The signs announcing his death appeared two weeks ago, tied to a black wrought-iron fence in front of a commanding brick house on 13th Street in Northwest Washington. “Remembering Wilbert E. Anderson,” the two signs proclaim, “who loved this neighborhood and visiting with everyone who walked by. 1940-2017.”
Some people placed flowers underneath, mourning the man known in Logan Circle as “The Mayor of 13th Street.” Anderson, once homeless, was a fixture on the steps beside the fence, greeting passersby in his deep, rich voice. He sounded like an actor as he dispensed street wisdom.
“There ain’t no romance without finance,” he would advise about relationships.
“We have a hard way to go and a short time to get there,” he would say about life’s challenges.
He seemed to always be there, wearing his signature hat, smoking cigarettes, calling out to “lady friends” and chatting with neighbors. People could hear his laugh a block away.
He was a constant in the rhythm of Logan Circle life.
“For years, I wondered if he was my guardian angel. In some ways, he was, and I trusted him with my life,” said John Hornick, who met Anderson 24 years ago when Anderson was living in an alley near 14th and Q streets NW.
Hornick, a lawyer, paid Anderson to do odd jobs outside. They debated politics, talked about World War II. They laughed together and became friends.
In 1998, Hornick offered to let Anderson live in his back yard when he had nowhere else to go. He lived on a lounge chair under a tarp.
“He used my power for heat and his television,” Hornick recalled. “I invited him in, but he would never come in.”
Anderson was a District native who had enlisted in the Army before he was 18. When the Army found out he had lied about his age, he was discharged. He married, had three children and worked in a series of jobs to support his family, including 27 years as a trash collector (he ran behind the truck, which kept him in excellent shape). Then his mother died and things fell apart, Hornick said.
“I don’t know what happened, but he became estranged from his wife, and he started to live outside,” Hornick said. “Several things happened that led to him being homeless when he was 52.”
Reached at her home in Northeast D.C., Marion Anderson called her father “a really good man. He worked hard every day of his life. He’s in heaven now.” But she said she was in mourning and did not want to talk more about his life.
Hornick and his future wife, Sarah Alexander, became Anderson’s second family. He spent every Thanksgiving with them.
“The moment he found out I was John’s girlfriend, he would look out for me,” recalled Alexander, a photographer who is a student in a graduate gemologist program. “It didn’t matter where I was, he had an uncanny ability to know when I was coming home. He would walk me through the alley and around to the front door. He would wait until I got through the gate and in the house.”
When they rebuilt a carriage house behind their old home on 14th Street, they added an attic and invited Anderson to sleep there.
In 2000, when Hornick and Alexander got married, Anderson was there to celebrate in a tuxedo they rented for him.
“As long as my husband and I have been married,” Alexander said, “there has always been Wilbert.”
A few months after they wed, they bought the house at the corner of 13th and Riggs streets.
“When we told him we were moving, he was panicked,” Alexander recalled. “We said: ‘Don’t worry. We will make a room for you.’ We couldn’t leave him.”
They built a bedroom and private bath for Anderson in the basement of their new house.
“He could come and go. He had his own access,” Hornick said.
“A friend of ours who has known him for a long time nicknamed him ‘The Mayor of 13th Street,’ ” Alexander said. “The nickname evolved because he would hold court on the front steps talking to everyone as they went by.”
When Hornick and Alexander cooked dinner, they would make enough for Anderson.
“I would feed him something, and he would say, ‘John, black people don’t eat that stuff,’ ” Hornick recalled. “I’d say, ‘Wilbert, do you want it or not?’ He would say, ‘Yeah.’ He would eat it and say, ‘This is pretty good.’ ”
Anderson loved soul music, Motown and doo-wop — the Dells, the Four Tops, the Five Satins and Barry White. He was a fan of “Matlock” and “Murder, She Wrote.” When Angela Lansbury came to town in 2015 to star in “Blithe Spirit” at the National Theatre, Hornick and Alexander bought him tickets and arranged for Anderson to meet Lansbury backstage.
“He started talking to her about ‘Samson and Delilah’ and the 1962 movie ‘The Manchurian Candidate,’ ” Hornick said. “He knew all her old movies.”
Over the past few years, though, Anderson’s health began to decline. He was a heavy smoker who loved fried foods.
John Fanning, a longtime Logan Circle resident who chairs its Advisory Neighborhood Commission, said he noticed when Anderson hurt his leg. “I said, ‘You are not walking as much.’ He pulled up his pants, and his leg was all swollen. I said, ‘Did you go to the doctor?’ ”
Hornick knew he needed care. “I got him set up with Whitman-Walker Clinic” on 14th Street, he said. But Anderson didn’t like to sit around in the waiting room and would often leave his appointments. Two years ago, he had a heart attack. Last year, he had a series of minor strokes. And he had been complaining about his stomach.
In November, he told Hornick that the pain was really bad. “We called an ambulance,” Hornick said. Anderson went to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where he had surgery for a perforated ulcer, Hornick said. But when the bleeding started again, “he refused care.” He died Jan. 7 at a hospice.
There was no memorial service for the 76-year-old. “He didn’t want one,” Hornick said. “We arranged to have him cremated and gave his ashes to his daughter.”
The neighborhood seems altered now, without him.
“Even in cold weather . . . he would sit on the front steps or in the back yard in the chairs out there,” Hornick said. “We spent a lot of time in the kitchen. He would rap on the back window to let him in. I keep expecting him to rap on the back window. ”