City Paper is not for tourists
Two women running to get out of an April downpour start to cut through the Altman’s Parking lot at 3rd and K Streets NW. They stop short when they spot Aries Bond. He’s standing at the hood of a dilapidated utility truck, adding his own precipitation to a puddle.
The women make a hard right, moving past Tri-State Funeral Service and into an alley that’s running deep in water. Bond’s head slowly swings to track them. After a minute or so, he zips up, then slogs through the mud and gravel and floating Steel Reserve lager cans back to the sidewalk.
“They walked all the way around,” he muses, “so they wouldn’t see the dick.”
Bond isn’t in a rush to get out of the rain. Even this windblown barrage has a tough time getting past his gear: Clarke Construction jacket over blue work overalls over Nike sweat shirt. Protecting his head is a detached woolen hood; his nearly browless forehead channels any errant water downward to disappear into his handsome mustache and goatee.
He resumes walking east down K Street, swinging an unopened 40-ounce of Hurricane Malt Liquor in his left hand. He bought it a few minutes ago at Subway Liquors II, along with a pack of mentholated Mavericks. But having begun drinking earlier this afternoon, he’s in no hurry to crack the bottle.
“I love the rain, you know? When I get my little buzz on, let me show you where we go. Sit down and drink our little beers and stuff like that. The police don’t really fuck with me, man, ’cause you know I don’t really fuck with nobody. He knows I’m a hard worker and shit.”
On another day, Bond probably would be working. As a structural ironworker, he says, he makes $25 an hour erecting buildings such as the new Washington Convention Center, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va., and a modern wing for Georgetown University Law Center’s Bernard P. McDonough Hall. But he depends on a co-worker to drive him to construction sites, and the guy won’t work in the rain. And because the homeless shelter where he often sleeps kicks everybody out in the morning, on rainy days you will find Aries Bond on the streets.
Lately, it’s been raining a lot. Bond says he hasn’t seen a full-week paycheck in almost two months. During that time, booze bills, handouts to girlfriends, and other expenses he’s loath to discuss have transformed his savings into loose change.
Not that he’s worried. “I can get a job anywhere I go,” he says. “My résumé speaks for me.” That résumé—which, along with his Social Security card, gives his name as “Bonds”—claims he worked as a fuel-truck technician for W.C. English Inc. in 1997 and a crane-operator apprentice for W.F. Magaan Heavy Construction in 1995. When he was working on the Greater Richmond Convention Center a couple of years ago, Bond says, he was raking in so much cash that bank tellers fought over the privilege of serving him: “They see what my check is like, and they know I’m single.”
Veering off the sidewalk, Bond climbs a staircase to get to an office-lined promenade. He saunters down the walk, finally stopping at the window of a business marked “Armstrong Prep. Center Infant Care.” There he retrieves a blackened cigar stub from somewhere inside his folds of clothing and lights it.
“I’m more than just an alcoholic,” he says, expelling a lungful of cherry-scented smoke.
Down the block, in the shadow of the Golden Rule Apartments, is one of Bond’s hanging parks. It’s a triangular plot with two trees and a weatherbeaten bench with a disturbing oily stain on its seat. Bond is perched on the bench’s back, waiting for the ladies at the Government Printing Office to get off work and walk to their cars. He’s a great admirer of the female form, to the extent that he loses his train of thought and simply stares whenever one passes by.
He sips from his Hurricane. Hurricane is his drink. “It’s made by Budweiser,” he explains. “It has a ‘born-on’ date. It’s not the cheapest beer…but I like it.”
Bond usually starts drinking when he gets off work in the early afternoon. On miserable days like today, he starts earlier, normally draining three 40-ouncers of the brew before bedtime. “But I may also grab me a half-pint of Seagram’s Gin [& Juice],” he says. “That alone is probably around one-and-a-half 40-ounces. It’s so sweet, you can just”—he finishes the thought with wet, glugging sounds.
Bond doesn’t drink wine. Grape products make him break out in hives. He shuns cheap liquor, as well. “If I decide to drink, it’s gonna be Gin & Juice or Hennessy,” he says. “I may be homeless, but I’m not helpless. Or hopeless.” He doesn’t drink liquor on Sunday—that’s the Lord’s day. He panhandles when he’s low on funds, but only for food and alcohol, never for drugs. “And,” he adds, “I happen to be in love with a crackhead.” She lives in the Trinidad neighborhood.
