The Mercedes is a half-block away, and Marion Barry has a decision to make.
“Do you want to walk to the car?” an assistant asks.
Barry has already propped himself up against the iron railing of the Market Inn Restaurant, located on the 200 block of E Street SW. He came here for a crab dinner late Sunday night and has ended up shutting the place down. The seafood joint’s parking attendants and busboys have already cleared out. No one’s left on the street. Even I-395, hanging overhead, is dead.
“Bring the car around,” Barry mutters softly. “My knees hurt.”
An assistant is always bringing the car around, ensuring that the former mayor keeps his steps to a minimum. No maneuver is out of bounds—the designated driver surfs curbs, cruises sidewalks, and chews up mud and grass in an effort to get closer still to the next grand entrance.
Then it’s time for the former mayor to get out—an event unto itself. Watching Barry get out of a car is like watching a crab trying to climb out of a box. Barry first studies the opened door, feeling his way along for something to latch his hand onto. He then lets the car’s leather interior work for him, sliding his ass forward and sideways. His thin legs plop out one by one. While his bodyguard covers him like a spotter, Barry’s toes lower until they find a hard surface.
Once he’s out, he appears unsure the ground will stay where it is. He must grip onto something. A stop sign, a tree, the car door.
And when Barry really must walk, he plots his route from one point of rest to the next. The pimp strut is gone. There is no beat in the man’s step anymore. His steps are fluttery, more geriatric soft-shoe than Junk Yard bounce.
Marion Barry wobbles.
On Tuesday, Barry drubbed incumbent Sandy Allen in the Democratic primary race for the Ward 8 seat on the D.C. Council. The final vote count put the four-term mayor 32 points ahead of Allen, clearing the way for Barry to add to his 25 years in elective city office. In this overwhelmingly Democratic town, he will easily prevail in the November general election.
Two decades of headline-grabbing drama confer name recognition, an asset that makes actual campaigning an afterthought. In the last days of his Ward 8 primary run, the former mayor didn’t get out that much. Campaigns are all about movement: the door-to-door of retail politicking, the working of Sunday-morning church pews, the glad-handing through the corridors of senior centers. But he is 68, made older still by addictions, diabetes, prostate cancer, and weight loss. Barry’s idea of campaigning is closer to assisted living.
Friday, 4:30 p.m.
Barry lives in a third-floor apartment at the Washington View complex on Douglass Road SE. That’s a lot of stairs. A guy across the street sometimes helps him with his bags. But today, he’s on his own. Barry drags two small trash bags of clothes—probably campaign T-shirts—down the two flights and then drags them to the curb, later depositing them in the back seat of his car.
It’s rush hour, prime time for some politicking at the Anacostia Metro station. At 4:46, he blows by the station. He doesn’t even wave. When he’s campaigning, Barry rides around in a huge white GMC Yukon Denali driven by his bodyguard. Right now, he’s in his own ride, a powder-blue Mercedes Benz 190E, with a temp tag that expired a month ago taped to the back window.
Barry heads for Capitol Hill. He stops on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, directly in front of the office of H.R. Crawford, the developer and former councilmember. There’s a space open a few car lengths ahead, but he double-parks, flips on his hazards, creeps from his car, and slowly climbs the town-house stairs.
The visit is personal, not political, Crawford will say later. Barry came by “just to pay his respects and tell me things were going well.” Crawford isn’t happy about Barry’s latest run. He and other old Barry friends help him financially, but not with the campaign. Only to meet “basic needs,” he says.
“He will always be a friend. I will always be supportive,” Crawford will explain. “But in this particular effort, we’re [concerned about] his health, that kind of thing.”
Barry leaves 20 minutes later and heads back across the river.
Friday, 8:10 p.m.
After an hour at his campaign headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, Barry’s driver takes him home in the Denali. On the way, they make a stop at the Martin Luther King Grocery. Once Barry and his driver enter, he makes his way to the cash register. The five guys in line behind him all look more than a bit put out. Barry can’t make up his mind what he wants. He points his bodyguard down one aisle. Then he asks a clerk, “Where your grits?”
The clerk guides Barry to the grits. The line grows longer.
While Barry waits for change, he chats up the people in line about the election. Not all of them are in the mood for the candidate’s sales pitch. One guy, who would have been a kid during the last Barry administration, gets in Barry’s face: “Who you votin’ for? How about the Cowboys? Are you voting for the Cowboys?”
