Sakhi Gulestan, a vendor who sold umbrellas, scarves, and other merchandise in Dupont Circle for nearly 25 years, died Saturday, March 29, inside a rented box truck in which he was living.
Gulestan, known as “Mohammed” by many in the neighborhood, was a fixture at 20th and Q Streets. He often gave away more than he sold. Although his age is unknown—he estimated he was in his 70s—his wife of 34 years remembers the December her husband got his vending license and began working in D.C.. It was 1983, “one of the coldest Decembers in ages,” says Phoenix Gulestan, who is in her 60s and lives off and on in the family’s other vehicle, a van with West Virginia tags parked off the intersection.
Phoenix, an American, met and married Sakhi in Afghanistan, where he was born. She arrived in that country from Nepal, where she had been living as a Buddhist monk. Her memory of their introduction is doused with spiritual references, including a premonition that she would meet a “Mexican bandito” in Levis and a black jacket. When she met her husband a few days later, she says, he matched the description exactly. She often refers to herself as a student and follower of Sakhi and converted to Islam, his religion, before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and they decided to leave.
In D.C., after dismantling his vending stand each night, Sakhi visited neighborhood eateries to collect leftover bread, sandwiches, and pastries that were destined for alley Dumpsters. After offering a modest portion to his wife and two adult sons, he would distribute the remaining food to people he knew in Dupont Circle.
“There were points where Mohammed was feeding hundreds of people who had nothing,” says Tim, who didn’t give his last name and describes himself as a homeless veteran. “I can remember when I first met him when I came into this town in 1986. He said, ‘My friend, you’re hungry.’ He left for a minute, and he came back and fed me.”
Sakhi, he says, would often come through the circle late at night, waking up people sleeping on benches and passing out food he’d collected. The items he could not distribute to people he saved for the birds.
Every day at 3 p.m., he collected hot water from Dupont Flowers and spent 30 minutes soaking and crushing bread into an easily spreadable mixture. He would then cast the stew out for pigeons and gulls.
He considered feeding the birds the most sacred part of his day. He often talked about their importance and the purity of their existence and took no heed of possible fines for littering or public nuisance. Some members of the community took issue with these feedings, expressing concern that they attracted not just birds but rats.
Sakhi also gave away umbrellas every time it rained, says Alcaly Lo, a clerk at Connecticut Avenue Liquor who sold him cigarettes on most days. Sakhi distributed umbrellas at the Starbucks at Connecticut and R, too. “My umbrella stand at home contains five or six umbrellas, all of which were from him. He was always looking out for us,” says Robert Wilson, a morning manager there.
Phoenix says even as he grew old, few could keep up with her husband, including her.
“When he asked me to marry him, he also asked me why I’d marry him,” she says. “I’ll tell the truth. I’ve never seen anyone with the patience and the ability to give regardless of who or what or why. It starts at 5 o’clock in the morning and does not end until 1 o’clock at night.”
Phoenix has a place to stay in West Virginia but preferred to be at 20th and Q, close to Sakhi. They talked often about their daughter, Mountain, who died from AIDS-related complications at the age of 13. She had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. “Her death was very difficult for both of them,” explains an employee at Dupont Flowers who has known Sakhi for the last 20 years. “When his daughter was in the hospital, he would come in every day to buy a flower for her.” Phoenix believes that Mountain’s spirit will someday return and keeps a meticulous count of the days since her death in 1994.
Although Sakhi suffered from an abdominal hernia, he otherwise appeared in good health and worked up until his death. His wife and sons found him in the truck after an acquaintance, a Jamaican woman who had come to return $4 she borrowed, told them that her knocks at the window did not get a response. He died around 9:45 a.m. The family plans a memorial for him on April 17 at a yet-to-be-announced location.
The day after his death, friends and those who knew him in passing left flowers and messages at the corner of 20th and Q Streets NW.
“Your spirit will live on,” one man wrote, along with several more words in Farsi.
“All the homeless people out here loved having him around,” says Tim, the vet. “He brought life into the park. He brought the birds.…He was the birdman.”