Arm in arm, the couple turns onto 18th Street, a his 'n' hers Gap ad out for an evening on the town. Despite a post-Thanksgiving cold snap, Adams Morgan's main drag bustles with bar-crawlers and nightclubbers. Likewise, the parking-space bums are out in full force, while their sidewalk counterparts shake down pedestrians.
The couple steps cautiously, as if ready for a rabid rat to dart out of the shadows. A block later, the couple's embrace tightens. Up ahead, a man sits on a darkened stoop, newspapers laid down for insulation against the frozen bricks. Bundled in an old coat and scarf, he sips a steaming drink through a straw—another urban outdoorsman who has staked his Saturday-night claim. Even more intimidating, he's talking up a storm to anyone within earshot.
Approaching him, the couple's path—as if guided by radar—veers to the outer edge of the sidewalk. They try to pass without incident, but it's too late.
The man leaps up from his perch and goes to work: “I like the way you hold her!” he blurts. “I like to see that.”
“Thanks,” mumbles the Gap guy as the couple forges ahead.
But the man has more on his mind.
“She looks beautiful—all right!” he continues, catching the woman's smiling, sideways glance. Now he addresses her directly in his mellow, musical voice: “You look very beautiful.”
The couple had expected an ugly encounter—a demand for money, or at least some verbal abuse: Now, disarmed by the flattery, they flash their charmer a bewildered—albeit delighted—double stare: What exactly is it you want?
Not missing a beat, the man senses the couple's confusion: “I'm the Compliment Man,” he explains simply. “And y'all look real nice tonight.”
Well known to Adams Morgan regulars, the Compliment Man still surprises newcomers unaccustomed to being accosted by accolades. The engaging neighborhood fixture plays no favorites; to him, everybody looks “real nice.”
Instinctively hungry for more praise, the couple loiters, but the Compliment Man has already moved on, working the passing crowd like a pro. A Forrest Gump with street smarts, he shifts effortlessly from the general (“lookin' good, as usual!”) to the specific, such as a gushing appraisal of a woman's '70s-style pumps (“I love those shoes”).
He says he's not after cash, just a chance to spread good cheer and bask in its reflected glory.
For years, the Compliment Man has been the unofficial master of ceremonies for the parade of vanities that nightly floods Adams Morgan. He proclaims that all is right with the world, no matter what: When your friends have ditched you at some dance club, when your date has suddenly disappeared, when you're blind drunk, stumbling off into the night, the Compliment Man is there for you.
He will praise you—even if you don't deserve it.
Night after night, until 3 a.m. or later, no matter the weather, he rules from his post in front of the Belmont Kitchen on 18th Street. Restaurant employees keep him supplied with coffee or hot tea; in exchange, he watches over the property. He says he's seen everything “from A to Z”: drunkenness, violence, and human stupidity of all sorts. Two years ago, he even helped police identify the man accused of killing a local woman as she left an Adams Morgan bar. Recently, he squelched a burglary at a nearby store.
But his late-night survey of human nature hasn't darkened his perpetually rosy attitude, for which he receives no paycheck. He claims not to accept money from his legions of complimentees, who instead bring him necessities: that's how he got his gloves, his baseball cap, and even the coat on his back.
“People are so nice to me because I'm nice to them,” says the Compliment Man in one of his characteristic Gumpisms.
Things weren't always so friendly out on the streets.
Three years ago, Ron (he won't give his last name) was just another panhandler, down on his luck after losing his cooking job at a local Chuck E. Cheese's Funtime Pizza Theater. He couldn't find work, so he spent his time bumming spare change on 18th Street.
It was a dismal time for the 44-year-old; his shy, easygoing personality, he says, prevented him from haranguing passers-by, an approach often necessary to get a response from a populace hardened against pleas for handouts.
One night, a group passed by like so many others, ignoring his silent, forlorn appeal for money. On a whim, he got bold: “It was two females and a male, and I spoke to the ladies—I said, "Y'all look nice tonight, ladies,' just like that, and they asked which one looked the best. I said, "Both y'all look nice,' and they smiled and walked away.”
His effusive comments didn't garner him a penny, but he didn't care: He had found his calling as the Compliment Man.
The importance of what he calls his “first compliment” has as much to do with the emotions it inspired in him as the effect it had on the women. Instead of angry looks or disdainful rebuffs, he now received warm thanks, a welcome change from enduring glares all night. Other street peddlers had their wine or cheap pints: He was hooked on making strangers feel good.
