"Don't be a fool," the old man says. "Anybody can be a fool."
We're sitting on a bench inside the entrance of D.C. Village, the city-run nursing home stranded on Washington's southernmost tip. Like nearly everything here, the morning goes by extremely, even painfully, slowly. For sheer inertia, the place's wheelchair pace is rivaled only by the sluggish gait of its employees, who amble ankle-deep in their own ennui. Outside, the sole movement on the frozen, gray horizon comes from the occasional planes floating into National Airport across the nearby Potomaceven their landing arcs seem lazy.
Once in a while, the automatic glass doors slide open to let in a teeth-chattering gust of river wind, which, despite the weather, carries the signature of the neighboring sewage treatment plant. The old man is bundled in a heavy coat, but he isn't going anywhere, and he isn't expecting anyone. Thomas Bowles rarely leaves D.C. Village, and he hasn't had any visitors for years.
We pay no mind to the sporadic arrivals and departures of employees; Bowles has no use for time clocks or even calendarshe's on Village Time, a zone where seconds drift into years without anyone much noticing. Some residents woke up here not long ago, others have been here since the Eisenhower era.
A porch-sitter whose home happens to be a public building, Bowles stations himself at the entrance out of habit. He's a moody troll who offers and demands nothing from passers-by, craving only his regular spot on the bench. On the wall above his graying head, a dedication plaque boasts a pronouncement by John F. Kennedy: "A society's quality and durability can best be measured by the respect and care given its elder citizens." JFK's quoted eloquence stings cruel and hard in an institution where a stick of butter is a smuggled luxury and where toilet paper is treated as sacred scroll.
Bowles displays the well-honed survival instincts of a veteran D.C. Villager: In the pockets of his dingy coat, he keeps an arsenal of plastic forks, spoons, knives, plus a prized straw, in case the kitchen runs out. From his neck dangles a rosary-bead necklace with a crucifix and a chain holding a lone key, which he uses to protect his few valuables. His faded work pantsseveral sizes too long for his stubby legsare rolled into bulging cuffs, hiked over worn-down penny loafers petite as a ballerina's slippers.
Bowles' pudgy face is a template for a myriad of grimaces, giving him the look of a Skid Row leprechaun down on his luck, but he's prosperous today. He hit a jackpot when he received his $70 monthly allowance earlier this morning. "Don't be a fool," he says again, clutching a paper towel folded carefully around the wad of bills. "You do not advertise what you got. I've got my hand on it and I've got my eye on it."
He has good reason to guard his loot: For the next month, it's the only money he'll have. Bowles uses the precious assets to buy sodas, snacks, and other cherished sundries from the vending machinesglowing treasure chests in this hermetic worldwhich can be plundered only with dollar bills and coins: "I always ask for 20 ones and some rolls of quarters," he explains. "Who wants $70 in your pocket when you can't get what you want? It's your money. Don't be a fool with it."
Harping on the forgotten glories of small change, he talks in bursts, as if he hasn't been listened to in decades. After just a few minutes, it's easy to understand why he has trouble finding an audience for his stream-of-consciousness-turned-deluge, and why he spends most of his time walking the halls in a red-faced, rambling tantrum muttering his hatred of hard-boiled eggs and other abominations. On such occasions, he waved off my approaches with snarls; now, contented at his perch, he's ready to unwind.
"I'm a Washingtonian," he declares proudly. "There's not many of 'em in here, but I'm one of 'em." Except for his career as a maintenance worker at the Library of Congress, and his birth dateSept. 10, 1931, at the old Sibley Hospitalthere are few points about his life that he seems certain of. It's all a jumble of early, short-lived victoriesmostly in fightsand later defeats in life's larger, costlier struggles.
Bowles fought some good fights as a champion junior boxer at No. 5 Boys Club, as well as on the rowdy streets of Southeast, where he was raised. He says he was married, but deserted his wife and bounced around the city, in and out of rooming houses and shelters for years. He's got a bum leg, mauled years ago by a hit-and-run driver: "I never caught that turkey, but if I had of I'd a taken care of him myself." His gnarled toes still bother him: "If you step on 'em, I'll fight," he warns me, "I'll poke you."
The incident that Bowles says brought him to D.C. Village wasn't a brawl but an ambush that continues to haunt him: "The bees got me," he says, wincing. He remembers cutting grass at a boarding house in Southeast where he resided several years ago; he accidentally steered an old push mower over a hornets' nest: "I disturbed their privacy," he snickers. "They got up my pants and tore me up. I swolled up like a balloonyou ever seen that happen to anybody? I didn't know I was allergic to bees. Bees can get youbees can kill you."
