IN THE COLD black night an old man ran scared across the Washington Monument grounds. He was dressed in multiple shirts and maybe three light jackets and when he ran he had the lights of the Monument behind him like flares on a battlefield. He moved quickly like a soldier, knowing just where to go. He cut into some hedges, found the grate he was seeking and lay down either to sleep or to die. It would depend on the weather.
We stood around. Nearby in a heatless Volkswagen bus, two other homeless men sat shivering, one kettle of soup and another of stew at their feet. At the grate, two volunteers from the Community for Creative Non-Violence leaned over and asked the man to return to the van. He hugged the grate and said no. One volunteer was named Kevin and the other was named Ralph but the old man had no name. He had twinkly eyes and leathery skin with deep creases and a gray beard that made him look distinguished. We had met him at the National Visitor Center where he had gone for shelter.
"Going to be 17 degrees tonight," Kevin had told him earlier.
"God, I know that," the old man had replied. 'You'd freeze to death."
Still, now he hugged the grate, turned his head into the rising hot air, and would not move.
Outside the Visitor Center, he had seemed willing to be taken to the city shelter. He had come because the CCNV had turned part of the Visitor Center into a crash pad for the city's homeless people, giving the place the air of a train station once again. The government had since closed the operation down, but the old man did not know that. He had walked over from his usual grate on 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. Kevin gave him the news.
"They closed it?" he said, disbelieving. "There's no place to lie down? They closed it. Holy Christ, I've got to get back to the grate." He went to the van and took a seat in the back. First he took soup and then he took stew and he said he had been on the streets for 10 years and had never heard of the city's shelter for homeless men.
This was a night in which you were told what you wanted to hear, in which you believed what you wanted to believe, in which you dealt always with men who would not tell you why they would not come in from the cold. They would lie or look away or change the subject and they would thank you -- "Thank you, brother" -- but they would not go to the shelter. They would sooner die, and some of them will.
With the old man in the back, the van moved through the cold city, stopping at grates where the hot, often scalding, air comes up. Ralph sat in the back with the old man. Ralph is in his early 30s, a conscientious objector in Vietnam, a man who described himself almost as an out-of-work causist -- nothing left to fight for. He had heard about the CCNV on the radio and so he had come down to help.
"I felt I had not been active since the war," he said "I felt I should get off my butt and do something."
Kevin was a full-time volunteer. He wore a salt-and-pepper topcoat, sneakers and a Redskins stocking cap. His van stalled at every stop. The heater didn't work and the windshield wiper hung like a broken wing, but Kevin pushed the van on through the night, a stalling, frigid moving box, reeking of soup and stew.
He stopped at Fifth and F where two men took soup but refused a ride to the shelter. They gave no reason except that they would prefer their grate. At Sixth and F and yet another grate, two more men took soup, but once again refused to go to the shelter. At the Greyhound station, an apparition dressed in a blanket and shawl and yet another blanket came into the van for soup. He was joined by a young black man named Ricky. Ricky stayed, but the apparition would not. He returned to his grate and lay down.
Never would they say why.There was a man under a blanket in a doorway who would not move. He had no grate. He was a voice under a blanket. He would not even take soup. Always they said think you, but no thank you, and after a while it seemed natural for men to sleep on the sidewalk. A grate is a warm place. The enemy is not the cold but the wind which can blow away the warmth. They have their grates. You have your homes. Don't argue.
Down by the Watergate a man in a suit and vest is asleep on a grate. He has his shoes off and vest is asleep on a grate. He has his shoes off and placed neatly nearby. He talks in the accent of middle Europe, like a relative comes over for the holidays.
"Dank you," he says. "I vill stay here." Vey polite.
The van chugs on. At the Trailways we pick up another man. He comes out cold and confused, but not old or worn. He is young and rather nicely dressed. His name is Robert. Now we have Ricky and Robert and the old man. Ricky complains about the cops at the bus station -- "always poking you with the stick."
The old man smiles.
"You ever go there?" Richy asks.
The old man smiles and shakes his head no.
"You rather stay out in the cold?"
"Hell, yeah, I'd rather do that than have my head busted."
The cold becomes implacable. We yearn for the shelter, but Kevin keeps driving. He is like his cause, taking things too far. He is like his cause also in that he confronts you with what is out there. After two hours I have had enough. I am cold. I want to go home. I want no more of homeless men.
We stop at a grate near the Commerce Department. Two men lie on it. They take soup from us and I remember a night last winter when I saw two men like these on this same grate. I almost stopped. It was bitterly cold. They could reeze to death, I thought. I did not stop. None of us ever stop. Say what you will about the CCNV people, they stop.
We park at the Monument to check the men's room. Ralph goes in and Kevin wanders off and I amble around. The old man bolts. I can see him in the light of the Monument running like he walks -- on the tilt. He goes through the hedge and we find him lying down on the grate.
"It's going to be cold tonight," Kevin says softly.
"I'll be all right," the old man says.
"We'll take you to the shelter now."
He says nothing.
We all look at each other. We are cold, too cold to argue -- I am, anyway. We go back to the van and head off in the direction of the White House and then, later, shelter. The old man will make it through the night, we know. I mean, he's been doing it for 10 years. He'll be fine.