The longtime Redskins fan doesn’t have an answer.
Saturday, 11:20 a.m.
Barry spends the morning at home before emerging onto the sidewalk in an almond- and brown-colored African-print shirt, slacks, Bollé sunglasses, and a straw hat. He steadies himself on the guard rail with one hand. In the other, he clutches a jacket wrapped in plastic, a cell-phone charger, and a steak knife. As he waits for the Denali, he sings an Ohio Players classic:
Whatever songs spin in Barry’s internal jukebox usually get broadcast to the general public.
A woman walking up the hill provides the day’s first opportunity for retail politics. She tells him she loves him and then looks at the knife sprouting from his unsteady grip. She seems worried about the knife and asks him what he’s doing with it.
“I’m gonna get me a grapefruit,” Barry says, adding with a phlegm chortle—“I don’t cut; I don’t shoot.”
OK. The woman eventually drifts off. A police cruiser pulls into the lot just ahead of the Denali.
“D.C.’s finest,” Barry mumbles.
Saturday, 11:45 a.m.
The motorcade was supposed to start at 10 a.m., and one car has already dropped out. Mellon Street, outside Barry headquarters, has become a parking lot of cars in various states of preparation. Green lawn signs are shoved in the back of a van. Signs are taped to windshields. Barry stands on the corner, sucking on a red-flavored Freezie. A volunteer yells from across the street, trying to catch his attention. She’s found a green plastic piggy bank to match the campaign color scheme. Barry’s fly is open.
The motorcade finally moves out at 12:45 p.m. Within minutes, 11 honking cars have dead-ended in the cramped parking lot of the Eastgate Condominiums. The speaker calls out to residents to “meet and greet” the former mayor, but no one bites. The place seems deserted.
Barry frees himself from the Denali and enters a side doorway. “It’s just one flight down,” a resident assures him, leading him through a dim basement corridor into a small, bunkerlike room. It’s a condominium-association meeting. He’s late. Phil Pannell, the group’s new president, gives him three minutes to say what he has to say.
Barry rambles through his talking points on affordable housing, summer jobs, and health care. He’s doing his rote stump speech—or half of it. Sentences disappear soon after they begin. His rhetorical offensives are thick with mumbling and unintelligible banter. Occasionally, though, he shouts a phrase that reminds his audience of his populist roots. “Housing is one of the things on my agenda….Prices of housing just shot sky-high….The other high item on my agenda is summer jobs….”
The dozen or so condo owners are staring at the ground, arms crossed. The whole thing is being caught on digital video by a documentary crew under the direction of filmmaker Dana Flor, who has been tracking Barry for a year.
The candidate finishes on an ambitious note. “In my first 30 days I’m going to introduce 10 bills,” he says. The short appearance ends with polite applause. He starts his own chant of “Barry! Barry!” The Barry volunteers who have entered the room follow his lead.
“I remember Marion as this vibrant persona radiating with charisma,” Pannell will say later. “Now to see him as a shadow of himself….He says Ward 8 needs a fighter. We do. How can he fight?”
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
The car window rolls down, and the kids gathered along the 400 block of Valley Avenue get their first glimpse of Barry: a man sucking face with a paper towel holding the sticky-sweet remnants of yellow cake and white frosting. He works the paper towel over with his tongue and fingers, making sure to sweep up as many of the white globules as possible. Diving and licking. Diving and licking. Until there’s nothing left except what’s ended up on his dress slacks. A female member of the documentary crew, who is seated next to him, crawls over him to dab at the leftovers on his lap.
The scene scares away the kids. They bunch up near the next car, which is driven by a Barry volunteer. The volunteer pleads with them to go back and offer at least a hello. “Go shake his hand,” he urges, grabbing a few kids by the shoulder.
Some backpedal out of reach, and some run away. Except Quintin, 11. C’mon, the gruff volunteers plead. The boy, dressed in a white cotton tank top and dark shorts, steps up to Barry’s window.
Quintin mumbles a greeting into the dark void and offers a limp hand up to it. Barry hands him an old Styrofoam cup.
“Do me a favor, man,” Barry mutters.
Barry wants coffee.
Quintin walks away confused, retreating into his house across the street.
