Artice Forrister was not impressed. Before her stood a sorry character named Bryan Pleasant who had the temerity to show up in her office with a filthy stocking cap atop his head, his shoelaces untied and a musky exhalation of vodka issuing from his mouth.
"I'm not going to talk to you unless you're sober, Mr. Pleasant," she said, her eyes disappointed, her words stern and quick. She told him that if he really wanted to talk about employment he should come back the next morning at 11 sharp and be dressed appropriately.
"Be serious, please," she said. "Be prepared to look the part."
Pleasant was stunned. He left the office slowly, his head lowered in embarrassment, and for a moment Forrister felt a little guilty about hurting him. But, then she remembered her job: to help 15 unemployed men who used to live in flophouses find steady work in a society in which propriety ruled.
At nine the next morning, with briefcase in hand and Beethoven playing on her Sony Walkman, Forrister arrived at work fully prepared to be disappointed. When she entered her office, she noticed Pleasant sitting in the McKenna House dining room in a wrinkled pair of trousers and tattered T-shirt, his hair a mess.
At 9:30 she opened her door, peeked outside, and noticed he was still there, trading jokes with several compatriots. Ten o'clock went by, then 10:30, and Pleasant still hadn't budged.
Then, at 11 on the dot, there was a gentle knock on Forrister's door.
"Come in," she said.
In walked a young man in a crisp pair of slacks, a wool jacket, a striped tie and a white shirt, his hair combed and his face clean-shaven.
"Hello, Mrs. Forrister," her guest said, his hands folded before him.
"My name is Bryan Pleasant. I'm here for my interview."
At the heart of the McKenna House experiment was the search for jobs, a noble and frustrating mission that rested in the hands of a young woman who took her work very seriously.
Artice Forrister was 30, the daughter of an Irish American GI and his Filipino wife. At first, she looked a little out of place at McKenna House, a soft-spoken, raven-haired woman working in the midst of four Catholic friars and 15 ragged and unruly men.
But appearances were deceiving. Forrister was no novice at this sort of work, and she wasn't about to be pushed around. Before she was hired as employment counselor at McKenna House, she worked for two years in a jobs program operated by St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church on 16th Street, where her everyday clients included ex-convicts, homeless men, reformed prostitutes and a few transvestites.
She was guided in her work by one supreme principle. She knew that because her clients started out with so many educational and cultural handicaps, their progress could come only in very small increments. At St. Stephen's, one of her more notable successes was convincing a male prostitute that he couldn't really expect to find a respectable job by showing up for interviews in a dress and with glitter in his hair. It took about a month for her to convince him. Scouting the Job Market
At McKenna House the educational process was pretty much the same. Forrister's job was to school her charges in the rules of the job-hunting game, foremost of which was the axiom that appearances and attitude often count just as much as the length of one's work record.
In a way, she was better able than the friars to identify with the men's tribulations. Reared in The Dalles, Ore., she was the only minority child in her school classes and often felt the pain of racial bigotry -- many schoolmates refused to play with her because she had slanted eyes.
"Bryan Pleasant isn't very much different from me," she said. "It's all a matter of confidence. . . . If people tell you you aren't worth much, you'll believe it. The challenge here is helping people see themselves in a different light."
Forrister met the challenge on two fronts. While initiating the men into the brave new world of work resumes and personal grooming, she also kept busy trying to convince the often skeptical powers of Washington business that the men of McKenna House had quite a bit to offer. She worked the telephones for as long as five hours a day.
"Hello, Mr. Nelson? My name is Artice Forrister. I'm the employment counselor at McKenna House and I was wondering if you got the letter I mailed you the other day," she said one afternoon to the owner of a construction company.
"Oh good," she went on. "I was just calling to see if you had any job orders. The men here are . . . "
She paused, listening politely when the man interrupted her.
"Uh huh . . . uh huh . . . yes, I see," she said. "No, the men here aren't really like that at all. I'm sorry you've had bad experiences with halfway houses before, but I can assure you that our guys won't sit around all day doing nothing. . . . "
She paused again, tapping a pencil on her desk.
