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The news from the city’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is often bad. Take, for example, recent reports about aviation and defense expert Lockheed Martin’s IMS Inc.’s handling of the DMV parking-ticket contract—residents complain that they have received collection notices for cars they don’t own or have never owned or for cars that belong to dead people.

But wait—why is LL talking about the DMV when she doesn’t even own a car? The girl does have a driver’s license, which she renewed last summer in 15 minutes flat—not counting the time it took for her to dash over to her optometrist, after failing the DMV’s eye examination, that is, to get his signature of approval and guarantee that with her new lenses she’s not likely to cause any accidents. And, believe it or not, LL has friends—some of whom have cars and have reported favorably on their experiences at the DMV vehicle-inspection station. Further, she was intrigued during a recent interview with the new city administrator, John Koskinen, when he singled out for praise a particular employee in the DMV.

Which brings us to another aviation expert and the man mentioned by Koskinen—Fred Loney, who seems to be meeting expectations.

LL wanted to talk with this developing legend who had the city administrator boasting. So on a recent Thursday, she sashayed over to the DMV inspection station on Half Street SW. A former Air Force aircraft maintenance manager, Loney is a bear of a man who sports bifocals and a military posture. He is the District’s senior manager for vehicle inspection, safety, and emissions, responsible for inspecting all D.C.-registered vehicles, including even floats used in parades. In other words, if it doesn’t meet Loney’s standards, it’s not likely to get on the road.

Officious in tone and filled with the kind of pride that might be expected from someone showing off his first home, Loney led LL on a tour of the Southwest station. He pointed out the state-of-the-art computerized equipment and spouted inspection trivia: D.C. started inspection of cars in 1938; the Southwest station opened in 1963 with four inspection bays; the only thing left standing from the original station is the wall on one side; the District is one of the few jurisdictions in the United States that can simultaneously perform safety and emissions tests; and the workers here can inspect 52 vehicles an hour.

“When I came here, in 1988, from the Air Force, there was not one piece of equipment that was working,” says Loney, who had sought a post-military career that allowed him to use his mechanical skills. “I saw this inspection station all broken down, and I said, ‘You have to be careful what you pray for.’”

Loney’s workplace pride is possessed by few District employees—which undoubtedly was one reason why he jumped into the fray last year when irate citizens started jamming telephone lines to the mayor’s office, complaining about delays at the inspection station. Although Sherryl Hobbs-Newman, the DMV’s director, frequently catches the laurels for the department’s remarkable turnaround, Loney deserves some props, too—some of his ideas helped his division leap from a 40 percent customer-approval rating to 98 percent in one year.

Loney urged Hobbs-Newman to hire additional workers; 35 were subsequently brought in on an emergency basis. He also suggested a schedule of inspections that reserved specific times for taxicabs, which take longer to complete the process. And he pushed for mass training of new employees, which enabled the city to open all eight bays at the inspection station very quickly. When LL went there, at 3 p.m., the place was damn near empty of customers, and no one was caught waiting—except for a resident or two whose vehicles were ready for the junkyard and who were trying to persuade the DMV workers that the problem was not their cars but government equipment.

Loney brushes aside all accolades, saying they belong to his workers and, of course, Hobbs-Newman; that’s his Southern humility coming out. There isn’t any doubt that the DMV’s success is owed at least in part to the many invisible employees who quietly and professionally perform their jobs and who, because of their expertise, could probably get hired anywhere in the country but love calling the District, and even the District government, home.

“It hasn’t been perfect. I have had to reach for and use all the management skills the Air Force taught me—and I have had to reach down deep,” Loney says. “When I leave, I truly believe I will have left this government better than I found it. But the proof will be in the pudding.”

So far, a whole bunch of District motorists like what Loney has served up.

HIDDEN TREASURE

Cesaria Evora, Maria Pagés, Ute Lemper, Ali Farka Toure, Milton Nascimento, and Virginia Rodrigues have all appeared in the District. But they weren’t seen at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts or the Warner Theatre. They have been featured performers during the past year at George Washington University’s (GWU) Lisner Auditorium.

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Mention GWU and images of a voracious property-eating machine come to mind. The once minor-league university has become one of the city’s largest landowners—even if it doesn’t pay any taxes on most of its acres. Each year, there are recurring battles between the university and nearby residents, who suffer the frat parties and various youthful indiscretions inflicted by GWU students. One or two times, LL has joined the band of protesters, arguing that the university’s insatiable appetite for land ought to be curbed.

But GWU’s gluttony is made palatable by Lisner. And Lisner has become this wonderful center for the arts because of a tiny powerhouse named Rosanna Ruscetti. A Chicago native, she grew up seeing live theater and rubbing shoulders with actors and other artists at neighborhood bars. There wasn’t any separation between them and the community for whom they performed. And so, after traveling a bit and working at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Ruscetti accepted GWU’s invitation to join its staff as Lisner’s director, presenting arts events at the place that was once the home of the Washington Opera and the Washington National Symphony.

