The 35-day calamity, the dire money crunch that filled Cecil Exum with gnawing indignity, the month of stress and sleeplessness that aggravated his fragile health, ended for him at 2:17 p.m. Friday as he stood in his tiny living room, dressing for yet another payless federal work shift, and his cellphone buzzed on a table.
His wife, calling from Exum’s father’s house, could barely contain herself.
“The government’s reopening!” she yelled. “Turn on the news! They made a deal!”
Fumbling for the TV remote, Exum, 51, felt a wave of elation, which quickly ebbed as he stared at the screen. “In a short while,” President Trump was saying, “I will sign a bill to open our government for three weeks, until February 15th.”
So the deal was a stopgap measure, Exum realized, buttoning his Navy-blue uniform shirt. His badge says, “SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION” and “SPECIAL POLICE.”
He told himself that the White House and Congress wouldn’t dare revisit the abyss next month, cutting off wages again for 800,000 employees, 420,000 of whom, including Exum, had to work without pay during the shutdown while the rest were furloughed. Then part of him thought, “Politicians, man — you just never know.”
He laced up his boots and headed out for a 4-to-midnight shift guarding an empty museum, feeling, as he later put it, “like I’ve been under some kind of attack all these days, and it kills you, y’know? I mean, let’s hope they finally got this fixed.”
As a third of the federal government, paralyzed since Dec. 22 by a funding impasse, creaks back to normalcy this week, the psychic pain inflicted on workers will recede, but the memories are certain to endure. What they went through — fretting over bills, worrying about food, lowering the heat and wrapping themselves in blankets — was frightening and disorienting, a surreal descent for many into desperation and embarrassment.
Exum’s experience speaks for hundreds of thousands.
One morning last week, Day 32 of the longest federal closure in history, he sat at a folding table in a relief center a mile from the White House, discussing his cable TV and Internet bill with a couple of Verizon reps, Frank and Michelle.
On the floor beside him were tote bags filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, given to him moments earlier by a bevy of volunteers. Exum punched up his account on his cellphone: $288.24, past due.
Quietly, self-consciously, as if he were guilty of something, he said to Frank and Michelle, “I guess I’m going to need your help managing my situation.”
Outside the relief center — set up by a nonprofit group in the old premises of a defunct restaurant just a lunchtime stroll from the halls of Congress — the line of federal employees waiting for free food and other giveaways, and for utility-bill consultations, stretched 100 yards in a frigid wind.
“Thank you very much, ma’am,” Exum said to Michelle, who was nodding, telling him not to be concerned: Verizon would cut him slack.
Exum prides himself on being polite. Eleven years in the D.C. National Guard taught him that, and so did his parents.
“Thank you very much, sir,” he said to Frank, then he stood and gathered his bundles.
He pulls in $42,000 a year as a guard at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Southeast Washington, a job he enjoys. He is a cancer survivor since 2014, though lately his white blood cell count has been elevated, and he worries.
He lives in a 921-square-foot rancher with his wife, Sonja, who had to give up her job at a deli counter after she hurt her back. Their rent is $1,600 a month. They have long dreamed of buying a home and adopting a child, if only they could put some money away.
But that’s often how it is for a working person. It’s always one thing and the next weighing on a thin wallet. And then this, the shutdown.
All through it, Exum had worked patrolling the vacant corridors of the shuttered museum. “Roger that, got to guard the artifacts!” That Wednesday in the relief center, he was nervous — and still is — about coming up with February’s rent. Trump said workers will receive back pay “very quickly or as soon as possible” — but who knows when that’ll be?
“The first time I came in here,” last weekend, “it took a lot out of me,” he said in the relief center, opened by the nonprofit World Central Kitchen. “I’m used to being self-reliant, trying to do things right in my life,” he said. “It’s about your dignity. I mean, I believe in charity work — I’ve done stuff with So Others Might Eat. Then all of a sudden, you’re not the person helping anymore; you’re the person needing help. And you ask yourself: How did it come to this?”
Before he sat down at the Verizon table, Exum, of Capitol Heights, Md., already had spoken by phone with customer service representatives at T-Mobile, Pepco and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. They cut him slack, too.
But there was a payment due on his 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander, and he still had to deal with his auto insurance. As for his landlord, he said: “We had a discussion. We’ll see.”
He pushed open a door and stepped into the cold. The queue of federal workers snaked along Pennsylvania Avenue NW by the U.S. Navy Memorial, around a corner and up a block to Seventh and D streets.
Under hooded winter coats, they wore business suits and overalls, janitor smocks and police uniforms, their eyes cast down, shuffling like a Great Depression bread line.
“I’ll tell you this,” said Exum, “I now know that people who are homeless are maybe just unlucky. People think they’re homeless by choice. No, they aren’t. Maybe they lost a job, or they lost a family, or they had some medical issue. Maybe they just fell on hard times that they didn’t see coming.”
“Me,” he said, “I’m done, just about broke.”
World Central Kitchen, which delivers nutritional food relief at natural disaster sites, was founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, who is no friend of Trump.
After Andrés backed out of a deal to open a restaurant in the Trump International Hotel, near the White House, months of highly publicized civil litigation ensued, ending in a private settlement. Since 2010, Andrés’s group has set up emergency “clean cooking” kitchens following hurricanes, earthquakes and volcano eruptions in Hawaii and Guatemala, Haiti and Indonesia, Houston and Puerto Rico.
“And now, right here in Washington, D.C.,” said executive director Nate Mook, leading a tour of the relief center. “Here, it’s a man-made disaster.”
On Saturday, 24 hours after Trump’s announcement, the center was filled with federal workers, happy the shutdown had ended, at least for now, but unsure when their back pay will arrive. Mook said the center will keep operating throughout this week.
