In the summers of their youth, they worked as a groundskeeper, a rec department counselor, a youth leadership organizer, a crossing guard, a nurse.
Marion Barry gave them those jobs. That’s what you’ll hear most anytime you talk to native Washingtonians of a certain age: “Marion Barry gave me my first summer job.”
And with that came a paycheck, sure. But it was also about responsibility, trust and pride. And a place, where there had been none for many years before.
So in the autumn of their lives, on a cold Thursday morning in December, they get up, dress in layers, and line up to be the first ones to greet the royal-blue hearse bringing the body of Marion Barry back to the Wilson Building one last time.
First in line is Bernard Barker, 53, who got his first summer job as a city groundskeeper when he was 14.
“I did newspaper delivery before that, but Marion Barry gave me my first real job,” says Barker, who lives in Southeast D.C. in Ward 8. He remembers building up a sweat while working hard. He remembers his chest puffed up when he brought that paycheck home.
Barker spent many years as a construction worker after that first job groundskeeping. “Life was finally good for some of us,” Barker says. “When he died, it hurt me,” he says, striking his chest.
Wait a minute. Barker sees someone.
“Hello, Ms. Waters!” he shouts, recognizing Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) as she steps out of the building. Barker also watches — and practically memorizes — every State of the Union speech given in Washington. Seeing his mayor in his community with a bullhorn, electrifying crowds, helped make him a bit of a political junkie.
Barker is outside the Wilson Building at 6:30 a.m. sharp, right after the ladder truck arrives to help arrange the black bunting on the facade. His hands are shaking from the cold when he unwraps a roll of Life Savers and offers them to the guards, reporters and the woman behind him in line.
She is a military veteran who doesn’t want to give her name. She got a job working at a rec center when she a teen, thanks to Marion Barry. “He was touchable. He was a person. You could relate to him,” she says.
A little after 7 a.m. comes Sherice Muhammad, 43, bundled in a shawl, snow boots on her feet for the long wait, office flats tucked into her pocketbook.
“You can’t say ‘D.C.’ without saying ‘Marion Barry,’ ” Muhammad says. She was 14 when Barry’s youth leadership program plucked her from her paper route and planted her in the Harriet Tubman Quad at Howard University one summer.
Those were weeks that completely changed her life. She ended up working as a youth leadership organizer and launching into a world of nonprofit fundraising, community organizing and event planning.
“He was such a statesman. He forged ahead for so many of us. He opened doors that had been closed,” she says.
The rest of America may know Barry for his addictions and scandals. But his mourners forgive all his transgressions, even his epic arrest and conviction for smoking crack in a D.C. hotel.
“When he fell short,” Muhammad says, “in his downfall, we still knew him and what he did for us.”
The folks in line begin sharing stories. They saw him at Old Ebbitt Grill! They shook hands with him on Minnesota Avenue. Did you see him that time on Good Hope Road? They snap selfies, shake hands, jump up and down to stay warm.
They also talk about the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers who are facing no charges for their actions. Ferguson. Staten Island. “I can’t breathe” is said more than once — a reference to the refusal of a grand jury in New York to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner. They ask each other: What would a young Marion Barry, who got his start in the civil rights movement, have done with this mess today?
Brenda Wilson will never forget her first job as a crossing guard. Yes, she was a teenager, and Marion Barry got her that job.
“No one will fill his shoes,” says Wilson, 64. She went on to become an operating-room technician and worked for years at Walter Reed. “There is no one like him.”
When the hearse arrives, folks in the crowd, which has grown to several dozen by 8:30 a.m., hold up their phones to snap photos. The honor guard forms on Pennsylvania Avenue. And the pall bearers carry the polished, wooden casket up the stairs. Nearly every cheek in line is quietly tear-stained.
Muhammad, who works as a paralegal and runs her own special-events company, gave everyone at the office a heads-up that she’d be in a little late.
“This is important,” she says. And even though Barry will lie in repose in the Wilson Building all day and all night, she wanted to be there when the hearse arrived. She’ll bring her daughter, who is 11 and had to be in school Thursday, to the other events.
When it is her turn, Muhammad walks past the crowd of council members and stands for a moment in front of the casket and the spray of red roses on top of it.
“I said a small prayer,” she says. “To thank him for his life, and may his legacy be blessed.”
And when she leaves the building, it hits her. “He’s really gone,” she says, shaking her head and looking back at the hearses and all the people. “There will never be another one like him.”
8For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.