"Special education has always fascinated me. When I got into this work, they were still institutionalizing many people with special needs. As a student in Pennsylvania, they used to take us to visit the 'severe and profoundly retarded people,' as they called them in those days. I also remember once when we met these Siamese twins, Lori and Dori, who were connected at the head. I was always fascinated and inspired by people with special needs' desire to pursue a normal life despite the hardship.
"In 1977, I came to Washington to study sign language at Gallaudet University. I thought it would make me a more marketable special education instructor. At that time, the school only took hearing students at the graduate level who were studying education. Otherwise, all undergraduates had some degree of deafness. I gotta tell you, it was rough for me. I had a really hard time learning sign language and many of the kids were not that helpful. You know, every day, these kids would struggle in the hearing world trying to make people understand them. On 'their' turf, if you didn't understand, many people would just move on. I thought about leaving, but I stayed and I will never regret it. It is a great skill to have, especially in this city because D.C. is the number one employer of the disabled.
"My first job out of Gallaudet was at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind. I am an east coast boy and had never been farther west than Pittsburgh. Here I was driving to Tucson. I had a class of deaf students who were all boys and didn't look at me. I used to think, how can deaf kids not look at an instructor and know what is going on? Turns out that they were Papago Indians and in their culture, they are not supposed to look an adult in the eye. Would have been a nice thing to know before I started in the classroom. After a year there, I realized that Arizona was not for me and I came back to D.C. I started teaching high school in Prince George's County and then came back to Gallaudet to teach adult education.
"While I was in graduate school, I dabbled in translation, but didn't get into it as a career until I left teaching adult education. Now, I do sign language interpretation full-time. I have done all kinds of events where I am standing right next to the president and other important people. These events are fascinating because you see all of the behind the scenes stuff and get a window into the lives of celebrities and politicians. I did an event for President Clinton right after the Oklahoma City bombing. Talk about fascinating.
"During these events, you become the speaker. Not only do you convey the words, but you convey the tone and affect. When they are loud, your signs are big. When they are quiet, your signs are small. The job has an element of being an actor, too. Every once in a while, I do an event for someone who can be difficult to understand. One time, I translated for the president of South Korea. At every event, there are always two translators, so that we can switch off every 25 minutes and spot each other. The off person sits in front of you and helps if you miss a word. I tell you, there were times when I couldn't understand a word of what this guy was saying. My colleague had no idea either. I was so nervous, but when I looked out into the crowd, it seemed like no one in the audience had a clue either, so it wasn't so bad.
"Another great thing about this job is that I also translate for students in different university and graduate programs around D.C. With all of the classes and programs I have translated for, I could have one M.D, one J.D., three Ph.Ds and at least 20 Masters. I follow these kids throughout their program and do all of the work, too. The school pays for all of this. A deaf school will never have to pay to make things accessible. For one guy at American University, I sat through his entire Ph.D. program in education, which is what I studied, including his comps and dissertation defense. Afterwards, the department chair asked me if I got any credit for the courses I had attended. I said, 'No.' He ended up offering me a scholarship to get my Ph.D. in education.
"Like I said, learning sign language has been one of the most rewarding and interesting things that I have done. Who would have guessed that I would have had all of these amazing experience through learning another language?'
"I have been around kids my whole life, so I knew that being a bus attendant was the right job for me. I used to do manager stuff over at Blockbuster Video, but I needed a change. Three years ago, I went in and applied to work with the school buses. I never thought about being a driver. I knew that I wanted to sit in the back and be around the kids. It is a little bit of a step down from what I was doing before, but that's okay. I really enjoy my job.
"I grew up in D.C. and went to school in Montgomery County. I never rode school buses as a kid, only public buses, so this was all new to me when I started. Every day, the bus driver and I go and pick up kids around Maryland and D.C. A lot of the kids who take my bus have special needs, either physical or mental. I am there to help the kids get on-and-off the bus and make sure that they behave while they are on the bus. Sometimes, I interact with the kids while we are riding, but you have to be careful and keep your boundaries, so that they understand who is the boss.
"They really trained us for everything before I started. Turns out that everything that they said was the truth. I have never had really difficult kids, but I can't speak for everybody. Being here is also nice because there is a good work force. Sometimes we might argue, but that happens any where. In the end, we are like a family.
"If I keep working hard, I can move up to a management position and oversee the bus yard or be a timekeeper. Thing is that I want to go get my college degree so that I can be a teacher. After I graduated high school, I jumped from job-to-job trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I thought about college, but like a lot of people, I was young and wanted to party. But I settled myself down. Since I had my daughter, Mahira, I really settled myself down. I have to say that my work now has a lot of influence on me wanting to be a teacher and get ahead."
"I grew up on a farm in Foster, Rhode Island, or 'Fostah' as we call it. I dropped out of high school at 18 to work and was drafted to be in the war that same year. I was trained as Military Police (MP) up in Augusta, Maine. They had me guarding German soldiers in Fort Devens, Massachusetts. These were guys from the Africa core who were older and pretty calm because they weren't in the desert and no one was shooting at them anymore. After that, they sent me to Fort Edwards where I was guarding the young, tough Germans who were off of Normandy Beach. These were some serious guys. They would come over to me and fold a bottle cap in half with their hands just to show off. You try that sometime. It ain't easy.