By now, the motorcade has sat idle on Valley for a good 10 minutes. The volunteers have finished shoving their campaign lit into every doorway on the block. Now they hang in the heat, waiting for Barry to get his coffee.
After a minute, Quintin’s mother pops her head out the door. “Do you have any coffee?” Barry shouts. The mother doesn’t have a fresh pot ready. She’s going to have to make it. “Put it in that cup right there,” Barry says, indicating the Styrofoam cup he passed to the boy.
Another few minutes go by and still no coffee. Quintin runs to the car window, clutching the empty cup. He wants to know if Barry takes cream and sugar. “Do you have Equal?” Barry asks. Quintin dashes back to the house.
One volunteer gives up and peels away from the motorcade. The Barry brigade has been here a long time—25 minutes, maybe more, with nothing to do but block traffic. The few people who are out on their stoops have already been fed their share of campaign fliers.
Finally, the coffee appears. It’s enough to get Barry out of the car. He breaks out in an old-man twist and hollers: “That’s right!”
Saturday, 3:16 p.m.
The motorcade reaches Washington Highlands Branch Library, where the New Black Panther Party Political Action Committee is hosting a candidates’ forum. There, behind two tables in the cramped, air-condition-less basement, candidates Barry, Sandra Seegars, and Joyce Scott sit quietly. They are flanked by party members in full regalia, boosted by the booming presence of Malik Zulu Shabazz, the Panthers’ leader. Shabazz introduces the three candidates, spending the most time lingering on the subject of Barry.
Barry has stocked the room with his volunteers. Even the mayor’s third wife, Effi Barry, has shown up. When he gets up to talk, he makes a point of throwing the Panthers a little red meat: “We still have a slave mentality….Nothing is too tough when you’re in bondage….When I was mayor for 16 years…This ward is the dirtiest ward in the city.”
Barry’s speech ends in a wave of applause. Then Shabazz insists that the audience give him another round. The event is so rigged for Barry that his opponents stand no chance of making their case. Shabazz doesn’t bother to listen all the way through Seegars’ speech; he gives Scott minimal attention.
And if they were hoping to make an impression during the question-and-answer session, no luck: Shabazz interrupts the proceedings to announce that the Black Panthers are endorsing Barry. All the former mayor had to do was show up. “No one can dispute it,” said Shabazz during his introduction. “He has a ton of wisdom.”
Saturday, 6:55 p.m.
As the motorcade reaches Q Street SE, Barry meets Issac “Shank” Marshall, a young man who graduated from Anacostia Senior High School in 2000. Shank is partially paralyzed, the victim of a gunshot to his back.
“God damn!” Shank shouts as Barry approaches his apartment entrance. Shank is surrounded by friends and has a lot of energy. “Hey, Marion Barry, we need some money,” Shank shouts up at Barry’s blank face. “So we can get some more TVs.”
“You need a job,” Barry mutters.
Shank proceeds to list all the things he needs, ending with an item he simply must have: a motorized scooter. He is only half-serious.
Barry realizes he needs to dip into his reserve of dated street lingo. “Bling bling,” Barry rasps. “Benjamins. Bling bling. Stuff that shines….We’ll get you a Cadillac, a wheelchair motorized as a Cadillac.”
Shank asks for an autograph. Barry writes: “To Shank: Best Wishes, Marion Barry, 9-11-01.”
The candidate walks away with Shank’s address.
Saturday, 8 p.m.
The motorcade ends. Campaign volunteers gather at headquarters for the party that has been advertised for that evening. The party was supposed to supply two things: food and Barry. Instead, volunteers are offered only bottled water.
Meanwhile, Barry has his bodyguard drive him across the street to the Pizza Place. He takes a seat in a plastic chair in the corner by the bulletproof-glass-enclosed cash register.
Barry’s on his cell phone with someone from a local radio station who wants to squeeze a promo out of him. He is happy to oblige, but it requires several takes.
“This is Marion Barry. I want everybody to vote on…Sept. 14.”
“Say it again, man,” Barry says over the phone.
“You’re listening to the No. 1 go-go station…go-go station…Antonio.”
“This is Marion Barry. You’re listening to the best…”
“I got it. I messed up.”
“This is the No. 1 go-go station, with my man Antonio, the cigar-smoking Antonio…the Cuban-cigar-smoking Antonio. How was that?”
“On 93 KYS.”
“On 93.9,” says his bodyguard.