A few months ago, one of Bond’s buddies slipped off a building downtown. His safety rope flew off the exposed end of a beam, and he fell to his death. The man wasn’t drunk, but Bond took the mishap as a sign to watch his own step. So he never drinks on the job, and he says he takes the day off if he’s got a hangover. “I’ve been doing it so long I know it’s my time,” he says. “Everybody got to fall at least once or twice.” Bond’s already fallen once.
Though drinking has shrunk his waist size from 36 to 29, Bond is muscular. That’s partly due to the demands of his job—shinnying up columns by the grip of his Timberland boots and baseball gloves, lugging around 40 pounds of gear—and partly due to his military training. He says he spent three years in the early ’80s as a Marine, following a tradition set by his mother, a Marine nurse in Korea. She was also an alcoholic, eventually dying of cirrhosis.
In 1985, Bond says, he left the Marines to join his wife in Dorchester, Mass. He hooked up with the local Army Reserve and funneled his pay into intoxication. “I would wake up, smoke me a joint, drink me a beer and stuff. Man, hell. And drink Hennessy and chase it with a Heineken.” He developed a painful pancreatic inflammation, so he upped the dosages of self-medication.
In 1987, Bond awoke in the hospital with a stomach-pump tube down his throat. He swore off drinking—a resolution that lasted through his 1991 tour of the Persian Gulf, where he chugged donated nonalcoholic Strohs. The next year, after moving from Dorchester to Richmond, Va., with his wife, he found beer prices cheaper by half and flew off the wagon. Then he started sleeping with a crack-smoking girlfriend, and “that got me back on the drugs,” he says.
Bond hops off the bench. So far, the female presence has been slim. No sexually repressed federal paper collators have shown their sweet, bifocaled faces. He strolls down the street and ducks under the overhang of the ULLICO insurance building, where he relights his cigar stub, now about the size and shape of a gnarled big toe.
“This right here,” he says, walking up to one of the building’s columns, “is what we call a column.” He raps the shiny black pillar with his fist. It gives up an echoing plunk. “Anybody there?”
The ULLICO building, he notes, was fabricated with precast concrete. He points to the Homeland Security Department building across the way, a sort of Rubik’s Cube drained of color: “Precast.” But the Federal Trade Commission office in front of him—that sandy edifice is brick.
He walks out again into what’s become a gentle shower, making a beeline toward another triangle park, by the recently closed Gales Shelter. “I take my field, my engineering, very seriously,” he says. “I can read a blueprint and do the damn thing.”
Bond taught himself in Richmond, by erecting overpasses and operating excavators and cranes for various companies. He found extra time to focus on his craft after 1994, the year he and his wife separated. (“My wife accused me of fucking one girl,” he says, “when actually I was fucking every other woman.”)
Bond soon came into his own as a steel erector or, in the parlance of the trade, a beam walker, red-iron worker, or iron monkey. It’s the work he’s doing when the sun’s out: bolting beams to columns, pulling the invariably leaning framework into place with plumbing cables, and checking its verticality with a “bazooka bob.” He says he excels at deckwork—installing the galvanized steel decking and lipped pour stops, and shooting the Nelson studs that will eventually hold a floor of concrete.
He’d still be working in Richmond, he says, if it hadn’t been for the rain. He got off work early one day because of the bad weather and started downing 40s. When he dropped in unexpectedly on his girlfriend, he found her with another man and “slapped the shit out of her.” He spent six months in jail.
“When I got out, she was waiting for me,” he says. “She took me home.” But Bond was afraid he’d fly off the handle again and wind up in the penitentiary, so in early 2002 he decided to leave town. “I said I was going to work. She said, ‘But you don’t work on Sundays!’ I told her I was gonna work this Sunday. I just didn’t tell her which state.”
He went to Maryland, staying with a friend in Oxon Hill while he operated a crane for a salvage company in D.C., he says. Later, he bought $700 worth of tools and entered his current employer’s service as an ironworker.
The Gales Shelter announces itself 20 feet away with an invisible wall of urine stink. The acrid vapors rise from holly bushes bordering the shelter’s small park, plant life that’s festooned with debris: lumps of sodden clothes, empty boxes of Maverick Menthol 100s, and a daisy chain of black plastic bags, each containing twin 22-ounce Budweiser bottles.
