Wayne Miller knew quite a bit about urban survival before he came to McKenna House. The 27-year-old Air Force veteran found winter shelter once in an abandoned Mazda, another time in a 14th Stree laundromat he shared with two herion addicts. And when all else failed, he knew how to make a cocoon out of a plastic tarp that sealed enough warmth inside for a man to survive even the coldest of nights.
But in the process of acquiring such skills, Miller had lost some familarity with the fine features of social etiquette. So here he was late one morning, barging down the McKenna House stairs like one of the bulls of Pamplona. He entered the kitchen, snatched open a cabinet door, grabbed a box of cornflakes and moseyed into the dining room, where a half-dozen guys were sitting around smoking cigarettes and looking over the morning sports page.
Pulling up a chair, Miller poured the cereal into a salad bowl, sloshed some milk and sugar on top and proceeded to eat the stuff by lifting the bowl to his mouth.
"Ya ever heard of a spoon?" someone asked, as the room rocked with laughter.
Miller frowned, trying to understand the joke. Then, milk still dribbling from his chin, he laughed along with them. "Old habits are hard to break," he said.
It playwright George Bernard Shaw were alive and working in Washington, he would fine a McKenna House all the inspiration needed to write a modern American version of "Pygmalion."
In place of a London diction teacher named Henry Higgins, Shaw could insert four Catholic clerics of the Franciscan Capuchin order, and instead of a West End working-class girl like Eliza Doolittle who did not know her aint's from her aren'ts, he could use 15 unkempt fellows from the streets of Washington whose verbal skills and style of attire were even more abominable than hers. Shaw certainly would not have to change much about the plot. As in "Pygmalion," the objective of McKenna House has been to instill the virtues of propriety in individuals more concerned about day-to-day survival than manners or appearance.
When 15 homeless men left the public shelters of Washington to take part in the McKenna House experiment last winter, no one could foresee how they would adjust. Behind each man was a dismal world that seemed to offer little more than spare change, moldy handouts and part-time jobs that never led to much.
But at the Park Road row house, life suddenly became an infinitely more dignified proposition, consisting of things few of them could ever take for granted: three hot meals a day, free clothes, private bedrooms and the help they would need to rejoin working society.
Friar Jack Pfannenstiel, the director of McKenna House, differed at first with his three Capuchin colleagues over how the experiment might turn out. An optimist through and through, he predicted that 90 percent of his men would find work and places of their own to live. Brother Christopher Jensen seemed to be the realist. "If we get just one of these guys to turn his life around," he said, "I'll consider it a great success."
As the first weeks swept by, everyone came to agree on at least one thing: If dreams and self-esteem were prerequisites to human happiness, then the candidates were off to a promising start.
A remarkable process of personal transformation unfolded at McKenna House as the players began to see greater possibilities for themselves. While Wayne Miller was finding old social habits difficult to break, others were attempting to assume new ones. Most of the men suffered minor ailments that stemmed in large part from protracted neglect of personal hygiene.
When 25-year-old Robert Emil Moens arrived, he complained of a loss of hearing in his left ear and was referred to a medical clinic on Columbia Road where, at the expense of McKenna House, he was given a complete physical. He returned with word that his hearing had been miraculously restored. "The doc pulled out a wad of wax that was about as big as a golf ball," he said in utter amazement, as his listeners groaned with disgust.
Several men were given a liquid solution called Cupres, which they rubbed into their skin to kill lice and other bugs. They were given ointments and creams to eradicate various skin rashes. One fellow who had not brushed his teeth in four years was treated for a painful infection of his gums.
As if in a time-lapse nature film, their faces changed. Beards were trimmed, hair was cut and the awful body odors with which the men had entered McKenna House were replaced by smells of Safeguard soap, Prell shampoo and Dial deodorant.
The improvement was most striking in the figure of 42-year-old Charles Monroe, an ex-convict and recovering alcoholic whose fall from grace was perhaps most precipitous of them all. Monroe, a wiry and thoughful soul, was earning a steady salary in 1967, working as a food services supervisor at George Washington University, when he fell in love with a young woman whose fiance, the father of her 2-year-old son, had been killed in Vietnam.
