Sunday, August 1, 2010

Chapter 4 (begun)

The Park Tour

It must be Monday, Johnny decided, because the cameras and short sleeves of the tourists had given way to the suits and carefully pressed shirts of lawyers, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and all the other people who live off the cranky engine of democracy.  They were still day people though.  Dressing them up didn’t change that.

They did a park tour.  Northwest on Mass to Mount Vernon Square, then straight west down K Street: Franklin Park, McPherson Square, Farragut Square.  In Mount Vernon they met Parking Jimmy on his way to crash and caught up with some gossip (“that bitch” Whiskey Sally had apparently sided with Polish Peg, and Jimmy’s hyperactivity was in disapproval overdrive).  At the edge of Franklin they found a food truck out early whose owner knew Larissa, and they cadged some free breakfast.  And, at McPherson, they found Toady Barker playing his fiddle for spare bills and spent an hour or so redirecting pedestrian foot traffic past his station to help increase his take.  Toady wasn’t a street person, but he was a good person, and he gave them a thankful smile and a few bills apiece as they moved on.

Something was bothering Johnny, and he wasn’t sure what it was.  He hadn’t known why he needed to leave the Court last night—they certainly didn’t end up going anywhere in particular—and he didn’t know what was bugging him now, but something felt ... wrong.  It was like the world was different somehow, and he couldn’t figure out how.  His world hadn’t been particularly different from one day to the next since he arrived on the streets of DC.  Even his two brief forays into foster care seemed a part of the whole, somehow all blended together and every day ran into the next, like water spilling on a chalk painting, blurring one figure or building or tree into the next, making it all seem like some pastel, impressionistic version of life.  It was less a nightmare than a daze; Johnny had been moving from one day to another running on auto-pilot.  And now, today, something was different.  And the quality of “difference” was itself so different, in some recursive, abstract fashion, after so much sameness for so long, that the difference was unsettling.  Johnny tried to put his finger on when it began: when he woke up and saw the cop? when he and Larissa were scared by the whatever-it-was in the alley? in the liquor store, listening to the drunken ramblings of an old redneck judge? in Sally’s court? on the Mall, panhandling with Larissa and Dotty? in the subway, with the confrontation with the CCF? before that, somehow?

Johnny had kept shaking his head throughout their leisurely stroll through Downtown, the whole time they were chatting with Parking Jimmy, and eating breakfast burritos, and encouraging people to come listen to the music with plastic smiles.  All those things were, in fact, part of the same sameness he had lived for the past however-many-years-it-was-now, and yet ... something was still off.

Thus it was, as morning rush hour wound slowly down and they finally arrived at Farragut Square, with its Farragut statue (just as McPherson Square had its McPherson statue), celebrating some Civil War dude who had once said something famous (he turned to Larissa and she helpfully supplied “damn the torpedoes,” pointing at the plaque), that he heard the ringing tones of Johnny Angel’s voice, and he smiled.

If Whiskey Sally was the matriarch of the DC street people, then surely Johnny Angel was its patriarch.  Always resplendent in his white suit, which of course was never entirely clean, yet was never so dirty it didn’t seem to shine, Johnny Angel was a moderately light-skinned black man with kinky hair that stuck out in all directions—not like an Afro, but more like its owner had stuck his finger in an electrical socket.  And yet he was undeniably regal, in some indefinable manner.  Years later, when Johnny finally saw a rerun of Bruce Almighty, he would wonder why Morgan Freeman, playing God, was dressed up to look like Johnny Angel.

But the person most clearly called to mind when you first met Johnny Angel was probably Don King.  They looked nothing alike facially, but the hair was strongly reminiscent of the famous boxing promoter, and there was something in the way Johnny Angel preached—and you could never describe it as anything other than preaching—that sounded like he wanted to sell you something, even when he was just asking how you were doing.  Perhaps something in the way he over-enunciated some words, perhaps the way his voice just naturally seemed to carry, perhaps something else, but Johnny Angel was a street preacher in the classic sense, except that he wasn’t actually religious.  Or not overtly so, at any rate; there was something else that Johnny Angel was preaching about, and, in general, the day people didn’t get it, because he wasn’t beating them over the head with it.  Johnny wasn’t sure he got it either, but he knew that Johnny Angel was a good person to talk to when you were bothered by something that wasn’t capable of being physically subjugated to Whiskey Sally’s dominion.

“And the People rise up, saying, Why dost thou forasken me?  But you turn your blind ear, you hear not the whimpers of the once-mighty, you pass on by.  That’s right, sir, just as you are passing on by me right this very second.”  An older white man glanced uncomfortably at Johnny Angel, then quickened his pace.  Johnny Angel never paused.  “You cannot taste the despair, you bounce around in your rainbow world while the monochromatic undermasses drone on and on and on.  Or is it you, living in black-and-white 2-D gone-to-the-store home-by-six rescission of your natural demesne in currying favor to your corporate overlords?  Put on your glasses people!  You can spit or you can pine, but you cannot do both at once!  We the People, forming our most perfect union, defend our common welfare, liberate our security, bless our posterity ... do you want it?  You say you do!  But the cock is crowing, my brethren.  Hear the bells.”

Johnny and Larissa stopped and sat down just outside the low fence that surrounded Admiral Farragut’s statue.  Johnny Angel was actually inside the fence, which could get him yelled at if a cop happened along.  He acknowledged them with a tiny nod of his head but didn’t stop holding forth until he had finished making his point (whatever it was).  Looking around at the thinning crowds, he gave himself a satisfied nod and came over to stand on the other side of the metal fence from Johnny and Larissa.  He was leaning on a well-worn black stick.  He called it a cane, but it was a long time since it been anything resembling that, if it ever had been.  “So the children come home, to wait on the doubtful wisdom of a meandering old man.”  His words still rang out as if he were lecturing them, but his dark eyes twinkled.  His teeth were impossibly white—dental hygiene was always a difficult problem among the street people, but never for Johnny Angel.  He smiled and it was almost blinding.


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