“On 93.9 WKYS. OK. Yeah. Alright. This is Marion Barry, and I vote yes, WKYS.”
“This is Marion Barry, and I vote yes on KYS.”
Finally, Barry orders an Italian sub—just 6 inches, he says. “Let me pay some…just take $30,” he tells the proprietor. He is refused. “My ship come in some,” Barry explains. “I’m all right. I’m going to pay my debts, my outstanding bills.”
Sandra Seegars pops in to say hello. She’s still pissed about the Black Panther Party forum.
“I got my sandwich,” Barry mutters. “It’s better than a Subway sandwich. I didn’t know it was here. They got to do a better job advertising.”
Seegars doesn’t have much to say.
“The sandwich is a good one,” Barry tells his bodyguard.
Sunday morning is a busy time around Barry’s Washington View apartment complex. Residents shuffle to early church services or late-morning services, before they emerge in their Redskins jerseys around midday.
Through it all, Barry remains in his apartment. When asked later what was the best part of his day, he will say, “Resting.”
By sunset, Barry makes it to Turner Elementary and a front-row seat at a “prayer and praise service” that his campaign has organized. The Rev. Carlton Pressley, a former religious adviser for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, tells the half-empty room of roughly 50 Barry volunteers, “Lord, you sent a prophet to us.” Pressley also refers to Barry as “the Messenger.”
“It takes a great man to see nothing and make something,” adds Pressley.
Monday, 12:10 p.m.
Barry has bagged morning campaigning. Around noon, the documentary-film crew comes by to fetch him, and in 20 minutes he’s ready to go. The crew films him walking to their Jeep. They then whisk him to campaign headquarters.
Outside on Mellon Street is Scott Bishop Sr., the guy who hangs most of Barry’s campaign signs. Bishop will later opine that Barry’s short-term prospects look good: “He’s going to win this,” he will say, before sounding a note of caution about Barry’s health. “He’s falling apart. I don’t think he’s going to make it through the term.”
Monday, 2:00 p.m.
Barry and the documentary crew disappear into the Denali. Campaign spokesperson Linda Greene says Barry’s afternoon schedule is occupied by “lots of things…detailing…logistical things.” Greene later discloses that one of Barry’s chores is to get a manicure.
Monday, 7:20 p.m.
Another motorcade is about to be under way. The final signs are taped to windshields, and Barry works his way into the Denali. “Let’s go,” he says. “Let’s hit it. Let’s hit it.” Then he changes his mind.
A young woman has approached Barry with a copy of the music video her band recently filmed. This is no ordinary video. It stars Marion Barry. Barry exits the Denali and screens it on the headquarters TV while the motorcade awaits his return.
On the way back to the SUV, a campaign volunteer introduces herself, causing another short delay. Tawanna Baker tells Barry that she’ll be helping him on Election Day, but that she’ll be doing it as a representative of ACORN, a community-activist group. “Get me money!” he responds. It’s difficult to tell if he is joking or not.
“We’re poor!” Baker reminds him.
Monday, 8:30 p.m.
A camera truck from WUSA-TV meets up with the motorcade in Monterey Park, one of Ward 8’s new, Gaithersburg-like development of single-family homes. Barry stands beside the Denali, with the light of the camera lamp bathing his face.
“Do you miss the attention?” reporter Doug Buchanan asks him.
“No, that’s shallow,” Barry responds.
The cameras can’t capture the full drama of the moment, because the brim of Barry’s hat hides his eyes. The Channel 9 cameraman whispers to Greene. Greene passes the message to Barry’s bodyguard, and the bodyguard shifts Barry’s hat backward so that now it rides too high on his forehead.
“That’s my trademark,” says Barry. “That’s my straw hat.”
When asked by the WUSA reporter what message he has for his detractors, Barry responds, “Go to hell.”
Election Day, 7:07 a.m.
“Here we go,” Barry mumbles as he walks into Wilkinson Elementary, his polling place. He starts singing to himself:
“Victory is mine. Victory is mine.”
“Marion Barry right here,” he continues.
Barry takes a ballot to a voting booth, hunches over before a half-dozen TV cameras, and begins the process of voting for himself. Soon he looks up and mumbles something to Greene. He has fucked up, voting for the wrong candidate in the at-large Democratic State Committee race. He has to start over.
Once he does it right, Barry looks up and mutters: “I got one vote for me.”