"Well, their backgrounds are really varied," she continued. " . . . No, not at all. They aren't drunks. . . . We have men with experience in cooking, carpentry, carpet work. . . . If you want, I'd be happy to show you around here. . . . Oh good. I'll look forward to that," she said, finally managing to persuade the man to at least come by for a visit.
One small step at a time -- like most things at McKenna House.
Squeezed between the phone calls were counseling sessions with the men, whose work histories were often as disjointed as their lives in the streets. With pencil in hand, Forrister jotted down their stories and managed to come up with resumes that didn't mask their pasts so much as take advantage of them.
After Bryan Pleasant talked to Forrister that day, she somehow managed to turn every nuance and speck of information into a nugget of resume gold.
Here's what she had to work with: Pleasant was 26, graduated from Oxon Hill High School in 1976 and spent two years at Prince George's Community College studying music. He had worked as a short-order cook in a number of fast food joints and played guitar for a rock band in his spare time. Between 1979 and 1981 he worked as a salesman for a couple of appliance stores.
He became homeless three years ago when he was laid off from a job at an appliance store and soon found himself unable to pay rent on his apartment. He didn't know public shelters existed, so to escape the cold on his first night of homelessness in Washington he spent 24 hours in an all-night porno theater on 14th Street.
Forrister magically translated Pleasant's homeless experiences into a more official and yet, equally accurate lexicon. Last year, when Pleasant worked "sellin' papers" on a downtown street corner, he wasn't just a "flunkie" for "Wild Harry" the newspaper deliverer; Forrister told him he worked in "distribution and sales" for "The Washington Post Co."
In 1981, when he worked at a seedy public shelter in return for free food and a place to sleep, he wasn't just a "gofer." Forrister advised him he was a "service provider" responsible for "food and clothing distribution and general maintenance."
And when Pleasant told her about his fascination with members of an Indian religious group who showed him how to pray and made him feel better about himself despite his poverty, Forrister suggested he insert the word "meditation" in the resume section on interests, along with "chess, songwriting and religion."
In the end, what came out on one fresh sheet of typing paper was a resume about which practically any man could be proud. Pleasant had really been an "assistant manager" at "Waxie Maxie's" and a top-notch salesman at "Luskins Inc."
When he entered McKenna House, Pleasant was a sad-faced fellow with nothing but the clothes on his back and self-esteem that was just as miserable. But when the resume was finished he was truly a different fellow, his laugh jolly, his step lively, filled with a fervent belief in his "job objective" that was printed at the top of the page: "To be the best in the field of sales, and to be allowed the opportunity to achieve my goal." The Rap Session
When the resumes were completed, Forrister directed Pleasant and the other men to St. Stephen's Church, where every Tuesday morning "job rap sessions" were held in a tiny basement room. The sessions were conducted by employment specialists who tried to convince their impoverished listeners that they really could find jobs if they wanted them badly enough.
One morning Pleasant, Charles Monroe and Robert Moens were in attendance along with an elderly widow, a young black man wearing a blond wig, several old guys who were fast asleep, a Haitian woman and a couple of men from Jamaica.
"The name of the game is Jay Oh Bee!" shouted the speaker that morning, a thin fellow with a gray goatee who worked with the church's Samaritan Ministry. "The man who gets the Jay Oh Bee is the man who is hungry enough to want it. Are you hungry enough?"
The word "yes" was murmured by several listeners.
"Louder! I can't hear you!" he exclaimed, his finger jutting in the air, as the audience came back with a more enthusiastic response.
In a speaking style that seemed to blend locker-room pep and Seventh-Day Adventist soul, the orator told the weary faithful that getting a job was simply a matter of understanding FAMS -- his acronym for the words Faith, Attitude, Motivation and Success.
"I see it in you, Robert, and you, Michael, and you, Mary!" he shouted. "I see FAMS in your eyes and your very being! The marketplace has something for all of you. America is out there for you to claim!"
An hour later, boosted by these exhortations, the job-seekers discussed their individual plights, the widow talking about how no one wanted to hire an "old woman like me," and the man in the wig speaking about his misfortunes as an ex-convict.
"And what about you, Robert?" the instructor asked Moens.