"Next, they sent me to Germany. I was an MP in Germany, which was a really dangerous job because about 75% of us got knocked off by sniper fire. A few weeks into my service, the war ended. When I heard, it didn't register. I couldn't believe it. One of the stories that really sticks with me from Germany was when we were patrolling an area and came across a house. We hadn't had a shower, hot meal, or decent shelter in weeks, so we took over the place and sent the lady living there to sleep in the barn. This woman had the same stature as my mother and took to me for some reason. She asked if she could wash my clothes and make me something to eat, so I let her do it. As we were leaving the house the next day, she took me by the hand over to a photo of her son who was about my age and wearing a Nazi uniform. She said in German, 'The war is over, but my son is not coming home.' We hugged and cried. In 1987, I went back to Germany with my wife to find that woman and say, 'thank you.' Turns out, a year before, she was killed in a traffic accident. I will never be able to tell her thank you. That always urinates me off.
"When I finally got out of the service, I came back to Rhode Island. I got a job digging ditches, but figured there was something better for me. I decided to finish high school and go to college at Pacific University in Portland, Oregon to study journalism. I got a job with the Evening Star in Washington as a news photographer in 1951. I covered everything in this town during my 13 years there. I got pictures of presidents, high society, criminals, you name it. I was a bachelor at the time and took all of the evening and weekend jobs. Went to parties that never quit with plenty of liquor and I danced with all of the high society people.
"After my service here, I decided to go to seminary and be an Episcopal priest. That took me away from Washington to southern Maryland for 22 years. My community was all pig farmers. But after growing up on a farm and taking pictures in Washington, I could talk to anyone. When I retired, I came back to D.C. because I love it here. I am an avid swing dancer and love that there is dancing every night of the week here. I used to dance for three hours straight when I was younger. I would finish dancing with some gal and before I got to the side, there would be a different gal tapping me on the shoulder for another dance. Now that I am 84, I can't dance like I used to, but still think that it is important to spread the joy with my dancing when I can."
Eugene, right, is pictured with Jeffrey, one of the Midtown Youth Academy's boxing coaches and a graduate of Dr. Hughes' program.
'I was born over in a neighborhood that they tore down to build the Rayburn House Office Building. I was one of 13 children. We had an outhouse, oil lamps, an ice box, and had to chop wood for the stove. It was a different time then. When I was just a kid, maybe nine years old, I started boxing. I turned out to be pretty good and won pretty much everything there was to win in the world, from the golden gloves to the worldwide all-service tournament four years in a row when I was in the Marines.
"After I got discharged, I was out in California and went down to Watts. There, I joined the Black Panthers and was one of the first members. We were trying to reorganize Watts and let black people know that they were human. We made our own schools and built a parallel community to the white one. But, you know how folks be, those on the outside got real jealous and mad and came after us because we weren't going to live under them no more. When the people from the outside came in, we ended up burning Watts down. Many of us went to jail for the burning. I got four years, but got out in 18 months on good behavior.
"While I was in jail, I sent out an application to the University of Connecticut because I was still under the G.I. Bill. They let me in and I studied to be a lawyer because I wanted to get into the structure and turn things around. Even though I wanted to join the establishment, you never stop being a Black Panther. You always got to keep on.
"I ended up working on a few things up in Connecticut and organizing for a bunch of issues. After a while, I got tired and wanted to come home to Washington. When I came back, I became a roving leader in the Department of Recreation for Mayor Washington. When Barry came in, I worked with him, too. I grew up with Sharon Pratt Kelly in my younger days and became her personal bodyguard when she was mayor. I have worked with Williams and Fenty, too, to help get kids off of the streets and drugs and into college.
"I opened the first Midtown Youth Academy on 14th and T to teach reading, math, and boxing over forty years ago. I worked with kids to show them that they were somebody and could be anything they wanted to. On Sundays, I took em to church with me to celebrate God. The more kids we got, the more I looked for volunteers to come and help us. We believe in each one, teach one here. A lot of kids have come out of our program and opened businesses and been successful leaders of the community. In fact, I own this building, which we have been in for over 21 years, because some of the kids that I trained turned professional and helped me to buy this building. Some of the kids that came through here are people like Russel Davis, Tony Perez, and Sugar Ray Leonard. Even the ones who made it will tell you that there is no easy road in life.
"Now, we are the oldest boxing club in the city. People always tell me that I should change things here and make this place look new. I want to keep it the same way, so it is just like the people who trained here remember it. This is where they came from. They always need to remember that."
The Midtown Youth Academy is located at 2206 14th St. NW.
"I don't have a specific memory of when I first got into magic, but I remember seeing magicians as a kid growing up in Maryland and loving them. My brother and I would get magic books from the library and do simple tricks for each other. Our first major trick was the old hide a carrot in your palm, cover your hand with a handkerchief, and stick needles into the carrot pretending it was your thumb. We did it to my Mom to freak her out.
"While my brother ended up having a passing interest in magic, I could not get enough of it. I started doing shows for my family during the holidays or other family events. I used to prepare for these shows by going to the magic shop or to magic meetings. Yes, magicians have magic meetings. It's crazy, you have 50 year old men drinking beer and smoking next to 12 year olds talking about card tricks. A lot of time, the kids are the best magicians because they have nothing but time to perfect their skills.
"At 14, I started doing magic professionally. I got my first job doing a 45 minute show for $45. I thought a dollar a minute was pretty good back then. The thing is that I was so excited that I did an hour and a half show and pulled out every trick that I knew. The local newspaper, The Carroll County Times, came and from that, I got more work. In high school, I had a show every weekend and was making more money in a weekend than my friends were making all week. I was amazed that I could do something I loved and make money from it.
"To make my parents happy, I went to college to study graphic design, but the plan was always to do magic professionally. During college, I got involved with a start-up and then after I graduated and came to D.C., I split my time between the start-up and my magic career. D.C. is a great city for magic because there are so many meetings and conventions here that need entertainment and it is a great town for networking. Magic has always been my full-time focus, even if it was not my full-time job. At a certain point, I realized that I needed to quit my job to focus fully on my magic career. I decided that I would give myself a year to try and make it as a magician. After the first two months, I realized that I wanted to make this my life. That decision was so liberating for me.
