Characters in our neighbourhood

There are some people that you see around all the time in your local area. They’re not exactly the kind of people you might be friends with; often you suspect they have some serious problems – mental conditions, substance abuse, homelessness. But in a way they make a neighborhood. When I was young there were a few living in Bangor. One was the ‘washing-up-gloves man’, who I think became ‘vampire-guy’: he wore washing-up gloves and at some point started walking round with his arms raised as if he was about to transform into a bat. There was also ‘the major’, who I imagine had at some point been in the army, but was now pretty confused. They were harmless, familiar characters of the community.

In London I never felt like we saw the same people twice. People probably get moved on pretty quickly from our part of town. But here in DC we have quite a variety of characters. I’m aware some of them probably have real problems, and they highlight the major issues that DC has with homelessness and mental health, but for now I just wanted to give my experience of three people who hang out near us in Adams Morgan.

Deli guy

To be honest, I’m not that fond of this guy. He’s pretty aggressive in his tone as he demands a sandwich or a doughnut from anyone walking into the local deli. But if I don’t see him for a few days I do wonder if he’s ok.

Singing guy

On weekend mornings we’re awakened by the sun through our window binds, the birds – and the rasping tones of this man as he walks down the road. Sometimes he appears again a few hours later when we’re on our balcony, still singing. I can’t make out the language, but it reminds me of the Call to Prayer that I’ve heard coming from minarets in Tunisia and the Balkans. It’s sometimes more of a chanting than a singing, and he’s hoarse from projecting it loudly, so that we hear it through closed windows, faintly as he approaches and then urgently as he passes beneath us. I don’t know why he feels it’s so important to sing this to us all, but he’s been doing it regularly since we moved here.

Building supervisor 

This woman appeared at the building across the road last summer. “Just here for the summer!” – she called to the waiters outside the café opposite. A loud, old-fashioned New York voice, husky from age and cigarettes; she told her life story to whoever would listen. Before long she was a fixture in the neighborhood, gossiping to other building supervisors, breaking off to call her greetings to the waiters as they arrived for their shifts. She was clearly a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. She seemed child-like. I found her annoying at first. She was insistently always there – in the day clamoring for attention from people on the street, at night smoking by the building’s back door, lit by the security light she had set off. In the winter she was still here and I presume her temporary job as the building supervisor must have become permanent. Despite the cold she still had a loudly cheerful greeting for everyone, and still smoked outside in the evening, huddled in the snow.

The other day I realized that she wasn’t alone down there with her cigarettes. In the glow of the security light she was sitting on the wall next to the door, and a young man was sitting opposite. She was quiet now, nodding, smiling, words tumbling out of her, inaudible to me, but obviously being heard and listened to by the man sitting with his back to me. It’s nice to know that she has a friend now.

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