With the cameras rolling, Barry carefully fake-jogs out of the school. “I’m joggin’!” he shouts.
At the entrance, Barry greets Wilkinson’s principal, who asks him to come to the parent-teacher night in October. Barry demurs. “I’d be on vacation,” he explains before walking out the door.
Election Day, 7:45 a.m.
At Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church, after greeting a small group of volunteers with a round of limp waves and “All rights,” Barry walks into the polling area clutching a bag of convenience-store trail mix.
“Excuse me, you can’t come in here,” one election official tells Barry. D.C. law prohibits partisans from proselytizing voters within 50 feet of the polling station—a rule that Barry is about to violate. The candidate doesn’t care, choosing to work the room anyway, mumbling greetings to voters.
Canvassing completed, Barry sits at a wooden table marked for “authorized poll watchers” to shoot the shit with any election officials within earshot.
The officials look at each other and then at Barry, pity in their eyes. Let the old man be. After a minute or two, Barry gets up. “I’m going to go now,” he says, stutter-stepping out the door. “Take care, now.”
Election Day, 9:30 a.m.
At Birney Elementary School, the Barry contingent pulls up to the curb in the Denali. The entourage gets out of the SUV and mills about as Barry remains inside. Then Barry decides that he wants to do some electioneering himself. So the bodyguard gets back in the Denali and moves the truck to within a few inches of the curb—close enough for Barry to get out.
Barry walks toward the school’s door, again on the verge of prohibited territory. “You can’t go beyond that sign,” an election volunteer, a burly man with thick glasses, points out.
“I can,” Barry says, before heading inside.
Barry is greeted in the auditorium by Precinct Captain Barbara Batts. “No campaigning, now,” she warns.
“I’m not campaigning,” Barry pleads. A member of his entourage explains that he wants a cup of coffee. Batts gets him the coffee.
Barry asks for Equal. She hands Barry the cup , then pours in the sugar substitute and stirs the coffee for him.
Someone asks him why he’s in the voting area. “I’m a unique candidate,” Barry explains before sitting down at Batts’ desk. He stares out at some food lining the stage a few feet away. “What are those things over there?” he asks. “Doughnuts?”
“They’re croissants,” a reporter explains.
Barry turns his attention to Batts and the subject of Cole’s Cafe, a soul-food joint on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. “You ever been down there?” Barry asks. “It’s pretty good food.”
Barry turns to Joseph, the precinct’s ballot chief, and talks about diabetes. Joseph has it, too.
“My sugar level goes down a couple times,” Barry mutters.
“You know what you need? Grape juice,” Joseph explains.
“Really?” Barry asks.
“It helps,” Joseph says. “You should check your hemoglobin.”
“How long you been diabetic?” Barry asks. For Joseph, it’s been 10 years. Barry says it’s been 18 years for him.
“All right,” Barry says, turning to Greene. He can’t find his money clip. He wants her to look for it.
“All right,” Barry says again, getting up. “You all take care.” He greets a few potential voters on the way out, shaking their hands. Inside the school’s entrance, he greets two cafeteria workers. He finds out what they’re serving today: mashed potatoes and meatloaf. “I better come back,” he says.
Election Day, 10:00 p.m.
Barry has won. He navigates around the wires of the concert tent to approach a microphone, and cameras and cheerleaders squeeze around him. He looks a little weary and a little bit frightened of the crush. His bodyguard keeps him propped up by the waist. The crowd quiets down as Barry’s 24-year-old son, Christopher, gives the warm-up speech, attesting to his father’s diminished stature. “He is not the power broker he once was….The youthful energy he has lost with time he has gained in wisdom….”
It’s as if the son is setting a low bar for the father. But for his own, unscripted speech, Barry wakes up in a way he hasn’t for the last 120 hours. “Hello, Ward 8! Hello, Ward 8! Hello, Ward 8!” he shouts. He hits all the usual talking points—and actually finishes them. “What they don’t understand is that with age comes wisdom, courage, tenacity…and the energy to get it done!” The people of Ward 8 “know what service I’ve given! Money can’t buy service, and it can’t buy love.”
Barry keeps it up a good 10 minutes and then makes his way back inside. A reporter asks the suddenly vibrant councilmember-elect if he plans on devoting himself to his new job full-time.
“I’m going to give it as much time as necessary,” he says.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.