They come down stressed and harried and try to order a jolt of caffeine without raising their eyes from their smartphones. “Can I get a medium soy latte . . . ?”
But Veronica Sanders doesn’t stand for that.
This is the Longworth House Office Building, home to a couple hundred U.S. representatives and their staffs. But it’s also Veronica’s house. And in Veronica’s house, the requisite greeting is a slow, deliberate, “Goooood morning!”
Or, for those whom she knows by sight — which is almost everyone at this point — “Hey, baby! How you doin’ today?”
She works in the basement, behind the counter of a Dunkin’ Donuts, ringing up hundreds of orders a day. “I know when they’re having a bad day,” she says of her customers. “But I put a smile on their face.”
Veronica’s job is to serve coffee to overworked, Twitter-scrolling Hill staffers. And her work — her real work — is to make them feel loved.
Because she knows the agony of feeling that you aren’t.
Veronica grew up the seventh child of a single mom who moved from place to place around Washington. By the time she came along, her mom “was working all the time,” she says. “And she didn’t really take care of me.”
Most of her older siblings were already out of the house, but she had one sister close in age whom, it seemed to Veronica, her mother strongly preferred.
One of her most vivid memories is from grade school. She wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to go to school. Her mother told her that she had to go, even though she allowed her sister, who felt fine, to stay home.
So Veronica walked around the corner, hid under a bush and swallowed a handful of aspirin. Looking back, she realizes that she wanted her mother to see her pain. “I was like, ‘She don’t love me,’ ” she recalls. She threw up all over herself, but when she told her mom, “she was like, ‘You still need to go to school.’ ”
So Veronica went to class covered in vomit. And her face burned with shame when the boy sitting in front of her said that somebody smelled bad. “That hurt me,” she says, “in my heart.”
When she was 12, her mother gave Veronica up for adoption but kept her older sister. Her best friend’s family agreed to adopt her, but that didn’t salve the wound of her mom leaving her.
“I was like: ‘I’m the baby. Why are you taking her?’ ” Veronica remembers asking her mother. “She was like, ‘Well, I’m going to come back and get you.’ But she never did.”
Now Veronica thinks that was probably for the best. “It was better there,” she says of life with her new family. “Because I was loved. I was really loved.”
She graduated from Falls Church High School and got a job as a cashier at Magruder’s grocery store. When she got pregnant at 20, she moved in with one of her biological sisters, then eventually joined her daughter’s father in the District.
There she was, a single mother with a young child, moving from place to place, staying with a man who didn’t treat her well.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to be like my mom, but it seems like I’m going this route,’ ” she recalls. “So I knew I had to get out of there.”
She broke up with her boyfriend, returned to her adoptive family and showered her baby girl with affection. In time, a new friendship turned to romance, and she found herself in love with a single father who respected and adored her.
After five years with him, Veronica gave birth to a second daughter, and five years after that, when she was pregnant with their son, she and James Sanders got married.
The couple’s little boy was a year old when Veronica’s in-laws encouraged her to apply for a job at the Longworth cafeteria, where they had both worked for years. She wasn’t sure what to expect from a job serving people who run the U.S. Congress.
“It was like: ‘Oh, my God, this is new. And who are these people? How do I know these important people?’ ” she recalls. A colleague taught her to identify U.S. representatives by their congressional lapel pins.
She started working on the line, preparing food, but within a couple of years she had worked her way up and was reassigned to the cash register at a small convenience store. Loud and gregarious, with a head-thrown-back laugh that could make the most hardened statesman smile, Veronica turned the little candy shop into a Capitol Hill haven. People came for the popcorn and stayed for the hugs and the humanity.
“The Hill can be a pretty stressful place, and she would always brighten my days,” recalls Libby O’Hare, who spent 2½ years working in Longworth. “I would typically go down with one or two of my office mates. We would say, ‘It’s Veronica time,’ just because we wanted to go and hang out with her. She would always greet you by saying, ‘Hey, Boo!’ And she really just connected.”
In a universe divided by both political parties and job titles, Veronica saw only people. “You have members of Congress, staff and the [cafeteria] people — so there is sort of a power dynamic there,” O’Hare said. “And what I really respected about Veronica is that she treated everyone really equally.”
It makes no difference to Veronica whether the person standing before her is a Republican or a Democrat. “I treat them the same. They treat me the same,” she says. “At the end of the day, we still are family.”
And perhaps because she starts the conversation, her customers almost always return the favor of listening. “You’re going to come and talk to me. I want to talk, too,” she says. “There were plenty of times I cried and let them know how I was, and they would sit and talk to me.”
She told Hill staffers of her husband’s job loss, of their struggles to pay the mortgage, of how tightly she tends to hold her teenage son. Sometimes she wished she could go upstairs, sit in the representatives’ offices and talk about issues facing the country. “We need to do more to keep guns out of young ones’ hands,” she would say. “Y’all need to work together.”
Veronica is 47 now, 15 years into her tenure on the Hill. She has seen power change hands, lawmakers lose reelection bids and staffers cry when it was their turn to file for unemployment. She was transferred to Dunkin’ Donuts a year ago, after her convenience store was turned into a collection of automated vending machines. And four years before that, she saw her oldest child have a daughter of her own.
These days Veronica leaves her home in District Heights, Md., at 6:30 a.m. to come serve coffee to the people of Capitol Hill. But the early shift is okay, because it lets her get home in time to take care of her family. She can cook for her husband before he leaves for his night shift at Wegman’s. She can talk to her son about school and help look after her granddaughter. Shower each of them with the love she wasn’t given. “I always just wanted to be better,” she says. “I wanted my kids to grow up to know that they’re loved.”
And she wants the Hill staffers on the other side of the counter to feel the same way. Because she has learned that if she keeps pouring love into others, her own cup will never run dry.
“I know people here need love,” she says. “Just like I need love.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article had Veronica Sanders’s age wrong. She is 47.