"People here are fascinated when I said that I am a magician. It is such an unusual profession anywhere, but especially in D.C. It always sounds like a joke. People say, 'No really, what do you do?' For me, the real pay off to magic is the reaction from people, whether I am telling someone that I am magician or seeing their response to a trick. You do the same trick you have done for ten years and every time, people are fascinated by it. It never gets old. I have also learned that the way that someone responds to a magic trick says a lot about their personality. Some people get mad at magicians when you really fool them. Not to stereotype, but these are largely lawyers, doctors, and accountants who get frustrated because they don't like not knowing how something is done. Other people are capable of not caring about how it is done and just enjoying it as a form of entertainment. Every once in a while, someone calls me an asshole, but this is the only profession where an insult is actually a compliment. It usually means, you really got me.
"I would encourage everyone to learn a little magic. I think that just like having a joke, everyone should have a magic trick. It's a great, fun thing to know and you don't have to be a magician to do it."
You can see Josh Norris perform every Sunday night from 6-8 p.m. at the Kemble Park Tavern at 5125 Macarthur Blvd NW. See Josh perform one of his tricks on a man at a barbershop here.
"My family goes back three generations in D.C. We have always been in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. I really love it here and am going to miss D.C. a lot when I leave in August to go to college. I just graduated from Friendship Collegiate Academy on Minnesota Avenue and will be the first one in my family to go to college. My parents are a little sad that I am going so far away, but the University of North Carolina was the best school that I got into, and I got a scholarship.
"I have been in public charter schools most of my life in D.C. They prepared me a lot for college and taught me that I really like to help people. Now, I am studying health and want to go into physical therapy. I got part of that from my mother who does social work and helps people with all kinds of stuff. I think that because my parents didn't go to college, made them push me harder to do better than what they are doing now. They kept me focused and encouraged me to be my best. I have two younger siblings who are also in D.C. public charter schools and hope to go college, too.
"You know, I really am going to miss this city when I go. It is such a nice place."
"My parents moved down to Atlanta, Georgia from the D.C. area a few years before I was born. We spent a few years there and then came back up to the area. My Mom is a health practitioner and my father is a teacher, but was trained as a goldsmith. Interesting story, my grandfather was a goldsmith in D.C. He had one of the first black-owned jewelry stores, called Lee Jewelers, on 14th and L St. He then went and opened one in Atlanta. He died of an aneurysm at 45, which always reminded me not to work too hard. My father and uncle trained under him. They tried to teach me, but I never took to it. I was less of a hands on person and more into using my mind to address things like social justice.
"After college, I got a job teaching students advocacy through S.T.E.P Up DC. The idea was to bring youth voices into policy making in this city. In this city, we are used to certain communities dictating the agenda for most of the city. We are trying to change that. For example, a majority of students in SE commute out of SE for school. A lot of students choose to travel around the District for school rather than fight to make their neighborhood schools better. That breaks up a community and has really negative impacts on the surroundings. We help these kids develop their voices and share their words with people who are making the decisions.
"Since starting this work, one thing that I have found difficult is getting people to understand why we need to work to build better neighborhood schools in low-income black and Latino areas. Some people say, 'Well, aren't they just lazy? I mean, we made it. Can't they just get themselves together.' There is lack of understanding between communities in this city. I first saw this when I went away to Morehouse College in Atlanta and came into contact with the wealthier side of black D.C. I met and learned with people who didn’t experience the city the same way I did. People always talk about how D.C. can be a very racially segregated city, but it can even be segregated among people of the same race. I think my main point is that sharing and learning from each other’s experiences is one thing that will bring us together as a city. I learned a lot from those guys I went to school with and I feel they learned a lot from me.
"That makes this work difficult, but as Ella Baker said, 'The struggle is eternal. The tribe increase. Somebody else carries on.' Social justice is a long fight, but there is hope in the fact that you can fight. I get angry driving around town and seeing a lot of the things that go on. But there is hope in seeing how many people, especially youth, want to give back and make this a better place. It's pretty amazing to meet 19 year olds who are thinking about the next generation and want to make life better for them.
"I love building community and interacting with people. I think that one of the things that is really undervalued is the power of other people. I have learned so much from kids and the other people around me. To build a better world, we need to listen and learn from those around us. My lesson from all of this is to always listen and ask good questions. That is the key to everything."
"I am fifth generation born in El Paso, Texas. I grew up with my Mom and three sisters, as my Dad was not around. My Mom owned a hair salon and I spent a lot of time there. Back in the day, I never knew if I wanted to do interior design or hair, but I never did either because I thought they were too gay. I always knew that I was gay, but I just thought that I was a freak and there was something wrong with me that could be fixed. Seriously.
"My Mom and I are very close, but she is a really simple woman. One time, she told me that if she found out that her only son was gay, she would kill herself. What do you say to that? I mean, how could I tell my Mom that I wanted to go to hair school? It was basically like coming out of the closet. You spend your time doing hair and carrying around a bag with rollers and flat irons. I loved it, but that is pretty gay. I only decided to enroll in hair school when I came to terms with myself. Now, I am 38 and finally came out to my Mom three Christmases ago. She turned out to be cool with it. I think that she always knew. She was just in denial.
"For most of my life in El Paso, I lived two lives. In high school, I was still in the closet, so I did the whole girlfriend thing and played sports. Right out of high school, I met these guys from Juarez, Mexico who played on a gay volleyball team in El Paso. I started practicing with them and hung out with them because they were the only gay guys that I knew. The whole time, I also had my straight friends and my straight life. I never mixed the two worlds. If it was not for volleyball and meeting those guys, I don't know where I'd be. I'd probably still be straight and in El Paso.