A neighbor found him lying unconscious in the grass. After a long spell at D.C. General Hospital, Bowles ended up at D.C. Village, which he considers as good a home as he's had all his drifting life: "It's a blessing. I'm working on five years here, and I get good treatment. All you have to do is behave yourself and mind your own business."
It dawns on me as we slowly make our way down a long, silent corridor that Bowles is one of the lucky ones at the Village. He may be alone, crabby, and not a little loopy, but he can incrementally change his landscape by wandering here and there in the sprawling complex. Mobility is a defense in a place like D.C. Village, a way to forage for scarce resources and stay ahead of the inexorable advance of decay.
Wheelchairs pointed in all directions litter the hallway; nonchalant employees stroll by, oblivious to the human wreckage. (Then again, if they really stopped and looked around, they probably wouldn't be back the next day. Between the creepy half-light that leaks in at odd angles and the silence, broken only by the occasional moan, the place can get to you in a hurry.) The hall looks like the nightmarish end of some wheelchair demolition derby, but it's actually the height of the residents' rush hour: Gripping the hand rails and scooting with their feet, ancient men and women inch their contraptions along; some slump for minutes on end before gathering the strength to move themselves a few more feet. Windows stretch down long sections of the corridors, but these ancient travelers can't admire the world beyond, because the journey itself seems to demand every ounce of their concentration.
The spectacle is not as horrific as it at first seemsfor most, it's the closest they get to a daily stroll. After all, these residents are well enough to get out of bed and make the journey around the sprawling facility. For every one out here, there are a dozen who barely make it out of their rooms, spending day after day examining the same pattern of cracks in the ceiling above their beds.
As we pass an apparently empty wheelchair from behind, a wrinkled head pokes, turtlelike, from a lump of clothes and begs for a dime. The crone's face is etched by a permanent scowl, as if she's heard the answer "no" an infinite number of times: "Don't mind her," says Bowles. "She's not right in the head."
Despite his awkward shuffle, Bowles seems well aware of how fortunate he is to roam the place. We stop at a canteen, where he buys a root beer from a soda machine. Nearby, a withered woman labors from the depths of her wheelchair to procure a 45-cent snack. Bony hands trembling, she repeatedly shoves a crumpled bill into the slot, and each time the snack machine spits it back. She ignores the rejection buzzer's repeated taunt, and tries again, again, again. The patience that she brings to her struggle is frightening: She could have been here hours. Finally, Bowles trades her a crisp dollar for her crumpled one, and she wins the battle, as a bag of potato chips thumps into the receptacle. She smiles her thanks and grabs the bag before it has a chance to escape. "That's Anna Devine," says Bowles, as the woman wheels away, embracing her prize. "Potato chips and Pepsi's all she likes."
Entering Unit 2A from the dank, chilly corridor is like stepping into an incubator: The unit's stuffy, tropical temperature is required by federal regulations. The cloistered cottage features two dozen rooms, a nurse's station, a dining and a TV room, and a smoking lounge. Outside Bowles' room, a handwritten card lists the occupants' names, including "Bowels, Thomas," a spelling error he's shrugged off for years: "They ain't got it right, but they know who I am." At the threshold, he pauses to whisper: "I'm in a room with two blind men and another man's who's got one leg."
Four beds crowd the silent, darkened room. An emaciated old man lies as still and shriveled as a mummy wrapped in linen. Staring blankly at the ceiling, he seems to be resting a tad too peacefully, but Bowles assures me he's just taking his afternoon nap. "He can't see a lick," whispers Bowles, which may be just as well considering the cell-like surroundings. The roommates' areas are bare except for bulletin boards with lone messages ("BLIND") announcing their condition. Bowles' own sanctuary manages to be the coziest of the lot, which isn't saying much. A stark still life sits atop his wooden dresser: a Styrofoam water jug and a basket of artificial flowers, a souvenir from a fellow resident's funeral; Bowles can't recall how recent it was. He has no personal photos or family mementos; one day long ago, he simply threw the past away. In a locked top drawer are his valuablesundergarments, money, and a tube of Fixodent for his denturesamong other unnamed items. "That's where I keep my privacy," he whispers.
