Chapter Eight

Mordecai led me up a dark stairway to the foyer. "Watch your step," he said, almost in a whisper, as we pushed through a set of swinging doors into the sanctuary. It was dim, because people were trying to sleep everywhere. They were sprawled on the pews, snoring. They were squirming under the pews, mothers trying to make children be still. They were huddled in the aisles, leaving a narrow path for us as we worked our way toward the pulpit. The choir loft was filled with them too.

"Not many churches will do this," he whispered as we stood near the altar table and surveyed the rows of pews.

I could understand their reluctance. "What happens Sunday?" I whispered back.

"Depends on the weather. The Reverend is one of us. He has, on occasion, canceled worship instead of running them out."

I was not sure what "one of us" meant, but I didn't feel like a member of the club. I heard the ceiling creak, and realized that there was a U-shaped balcony above us. I squinted and slowly focused on another mass of humanity layered in the rows of seats up there. Mordecai was looking too.

"How many people . . ." I mumbled, unable to finish the thought.

"We don't count. We just feed and shelter."

A gust of wind hit the side of the building and rattled the windows. It was considerably colder in the sanctuary than in the basement. We tiptoed over bodies and left through a door by the organ.

It was almost eleven. The basement was still crowded, but the soup line was gone. "Follow me," Mordecai said.

He took a plastic bowl and held it forth for a volunteer to fill. "Let's see how well you cook," he said with a smile.

We sat in the middle of the pack, at a folding table with street people at our elbows. He was able to eat and chat as if everything was fine; I wasn't. I played with my soup, which, thanks to Miss Dolly, was really quite good, but I couldn't get beyond the fact that I, Michael Brock, an affluent white boy from Memphis and Yale and Drake & Sweeney, was sitting among the homeless in the basement of a church in the middle of Northwest D.C. I had seen one other white face, that of a middleaged wino who had eaten and disappeared.

I was sure my Lexus was gone, certain I could not survive five minutes outside the building. I vowed to stick to Mordecai, whenever and however he decided to leave.

"This is good soup," he pronounced. "It varies," he explained. "Depends on what's available. And the recipe is different from place to place."

"I got noodles the other day at Martha's Table," said the man sitting to my right, a man whose elbow was closer to my bowl than my own.

"Noodles?" Mordecai asked, in mock disbelief. "In your soup?"

"Yep. 'Bout once a month you get noodles. Course everybody knows it now, so it's hard to get a table."

I couldn't tell if he was joking or not, but there was a twinkle in his eye. The idea of a homeless man lamenting the lack of tables in his favorite soup kitchen struck me as humorous. Hard to get a table; how many times had ! heard that from friends in Georgetown?

Mordecai smiled. "What's your name?" he asked the man. I would learn that Mordecai always wanted a name to go with a face. The homeless he loved were more than victims; they were his people.

It was a natural curiosity for me too. I wanted to know how the homeless became homeless. What broke in our vast system of public assistance to allow Americans to become so poor they lived under bridges?

"Drano," he said, chomping on one of my larger celery chunks.

"Drano?" Mordecai said.

"Drano," the man repeated.

"What's your last name?"

"Don't have one. Too poor."

"Who gave you the name Drano?"

"My momma."

"How old were you when she gave you the name Drano?"

"'Bout five."

"Why Drano?"

"She had this baby who wouldn't shut up, cried all the time, nobody could sleep. I fed it some Drano." He told the story while stirring his soup. It was well rehearsed, well delivered, and I didn't believe a word of it. But others were listening, and Drano was enjoying himself.

"What happened to the baby?" Mordecai asked, playing the straight guy. "Died."

"That would be your brother," Mordecai said.

"Nope. Sister."

"I see. So you killed your sister."

"Yeah, but we got plenty of sleep after that."

Mordecai winked at me, as if he'd heard similar tales.

"Where do you live, Drano?" I asked.

"Here, in D.C."

"Where do you stay?" Mordecai asked, correcting my vernacular.

"Stay here and there. I got a lot of rich women who pay me to keep them company."

"Two men on the other side of Drano found this amusing. One snickered, the other laughed.

"Where do you get your mail?" Mordecai asked.

"Post office," he replied. Drano would have a quick answer for every question, so we left him alone.

Miss Doily made coffee for the volunteers after she had turned off her stove. The homeless were bedding down for the night.

Mordecai and I sat on the edge of a table in the darkened kitchen, sipping coffee and looking through the large serving window at the huddled masses. "How late will you stay?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Depends. You get a coupla hundred people like this in one room, something usually happens. The Reverend would feel better if I stay."

"All night?"

"I've done it many times."

I hadn't planned on sleeping with these people. Nor had I planned on leaving the building without Mordecai to guard me.

"Feel free to leave whenever you want," he said. Leaving was the worst of my limited options. Midnight, Friday night, on the streets of D.C. White boy, beautiful car. Snow or not, I didn't like my odds out there.