"I ended up leaving El Paso and moving in with my boyfriend in Dallas. When that didn't work out, I was talking with one of my volleyball friends who encouraged me to move to D.C. where he was. When I got here, I worked at a law firm and as a courthouse and jail clerk while I went to hair school at night. It was scary to leave my federal job to pursue hair, but I fucking hated it. My first job was in a really conservative salon in the World Bank, so I wasn't getting a chance to be creative until I started working at Bang salon.
"D.C. is getting better, but it can still be pretty lame in terms of hair and design. Most people here are so afraid to do something different because they work in politics. I get tons of girls who come in and say, 'Do something edgy.' As soon as I give them ideas, they get scared and want to go back to their same haircut. What's that term, freak in the sheets and a lady on the streets. It's like that, I guess. Still, it is so much better than when I came here ten years ago.
"For the most part, I love my clients. I have had to divorce a few of them, but overall they are great. We talk about all kinds of stuff in the chair. Most of these people are sitting behind a desk all day and they want to gossip and hear my crazy stories. They tell me a lot of stuff, too. And I mean, a lot of stuff. I hear about women who cheat on their husbands or have had lesbian experiences. I've heard it all. I guess that girls love that whole Will and Grace thing and want to have a cool, gay best friend."
You can find Roberto at Bang Salon at 601 F Street NW.
"People think that I am African, but I have lived in Washington my whole life. My parents are from South Carolina and came up here in the early 40's. I grew up in a terrible neighborhood called Sursum Corda. I did a lot of dumb things as a kid. You know, I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. My Mom always said, 'If you hang with the wolves, you will howl.' It's true, but I didn't understand it at the time. Now, I tell that to my sons. I am blessed to say that I was never locked up. I have never been in trouble with the law. Getting in trouble with my parents, that's a different story.
"I think that dancing and drumming really saved me from taking the wrong path. I started drumming when I was eight years old. I was playing football for the Boys Club when I heard this drumming coming from the basement of the Boys Club. I was immediately drawn to it. I escaped from practice to find the drumming class and stayed there with my helmet and shoulder pads on. I was mesmerized, and have been ever since. I started dancing a little later bit later.
"All of the dancing we do at Meridian Hill Park is from West Africa. I have been dancing and teaching at the drum circle for 20 years now. It all started because one of the lead drummers, who I knew because we performed together, invited me to come out. There was dancing here before me, but not a lot of West African dancing. You know, a lot of people say that I sound and move like I am from Africa. I guess I can just mark the accent and movement so well. Sometimes the accent comes out and I don't even realize it. It's funny, one time I was performing and this guy from Guinea came over to me afterwards. He thought I was from Guinea, too, and neglecting our country by not dancing at the embassy and for 'our' people more. As he spoke, he got more excited and eventually starting cussing me out in his language. I said, 'Look man, I am not African.' He felt really embarrassed and apologized.
"I guess I just transform into someone different when I dance. It is like a spirit takes over me. One time, I was driving by the U.S. Capitol and they had the Zulu dancers performing. I was in the car with my wife and son. The drums captured me and I jumped out of the car while it was still moving to get to the music. My wife had to jump in the driver's seat and take control of the car. I guess I just have it real bad for drums and dancing. My wish in life is to go to Africa and dance my heart out in Senegal and Guinea.
"I would say to everyone, you need to come up to the park and join us on Sundays. Who needs to pay for a class when you can come and dance with me and the drummers for free. Trust me, you aren't going to find an experience like this anywhere else here."
You can find Thomas and the drum circle in the upper area of Meridian Hill Park on Sunday afternoons.
“When Justin finished high school, he decided that he wanted to join the infantry. I just blew up and said, 'You are my only kid, and the country is at war. Why would you put yourself in harms way?' He said, 'Mom, you should have had more kids. This is my dream and you need to man up and be strong.' I supported him, but I also used to clip news articles about war casualties for him to try and dissuade him, but he didn’t care.
"For all of his life, I preached college. He promised that when he got out of the Army, he would go to UCLA and then be a movie star. He was going to be the next Bruce Lee. It's funny, when he came back from basic training, he wanted to show me hand-to-hand combat, so he tried out his new moves on me.
"When he was first sent to Afghanistan, I was happy because I thought it was a safer place than Iraq. I barely even knew that the war was still going on in Afghanistan because we only heard about Iraq in the news. He was so excited because he was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division, which was one of the most deployed units in the military. He was being trained to fight and wanted to be deployed. He was sent to the Korengal Valley, which they call the valley of death.
"He was four months into his first deployment when he was killed by friendly fire on June 25, 2006 at the age of 19. I didn’t even know what that term meant until this happened. They were coming back from a mission and were being followed by the enemy. Justin's unit called for a mortar attack and someone got the coordinates wrong. He was the only one in his unit who was killed that day. The last time I spoke with Justin was on May 3oth, a month before he died. He said, ‘Don’t worry about me. You won’t hear from me for a while because we are going out on a mission. I'll be okay.’
"I was on a business trip out in Wyoming when this happened. When I was told I had to go, I was thinking, what if something happens to Justin? How are they going to find me? People told me not to think like that and take the trip. I had this anxiety and the worst thing that I thought could happen, happened. The Army eventually tracked me down and said they needed to send someone over to talk to me. I begged them to tell me over the phone, but they wouldn't. I thought they were coming to tell me that Justin was hurt and I would have to go to Germany, where the main hospital was.
"Finally, a few hours later, someone came over in dress uniform and asked, 'Are you Mrs. Davis.' I said, 'Yes.' The commander said, “Mrs. Davis, The United States Army is sorry.’ I just lost it and said this can’t be. I sat in a chair crying and crying. You always hear about that knock on the door. Mine came when I was thousands of miles away from home, in Wyoming of all places.