We pass through the day room, where a throng of wheelchair-bound residents listlessly watches a Chuck Norris movie on TV. "IT'S 4 A.M., JAKE! YOU KNOW YOU NEED A WARRANT TO GO IN THERE!" blasts the dialogue, cranked extra-loud for the hard-of-hearing spectators. The frenzied shoot-'em-up doesn't seem like a good fit for people who were mostly born before 1915, but there's not much else to do in the day room except return the hungry stares of feral cats prowling outside the sliding glass doors. And so Chuck keeps raising hell, and the audiencethe part that hasn't nodded offsits silently as the outside world blows up once again.
In the smoking lounge, Bowles points to a loner huddled in a corner; he's sitting and puffing away, looking askance at a bare wall: "That's my other roommate; I get him cigarettes sometimeshe can't see a lick, either, can't see the sky or nothin'." Suddenly, Bowles begins to sob. He gestures to a woman on a stretcher nearby, her swollen feet bound in cloth: "She can't walk," he gasps. "You know what she do? She got a pen and she works them crossword puzzles all day." His emotions overcome him, and he can barely get out the words between his wheezed weeping: "These people aren't as bad like some people say they are," he chokes. "'They shouldn't close this place."
He shuffles back into the TV room, leaving me in the hall.
A nurse who's been watching us approaches and asks if I'm Bowles' son. I tell her no, that I'm just here to talk to some residents. "You think he's competent enough to give accurate information?" she demands incredulously. "This man has delusions."
Bowles may be delusional, but he is absolutely correct about one thing: D.C. Village is slated to close by the end of March. Citing epic health violations, nonexistent supplies, and fleeing staff, District officials have targeted the 90-year-old nursing home for a mercy killing.
For many, it's not a moment too soon. Nursing homes generally aren't cheery places, but D.C. Village is a step beyond, a place of refuge for the dying that is itself succumbing to entropic ravages. Like its residents, it has become so old and crippled that people mostly just wish it would go away.
Its demise has not been a pretty sight: Last summer, a dozen residents were hospitalized for bedsores. A nurse consultant described the "deep, red, and raw" pressure wound on the hip of one infected resident as looking and smelling like rotten hamburger: "It's one of the worst I have seen in my professional career," the nurse reported. "It was sickening and hard to view such sores on the body of another human being."
Another resident told health officials how a shortage of urine bags had forced him to re-use the same dirty bag three days in a row.
A U.S. District Court judge recently ruled that officials had shown "a callous disregard" for D.C. Village residents and a "flagrant disobedience of court orders" to improve conditions while shutting the place down. Several longtime residents out-placed in other nursing homes died suddenly and unexpectedly shortly after their transfers.
With just 230 patients in a facility that once held nearly 800, D.C. Village is a shell of its former incarnation as a premier public elder-care operation. There have been no new patients admitted since 1993, the infirmary is mostly empty, and several units have been closed off and boarded up. D.C. Village labors under the same chronic shortages that afflict the rest of the city government, but the consequences have been more brutal in a facility that was on the edge to begin with.
D.C. Village began dying long before nursing-home advocates and politicians declared it a public health hazard. A decade ago, an 86-year-old resident froze to death: Somehow, she'd left the building and spent a winter night outdoors on the ground next to her tipped-over wheelchair. Shortly thereafter, another resident died of burns from scalding water in a bathtub. It comes and goes in the news, each new dispatch containing some new twist of human degradation. Judges are up in arms, advocates are outraged, and city officials are tired of the headlines and up-to-here with D.C. Village.
The only people who want D.C. Village to stay open are the people who live there.
That wish is not as odd as it sounds. Expectations among residents have shrunk to where routine is all they have to cling to; a move to another facility represents a threat to their peaceful endgame. Many have resided here for most of their lives, and it's the only home they know. Yes, they admit, conditions are often wretched; sure, the food's usually barely fit for a dog, but at least the roof doesn't leak anymore, and restraints have been taken off most of the beds. Things are getting better.
Led by Curmet Forte, one of their own, the residents have banded together to try to save D.C. Village, even as the contempt orders pile up and the clamor for closure grows. The real reasons for the closure, they claim, are the 400 jobs and $30-million operating costs that can be slashed from the city budget.
Forte and his followers have held several well-publicized "lay-ins" outside their buildings, heart-rending tableaux of the elderly and infirm feebly challenging the fates. They are not without leverage, however. The residents' ultimate strategy is to simply refuse any attempts to move them. They've vowed to make a final stand at the beloved, if cursed, place they call home. "We've got 80- and 90-year-old people crying like babies because they don't want to leave," says Forte. "Dr. Kevorkian assists in the suicides of people who want to die. Closing D.C. Village will assist in the deaths of people who have not asked to die."
