Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Owen Riley III. This version has been corrected.
Owen Riley III woke up before dawn Friday at his home on Benning Road SE, bathed and clothed and fed his 1-year-old daughter, and decided this was the day that he would become Wendell the Water Drop, the smiley mascot for the Water and Sewer Authority of the capital of the United States. So Riley put on a crisp white polo shirt, got his hair trimmed at the barbershop and arrived two hours before mascot auditions at D.C. Water’s Bryant Street pumping station, a handsome, century-old building that hides behind the campus of Howard University and looks like Bruce Wayne’s feudal chateau. To make the most of his wait, and because he’s a team player, Riley fetched the station’s security guard a jerk chicken sandwich from nearby Seventh Street NW. And then just before 1 p.m., he ascended to the third floor of the station, burrowed into the sweat-steeped synthetic cranium of Wendell’s droplet-shaped head, and danced to Rihanna’s “Pour It Up.”
Water is life, says D.C. Water’s motto.
The water mascot is a job, says Riley, 28, a part-time caretaker. And, with three kids under the age of 8, this job is life.
Riley bounced, shuffled and spasmed as Rihanna sang about strip clubs and dollar bills (“Pour It Up” refers not to potable water but to baller brands of tequila and champagne, and to a lifestyle of excess — or, to put it in utilitarian terms, waste).
Three staffers from D.C. Water’s outreach office regarded the small spectacle from a nearby table in the pumping station’s steepled auditorium. On a scale of 1 to 5 they rated Riley’s “physical expression,” “charisma,” “agility,” “entertainment value” and “overall impact.”
Emanuel Briggs, a community outreach manager for D.C. Water, cut the music after 56 seconds. Riley lifted the costume off his body and exhaled dramatically.
“You want some water?” Briggs asked.
“Yes,” Riley said, a sheen of sweat on his forehead. Briggs dribbled an ounce of D.C. tap water into a small plastic condiment cup. Riley sipped it.
“What makes you stand out among every one else?” Briggs asked.
“I’m a team player,” Riley said.
Thus concluded the second audition for the first-ever public sweepstakes to be Wendell (or Wendy), the royal-blue anthropomorphized droplet with felt skin and a wide-eyed look of frozen delight.
For the past two years, Briggs has been Wendell.
“The woman who did it before — when she left, I joked about how I could do a better job, and I got stuck with it,” Briggs says. His most harrowing experience was last year’s Capital Pride parade, when he had to run up and down 23rd Street NW in the suffocating costume and jump into the bed of a pickup truck and wave maniacally in the merciless furnace of D.C. summertime.
Now it was time to enlist an outsider to assume the mantle for an undetermined, negotiable sum. Water authorities in other cities have mascots, too. El Paso has Willie the Water Drop. So does Birmingham, Ala. Richmond has Utility Buddy, a somewhat more complicated entity with a hard hat, spigot and all kinds of levers and dials.
Wendell is necessary, D.C. Water thinks. Wendell increases the visibility of D.C. Water, since it’s so easy to look right through the tasteless (usually), colorless (usually) liquid that springs magically from our faucets and shower heads after its snaking journey from the Alleghenies to the Potomac River to the 1,350 miles of interconnected pipes underneath the city. Forget the lead-laced problems of the not-too-distant past and smile like Wendell. Wendell is —
“— a chance to indulge in a character,” says Daniel Johnson, 23, a theater director who last month moved to the D.C. area from Atlanta to look for work. “Maybe it will inspire me.”
Johnson was first up Friday. Before he arrived at the pumping station, he stretched and did vocal warm-ups and enunciation drills. At 12:15, he was standing before Briggs and his co-workers in the pumping station auditorium.
The panel of judges asked: “Why are you the best choice to be Wendell the Water Drop?”
Johnson: “I am prone to movement, to musical theater, dance. . . . I’m very, what people call, eccentric, dramatic. Shakespeare is my favorite.”
The panel: “Do you drink D.C. tap water?”
Johnson: “I have, and it’s not that bad.”
Sidebar: Is there really anything more to say about tap water? Yes, we’d probably be dead without it, but that doesn’t mean you’ll hear anyone describing it more grandly than “not bad.”
Auditions continued Friday, with a handful of citizens dancing to Rihanna and answering questions like “What are your thoughts and feelings about D.C. tap water?” A second round of tryouts is planned for Tuesday. By March, in time for D.C. Water’s next town hall, there will be a new soul inside Wendell (or Wendy), and his or her job will be to make us smile about water (which we routinely dismiss with a couple of gulps) and therefore life (which we routinely dismiss with a succession of breaths).