Everyone knows there are no blacks in Washington. Yet there he was in Pennsylvania Avenue no less, on the corner of Ninth opposite the Department of Justice that everyone these days calls the Hoover Building, except the Attorney General, who had his office there and liked to think of himself as Hoover’s boss but was mistaken. As proud as Lucifer he looked in his dove grey roll brim hat, green and purple check jacket, painted tie, crimson vest spread across a paunch festooned with a gold fob, pleated pants the colour of fresh peas, and tan and white two-tones. I see him now, shining with the sparkle of someone who knows he has style even if the ensemble has been put together from ready-to-wear and thrift stores; and he carries the thing with the dignity of a man in Papal robes: with the touched by God assurance of someone who knows he is going to Heaven: not the smooth arrogance of the tele-evangelist but the gravitas of a man who has contemplated crucifixion and decided he can bear it even if it’s the last thing he seeks.
I admired him. Or, at least, I admired the man who presented himself to my imagination. The reality was some other place beyond my vision, with the people who exist behind the surface of Renaissance portraits that show us the divine spark within the humble tailor painted by Moroni or the whores who stand in for the Virgin because they are available and cheap. The real person – if we assume such a creature exists – was, I would guess, the same moral mediocrity as the rest of us, but today, for some reason I would never know, the old black man had decided to show himself on the corner of Ninth and Pennsylvania and invite Pilate and the High Priest to take him if they chose.
‘Would ya look at that!’ said a voice. A regular blue cop, standing with his partner, doing nothing in particular except keep an eye out for Mexicans without even knowing he was doing it because it was part of his reflexes.
‘Don’t get excited,’ Jeb Lyman said calmly to the cop. ‘Look at the badge,’ and, when the cop did, said, ‘What did you think? That he could walk on water?’
Like me he’d seen the National Medal of Merit pinned discreetly to the lapel of the old guy’s check jacket. He probably carried the citation folded inside his pocket. So not entirely a mediocrity. Rather a once in a lifetime hero, who in a moment of thoughtlessness had saved a child from a fire or helped his neighbour during a flood. Or – and I didn’t care to think this because I liked him – he was someone who’d sold out his own at the time of the resettlements when his brothers and sisters went South, and so earned himself the right to stay behind for a season. Except that most of those who’d taken that option had been pulled out of the Potomac over the years and these days were even rarer than genuine heroes.
The cop spotted the medal and it annoyed him, so he turned on Jeb and snapped, ‘Who the hell are you to be telling me my business?’ This to a well-made man in a hat and a sharp suit standing on the sidewalk outside the Hoover Building. His friend nudged him, but Jeb flipped his badge anyway and said nothing because silent politeness is the best way of dealing with morons.
‘Why did you want to see me?’ Jeb asked, taking up the conversation from before we were distracted.
‘A story I heard, that’s all.’
‘Who are you?’ the cop asked me, going for broke. ‘You’re not an American.’
‘He’s with me,’ Jeb said.
‘I’m English,’ I said and reached for my journalist’s credentials but Jeb stayed my hand.
The cop had the guts of the truly insane to whom pride is everything even though it leaks into the air with every word he speaks. He was still game to roust me for something and even fight his friend if he tried to stop the action. But he also had the attention span of a gnat and his eye was caught by the sight of a truck of indentured Mexican workers. I guessed they were construction crew repairing the Triumphal Arch that had been built a couple of years before to celebrate the President’s seventy-first birthday and seventh term of office but like everything else in this country was falling apart because of the war shortages. The truck was stuck in traffic and the Mexicans were shouting abuse in Spanish and rattling their chains. The guard bulls were chambering a round in their rifles in case they needed to keep order.
When I looked again, the old man was just a shadow turning a corner at the edge of sight and he no longer figures in this story. Except that apparently he does because his image continues to haunt me, though later when I mentioned him to Jeb he’d forgotten the whole incident; so it seems we saw different things.
Was the old man a sign? We see such markers everywhere though as often as not they are no more than the stray branch of tree standing at a crossroads that points the way to nowhere. Yet, in my heart I believe the old man did serve as a sign because I saw him and I made my choices and I took the path I took.
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