Approaching D.C. Village on a bleak winter day, you might think the place was abandoned. The architecture recalls a dilapidated late-'60s elementary school robbed of youngsters and hope, left with only a tired pile of brick and glass at the end of the line. Next-door stretch acres of rusting cars and trucks, the city's impoundment lot for towed vehiclesand often their final resting place. Packs of alley cats roam the Village's deserted grounds, former swampland on the farthest tip of Southwest D.C. The stenchan unrelenting odor that makes a paper mill seem fragrantfrom the nearby Blue Plains sewage plant hangs over the area, along with scavenger river birds. "You oughta smell it around here in the summertime," says Forte.
It's a pitiful fate for a place conceived as a haven of fresh air and sunshine. When D.C. Village opened in 1906 as the Home for the Aged and the Infirm at Blue Plains, it was more progressive commune than dreary old-folks' home: Residents mostly provided for themselves, farming their own food and milking cows on the then-rural site. Photos of the halcyon early days hang on a wall at the front entrance, sepia-toned portraits of elderly people working the land and feasting together at long tables of plenty.
During the Depression, the shine wore off and the place fell on hard times, eventually devolving into a symbol of society's neglect of the elderly. A horrified Eleanor Roosevelt sounded the alarm after a visit in the '40s: "It is sad and horrible if we are going to let Blue Plains be our standard for the nation on the attitude to old age," she declared.
By the '60s, with the blessing of the Great Society, the place was reborn as D.C. Village. In addition to the five-story infirmary, the renovated facility grew to include a modern building that boasted a sprawling, horseshoe-shaped complex of well-equipped cottage units; there was also a spacious auditorium, and a lovely chapel with pews and an elaborate stained-glass window and bell tower. It was a shining model of total-care treatment for the elderly, attracting foreign officials who flocked to see the wonder of D.C. Village.
Over the years, though, the place fell back into disrepair. The Village became a last-chance refuge for indigent, invalid patients other nursing homes couldn't handle: the real hard cases. In 1980, D.C. Village began accepting residents under 60 years old, making it a long-term-care facility for a variety of patients of all ages. Since then, financial and administrative problems have quickened its steady decline, capped in the early '90s by a mass retirement of many of the Village's most loyal, adored staffers, from the kitchen to the unit wards. The food and the care, say residents, simply haven't been the same since.
If the government and most everyone else have abandoned the residents of D.C. Village, Godin the form of the Rev. Wesley Toepperhas not. The Village chaplain understands and supports the residents' effort to cling to the devil they know: "We've had a few serious problems, but this place has provided a haven for countless people who probably would not have lived as long or as happily anywhere else," he says. "Overall, this has been a healthy, wholesome place and could still be if there was a will to do it."
A soft-spoken man displaying manners as proper as his trim beard, Toepper, 60, may seem the perfect pastor for some sleepy suburban congregation, but he doesn't shy from squalor: The thick lenses of his wire-rimmed spectacles magnify his gentle eyes, lending him the stunned visage of a man who's seen terrible things. He works out of a tiny, mildewed, and windowless office, a cinder-block sideroom off the entrance to the spacious chapel. Like the residents, he makes do with the often haphazard conditions: In the winter, he relies on a portable space heater; in the warm seasons, the office floor tiles get soggy, as the swamp reclaims its territory. He keeps the hole monkishly spare: a desk, a couch, and a bookcase.
Here he writes sermons on a laptop computer that few will hear and even fewer comprehend; it is here where he meets residents beset by all sorts of problems and complaints, whether with their meals or their maker. "I'm a poor man's psychiatrist," he says. "Religion has very little to do with this work or the spirit of a place like this."
Toepper has served as D.C. Village's chaplain for 30 years; he arrived as a just-graduated seminary student, untrained to minister to the elderly, but he soon embraced his mission. "Everything was brand spanking new, a showcase for the nation and the world," he says. "Back then it was a just a nursing home, a place where indigent people came to live out their days sponsored by the city. But that changed and the medical needs of the residents changed, and it became much more of professional, long-term nursing facility, and the 'home' part of it disappeared."