Moens seemed startled. "Well, I . . . " he stammered. "I think maybe some of it has to do with the fact that there aren't that many $5-an-hour jobs out there anymore. Plus, there's so many foreigners in Washington now. . . . "
That sparked a lively exchange, Moens eventually being put in his place by the two Jamaicans, one of whom declared: "I understand your problems, mahn, but you should understand me, too. I'm not goin' back . . . "
Afterward, the three mates headed down 16th Street back to McKenna House.
"Whadya thinka all that?" Pleasant asked Moens.
"Well, I kinda liked what the guy had to say," he replied, hands shoved into his pockets. "Makes sense, when ya think about it."
A moment later he added, "But I still ain't got a job, you know?"
"Ain't that the truth," Pleasant replied, as they turned left onto Park Road and disappeared down the street. Some False Starts
To help the men land steady jobs, Forrister had still another contact -- a nonprofit employment agency for the poor called Jubilee Jobs. Founded three years ago by Washington's Church of the Savior, Jubilee Jobs was located in a second-floor office above a bakery at the corner of Columbia and Ontario roads NW. It specialized in placing jobless men and women in nursing, clerical, warehouse, construction, and sales work.
One by one, Forrister's men, in jackets and ties, made pilgrimages to Jubilee Jobs, where their resumes were put on file and counselors tried to put them in touch with employers. With a nervous expectation similiar to that which the men felt before receiving news of their admittance to McKenna House, the candidates awaited word of whom among them would be first to get an interview. It turned out to be a 29-year-old Army veteran named Jeff Horgos, who was notified that the owner of a firm that managed several apartment buildings in town wanted to talk to him about a job as office manager.
Horgos, a husky blond fellow, trooped to the interview the next day in blue corduroy trousers and a button-down shirt, his resume in hand. The office was located near Columbia Road, and Horgos swaggered inside with all the pluck and confidence of a bullfighter. The job paid $15,000 a year and Horgos really wanted it. He knew he could type and write up bills and do a little repair work if asked.
But the interview went incredibly sour from the start. While he waited for the owner to get off the phone, Horgos exchanged greetings with the office secretary and played with a poodle that was lying at his feet.
"You've met Sally?" the owner asked Horgos when he hung up.
"Yeah," Horgos replied pleasantly, "She's a great little dog."
Sally, it turned out, was the secretary.
When he returned to McKenna House an hour later, Horgos seemed a shell of his former self, depressed not so much by the fact that he didn't get the job as by the questions the owner asked about his two years of homelessness.
"The guy didn't even ask about my qualifications," Horgos told several friends in the dining room, who hung on his every word as if he were an explorer newly returned from another world. "All he cared about was the streets.
" 'Where'd ya stay?' he asks me. So I tell him about Calvert and Constitution Hall. Then, he says, 'Weren't ya cold? Weren't ya hungry? What'd ya do?' "
"That goes on for a while," Horgos continued, "So, I just tell the truth. I don't wanna con the guy. But then he keeps askin' more and more and it starts gettin' to me. I felt like some kinda animal. Finally, he says, 'Did'ya have friends out there? What're they doin?"
"I just stood up and said, 'Yeah, I had friends, fella. And they're doin' the same damn thing I'm doin' -- tryin' to find a job!"
For the men of McKenna House, it wasn't a promising beginning.
But they persevered, and soon Bryan Pleasant made a breakthrough when he was hired as a door-to-door salesman for a firm called Potomac Marketing Inc., which was trying to sell a new product called "The Portable Massage Pillow." It came in three different colors -- brown, pink and orange -- and was about the size of a sofa cushion. It was battery operated, pressure activated and sold for $23.
The manager of the firm told Pleasant and five other men the day they were hired that they were about to embark on the opportunity of a lifetime. If there was one city in the world where people sat around a lot it was this one, he said, adding that Pleasant and his mates could make a great deal of money catering to a market no one knew existed until now: the lower backs and rear ends of working Washington.
It was a chance Pleasant couldn't turn down. As he understood it, he could make as much as $200 a week in salary, plus a $6 commission on every pillow he sold. He tried one out and felt a slight rubbing sensation on his behind. Perhaps it could sell, he thought.