Later that year she gave birth to Monroe's child, a brown-eyed daughter, who was named Shecherezade. The family lived in an apartment in Southwest, and those were the best of times for Monroe. He had a car, credit cards and a family. But in 1970, shortly before the two were to be married, she left him, taking the two children with her.
Monroe started drinking. He eventually lost his job, apartment and car and ended up what he called "a regular street drunk." He was homeless for five years, finally enrolling in a residential alcoholism treatment program. By the time he got out three years ago, he had lost his passion for wine.
At McKenna House, Monroe arose at dawn each day to attend classes in a clerical skills program in Northeast. His metamorphosis was truly staggering. Having trashed the jeans, woolen stocking cap and tattered wool jacket that made up his flophouse wardrobe, he left for school each day looking very much like a Capitol Hill bureaucrat, natty in a tie, crisp white shirt, woolen trousers and matching sport coat. It made him fell, he said, "like I won the lottery or something." Looking Back, Ahead
The place at McKenna House that best reflected the magnitude of the men's transformation was the front porch. For many years they had wandered the streets of Washington, a parade of human flotsam with no place to settle and no place to rest, accustomed to seeing society from the outside, in.
Now, in the warm evening, air, they gathered on the front steps of their row house, sure in their element. As Brother Chris sat with them, puffing slowly on his pipe, they contentedly watched the march of cars and pedestrians on Park Road, whistling occasionally to catch the eyes of pretty women who strolled past. They were seeing the passing world from the inside, a vantage that struck all of them with a strong twist of humor and irony.
"I was walking down the street behind this old lady today," one fellow, a former drug pusher, told his mates. "She must'a been 90. She comes across this wino on Lamont Street, right, and the wino asks her for a dime. She gets all ticked off and starts shaking her umbrella him."
As his listeners chuckled, imagining the familiar scene, he went on: "She says to the dude, "You still asking for that damn dime! I been passing you for 10 years and you ain't changed your line yet!
""When you gonna get yourself together?"" the storyteller went on, initating the old woman's shrill and insistent voice, as the other men chuckled. ""Least you could do is move up to a quarter!""
Often, the men found humor in their own fitful attempts to realize their dreams. Rickey Byars, 24, a gap-toothed ex-convict, was a favorite target.
Reared in Northwest Washington in the neighborhood of Sixth and P streets, Byars became a criminal at an early age. He said he committed his first mugging at age 11. From that time until his arrival at McKenna House, he said, he had been in and out of jail "10 or 12 times, I can't remember."
Byars' ambition was to become "a professional hustler and thief," until his life turned on March 31, 1981, as he was serving the last few months as a four-year sentence for burglary at Lorton prison. It was then that he learned from the TV news of his younger brother's death.
Eddie Byars was 18, shot to death by an off-duty policeman during an attempted holdup of a supermarket in Southeast.
When Byars returned to his family home from Lorton several months later, he found he was not welcome. His mother, apparently blaming him and his example for the death of Eddie, told Byars she never wanted to see him agains, he said.
He became homeless, another of the broken souls who huddled each night at religious missions and public shelters around town. But there was one difference in Byars' life. He took to religion and set his sights on becoming a preacher. Each night before meals at McKenna House, Byars folded his hands and intoned a favorite prayer. He also carried in his wallet a yellowed newspaper clipping about his brother's death. The headline read: "Off-Duty Officer Slays Man in Safeway."
By day, Byars earned the minimum wage at a downtown Burger King, and by night, he was a McKenna House philosopher, preaching in the hallways, bathrooms and living room on subjects ranging from the life of John the Baptist to the Northeast Washington street gang to which he once belonged.
The only problem was that no one could fully understand a thing he said. He had a strange way of muttering slowly and under his breath, as if he was conversing with himself. Finally, a house prankster fashioned a sign and hung it outside Byars' bedroom door: If You Enjoy Talking To The Walls, Join Rickey's Out of Lunch Club. Meetings Nightly.