As standing minister, Toepper serves as D.C. Village's embattled conscience. If he has been forced to rather helplessly witness the decline, he has remained faithful in his duty to comfort the afflicted. He has never spoken to the media, and declines to discuss the cases he's seen, adding that he doesn't even tell his family what goes on at D.C. Village. He believes many of the problemslack of humane care, shortages of supplies, and general neglect of patientsare endemic to nursing-home culture. And he realizes that caring for the elderly doesn't always bring out the best in people. "Certainly, there's an element of sadism in this work," he admits. "You attract certain people drawn to this kind of power they have over the patients, but they don't last long, because they can't keep up the façade."
But D.C. Village isn't your typical poorly managed, ailing nursing home. It's run by a District government that can't get through a snowstorm, let alone find a way to dignify the last days of the District's most disenfranchised residents. The District owes more than $1 million to vendors who supply basic services to D.C. Village: There have been shortages of food and vegetables, medications, ointments, catheters, and even basic items such as soap.
As a result, death has stalked the place. Until recently, D.C. Village's mortality rate was astonishing, even for a nursing home. Justice Department officials charge that as many as 37 residents have died unnecessary and avoidable deaths since 1992. The negligent care ranged from not turning bedridden patients often enough, creating life-threatening bedsores, to improper feeding that caused prone residents to suffocate on their food.
The presence of a court-appointed monitor has spurred some improvements, such as P.A. announcements to remind nurses when to turn residents, but the monitor's December report showed continued abuses, including dangerous shortages of medical supplies and general negligence. (One unit had no salinecritical for cleaning bedsoresfor a week.) Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan found the D.C. government in contempt of court for its role in operating the little shop of horrors.
"The notion of the District of Columbia running a nursing home makes no sense," says Bill Isaacson, a legal counsel for the D.C. long-term care ombudsman program, which successfully petitioned for the Village's closing. "I'll be glad to see it close. They've periodically had crises there that just don't go away." He ticks off a list of liabilities working against the facility. "It's way too large [for its present resident population], it's District-run, and the residents are the least desirable from the standpoint of what nursing homes can care for."
Isaacson concedes that the trauma of transfer may be painful for longtime residents, but he insists it's ultimately in their best interest: "These are people who have no advocates, people whose families aren't pushing for them, people who've just sort of dropped through the system."
Rev. Toepper plans to stay until the bitter end, until the last resident no longer needs his ministering. And he tenders no regrets about his tenure at D.C. Village, an association he remains proud of despite the sordid accounts that have appeared in the press over the years. "[The media] likes to say we have a history of murder and abuse, and that's simply not true," says Toepper. He mentions longtime resident Beatrice Temple, a 90-year-old woman who has lived here happily and quite comfortably for nearly half a century. Temple isn't so alert these days, but she's lucid enough to declare her wish to die here. (The funeral services held here are well-attended events; the ashes of many deceased residents are scattered in a flower bed behind the chapel.)
"Depressing, yes, it can be," admits Toepper, who has officiated at these funerals. "But then you see James Thompson going byhe's emaciated from cancer, it looks like every effort and movement is just murder for him, but he does it: He goes to the canteen and gets his soda and sandwich, and people see him and chat with himthey can't really do anything for him, of course. But he has to push his own chair and he has to do all these things because he knows he's alive when he does that. He's not lying in bed waiting to die. He looks awful, but he's an inspiration to anyone who sees him, and that is the kind of picture of life and death that people have had here."
As I leave Toepper's office, he attends to a woman hunched in a wheelchair; she's been waiting quietly outside the door during the interview. She wheels in muttering words that only she and the chaplain can understand. The chapel is quiet, but a burst of midmorning sunlight shines through the stained-glass window, casting a radiant blue aura that fills the room.
The stillness is broken by a ruckus near the front entrance. I join a crowd that's gathered to see what all the excitement's about. At the information desk, two young women from the housekeeping staff are ready for a fistfight. "You goddamn bitch!" screams one, lunging for the other's throat. "I told you to stay away, drunk bitch!" shrieks the reply. The two tussle, and there's some nasty hair-pulling before employees pull them apart and escort them down opposite sides of the hall. But the shouting continues, the crowd's whoops egging them onand still no administrators or security guards in sight. It seems like a high-school fight with no principals around to restore order. I ask a resident watching from a bench what they're fighting about. "They've been at each other for weeks now, always mixing it up," explains the old woman. "They just don't like each other."
Like nearly everyone else gathered, she has a grin on her face, and seems almost disappointed the action is over. Maybe next time.