"After he died, the Army asked me where I wanted to bury him. Justin and I never talked about the what ifs. I remember him telling me once that all of the heroes are buried at Arlington Cemetery, so I knew that this is where he would want to be. Since he passed, I come here every weekend with my chair, Justin’s old backpack from school, some flowers, and my bible. I rush and work a lot during the week, so this is a nice time for me to slow down and reflect. I so feel Justin's presence when I am here. There are a number of people who also come here every weekend to see their loved ones. We take care of each other. We laugh and cry together and check up on each other. We have an informal support group.
"Since Justin, there have been so many other people buried here. I look out into the distance and think about all of the free land here just waiting for graves. I think about those families that will come here and grieve a loved one. I understand that there has to be war sometimes, but I think we should only go because nothing else that we have tried works."
Pfc Justin Ray Davis
1st PLT A Co 1-32 Infantry
1/28/87 - 6/25/06
Killed in Action in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan
"I am originally from Texas and will spend the next few months travelling around the country. D.C. was my first stop because I had an audition for the television quiz show Jeopardy. I think it went really well and I will hear back sometime in the next 18 months if I made the show or not. I like to read and think a lot and play trivia with friends, so I hope that will help me out. If not, I will keep trying until I get on the show. Oddly enough, as a tarot reader, I really want to get a bible category if I do get on the show. I grew up with all of that stuff and usually get them all right.
"I remember when I was a lot younger and got my first tarot deck. I practiced a lot, but burned out on it. It can be a very intense experience. I ended up picking it up again when I started studying things of a more esoteric nature recently. There were a lot of similar patterns to what I was studying and tarot. It's an art form more than anything else. Now that I am traveling, I use tarot as a way to meet people, make some money, and learn about a place.
"I am not a fortune teller. I don't tell the future, but I believe that there are echos of the future in tarot. When someone comes to me with a question, we take a few slow and even breaths together and then look to the cards for the answers. I like to touch the person 's hand as I am doing this to get a feel for their energy as I am going through the cards. When I lay the eight cards out, I look at the Major Arcana or the trump cards of the deck as the vowels of the sentence. The Minor Arcana are the consonants. Tarot is looking for the meaning of and between the cards and reading into the person while you read the cards. Seeing their reactions to things can be amazing and helps to add context to the additional cards and meanings behind them.
(I asked Andrew to read cards for the city. He touched the deck to the ground, took a few breaths, and then laid out eight cards.)
"I think that D.C. is a place that has a lot going on. It is experiencing a rebirth and revitalization. But it is a place that is always under attack from people on the outside because it can be very abstract and elitist until you get here and see that is really a very honest, flesh-and-blood, and brick-and-mortar place. It is also under attack from people on the inside because of the segregation. There is a comfortable rythme that people have with the segregation and vast social and economic differences, but if three of four things go wrong in rapid succession, it could throw everything off in this city. People need to get to know their neighbors and realize that we have much more in common that we do in different. I think that humility is something that is good for everyone, but I wonder if there may be a deficit of it here. This city has so much potential to do great things."
"I'm 79 and have been playing checkers my whole life. They call me 'The Razor' because I am known for giving close shaves. I beat people before they even know they are beat. I am considered a wise and sharp checkers player. That's why they gave me that nickname.
"I was born in Ozark, Alabama, and came to D.C. in 1953 to go to Howard University. I wanted to be a physician. When I enrolled, I needed a science major, so I picked chemistry. I graduated in 1957 and got into medical school a few years later. I spent a year in medical school and realized that it was not going to be my claim to fame. I left and took a job as a chemist for the Food and Drug Administration. In my time, I also worked with the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. This was the time of Sputnik when they were studying the atmosphere. At the same time, they started to explore the sea. I was involved on the team that was exploring the chemical elements of the Sargasso Sea, off the west coast of Africa. It was a collaboration of several countries and I met scientists from Russia, Brazil, and Germany.
"Meeting all of these people and traveling exposed me to how other countries play checkers. The strategies are similar the world over, but there are different styles of checkers. There is international checkers, with 100 squares and 20 men per side. We play American pool checkers on a 64-square board with 12 men per side. You can move forward one spot, but you can also jump backwards. When you get a king, he can move the entire square on whatever line he is on.
"I didn't start playing on a regular basis until 1980. At the time, we used to play at barber shops and under trees around town. In 1985, we raised enough money to open the club by charging membership dues to pay the rent. This is the only checkers club in Washington, D.C., but they do still play in other places like Mason's Barbershop in N.E. and at cab stands around the city.
"For 25 years, we have been playing here almost every day. We have about 30 members and I have been the president for 20 years. We play in checkers leagues and travel the country for tournaments. This year, we have already been to Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. Our national tournament is coming up in July in North Carolina. We play competitively among ourselves to get ready for the tournaments. There are five categories of players for the tournaments, from beginner to master. They are: Blue Ribbon, Gold Bar, Junior Master, Master, and Top Master. Last year, I played as a Junior Master and did not lose a game, so I will probably get moved up this year to Master. One of the best checkers players in this club is a guy named Freddie Owens. He is one of the best in the country. He always comes out in the money.
"Everyday that I can, when I finish what I am doing, I am here. They say that people should exercise your body, but you need to exercise your mind, too. We believe that there is a relationship between checkers and warding off Alzheimer's. We have a saying that an idle mind is the devil's workshop. By playing checkers on a regular basis, we exercise our minds and develop a nice sense of camaraderie. Wherever you go, you will find checkers players. We know where to find a good game when we are out of D.C., and most checkers players from out of town know to come find us when they want a good game in Washington.