“I can’t sleep inside a shelter unless I got a buzz,” Bond says, looking at the boarded-up building. “If it’s 200 people and you got 200 different attitudes and body odors, you have to have a little pacifier, a little tranquilizer.” He empties the foamy remainder of his 40 onto a fake-fur coat and tosses the bottle after it. “[But] I never sleep outside unless I have to.”
Last night, he had to. He was planning on bedding down with his current love, the crack addict, but she was busy tricking. He saw the johns going in and out of her house. “They’re running back and forth, back and forth. And I know. But one thing I won’t do is interfere with other people’s [business].”
Bond says he has girlfriends in the Golden Rule Apartments. He says he’s got a girlfriend on 10th Street, others on 9th, 7th, and 5th. He spends money on many of them—buying black-market food stamps for one in Sursum Corda, for example—but messes around with just three. As he wheels away from the park, Bond ponders lowering that number to zero.
“Hell, I’m getting so old right now, I say, another 10 years or something and all I’ll want to do is build shit,” he says. “Fuck fucking.”
Some buildings, he says, provide just as much of a thrill. Take the U.S. Patent and Trademark headquarters in Alexandria, which he helped erect last year. “I got that bitch so centered,” he says, “it’s not within an eighth or a sixteenth—it’s right on. I don’t know how many hydraulic jacks I cracked, but I know they was pumping over 40 psi.”
“That’s about the prettiest motherfucking building, man. Every time I see that building, I nut.”
A giant iced tea and a plate of barbecued chicken chunks sit on the table in front of Bond. A table away in the Union Station food court sits a woman in a business suit, reading a paperback.
“You know,” announces Bond loudly, “she looks like my sister.” His voice, normally a fair imitation of a locomotive’s bass rumble, has, under the influence of Hurricane, become distant thunder. His eyelids have similarly lowered, resting now at about half-mast.
The woman digs in her purse. “Ma’am, are you pulling out a weapon or something? Because I talked?”
She shakes her head and removes the hand, empty.
“How you doing?”
“I didn’t ask you how you look. I said, ‘How you doing?’”
A game smile, but no response.
“Are you a Marine? Army? Navy? Air Force?”
“I’m a Washingtonian,” she replies.
Bond peers intently at the book. Her hands hide its title. Bond says his own reading list includes biographies of generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider, and Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October.
“Are you from Mississippi?” he asks. She’s not.
“The only reason I’m staring at you is you look like my sister. And,” he says as an aside, pronouncing the words with lip-smacking satisfaction, “she’s gorgeous.”
Bond chose to sit at this table because it’s in the path of heavy foot traffic. That means he’s got an ever-shifting pool of hungry passers-by to stare at—and talk to, if need be. But on days when he’s already blown his paycheck, he simply goes down the rows of restaurants, inhaling toothpick-speared samples. Then he walks upstairs to the station’s front entranceway, where he panhandles with a handful of other homeless or crippled steelworkers.
Bond says he has a difficult time bringing himself to beg, at least when he’s sober. He chooses alternate techniques if he can. He says he once tromped far out into the pool in front of the U.S. Capitol, gathering $140 in change before a police officer ordered him out. “The hardest part of being addicted to any kind of drug I don’t think is getting off. It’s maintaining,” he says. “The hardest thing is getting that first shot. You’re not in the right frame of mind.”
But once the coins or crumpled bills cross his palm, things generally feel all right: “If I get 50 cents, I feel good. Because then I know what I need.”
That’d be 50 more cents for a 24-ounce, $1 for a 40.
Bond’s attention is suddenly drawn to the incongruous sight of flimsy plastic hard hats bobbing in line at Le Petit Bistro. A pod of University of Maryland architecture students has entered the food court.
“Hey, lady!” Bond calls to one of them. “You an iron worker?”
A young woman in sweat pants walks over with a male companion. “I’m building your alumni hall,” says Bond. “You all know about Nelson studs, stuff like that?”
“A little bit,” says the guy.
Bond throws some technical questions at them. Then he invites the couple to visit “Bonehead,” a friend who’s stationed in a construction trailer on the university’s campus. The man will give them a tour of the site, he says.
“Who should we say sent us?” the guy asks.
“Tell ’em Bond. Mr. Bond.”
“Got it. We’ll tell Bonehead that Mr. Bond sent us.”
“Engineering majors,” Bond says as they walk away. “Ain’t they cute?”
He stands up. The backs of his overalls have slices cut into them, to vent the heat that collects on steel sheeting. Turning back to the woman engrossed in her book, he asks, “Ma’am, can I have your paper bag?” She hands it over, and he deposits the rest of his chicken into it.