Blowing into a plastic tube, Lamont Royster maneuvers his motorized wheelchair down the halls of D.C. Village, which stretch for more than a mile; past the canteen, echoing with the hee-haws of employees on break; past the empty auditorium; past the faded wall murals painted years ago by local art students. He turns into the library, a large but cozy room crammed with tables and chairs, but no books on its bare shelves. The lack of reading material doesn't bother him; he has come here to make a special request of a staff member camped at a table.
The youngest resident here, Royster found out D.C. Village can be just a shot away. In 1988, Royster was a 26-year-old hairdresser waiting for a bus in the Highlands section of Southeast. It was a chilly spring night, and he had just returned from visiting an aunt who lived nearby. He was about to open a quart of Olde English 800 malt liquor to guzzle before the bus arrived, when two men appeared and demanded his jacket. He gave them what they asked for, but one of the robbers pressed a gun to the back of Royster's head and shot him anyway, and left him for dead on the sidewalk. Royster was paralyzed from the neck down.
He's not bitter about the incident now, he says; he vented his anger in "The Two Dark Men," a memoir he composed, via blow-typing, on his computer: "No one knows how I really feel on the inside," he writes in one passage. "Because I look happy on the inside doesn't mean anything. That's my mask showing you something different about me. I'm really hurting and not able to shed a tear. When I see the staff go home to their loved ones, I am saying, 'Damn, when will my turn come?' I get so upset because of what the two dark people did to me."
In the years since, it's been a solitary, losing struggle with chronic sadness. After the shooting, his friends abandoned him; even his father visited just once before disappearing from his life. Royster spends his days perusing old clothing and fashion magazines, watching videos on his VCR, and mostly letting his mind wander wherever his imagination takes him. Often his daydreams lead back to the beauty parlor: Someday, he hopes to regain the use of his hands so he can cut people's hair again.
Lately though, the daydreams have been interrupted by hard realities. There are no clean catheters at the Village, which means he sits in his own urine for days on end. That's why he's here at the library, to make a personal plea to the administration to order a fresh supply.
A high-level staffer sits at a library table doing paperwork when Royster wheels in, wearing a bright-colored bandanna, a sweat suit, and sneakers. He explains his plight as the woman, upright in a starched business suit, listens patiently.
"Sometimes I can't tell when I'm wet," he says softly. "Sometimes I'm laying there at night soaking wet. The only time I can tell when I'm wet is when I start getting coldI don't want to ride around soaking wet, you know."
She listens with apparent concern, but there's little that she can do, for now. The order has been stalled in a downtown government office for weeks; when it comes to supplies, D.C. Village is usually last on the priority list, below even prisons. She assures him she understands how uncomfortable it must be for him to sit in wet clothes, and that she would do her best to get the cathetersclean, proper-fitting cathetersnot only delivered soon, but with his name marked on the box, so some staffer won't use them on someone else.
"I'm sensitive to what you're saying, but you've got to understand that we have to deal with reality. There's the ordering process, and there's procedures that have to be followed," she says evenly and finally, turning back to her paperwork.
Royster sighs his obligatory thanks, and then, puffing on his tube, putters out of the library, not knowing if the catheters will ever come. He's been here before: He recently spent a month roomboundnothing but soap operas and Batman Foreverbecause his wheelchair was broken. The catheters are out of reach, and he's learned not to hope. He will wait instead.
Curmet Forte had heard the horror stories about D.C. Village, but he never dreamed he'd ever end up there. "They called it the dumping ground," he recalls. A decade ago, Forte was a successful building contractor; his busy life was jam-packed with constant projects and activities. In the freakest of freak accidents, he broke his neck sliding into home plate during a softball game: Hello, D.C. Village.
He was partially paralyzed, left with extensive nerve damage and a poor prognosis. For a long time, he was a morose Villager, unwilling even to get out of bed, but Forte gradually regained a sense of purpose and rehabilitated himself, learning to walk again and regaining the use of his arms. He still has no feeling in his hands. His return to a purposeful life led to involvement in nursing-home politics. He now serves as president of the residents' council and as board member of a national nursing home coalition.
The 55-year-old Forte has become the leader of a community that ranges from Royster to a bevy of century-old patients who barely know where they are, much less that their home's been slated for the chopping block. "A lot of these people don't have anybody," he says. "They've only got each other."
He is well-versed in the economics that lurk behind the shutdown effort. He points out that despite its history of poor care, D.C. Village ranks first in the country in Medicare and Medicaid expenses: $87,000 per resident. "Anybody can count," says Forte. "That's $232 a day for each person. I could take that and go down and live in the Watergate hotel and still have money left." He says D.C. Village could be a first-rate operation if the D.C. treasury didn't squander the money meant for his Villagers.