"See, we are passionate about our game. We love our game." The Capital Pool Checkers Club is located at 813 S St., N.W.
"Sometimes I wonder how and why I got where I am today, but I guess that God has a bigger purpose for me. I moved around a lot as a kid and came back to D.C. three years ago. When I was younger, I was placed in foster care with my brother. But my mother fought and got us back. She then sent my brother off to South Carolina, where my parents are from, so he could have a better life.
"Since then, life has been tough and we kept moving a lot. I mean, I was in four different high schools my freshman year. My Mom and I were also homeless for six months. She tried to keep me away from as much of it as she could, but I still knew what was going on. Nobody would help us and we lived in a women's shelter near Judiciary Square. I live with my Dad now because my Mom and I don't get along. We have two different personalities. I love her, but I can't live with her. I look at those experiences with my Mom and don't want that for myself. That gave me the motivation to get out of the environment I was in and make a better life for myself.
"Now, I am 19 and a senior at Anacostia High School. I graduate next Friday and will be going to Kentucky State in the fall on a scholarship. I still haven't seen the school, but I have friends on campus who say it is a nice place. I want to study to be a neuroscientist, like Dr. Ben Carlson. I read one his books in the sixth grade and it touched me. My mentor at the time told me to read it because I didn't have any direction and she thought it would help me. I have wanted to be a neuroscientist ever since then. I have done a number of science programs at places like the University of Maryland and George Washington to help prepare me to be a neuroscientist.
"In the future, I feel like I don't have any choice but to come back and help my community. I really think that I can reach people with my story. Not all of my friends are graduating from high school. Some have given up and probably don't feel like they have a future. But I know plenty of people who came from the negative, like me, and are turning it into a positive. I would tell people who are thinking about dropping out of school to keep the fight going. If you give up now, you are basically giving up on life. I know it's hard, but it wasn't meant to be easy. If you really want it, you have to fight for it."
"I was born in Baltimore and moved to Washington when I was five years old with my family. My parents had two grocery stores, real Mom-and-Pop stores, on the 1700 block of 10th Street NW and one on 5th and N St. As soon as I could count change, I was working at the counter. We didn't make much money, but everybody ate good. Back then, we had a book that people used to buy things. You bought things on credit and settled up at the end of the month. You don't see stuff like that anymore. People aren't as trusting as they used to be.
"I stayed in D.C. until I joined the National Guard and then went off to fight in Korea. I think that everyone should provide a year of some kind of service after high school. So many kids end up lost and don't know what to do. Public service is a good direction and an important way to help your country.
"When I got out of the Army, I came back to the area and got married at 25. My first job was selling insurance. Back then, I used to cold canvas. I went to a building and started at the top floor and talked my way down through every office trying to sell stuff. At the time, I could even go into the government buildings and walk around, too. I did get asked to leave the CIA because it was a secure building, but otherwise I could go most everywhere else.
"When I got fired from New York Life, I started selling buttons as souvenirs. Turns out I liked it a lot better. It started when my kids were in school and I went down to the government printing office to pick them up a copy of Kennedy's inaugural address for $o.50. I love history and thought it would be a nice present. When I came home, I told my wife, 'These look nice. I'll bet you can sell them.' She thought I was crazy. The first two people I showed them to wanted to buy them, so I bought 50 more and started selling them down at the Capitol. That was about forty years ago.
"I started selling all kinds of souvenirs and then I got really into buttons, especially the campaign buttons. I am the only guy in town who sells this stuff on the street. I got original stuff going back to McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. I have Democrat, Republican, Vietnam War, peace and love, and even Socialist buttons. I try to have every button, so people don't have to argue with me about my politics. The average person will spend $10-15 on my buttons. Now, my most expensive button is $75. It is not super expensive, but some of this stuff gets up there. A Lincoln button could go for $1500.
"Buttons have been good to me. In 1984, I produced over one million buttons for the Reagan campaign. They were mostly those ethnic buttons, things like Greek-Americans for Reagan. Because of it, I was invited to both conventions and they called me up for a photo op with Nancy Reagan, so that was my 15 minutes of fame.
"I am 80 and think that I have another year or two out here. As long as my legs hold up, I will stay out here because I enjoy what I do. I meet a lot of great folks and have interesting conversations with people from all around the world. I'd much rather be doing this than staying home and watching television. I like to enjoy every day and tell people that every day that you are alive is like Christmas. If you are standing on your own two feet, you're doing good and should feel blessed."
"I knew from the age of eight that I wanted to be in the Army. I had an uncle who was in the military who I really looked up to. He said that I had to find my own motivation and couldn’t join just because of him. As I got older, I realized that there wasn’t anything else that struck my interest like the Army did. I looked at colleges, but they didn’t appeal to me.
"My senior year of high school, September 11th happened and then one of my best friends from high school, Giovanni Maria, died fighting in Afghanistan a few months later. People thought that his death might push me away from the military, but it didn’t. I remember talking to Giovanni before he passed and telling him to wait a few more months for me to graduate, so we could be over there together kicking some ass. He died before I could get over there. He was 19 and I felt like I owed it to him to join the Army. I joined at 18 and it still feels right eight years later, even after my injury. I plan to stay in for the full twenty.
"During my third tour in Iraq, my Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) on December 21, 2007. We were out on patrol when we heard that another Company had been hit and one of my buddies, George Howell, was killed by an IED. We were on our way to help them when my truck got hit by an IED. The vehicle flipped over and I was thrown from the Humvee. I remember the explosion and the orange fire ball and then the next thing I knew I was on the ground and couldn’t sit up. I figured that when you are wearing 60 pounds of armor and you get knocked on your back, you are like a turtle who has been turned over and can't turn back. When the other guys came to me, they wouldn’t let me sit up because they knew that I was in trouble. They put me on a board and onto a helicopter. I blacked out and woke up in Germany. I broke my back, most of my ribs, and my right lung collapsed. Now, I am completely paralyzed and will be in this chair indefinitely. Most of the other guys in my vehicle got some rather significant injuries, too. One kid lucked out and didn’t have one scratch on him.