I hope I didn’t interrupt your meal,” he tells her. “You’re probably used to that, fine as you are.”
“Can I play my numbers?” begs a short woman with no front teeth. There’s desperation in her voice as she pushes ahead in line with a fist closed around scraps of notebook paper. “They getting ready to cut off!”
Bond lets her squeeze past to the red-carpeted counter of Family Liquors. There are about a dozen people crammed into the tiny, horseshoe-shaped store, even though the rain has stopped and the sky begs for attention with a fetching rainbow. When his turn comes, Bond plunks down a dollar for a 24-ounce can of Hurricane in a brown paper bag.
In deference to the concerns of neighbors, the clerks are supposed to put the beer in a plastic bag, he says. But they make allowances for regulars. And Bond’s such a regular that the clerks don’t just know what he wants, but anticipate when he wants it. That’s thanks to his tool belt.
“Clink! Clink! Clink! I sound like a cow with a bell on,” he says. “They can actually hear me around corners, so they’ll have my shit ready: Hurricane every time, and a cherry Black & Mild. Or on Thursday, when I get paid, I get my motherfucking Gin & Juice.”
Bond strolls out of the store and around the corner, where he relieves himself behind a clothing store’s dumpster. This stretch of H Street tends to favor signboards with either brusque indicators of products and services—“Liquor,” “Laundromat”—or flowering verbiage—“De Place of Healing and Happiness Health Store,” “Discipleship Brotherskeepers Training Site.” The last address is nothing but an empty room with crumbling plaster and dangling wires.
Walking across the street and into northern Capitol Hill, Bond points to a pink house on a distant corner. “A woman lives up there, she got an ass”—he shakes his head—“looks like Broom Hilda. I’d lay a pipe in there so quick.” His shoes squelch on a carpet of soggy cherry blossoms as he plods along, guzzling his beer. He waves to a passing woman. She doesn’t return the gesture. “Girl! Did I say something wrong?” The woman shifts her switch into high gear.
“I love everybody,” says Bond. “My mother said, ‘I have so many kids that I gave strength and brains so that I could give you all the love.’ She told me I was the blessed one.”
As Bond heads south, the neighborhood begins to change. Unlike the area by the Gales Shelter, which is characterized chiefly by pay phones beaten to bits or totally ripped from their stations, these blocks of colorfully painted town houses reveal nothing more shocking than ugly lawn ornaments: a scrap-iron pelican, a frog playing a flute.
Bond does a double take as a slight man sunk in thought walks in front of him. “Hey! Heeyyy!” The thinker wheels around in surprise. “This man will draw any fucking thing,” says Bond, swaggering up to squeeze the guy’s hand. “This is a baaad man. He goes in some of the worst neighborhoods in Richmond, Virginia: Church Hill, Jackson Ward….I have not called you. I do apologize.”
Turns out Bond and this fellow, Brett Busang, knew each other in Richmond. Bond caught Busang, a painter of the urban-realist school, daubing on a canvas in what he considered to be a rough part of town. So he told the painter to watch himself. Now he’s asking about old acquaintances: Wolfgang with the art studio, Big Poppa the coin dealer.
“He lives in Vegas now,” Busang says of Big Poppa. “In fact, he had a stomach-clamp operation, so he isn’t big anymore.”
Small talk gives way to a request from Bond: “Hey, look man, hand me over a couple dollars.”
Busang has only change in his pockets. But he invites Bond to his apartment, where he digs up $3. Leaving the apartment with the bills in his hand, Bond says: “Didn’t I tell you I’ve always been blessed?”
And with that it’s back again—past Good Danny’s Chinese, A Fresh Look barbershop, the banners advertising human hair by the inch and not-so-human kanekalon—to Family Liquors for another big can of Hurricane.
Nobody seems to have left in his absence. There’s the gaunt, dust-coated man with the bandaged thumb, begging his way to a crack rock one quarter at a time. There’s the seafood opportunist with his shopping cart brimming with steamed crabs. The woman with electrified hair screaming incomprehensibly at all comers—still screaming, with no appreciable loss of energy or volume.
“I used to go to [Virginia Commonwealth University] art school and pose for the art students,” says Bond, taking a deep draught from his beer. He heads for Capitol Hill again. “I had to wear a towel, because I’d be looking at the girls and stuff—yeah, you know.”