A serious but good-natured sort, Forte clearly enjoys the status his position has afforded him: He's the big man on campus, and everybody from the housekeepers to the head of the administration acknowledges him. Every morning, after breakfasting with residents twice his age and working out in physical therapy, Forte limps in his gray cotton sweat suit down the corridors to the library, where he unlocks a side door to his small, windowless, cinder-block office, which is marked by his own name plaque. The room is jammed with shelves of brochures and reports of all sorts, a clearinghouse of information for residents. On the wall underneath a signed photo of Motown singer Martha Reeves hangs a calendar scribbled with appointments and meetings, just as in the days when Forte was a busy contractor.
Getting the office was no small feat: In the late '80s, he led a coup d'etat, storming a storage room that was used for the choir's robes and music stands; the administration tried to change the lock on the door, but Forte outwitted a staffer and gained re-entry. Typically, the low-key Forte shrugs off his effort: "'We needed the space and they didn't."
From behind his cluttered deskwhich boasts another nameplateForte's domain, if not his reach, includes anything that affects the several hundred residents. More than their spokesperson and main advocate, he is their link to the administration. They come to his office with the smallest of complaints, and even if he can't help immediately, he reaches into a desk drawer and gives them peppermint candy so they won't go away empty-handed. Most often, all they get is the candy.
At a recent meeting, Forte addresses a dozen residents around a long table and holds court on a variety of issues. Forte takes notes with a homemade writing device to assist his disabled hands, recording his constituents' concerns with a diligence that would make a professional politician green with envy.
There are dissenters to Forte's advocacy. One residenta Saint Elizabeths refugee ravaged by polio and resentmentstakes out a corner of the library for his own purpose, meeting or not. He dozes on a favorite couch, propping up his rotting feet in ragged bed slippers bound with electrical tape. Obsessed with the resident council's office and its oft-locked door, he curses Forte as a showboat swelled by power: "He's got his name on the doordid you see that?" complains the man, who spends most of his time calling his lawyer and writing letters to the pope. "He's got that big chair behind his desk. He thinks he's the president of everybody here. Yeah, that's real funny, because you know, he's not my president."
Undaunted by the murmured invective, Forte damns the administration's out-placement policies, which have sent residents to other nursing homes without proper counseling or planning; he claims the transfers have killed at least three residents and forced another into a near-comatose state: "From what they tell me, she's not eating or talking at all anymore," says Forte to the hushed audience. "She ain't doin' nothing anymore."
He curses a recent incident in which two Villagers were forced to wait for transportation in freezing temperatures: "I was very unhappy with that," he says. "It was 19 degrees outside and they put these two elderly ladies in a cold van, and that was very unprofessional for those social workers to do that. These residents' blood is thin and they didn't even have their coats on and it's 19 degreesthat's an easy way for them to get pneumonia."
Forte brusquely mentions ombudsman Anne Hart, who helped spur the closedown. "She stabbed us in the back," he says. He's pissed that the residents' reform effort has ironically hastened the demise of his kingdom. Finally, he proposes another protest demonstration, this time in front of Mayor Marion Barry's housebut only when the weather gets warmer. He vows that officials can't close down D.C. Villageat least not any time soon, and certainly not by the early spring deadline. "Don't let the social workers sweet-talk you," he tells the residents. "You don't have to go anywhere you don't want to go. As long as we're still here, they can never close it down."
The residents nod their heads, but most aren't listening closely: They're busy gnawing into the fruit provided by a local church for the holidays. Fresh apples and oranges are rare at D.C. Village.
Besides providing a forum for Forte's speeches, these meetings reveal a cross section of the populace: Thomas Bowles, if he's in a good mood; council vice president Saundra Baugh, a 42-year-old shooting victim with a sly sense of humor; the middle-aged prankster and amateur poet Michael Williams, who keeps his prized radio secured to his wheelchair seat belt; the ancient Anna Devine, munching on her ever-present bag of potato chips; Thomas Kendricks, a friendly, 79-year-old former mover whose gangrenous feet were amputated after a piano fell on him years ago; Elizabeth Gooding, a 57-year-old, sweet-voiced woman who's spent her whole life in foster homes; and the scowling, mute Jean, a wheelchairbound kleptomaniac who circles the table and library (and the entire village, for that matter) asking for change and snatching anything that's not tied downonly to dump it into the nearest trash can.