Then there was Michael Anthony Groom, an erstwile crooner who just knew he could make it as a professional singer. Groom came to McKenna House from Calvert Emergency Shelter, where he had developed a knack for singing ballads in the smoky shelter stairwells.
He often compared his voice to that of Johnny Mathis, and from his first day at McKenna House he went about searching the city for singing jobs. For weeks he returned each night boasting that he was about to get a gig at a Ramada Inn in Arlington. Groom enjoyed talking. If he was not talking about his musicial future, he was talking about television programs. While his colleagues suffered the former subject in good humor, the latter unnerved them no end.
Every night Groom managed to foretell the ending of whatever program the man happened to be watching. Finally, one evening during "Dallas," he was muzzled for good when Charles Monroe challenged him to a fight.
Just as Groom began to say something about J. R. Ewing, Monroe, a skinny guy who weighed about 140 pounds, stood up and uncorked a string of invectives that left the room in shocked silence.
Groom, stunned, walked briskly out of the room and found refuge in the basement, a favorite hangout of another resident, a 34-year-old Ethiopian exile who liked to keep to himself. After being force-fed Groom's insights for an hour or so, the tiny Ethiopian fled upstairs to the living room, complaining to one and all, "That man, he think he king or something."
From that day forward Monroe was hailed a hero at McKenna House and Groom was officially dubbed "Johnny Mathis, King of the Basement."
At McKenna House, early evening was often the best time of all, an after-dinner period in which the lingering aromas of spaghetti, baked ham and other meals mixed with the peaceful sounds of men enjoying their freedom.
In a third-floor room Moens and Bryan Pleasant engaged in lightning-quick games of chess, issuing friendly jibes that echoed into the hallway. Downstairs, outside Room 7, the noisy sounds of an ancient shortwave radio, rescued from a dark corner of the basement, often poured forth as Monroe twisted the dial, stopping occasionally to hear jazz on Radio Moscow and news on the BBC.
The noise often clashed with Wayne Miller's stereo, which emitted a high-powered mix of rock and soul. His room was two doors down from the television room, where a half-dozen others were usually stationed, a pack of Camels passing from hand to hand. Meeting the Challenges
The Capuchin friars spent most of their free time in living quarters on the third floor, which were kept apart from the men's quarters by two locked doors. They were an entirely separate society that ate meals together, celebrated mass together and administered to the hundreds of details that made McKenna House run.
Their yearly salaries were $6,000, plus another thousand per man for medical and dental benefits. Each month the friars spent $4,500 for food, utilities, toiletries and other odds and ends. The money came from donations and Associated Catholic Charities, the social service arm of the church.
When they were not balancing the books, the four clerics were concentrating on their personal reclamation projects.
Brother Chris was busy with the men he thought had trouble with alcohol, one of whom was Bryan Pleasant. "That dude thinks he knows everything." Pleasant scowled one afternoon, slamming his bedroom door after yet another counseling session with the friar. "I ain't got no problem with booze and I ain't goin" to no AA." Pleasant finally changed his mind and enrolled in the program.
When it came to the men's demands, the friars were superhumanly lenient, ready to perform any function, meet any request just to make the experiment work. When the house opened they had about $200 on hand for petty cash. It was intended for their own recreational use. But the friars found it difficult to refuse the men's constant pleas for spending money.
"You're my friend, man," said one fellow to Brother Chris. "Lend me five."
The petty case was gone in 34 days.
But the friars eventually adjusted. They became sterner and more assertive -- more like professionals than friends to the men -- reluctantly learnign how to say no, to control their more trusting instincts. At a house metting during the fourth week, friar Jack chastised the men, reminding them of the rules: Swearing, drinking, marijuana smoking, coke snorting and other illicit activities were strictly prohibited. Anyone caught breaking those rules would be banished immediately. The men had to make a good faith effort to change their fortunes.