The next day he and the others took a bus out to Montgomery County where, carrying plastic sacks filled with the colorful pillows, they canvassed office buildings along a quarter-mile stretch of the Rockville Pike. Pleasant's sales pitch was easy and cheery and the product did seem interesting to office workers, many of whom chuckled with delight when they tried it out.
It didn't sell very well at all. In five days of work he sold only one, and more often than not he and his friends were booted from buildings by security guards for peddling on the premises.
But it wasn't until payday at the end of the week that Pleasant realized he wasn't meant for the job. When he returned to the office a secretary informed him that he had to sell at least four pillows a day to earn the $200 salary. If he didn't make the quota, he could only receive the commission on the pillows he sold.
Pleasant quit the job and trudged back home to McKenna House, his $6 commission plus a little spare change jingling in his pocket. Patience Pays Off
The men of McKenna House managed to keep the faith, and gradually some of them were rewarded for their patience. One by one success stories unfolded, giving immediate joy to the job-finders and much-needed shots of inspiration to those still in the hunt.
The first was William Jenkins, a 30-year-old Marine Corps veteran from Nashville, who ironically despised McKenna House and everything it stood for. Jenkins didn't like having to accept charity and insisted he wasn't a bum or tramp or wino. He was a fiery and independent soul who didn't want anything to do with pep talks or rap sessions. Just as he had suffered alone when he didn't have a job or a place to sleep, he would find salvation on his own.
So each morning he went out and became a ubiquitous figure at government personnel offices downtown. For two months he hammered on doors and filled out applications and for a while it looked pretty bleak. Then, one day he marched over to the National Air and Space Museum to escape the winter chill. Inside, on the second floor, he noticed a helicopter dangling from the ceiling. He was awed. It reminded him of his stint in the Marine Corps, part of which was spent on an aircraft carrier during the evacuation of American personnel from Saigon in 1975.
"We had those on the Forrestal," he told the security guard who stood next him.
The man told Jenkins that he, too, served in the Corps during the Vietnam era. For an hour the men talked, Jenkins explaining his plight. The guard listened and told him a job there would open up soon. He urged Jenkins to fill out an application at the Smithsonian's personnel office and to use his name as a reference.
"My name's Salmon," the guard told him with a pat on the shoulder. "Just tell 'em 'The Fish' sent ya."
It worked! A week later Jenkins got a $13,900-a-year job working as a security guard at the National Museum of Natural History. Forrister later said Jenkins' story was an example of something known in her trade as "networking," in which a person uses his background and professional contacts to find a job.
But Jenkins put it another way. "It's who ya know," he said. "I knew 'The Fish.' "
A while later, Jubilee Jobs came through for Bryan Pleasant, referring him to a Montgomery Ward store in Iverson Mall, where his resume impressed a manager so much that Pleasant was hired as a salesman the same day he was interviewed. The following week he appeared sure in his element, in wool trousers and a tweed jacket, waiting on customers in the store's video and electronics department.
Jeff Horgos, meantime, got a job paying $4.75 an hour working as the foreman for a crew of outdoor tent erectors, and for a while it truly seemed that McKenna House was on a roll. Job opportunities were sprouting as suddenly as the daffodils on Meridian Hill; whenever a candidate latched onto something, his good example seemed to spawn another. Soon, to her exquisite delight, Forrister began to receive calls from several employers asking for help.
But for a few men, economic matters remained secondary to more urgent matters of the soul. Horgos, for no apparent reason, vanished and quit his job. Friar Jack Pfannenstiel spent eight days searching for him, eventually becoming so worried that he phoned every jail, prison, drunk tank, morgue and hospital in the Washington vicinity.
When the priest finally located him at a bar on L Street, Horgos told him that he was disturbed by the pressure to succeed at McKenna House, didn't like his job, and preferred the privacy and freedom he found in a grimy $5-a-day room on M Street.
What happened to Horgos was a hint of the psychological burdens some of the men still carried with them. What happened on April 4 was a veritable shower of revelation.
That was the night Robert Emil Moens tried to kill himself. Wednesday: The conclusion