"You have a family?" I asked.

"Yes. My wife is a secretary in the Department of Labor. Three sons. One's in college, one's in the Army." His voice trailed away before he got to son number three. I wasn't about to ask.

"And one we lost on the streets ten years ago. Gangs."

"I'm sorry."

"What about you?"

"Married, no kids."

I thought about Claire for the first time in several hours. How would she react if she knew where I was? Neither of us had found time for anything remotely related to charity work.

She would mumble to herself, "He's really cracking up," or something to that effect. I didn't care.

"What does your wife do?" he asked, making light conversation.

"She's a surgical resident at Georgetown."

"You guys'll have it made, won't you? You'll be a partner in a big firm, she'll be a surgeon. Another American dream."

"I guess."

The Reverend appeared from nowhere and pulled Mordecai deep into the kitchen for a hushed conversation. I took four cookies from a bowl and walked to the corner where the young mother sat sleeping with her head propped on a pillow and the baby tucked under her arm. The toddlers were motionless under the blankets. But the oldest child was awake.

I squatted close to him, and held out a cookie. His eyes glowed and he grabbed it. I watched him eat every bite, then he wanted another. He was small and bony, no more than four years old.

The mother's head fell forward, jolting her. She looked at me with sad, tired eyes, then realized I was playing cookie man. She offered a faint smile, then rearranged the pillow.

"What's your name?" I whispered to the little boy. After two cookies, he was my friend for life.

"Ontario," he said, slowly and plainly.

"How old are you?"

He held up four fingers, then folded one down, then raised it again.

"Four?" I asked.

He nodded, and extended his hand for another cookie, which I gladly gave him. I would have given him anything.

"Where do you stay?" I whispered.

"In a car," he whispered back.

It took a second for this to sink in. I wasn't sure what to ask next. He was too busy eating to worry about conversation. I had asked three questions; he'd given three honest answers. They lived in a car.

I wanted to run and ask Mordecai what you do when you find people who live in a car, but I kept smiling at Ontario. He smiled back. He finally said, "You got more apple juice?"

"Sure," I said, and walked to the kitchen, where I filled two cups.

He gulped one down, and I handed him the second cup.

"Say thanks," I said.

"Thanks," he said, and stuck out his hand for another cookie.

I found a folding chair and took a position next to Ontario, with my back to the wall. The basement was quiet at times, but never still. Those who live without beds do not sleep calmly. Occasionally, Mordecai would pick his way around the bodies to settle some flare-up. He was so large and intimidating that no one dared challenge his authority.

With his stomach filled again, Ontario dozed off, his litfie head resting on his mother's feet. I slipped into the kitchen, poured another cup of coffee, and went back to my chair in the corner.

Then the baby erupted. Its pitiful voice wailed forth with amazing volume, and the entire room seemed to tipple with the noise. The mother was dazed, tired, frustrated at having been aroused from sleep. She told it to shut up, then placed it on her shoulder, and rocked back and forth. It cried louder, and there were rumblings from the other campers.

With a complete lack of sense or thought, I reached over and took the child, smiling at the mother as I did so in an attempt to win her confidence. She didn't care. She was relieved to get rid of it.

The child weighed nothing, and the damned thing was soaking wet. I realized this as I gently placed its head on my shoulder and began patting its rear. I moved to the kitchen, desperately searching for Mordecai or another volunteer to rescue me. Miss Dolly had left an hour earlier.

To my relief and surprise, the child grew quiet as I walked around the stove, patting and cooing and looking for a towel or something. My hand was soaked.

Where was I? What the hell was I doing? What would my friends think if they could see me in the dark kitchen, humming to a little street baby, praying that the diaper was only wet?

I didn't smell anything foul, though I was certain I could feel lice jumping from its head to mine. My best friend Mordecai appeared and turned on a switch. "How cute," he said.

"Do we have any diapers?" I hissed at him.

"Big job or little job?" he asked happily, walking toward the cabinets.

"I don't know. Just hurry."

He pulled out a pack of Pampers, and I thrust the child at him. My denim jacket had a large wet spot on the left shoulder. With incredible deftness he placed the baby on the cutting board, removed the wet diaper, revealing a baby girl, cleaned her with a wipe of some sort, rediapered her with a fresh Pamper, then thrust her back at me. "There she is," he said proudly. "Good as new."

"The things they don't teach you in law school," I said, taking the child.

I paced the floor with her for an hour, until she fell asleep. I wrapped her in my jacket, and gently placed her between her mother and Ontario.

It was almost 3 A.M., Saturday, and I had to go. My freshly pricked conscience could take only so much in one day. Mordecai walked me to the street, thanked me for coming, and sent me away madess into the night. My car was sitting where I left it, covered with new snow. He was standing in front of the church, watching me as I drove away.