In wanton, reckless flattery, he'd discovered his gold mine: “It was spontaneous, and it excited me,” he says. “I realized how much people like to be complimented....I just went from there and it grew.”
He works his beat five nights a week, with Sundays and Mondays off. His endurance is remarkable; whenever he's feeling low, he says, someone will compliment him and raise his spirits.
No silver-tongued flatterer, the Compliment Man keeps his praise simple and to the point. Most of it boils down to three categories: shoes, hats, and haircuts.
On this recent Saturday night, he showers praise on a closetful of shoes—Converses, moccasins, high heels, boots, whatever—worn by passing women. His obsessive focus on women's shoes (and hats) partly stems from his wife's extensive collections. “She must have 100 pairs of shoes,” he says. “I know what's important to women.”
But mostly he selects them as safe targets of praise: He avoids mention of physical appearances so that his audience won't mistake his compliments for pickup lines. Indeed, most of the women seem to genuinely appreciate his comments: Compared to the daily barrage of sexist catcalls and the like, it's probably pleasant to hear someone compliment a pillbox hat. (As for haircuts, the Compliment Man claims he can spot a natural out of a flock of perms—and he lets the woman know that he knows.)
His comments regarding men are almost nil, confined to groups (“you're doing great!”). He doesn't want anyone to get the wrong ideas: “I complimented a female once and the guy said, "What about me?' so I complimented him. Guess what happened? The guy took his girlfriend home and came back to take me out.”
The continual flow of humanity—its endless variety—pleases him, even as his compliments remain generic. “I love interracial couples,” he says in an aside, watching one stroll past. “I'm seeing more and more—I really love it.”
By midnight, the Compliment Man is nursing his fourth cup of coffee, courtesy of the Belmont Kitchen. Warm and wired by the caffeine, he unleashes a barrage of standards as the Saturday night reaches a pitch: “I love those boots!” “Nice cap, now!” “I like those sneakers, all right!” Even the humblest ski cap inspires an honorable mention.
The temperature has dipped below freezing, but the Compliment Man seems more concerned with others' comfort, even though he's been standing outside for four hours straight. A couple rushes by, the man making his hands into earmuffs for his shivering girlfriend: “I like the way you handle her,” shouts the Compliment Man. “And I like her hat, but she should be wearing a coat out here in the cold!”
An inebriated frat boy slurs his greetings to the Compliment Man, whom he apparently knows quite well. They chat for a while, with a spare compliment (“lookin' good”) thrown in for good measure. “He needs to go home,” sighs the Compliment Man, watching the kid weave up 18th. “He has a tendency to overindulge, and that really concerns me.”
He realizes that many people simply don't enjoy being complimented, especially by a man on a busy city street: “I can tell which people don't want to be bothered and I leave them alone,” he says. “People that come from Africa—like Ethiopian people—are very sensitive. I guess it's cultural, they don't believe in that so I stay away.” The British and particularly the French, on the other hand, seem to especially relish his compliments, some even requesting the “royal treatment,” in which he bends down on his knee and kisses a woman's hand.
From across the street comes a shout: “Hey, Compliment Man!” followed by a woman running to greet him with a hug; she's been at school in Chicago this fall, and now she's back in D.C. for the holiday break. She had to stop by to say hello. “I really like that new haircut,” he tells her.
Around 2 a.m., many revelers head home as the bars begin to close. The Compliment Man changes his routine for the rowdy mass migration; he begins to behave more like a mother hen: “What I'm doing now is getting out of the compliment phase,” he explains. “Now I'm just telling people to have a good night and be careful. I'm into a different mode now.” Indeed, he hails cabs and gives directions; sometimes, he has escorted women home.
Across 18th, a fight breaks out in the crowd spilling from the Hell nightclub: Two drunken college kids roll on the sidewalk pummeling each other. Spectators gather to watch the skirmish, but the Compliment Man leaps into action, sprinting two full blocks to a parked police cruiser.
By the time the cavalry arrives, the street wrestlers have been pulled apart and taken to their respective flannel folds.
The Compliment Man reminds the dispersing crowd that the nearby McDonald's is open for another half-hour. “Y'all get some coffee and get home safely!” he announces. His work is done for the night.