In early July, Borther Chris enforced the code on 25-year-old Clinton Dawkins. Wearing a beret and red bandana, Dawkins had arrived at the house with a portable electric piano, proclaiming to one and all that he was going to attend music school in Atlanta. Two months later, as the friars grew increasingly disturbed by his lack of motivation to do anything except play the piano, Brother Chris told him he had to go.
Dawkins got angry. He balled his fists and unleashed a torrent of epithets at the priest, the most polite of which was "racist."
Brother Chris held his ground and kept his composure. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Clinton," he said. "I really am. But this is it."
Dawkins soon moved out.
"I'm not Superman," said Brother Chris, "I can't be everyone's friend."
As he observed the friars' dealings, one man began to resent them. His name was William Jenkins, a squat, light-skinned, red-haired guy of 30 years and uneven temperament who arrived in Washington early last winter on a Greyhound bus from the South. He ran out of cash while looking for work and ended up at Calvert Emergency Shelter, where he first met the friars.
Jenkins, a Marine Corps veteran, did not accept charity easily. "I'm not a bum," he defiantly told Friar Stephen Clark one night at Calvert, as he observed the crowd of winos and derelicts. "I'm not like these guys."
Often, Friar Steve was the only one able to calm Jenkins' unpredictable fury. "Slow down, Billy, slow down," the priest often said. "Things'll straighten out soon."
Jenkins was the frist to protest what he perceived as latent racism at the house. "It's whitey upstairs and the house niggas below," he snarled one night during dinner, gesturing with his fork. "It makes 'em feel good to think they're better than us. Soon's I get some money together I'm getting" the hell out. . . . I never sucked up to whitey before and I ain't about to start now."
Thirteen of the 15 men were black. Although Friar Jack dismissed Jenkins' charge of racism, he admitted that the separation of the two groups at McKenna House was a matter of design. "We aren't around her to wait on them hand and foot. They can't use us as a crutch," he said. "If they're going to make it, they'll make it on their own." Nowwhere to Hide
John Norman, 27, was one of the first at McKenna House to discover that "making it" meant more than getting a job.
Last winter, Norman was standing in a line of hungry men on Connecticut Avenue near a food wagon. As he waited for his free cup of tea and a peanut butter sandwich, he noticed his ex-wife walking down the street, heading home from her job at the Treasury Department.
Norman tried to hide, ducking behind a derelict in front of him. He was ashamed of being broke and did not want her to see him. But just as he moved, her eyes met his. For a moment she smiled in recognition. Then she saw where he was what his life had become and a look of utter pity and sorrow crossed her face.
She turned and hurried away.
Norman said he felt as if his guts had been ripped out. He did not miss his wife, exactly -- he had, after all, thrown his wedding band into the Anacostia River the day of his divorce several years before. It was just the seeing her made him realize how much he missed his two sons, whose pictures he still carried in his wallet.
Following the breakup of his marriage, Norman had one misadventure after another. He worked part-time jobs in restaurants and warehouses and began to drink heavily. He smoked marijuana now and then, and he tried heroin a few times.
When he came to McKenna House, Norman knew he would never have a better opportunity to "clean up my act." He knew it was important to stay away from alcohol and drugs, and equally important fo find and keep a steady job. But he felt a need for something more, for making a tangible connection between his past and future.
One day, a short time after he came to McKenna House, Norman met his ex-wife in an appointment that had been arranged by a mutual friend. He told her he was doing better, that he was not living on the streets anymore and had not touched a drop of wine in several weeks.
Then he asked her if he could spend a day with the kids. After a long and thoughful pause, she agreed. Several days later he took them to an ice cream parlor and to Wild World in Largo, where the three, a father and his children, rode rides all afternoon.
He said it felt strange at first, the kids seeming almost like strangers to him, and he to them. But soon they caught up with each others' lives, Norman telling them about his new life at McKenna House, they telling him about their escapades at school.
Afterward, he brought them to McKenna House to show them where he lived.
"Are you still sick, Daddy?" his 6-year-old asked, figuring his three-year absence from the family to be a sure sign of illness.
Norman laughed, "No Shawn," he said. "No."
Tuesday: The work beings