And then there is Charles Wilson, whom I accompany back to his unit. There he proceeds to leap out of his wheelchair and dance to the Temptations' "My Girl," which is blasting from a hall radio, only to sit back down and whip off his fake legs with a howl of delight, and rub the stumps that dangle just above his knees. He lost his legs to frostbite after being found unconscious during a snowstorm nearly a decade ago.
Of all the Villagers I meet, Wilson seems to belong here the least. His hearty laugh echoes the joys of the outside worldhe's been there and he's definitely going back. Though he wants the Village to stay open, he expects to get an apartment of his own sometime soon. In the meantime, he's decorated his cot area like a mini-bachelor's pad: On the door is a bumper sticker that brags "Beware of the Beast." A poster of a Penthouse Peta long pearl necklace draped between her open legsgraces the wall above his bed; he's got a black-and-white TV for watching sports. And a desk to stash a pint or two when the situation calls for celebration. ("Happy hour?" he says. "Only an hour? We're always happy, man!")
Wilson tells me about the Strip, a back corridor where the party boys used to hang out. Those were the good old days before happy-hour leader Francis, known also as Buzz, was jailed for slugging a nurse, leaving the Village a quieter, but a bit sadder, place. "Go check out the Strip," says Wilson. "It's paydaythere's liable to be some folks hanging back there."
Wilson apologizes that he can't go because he's supposed to meet a "lady friend" from another unit: She's back from dialysis and ready to party.
A back hallway cul-de-sac next to the boiler room, the Strip is far from the everyday traffic and bustle of the main corridors. Its wall features an impressive mural of the old Howard Theatre on T Street NW, with a crowd of fancy-dressed concertgoers out for a night on the town. Not long ago, the Strip was a rowdy social spotthe happening place in the Villagefull of drinking, smoking, gambling, trash-talking, and even wheelchair brawling. But in recent years, especially after the expulsion of Buzz, the Strip has become just another empty dead end.
Today it is deathly quiet, despite the presence of two men slumped in wheelchairs at separate windows, silently smoking cigarettes.
I approach the one who grudgingly acknowledges me: "W.V.," a prematurely graying middle-aged man, recently got out of the hospital after suffering from bedsores. He too was a shooting victim on the streets of D.C., paralyzed from the waist down for more than two decades now. Unlike Lamont Royster, W.V. is consumed by bitterness. He stubs out his Newport menthol in a portable ashtray hooked to his wheelchair, and we talk for a while, watching the pigeons work over the back-lot trash bins.
He couldn't care less about the birds; W.V. is in his own dark world, beset by practical matters. "I've been trying to get a motorized wheelchair for 15 years, but they say I don't need one," he grouses, as if angry that the bullets didn't do him enough injury to earn him the big prize. "See that hill out there?" he says, pointing to a tree-lined slope outside. "I can't get up that hill with this damned thing."
The other man, in a bright, hunter's-orange ski cap, listens to our conversation and lights another cigarette, still staring out his own window.
It's obvious that these aren't two pals here to socialize, but to simply brood separately in the sanctuary of the deserted Strip. "I get tired of people asking me how I'm doing,'' says W.V. "I like a little peace and quiet back here."
He reminisces briefly about the good times with Buzz and others who once made the hallway roar with life. But remembering only stirs up some dark thoughts: "Most of those guys are dead now," he says. "But I'm still alive."
He lights another cigarette and glares ahead proudly, as he takes a long drag: "One thing that's kept me alive is not letting people tell me what to do," he says. "I'm gonna live my life."
I ask W.V. how he spends his time on the Strip now that Buzz and the boys are gone. "I have a lot of deep thoughts," he says softly. "I've been married, divorced, and I lived life like I wanted to." He chews the nails from his fingers, and tears well up as he struggles to keep his voice steady and strong: "I told my mother, 'I'm gonna live fast, love hard, and leave a beautiful memory.' That was my motto and that's what I did." He remains turned toward the window, mum and dragging on a Newportmy cue to leave.
I'm on my way out when I see W.V. wheeling himself down the endless corridor from the Strip to the entrance: Just then, a pigeon somehow flies in through the sliding glass doors and sails past the front desk toward W.V. No one bats an eye at the indoor pigeon; in fact, no one says a word. The trapped bird seems unruffled by the surroundings. It simply clucks and walks down the hall toward the kitchen. The pigeon seems to know its way around.
As W.V. passes by, he steers his wheelchair to make way for the Village's newest resident. CP