Up at 5:30, out the door by 6, in his white Ford truck by 6:01. The odometer has 140,565 miles on it. On the lip of the tape deck, a cassette of the best of Lightnin’ Hopkins. By 6:02 Charles Woodson, 78, is rolling toward the Woodley Park Towers, just as he’s done for the past 60 years.
He drives past the liquor stores, which are outnumbered only by the funeral homes. Past the beauty salons and soul-food canteens and the mercados Latinos on Kennedy Street NW. City dissolves to park. Left on Beach, right on Porter, and park becomes Cleveland Park. Past the GNC, the Petco, the yogurt shop. A dollar-fifty coffee, black, from 7-Eleven. Then a short idle on Connecticut to the towers. He parks his truck along the back side of the building.
“Come in through the boiler room, leave through the boiler room,” he says, opening an outside door and closing the morning behind him — that way you know whether there’s trouble when you arrive or before you leave. His boss gave him that advice in his first month as a custodian here, in August 1955, when he was 18 years old, the month Eisenhower raised the minimum wage to $1, the month Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon were onscreen in “Mister Roberts,” the month 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
Sixty years later: “Everything sounds fine.” Woodson is listening to the hum of the giant teal boilers, which ensure hot showers on a cool morning for the 173 units in the six floors above.
“Yep. Yes indeed. Mm-hmm.”
He’s maybe 6 feet tall but slightly stooped. His voice is thin, quiet, scratchy, spiced by the near side of the Blue Ridge. His office is basically a broom closet in the basement, upstairs from the boilers, next to the gas meter room. He pulls the chain on a light bulb, turns on his walkie-talkie, closes the door to change into his navy slacks and white button-up shirt sewn with patches that say “Woodley Park Towers” and “Charles.” Into his shirt pocket he puts a black pen, a red pen and a pen-shaped electrical tester. Tacked over his desk is a photo of himself shaking Bill Clinton’s hand before a private fundraiser in Unit 220, and a copy of his most recent performance evaluation.
“ . . . beloved by the community . . .”
“. . . unmatched institutional knowledge . . .”
“. . . performance, attitude, and punctuality remain exemplary . . .”
“It’s a very nice building,” he says of the only workplace he’s ever known.
Washington has plenty of these grand old prewar apartment buildings, particularly on stretches of Connecticut and Massachusetts, where bureaucrats and professors and retired admirals and ex-ambassadors settle in for decades. Louis T. Rouleau Sr., a Navy fighter pilot in World War I, designed the Woodley Park Towers and 25 others around town. The towers were finished in 1929 and billed as “apartments of exclusive advantages.” A handsome, tan-brick geometry of art deco, it became home to a range of such noteworthies as Lyndon B. Johnson, who as a Texas congressman lived with Lady Bird in Unit 224 during World War II, and Dolly Keleher, the fur-swaddled ex-wife of a notorious gambler who in 1950 had to be evicted on a stretcher by U.S. marshals for failing to pay the $162.90 rent on her seven-room apartment.
Five years later, an 18-year-old Charles Woodson left his home town of Wingina, Va., where he was born and raised, where his father worked the railroad and told him to go out, get a job, learn more than one thing and avoid any foolishness.
Charles wanted to live in a place that never got as pitch-black as the country on a moonless night, so he went to Washington. He was hired as a custodian at Woodley Park Towers and never left. He will retire next month as chief of maintenance.
“Sixty years of learning,” he says.
How to mix paint to perform seamless patchwork.
How to use a mirror to fix the underside of a gutter on the roof.
How not to panic when a resident’s home is flooding.
The towers went condo in 1973, and the maintenance staff started shrinking. The in-house maids went. The garage attendants went. Maintenance is the mitigation of time’s passage, but things change anyway. Machines mix paint. Outside contractors fix the gutters, the windows, the plumbing.
But no machine or contractor knows immediately which walls you can take down and which ones you can’t even drill through. No machine or contractor is available on New Year’s Eve to drive in to clear the clogged kitchen sink of a resident who’s throwing a party. No machine or contractor can anticipate a problem and take steps to prevent it. They can respond only after the leak has already collapsed a ceiling.
“I know the things that I can fix and the things that I can’t fix,” Woodson says. “That’s like the art of fixing things: Always use your head.”
With his blessing, most residents still call him “Mr. Charles,” a genteel designation from an earlier era that still hangs on in other small ways, like the milk chutes adjacent to the condo doors, the wood-burning fireplaces in one tier of the building, the 100 or so residents who crowd the scagliola foyer Wednesday evening and shout “hip hip hooray” three times while raising glasses of sauvignon blanc to toast the man who predates them all.
“He knows the building’s idiosyncrasies, as well as those of the owners,” the condo board’s president, Joan Snowden, says to the assembled. “He suffered fools with special forbearance.”
Isabel Taylor, who’s lived in the building for 36 years, presents him with checks totaling $12,000, a retirement gift from the residents and staff for “60 years of excellency,” wherein “excellency” might also mean “kindness.”
The building’s general manager, Chris Owens, confers a framed commendation from the mayor.
“He doesn’t have any kids,” says Michael McBride, who’s worked alongside Mr. Charles since 1990, “but he does have a son, and he calls me ‘Junior.’ ”
Woodson, in a charcoal suit and bright gray tie, says: “Thank you for the opportunity.”
On his last day of work, July 31, he will not drive back up Connecticut Avenue. He will not pass the grand old bastions of gracious living, nor ride the green curves through Rock Creek Park, nor see the liquor stores and funeral homes and beauty salons on the way to the brick rowhouse where he has rented a small bedroom.
He will instead head west, then south, homeward, to the quiet, crooked back roads of Wingina. His late parents’ house, a white three-bedroom cottage on a grassy knoll, is his retirement home, and it needs some work done.