"The most difficult thing about the injury was being in a hospital so far away from my buddies. Even though I was injured, I wanted to go back into the action. I kept fighting with the people who were trying to help me and telling them to send me back. They obviously didn't for good reason. From Germany, they sent me to do my initial rehabilitation at Walter Reed and then I was transferred to the Kessler Institute in New Jersey where they specialize in spinal chord injuries.
"I just recently finished my therapy and now I am going back to work. There was a slip up in my paperwork for my first assignment after rehabilitation. I was given orders to join an infantry brigade headed to Afghanistan. I told them I would go, but obviously they couldn't send me with my injury and assigned me to work with wounded warriors and their families at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Now, I will do what I can to help those in need.
"My one big thing that I want to tell people is to say, 'Thank you' to soldiers and veterans. You don’t have to like what is going on, but those two words mean more to us than you all realize. I remember lying in bed at Walter Reed and people came by to say, 'Thank you,' and it made me feel like people actually cared about what we do and what we go through. Sometimes people say, ‘I’m sorry’ to me because they realize that my life is difficult now, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I have told countless people that I am glad I took most of the physical damage rather than anyone else. Of all of the guys in the truck, I had the most combat time. Even though some of them outranked me, I still called them 'kids' because I had been all over that country and served three tours.
"Today, I am at Arlington Cemetery to see my friend, George Howell. I have been in-and-out of hospitals for the past two years, so this was my first chance to come and see his grave. I lost nine friends over there and I eventually want to get out to see their graves, too."
"The first thing to say is that I knew about the D.C. punk scene long before I came here. I grew up in one of the most rural and economically depressed areas in Montana and punk gave me the awareness of possibilities outside of what I knew. I am very proud of where I come from and I learned a lot there, but at the time, it felt like hell to me. Punk music, starting with the New York scene and Patti Smith and then the London scene with Sex Pistols and The Clash, gave me a reason to live. These were young people, more or less my age, creating this angry music that was ultimately so full of life. They were not waiting for change, they were going to make it themselves.
"Punk music helped me go to college. College was not one of those things that everybody did where I grew up. It was extremely optional. I wanted to study things that I believed in and become an activist. I wanted to change the world. That is why D.C. grabbed me. When I left college, I was very career oriented and came to Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. It was a pipeline into the establishment, for the better or worse.
"I was from a small town, so coming here was very overwhelming. I had never seen homelessness or racial segregation, and it just tore my heart apart. My crisis became even more profound when I went to Central America in 1985. The poverty there was at a whole new level and there was an ongoing war where the U.S. was not playing a positive role. At school, I was being trained to be a mid-level functionary in this system that was supporting these policies. I knew that I could not go forward in the direction I had just spent tens of thousands of dollars for school. At the time, the only thing that made sense to me was the D.C. punk scene. It was about doing things yourself and having a positive mental attitude. So for the second time, punk rock revolutionized my life.
"It was at that time that I thought that someone needed to write a book about the punk music scene here. It was an incredible story that mattered a lot to me. I get New York and London, but D.C. as a punk rock center, it seemed so unexpected. I wanted to share the story of how this happened. I started doing research in 1986 and the finished product came out in 2001. The D.C. punk scene and its continuing influence around the world is an astonishing an inspirational story.
"Punk music is a chapter of D.C. that many people don't know about, but more people should. People think that this is a buttoned-up town where we only import culture. There is a part of that stereotype that is true, but D.C. played a huge role in punk and rock music and exporting a positive mental approach towards living and tackling problems to everyone who could hear our music. For people who don't like punk music, that is cool, but you should try and embrace the spirit. This is a city built out of big dreams and D.C. punk is just another amazing representation of that."
"My name is Scott, but I go by my initials SM now. I used to live in Philadelphia and would come to D.C. a lot. I always had a better time here than I did in Philadelphia, so I chose to move to D.C. in 2006 at the age of 36. Hitting a new town in my late-30's, I really wanted to make it count. I felt like it was my last real go-around to tackle and own a town, or at least my little corner of it. I really wanted to become the ultimate Washington insider.
"The thing is that I work for an ad agency in Georgetown, which is as far as you can get from politics and life on the Hill. But I started writing for the Huffington Post, which got me in a lot of doors. I'm not really sure why, though, because who doesn't write for the Huffington Post these days. Don't tell Arianna I said that! Through that, I got invited to stuff and people thought that I was someone of relevance. So, I pushed my way in to see how far into the interior of big time D.C. I could get. To me, I wanted the same thing that every high school kid wants, to be invited to the right parties, get recognized, and get photographed a lot. This is Hollywood for ugly people and I think that I am ugly enough to make it in this town. "The thing is that official D.C. is so boring, don't you think? I recognized that I really did not want to be the ultimate Washington wonk. I prefer the Salahi model, I guess, and started to crash parties, like the White House Correspondents dinner, which I did three times. That event is like nerd prom, which made it great for me.
"Recently, I decided to give all of this up and stop living a lie. I came out to everyone that I had not been invited to these events and was just trying to see how far into the city I could get. You know, the Salahis should come join me on this side and be honest about everything. Now, I am happy to be in the same category as those tourists on the top of those double decker tour buses as the ultimate outsiders."
SM Shrake is also a storyteller and performer. You can see his work here.