The brick sidewalk on 2nd Street NE is lumpy and fraught with gaps. Bond is knocking his heel against a protruding brick, showing how he’d handle any hoodlum wanting trouble tonight.
“I would actually just back on up—you can back up and kick.” He kicks at the brick. “Or kick.” It doesn’t move, but he’s made a point: “That’s a weapon.”
Among his many difficult-to-verify yarns, Bond’s tales of his exploits in the Persian Gulf War have the most sobering effect on him. The way Bond tells it, he was stationed in Kuwait in what’s called a FIST, or Fire Support Team. He cruised the desert in armored vehicles, watching the tank movement of Iraq’s Republican Guard and scuttling its abandoned equipment. “We’d disassemble [the tanks], and we got a solution—it was like concrete—so to make sure they can’t use their weapons again we’d pour it down [the tank barrels], pack it in, and it would harden up. Or we would take their weapons, take their firing pins, their tops, and throw them away. Simple shit like that.”
Bond lost hearing in one ear firing Howitzers. He shot a few people, he says, but adds that he never killed anybody. He got ambushed once while sweeping for mines on an M1A1 Abrams tank.
“[W]e came up on a little village, houses and shit. I’m talking on the back on the tank…and these people came out…and they came out firing. Only thing you heard was a lot of loud cracking, and you smelled a lot of gunpowder.”
Bond didn’t have any weapon larger than a
9 mm pistol. So he pulled that out and fired into the approaching gunmen. “I had a dude coming down at me, and I know I hit him two or three times, but he didn’t stop moving. He just kept on coming, and he was shooting at me,” he says. Another soldier jumped up to the tank’s .50-caliber machine gun, released the bolt, and cut the man in half.
“Cut about two or three people in half,” recalls Bond. “We just overwhelmed them with firepower.” He spits onto the ground. “FIST!” he yells, throwing up a clenched hand. The bones are slightly warped, having been broken when he fell off some scaffolding a few years back.
Nature calls, so Bond takes a detour into an alley next to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, at 911 2nd St. NE. Peeing through a chain-link fence into somebody’s back yard, he turns his mind to romance.
“Sometimes when I piss, I hope some woman’s looking out through her window. And then, right when I finish pissing, I put my dick up and she finishes…” He breaks off. “You know what we call it out on the street when we reach a climax? ‘Getting your man on.’”
Bond finishes—maybe a hidden paramour does, too—and picks his beer up from among the plastic utensils and cigarette butts scattered over the alley. He remembers that he’s got to call his co-worker about transportation tomorrow. So he drowsily shuffles toward an underpass leading back to Union Station.
A clanking heartbeat of pile drivers resonates from a construction site near the Amtrak rails. Lights on scaffolding high up in the haze illuminate a gray Dodge Aries on the street. The bumper sticker: “Homelessness is UNACCEPTABLE.”
“You got to do me one favor, man,” he says. “You got to stay away from coke. I’m in a point in my life, man, I’m 41 years old, I want me one more baby that I can bring up….[B]ut in order for me to take care of that child, be a father, I got to get rid of this shit right here.” He shakes the near-empty Hurricane can, then tosses it into a tree planter.
“I’m not stupid by far,” he says. “I think I lived long enough, and drugged and drunken, dranken long, I’m on my last legs really. For real, for real. I’m not 24 years old anymore. Tired of it. Only thing I want to do is sit back and work and enjoy life.”
Bond says he’s been on the D.C. Housing Authority’s subsidized-housing waiting list for 13 months. He has a friend with a government certificate who pays $50 a month to live in an $800 apartment. “Once I get my apartment and stuff, right, I might grab me a beer and go sit out in Georgetown,” he says. “I’ll look good. I’ll put cologne, perfume on, and I’ll be a pretty man. And I will speak to everybody and stuff…man…and right. Hell.”
Inside Union Station, Bond calls his co-worker on a pay phone. After he hangs up, he ponders where to sleep. He considers trekking over to his beloved’s house but quickly gives that idea up. “Alcohol and females to me is a trigger, a trigger to drugs.” He doesn’t want to be facing that trigger tonight.
“If I work a full week—that’s 58 hours—I bring home over $1,300,” he says. “I will fuck up $1,200. All because of that trigger. You feel me? All in one night.”
Instead, he’ll walk to the Greyhound bus terminal, buy a newspaper, watch some TV, and wait for his ride to blow in at 5:30 a.m. That’s about six hours from now.
“Drinking,” says Bond, “is a full-time job.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.