To most Americans, Washington is the place congressmen come to accept stacks of hundred-dollar bills from inscrutable Koreans and raise the taxes of the rest of us.
It is the lair of rude, overpaid and underworked federal bureaucrats whose principal objective is to make life difficult for those who pay their salaries.
It is the place where Presidents who promise us one thing and do another live like kings for four or eight years and at the public's expenses. And then retire on fat pensions to write multimillion-dollar memoirs describing the awful burden of their high office.
Washington is all these things. But it is also infinitely more. Like every city, this is a place of brick and mortar where all sorts and conditions of men seek a means of grace and nurture their hope of glory, working all their lives to earn for their children a better chance than they enjoyed.
Outsiders do not understand this. When I am asked where I am from and I reply "Washington," the almost envariable response is: "Yes, I know; but where are you from? "
Well, I was born here, and so were my parents and their parents. Indeed, the Hempstones were small farmers in neighboring Montgomery County and Loudoun County long before there was such a place as Washington.
From the earliest colonial times there was settlement here at the navigable headwaters of the Potomac. A tobacco farmer named George Washington, long before anyone thought of naming a city after him, was familiar with the twin ports of Georgetown and Alexandria, which face each other across the river.
But even long after it became the capital, Washington remained, until World War II, essentially a sleepy Southern town.
Walking to work from our home on California Street, my father would tip his hat each morning to Charles Evans Hughes, as the Chief Justice began his morning constitutional to the Supreme Couft. When my Uncle Fred, who graduated from the naval Academy in 1899, was posted here as a young ensign, it was customary for all naval officers assigned here to leave their calling cards at the White House.
So Washington is not just wily congressmen, whey-faced bureaucrats and proud Presidents. It, like any other city, is the sum of the works, hopes and dreams of all its people, big and small, past and present.
One of these, whom I knew slightly as a boy (he was the same age as my father), died the other day at 91. His name was Delaware Barbour, but everyone called him "Sweet Orange," and he was more a part of this city than all of any President's men, be they Californians or Georgians. And his life and heritage say more about America, some bad and more good, than do most of theirs.
Sweet Orange's home turf was Southwest Washington, which in those days meant he was what they used to call colored.
When he was eight years old back in 1894, when Grover Cleveland was in the White House, Sweet Orange began selling vegetables and fruit from a goatcart. By the time he was 13, he had saved enough money to buy a horse and a wagon, and he didn't stop hawking his produce until the 1960s. After that, he worked in an open-air market until his retirement in 1971 at age 85.
He would announce his presence by singing:
Sweet oranges, sweet oranges,
Watermelon man, watermelon man.
They're ripe from the vine,
I plug them every time.
A policeman who once arrested him for hawking his wares too loudly reputedly was promptly transferred to the zoo: Sweet Orange Barbour, who weighed 115 pounds wringing wet, simply was too much of an institution to be trifled with. His fleet of horse-drawn wagons eventually reached five, and his only concession to modernity was to put rubber tires on their wheels.
Changing lifestyles and the decline of the inner city put Sweet Orange out business in the 1960s. The streets weren't safe, and there was no room on the freeways for horse-drawn wagons. Finally, he lost his home and his last horse's stable to an urban-renewal project. At age 87, he left Washington for the first time to live with his daughter near Chicago. But Sweet Orange, who didn't need Alex Haley to tell him about roots, never felt at home there, and a year ago he returned to Washington.
Sweet Orange went through life unencumbered by formal education. His school was the streets. He started poor, and he certainly didn't finish rich, but along the way he worked hard, lived decently and gave away a smile with every orange.
His survivors include a daughter who is retired art teacher, a granddaughter who is a writer-producer for a television station and a grandson who is a postmaster.
That says a lot about the character of Sweet Orange Barbour. It also says something about America, and about the city called Washington, the town nobody knows.