. One for Tink and one for Monique.
There are signs that the river is changing, too. The other day, a few corps members spotted two fat bass swimming near these banks, near where the bloated body of a bluebird floated on the surface. A school of minnows swam by; several ducks paddled not far from shore. In years past, corps members have spotted what they believe was one of the bald eagles they nurtured and released, soaring above the earth, somewhere along the Anacostia.
That hasn't happened yet this year. But there's always hope.
CAPTION: Member Tina Brown gazes out the window of the ECC van en route to a work site. Four months after the class of 40 started, only a quarter were still members.
CAPTION: Supervisor Rodney Stotts congratulates Ronnie Rice on bowling his first strike. "There you go, little man," Stotts said. "Now you feel six feet tall, don't you!"
CAPTION: Donnell Whiteside plays pickup basketball after dropping out of the corps. "They say put it in God's hands," he said. "I guess that's what I do when I don't know where I'm going."