Marion Barry was tired and needed to rest, but the people who dropped by his campaign headquarters Thursday to congratulate him and, invariably, to ask for his help didn't seem to notice. Or if they did notice, they pressed on with their requests anyway.
That included me. I'd come for an interview. And when Barry's voice became nearly inaudible during our conversation ("I'm just a little sleepy," he told me), I simply pushed my tape recorder closer.
"The key to my success is not just providing services to my constituents," said Barry, who had just won the Ward 8 Democratic primary, which all but assures him of a seat on the D.C. Council. "I'm out there. I was campaigning nine, ten hours a day. We were in every precinct, every neighborhood I could think of. And the people were ecstatic to see me."
In retrospect, I should have canceled the talk and urged Barry to go home and get in bed. At the very least, I might have reminded him of a conversation we had in 1996, when he telephoned from a spiritual retreat at the Skinner Farm in Maryland.
Barry had burnt himself out doing the very thing he was boasting about now.
Back then, Barry had said: "I'd find myself adding 30 minutes to my schedule here, another 30 there, until I looked up one Sunday, and I had been on the go from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. . . . I started doing it my way, trying to control everything, to fix everything and be on top of everything."
Barry is now 68. He has hypertension and diabetes and has been treated for prostate cancer. Those who love him ought to insist that he take better care of himself. Instead, many of his supporters and fans are treating him as if he were some ageless wonder, full of the vim and vigor of old.
Barry appears all too willing to perpetuate the myth -- sprinting along the sidewalk after casting his vote Tuesday, even though at times he hardly has the strength to rise from a chair.
During our interview last week, Barry could not resist answering his cell phone, which rang constantly. "It's reflex," he explained, bringing the telephone to his ear as if under some spell.
"Take his cell phone away," Linda Greene, Barry's campaign spokesman, told Darrell Poston, Barry's bodyguard.
"Gimme the phone," Poston said, reaching for it. Barry pulled the phone back to his chest.
"Hey, hey, gimme the phone," Poston said again.
"Hey, hey? Horses eat hay," Barry replied, holding tight.
Barry eventually handed over the phone. But he still held forth with whoever walked through the door.
"How do I get in touch with you?" asked a woman whose program for senior citizens was about to be evicted from a D.C. government-owned building. Barry wrote down his cell phone number and gave it to her.
"What's a good time to call?" she asked.
"Any time," Barry replied.
A look of distress vanished from the woman's face and was replaced by a more hopeful expression. Barry's satisfaction was apparent as well, for that was the kind of makeover he says he has planned for the face of Ward 8.
And yet he could barely stay awake. "My telephone was ringing all night," he said.
Few have been willing to speak frankly to Barry about matters as personal as his diet and lack of rest. And those who have usually were ignored. But if everybody who went to him with a hand out showed sincere interest in his well-being, Barry might come to see himself in a more realistic light: as a distinguished elder with insight and wisdom to share, instead of a hard-charging freshman with something to prove.
"Every time I'd go to the supermarket, I'd hear, 'Mr. Barry, can you help me with this?' 'Mr. Mayor, can you help me with that?' But I didn't have the power," he said, again almost inaudibly, about his decision to run this year. "So I decided to come back, to see if I can make a difference."
But even as he sets out to help others, he need not neglect himself.