In space once occupied by the 701 Restaurant, a pricey establishment for the expense-account set in Penn Quarter, World Central Kitchen opened a cafeteria-like eatery Jan. 16 for federal employees in need. Wednesday’s fare was Philly cheesesteak subs; steamed rice bowls; winter vegetarian soup; apples, oranges and bananas; and chocolate chip cookies. The giveaway tables had debuted a day earlier.
There were tote bags loaded with carrots, zucchini, squash, onions, garlic and rice. The International Fund for Animal Welfare offered pet food and cat litter. And Lisa Oksala of the Greater DC Diaper Bank was on hand. “Diapers, baby formula, period products and incontinence supplies,” she said at her table. Sitting nearby were account specialists from Pepco, Comcast, Washington Gas and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, along with Verizon.
“We’ve served over 27,000 meals in the past week,” Mook said. In the “resource center” — meaning the giveaway area — “we had about 1,500 people come through the first day. I mean, we’ve been really overwhelmed. We were expecting, in the restaurant, maybe a couple thousand people would come in the first day, but we had 4,000 in here, and the numbers keep going up.”
He gestured out a window at the workers in line.
Their expressions, their demeanors, were unlike those he has seen at catastrophes around the globe. Victims of tsunamis and wildfires typically don’t look humiliated.
“In the aftermath of a natural disaster,” Mook said, “there’s a sense of, yes, their lives are disrupted, but they know that everybody in the community is going through the same thing together. Here you have working people who suddenly realize, while normal life is going on all around them, they can’t put food on the table for their families, through no fault of their own.”
Many of them, approached for interviews, shook their heads and looked away. Their names, where they work, how they were getting by — most declined to say. Are you a furloughed employee or forced to work without wages? Are you a civil servant or a contractor? “No comment,” whispered a middle-aged man in a necktie, staring into the distance. As Exum said, it’s about the dignity of earning a living and the indignity heaped on them by a partisan stalemate. They wanted it to be over, and until it was, while they were shivering in a handout line, they preferred to be left alone.
Exum, who has been a security guard at one place or another for most of his adult life, joined the federal payroll at the Smithsonian five years ago.
He could talk all day about how much he enjoys working at the Anacostia Community Museum, in one of Washington’s poorest areas. “Walk the halls, make sure everyone’s safe. Assist the customers with their questions, try to give them a little history.” He brightened and said: “It was 1967, and the curator, Mr. Kinard, he thought there was need for a museum in that neighborhood — something positive, as opposed to liquor stores — so it was decided that a Smithsonian would be built in Anacostia. It’s D.C.-centric, all the history of the community. Like, for instance, did you know . . .” And on he went.
“School groups come from all over the country, people from everywhere,” he said. “Put it this way: Instead of having to travel the world, the world travels to me. I’ve met people from France, Germany, China. I’ve met people from Africa. It’s amazing.”
Less than a year after he was hired, Exum said, he found out he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He said he didn’t miss a single shift at the museum while undergoing immunotherapy.
“Jesus took care of that,” he said, and Jesus made him cancer-free, although regular rest, a healthy diet and daily exercise helped. Then last winter, he said, his wife suffered a back injury at her grocery store job. Sonja collects workers’ compensation now, which doesn’t amount to much.
Exum said she recently filed a claim for a Social Security disability allotment, but “they’ve been real slow processing her paperwork with the government closed.”
A few months ago, after he began hearing about a potential shutdown, he did what he could to pile up money. “Pulling double shifts, 16 hours a day” at various Smithsonian museums, “and trying to get eight hours’ sleep in between. Getting eight hours’ sleep is fundamental to staying healthy if you’re a cancer survivor. But then I get up early in the morning to exercise because that’s fundamental, too. And then I was trying to work my side job” painting apartments. “I was going like crazy.”
On Dec. 20, a day after his 51st birthday and two days before the government closed, one of his doctors called with news about his white blood cell count.
“They told me it was up slightly,” Exum said. “Now, I’ll tell you, I’m trying not to think about my cancer being back — no, sir, I’m thinking Jesus will take care of it. But I do need my regular rest, and I wasn’t getting enough. And all this stress, that’s got to have something to do with it.” He said he’ll know more after another test in March. In the meantime, he has to slow down.
Except he was going broke.
“I got rid of my credit cards long ago,” he said. “Reason being, I don’t believe in carrying a debt if I can avoid it.”
But there was Verizon — notwithstanding the soothing words of Frank and Michelle — plus his other bills, “which can mount up quickly if you don’t stay on top of them. . . . I want to eventually own a house, and I don’t know what the government’s going to do about people’s credit ratings. Probably nothing.”
Leaving the relief center Wednesday, toting his bags of fresh vegetables and a warm container of cooked ones from World Central Kitchen, he walked along Pennsylvania Avenue, skirting the dreary ranks of his fellow workers — scientists and bookkeepers, custodians and police — who were inching toward the doors. “It’s expensive to eat healthy,” he said, pleased with his haul, “and I got to eat healthy.”
Who was to blame for all this?
He paused and sighed. “Doesn’t matter.”
Two days later, standing half-dressed in front of his living room TV and sensing that surge of joy tempered by doubt, he heard Trump say, “I want to thank all of the incredible federal workers and their amazing families, who have shown such extraordinary devotion in the face of this recent hardship.” Well, the president had that right where Cecil Ray Exum II is concerned. He turned off the set, picked a speck of dryer lint off his Navy-blue cargo pants and pinned on badge No. 044 for the 4-to-midnight shift.
He won’t forget what happened, though he’ll try.
“I love my job,” he said. “It’s a good job. It’s a blessing to be there.”