"I am 24 years old and grew up all over this city. I have learned that different parts of the city are, you know, different. We moved a lot because some of the neighborhoods were no good and because I kept getting put out of D.C. public schools. Eventually, I was put out of all of them. If I knew the things I know now, I probably would not have acted as I acted then. I can't change what caused me to do what I done did back then, but I don't live with no regrets.
"A lot of people don't understand that there are a lot of influences and things going on around you that make things, you know, stressful. All of this stuff is gonna affect you one way or another. There ain't nobody who can live on these streets and come away all normal. Sometimes, you fall in or sometimes you might be strong. I guess it depends on the person, but if you are subjected to all this long enough, it is going to get to you.
"After I was put out of school, I went to school in Maryland, but that didn't work out either. My only option to not be a failure in life was to go to Job Corps. I told my mother that I was going and wanted to do something with my life. She didn't make me go or nothing, I did it because I knew that it was the only option that I had left. I went to job corps in West Virginia and got my high school diploma and a learned business technology. They trained me to use Microsoft Office. The program was supposed to take two years, but I finished in six months. The stuff they were teaching, I already knew. See, I may have been put out of the schools here, but I ain't stupid. I got this stuff.
"I have a two year old daughter and I want her to go to college and do the things I was never able to do. I am still a young guy and ain't finished doing what I want to do, but feel like I missed out on a lot because how I was when I was younger. Ultimately, I want to get my degree in engineering, or something like that, and get certified in scuba diving. In high school, I got certified in a swimming pool and we were supposed to go out into the open water to get certified, but I got put out before that. I really miss it. I still love the water, and that was one of the things that they could never take away from me. Now, I work on the Odyssey, that cruise ship down on the waterfront. They give tours of the city and go over to Virginia. I am a deck hand and part of the marine crew. It is a nice way to stay close to the water. That's pretty much about all I got to say."
"I was young and crazy when I came to this country from Ireland 20 year ago. That is really the only explanation I can give for why I am here. I had lived in so many places in my life and wanted to try New York. After some time, I wandered down to Washington for work, but I don’t think I will stay. The British Isles will always be my home.
"I came here to work for the federal government. I started as a statistician and now I work as an economist. I am not really interested in management or administrative work, but I found a nice fit doing research. I was really nervous about moving to Washington at first. Before moving here, I had only been here for anti-war marches. I would get on a bus at 4 a.m. to come down. All that I saw of Washington were the monuments and those austere style buildings. I had never seen a neighborhood, so I always associated this town with the issues I was here protesting.
"I eventually did move here and found the neighborhoods, but it took me a long time to settle in because my Mom died after I moved, which was very sad. But I came to like the open spaces and arts and all of the activities you can do here, like hula hooping. New York can be very pushy and noisy, but that doesn't seem to be a problem here. I do miss the mix of cultures, like they have in New York. Here, you have to go, I don’t know how many subway stops, to actually find ethnic people and restaurants. In Brooklyn, you had it on most streets.
"In New York, I used to work for the city government, mostly under the Giuliani Administration. At work, we used to talk about the government and politics and the mayor in our cubicles. We felt very open to speak our minds. With the federal government, you don’t talk at all about this stuff. People talk about the weather and the metro and their air conditioners instead. Sometimes, I think that things here are too controlled and people do not want to get out of line. A friend of mine keeps telling me that I have to learn how to play the game, though. It is not the people who work hard or speak their minds who get promoted, but the people who are always smiling and say, 'Oh, isn't everything so wonderful.' Basically, you have to be a total ass kisser. I like my job, but I prefer not to play the game."
"I was raised outside of Cleveland, Ohio and moved to D.C. in 1995 to do my law and public health degrees at George Washington University. When I graduated, I worked for Health and Human Services as a federal litigator. I enjoyed it, but found myself wanting more creativity. I knew that some of my natural talents were never going to be exercised as a lawyer.
"As a kid, I cooked all of the time and built a lot of models. While I was a social kid, I enjoyed the solitary and technical process of building things. When I started to teach myself how to bake to be a more well-rounded foodie, it reminded me of being a kid and building those model two inch soldiers. At the time, I was baking in my apartment on 13th and Belmont for fun. I would try out different recipes and baked cakes for people's birthdays or to bring into work. Through that, I got a lot of feedback on my stuff and it was a nice way to share my creativity.
"About ten years ago, I decided to leave my job and do this full-time. Before opening the first store on U Street, I ran the business out of the kitchen in what is now Saint Ex. It was a little bit of a rocky road at first, and I remember having a panic attack four days into it, as the decision to leave my job settled in. But, that passed and things worked out, thanks in part to people who helped me along the way.
"People used to ask me all of the time if I really wanted to turn my passion into a job. Of course I did. I loved all of the work connected to the bakery and felt like I was finally tapping into the things I was really good at and passionate about. Every inch of this business is literally covered with my blood, sweat, and tears. I have been touched by people who find my story inspiring. I never planned for things to turn out like this. I just wanted to do something that I liked and make more money than I was spending. In truth, I took a lot of risks at the time because I didn't fully recognize how risky they were. But things worked out and I found that opening a small business was one of the best ways to really see how this country really works.
"I really think that people should be more entrepreneurial about their own future. We need to encourage kids from a young age to be more artistic and entrepreneurial, so when they get older, they feel encouraged to take risks. Our community would be so much richer if people exercised their real talents and passions. We all should leave this world with little regrets.
"I hope that the world is a little richer and sweeter because of Cakelove."
Warren Brown is the founder and owner of Cakelove.
I am a D.C.-based photographer and collector of stories. People's District is my attempt to catalogue a people's history of Washington, D.C. The stories listed here are presented in the words of the interviewee.
I welcome your ideas on who should be featured on People's District. Please reach out to me at email@example.com.