Oops. LL just broke a promise to Ruscetti—LL was supposed to talk only about the auditorium, and not Ruscetti herself. But it’s hard to disconnect the two; Lisner has become an expression of Ruscetti’s vision, artistic sensibilities, generosity, and hard work. With a small staff, she has made Lisner into a commanding presence, a venue that attracts a multiethnic and multiclass audience. It’s a place where all the languages of the city can be heard and where one can watch a fur-draped woman enter the door just behind a person sporting the disheveled hiphop look of the times. One night, there are the sounds of Youssou N’Dour on stage, with Senegalese and other Africans dancing in the aisles; another, there is the rhythmic tapping of flamenco dancers, with hundreds of people shouting in Spanish.

“We’re not the opera. We’re not the symphony. We’re not edgy theater. We may have all of those things,” Ruscetti explains one afternoon, during an interview inside a drab conference room just off the lobby entrance to the auditorium.

“We’re not trying to compete with the Kennedy Center or the Warner or the commercial promoters in town,” she adds. “Sometimes, we bring artists that have no American press. You now know who Cesaria Evora is. When we brought her, nobody knew who she was. Many of the artists have gone on way beyond our size.”

But it isn’t just that artists find a stage from which to launch their careers in the United States that makes Lisner a place worth celebrating. It’s that Ruscetti deliberately produces with the community in mind. She struggles to keep ticket prices low—a feat made somewhat easier by the underwriting provided by the university and, on occasion, corporations, foundations, and foreign embassies. She engages in partnerships with local arts groups—some of which have never presented any programs on a professional stage—and she works with various departments at the university, which also uses the auditorium for more traditional programs, such as graduations and convocations.

“Because we’re affiliated with the university, it’s more open,” Ruscetti says. “You don’t necessarily always know what you’re coming to see.”

This month, Lisner fans have been treated, among other events, to ¡Espana!, which included performances of contemporary flamenco by the Pagés Dance Company and traditional flamenco music by guitarist Manolo Sanlucar and vocalist Carmen Linares; a film series; and an exhibition of prints by Spanish artist Francisco Goya, presented in collaboration with the Dimock Gallery, located on the lower level of the auditorium.

“If I can get a bunch of people interested in seeing flamenco because they like the exhibit or a film, that’s good,” says Ruscetti. “Whatever we do has to be a mirror to the various communities. It has to reflect the community. But it also has to be a window to other things.”

The view from the Lisner has gotten so good, LL may even give that property-eating GWU a break every now and then. Maybe.

GONE BUT REMEMBERED

He was irascible, the kind of guy who would as soon say “Go to hell” as he would “Hello.” He had no truck with lazy bureaucrats, and he had an abiding dedication to young people east of the Anacostia River—the ones often forgotten by politicians and the media, children who rarely saw a live performance of anything other than maybe some go-go band.

Andrew Cacho was LL’s type of person.

She met him during another life, when she served as a temporary grants officer at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and, later, when she was an arts presenter, producing events at the Kennedy Center under the auspices of its Programs for Children and Youth. Cacho was a musician, dancer, choreographer, and arts administrator. There were a few times when LL caught the hot end of Cacho’s temper, but even then she maintained enormous respect for him and his efforts to introduce authentic African drumming and dancing to children who had been told that anything remotely related to that “dark” continent was barbaric.

When many other arts groups or artists claimed neighborhoods in Northwest or on Capitol Hill as their base, Cacho went to what, back in the late ’70s, was a virtual no man’s land. Few were willing to call the community east of the Anacostia River home. But that is where the Belize native anchored his operation.

For more than two decades, working first alone and then with his wife, Bonita Cacho, Andrew Cacho went throughout Southeast and far Northeast rescuing young people who, but for him, might have been lost on the streets without any direction and without anyone who genuinely cared about their future. He shaped them into fine dancers and good citizens.

“Many lives were altered” because of him, says Anthony Gittens, executive director of the arts commission. “When things got tough with a classroom, Andrew would say, ‘I’m a championship boxer from Belize. If you think you can take me on, step up. If not, sit down and do your work.’”

LL had wanted to launch her biannual laudatory column with a salute to Cacho; she told him and his wife as much when she saw them in November at Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ youth summit. A few weeks earlier, Cacho, who was battling cancer, had been released from the hospital. He died Dec. 29. There wasn’t any mention of his death in the media. His funeral was held Jan. 4.

But although he’s gone, Cacho is very much remembered by those of us who loved him, by those young people whose lives he touched, and by the community he made whole because he dedicated his life and his talent to it. And we are lucky that his wife plans to continue their work.

And so, this is LL’s raised glass to Andrew Cacho, Bonita Cacho, Fred Loney, Rosanna Ruscetti, the Lisner folks, and the thousands of other people, who, without fanfare or reward, make tremendous contributions to the District each day. Their quiet offerings are what make the District such a wonderfully rich place to live—a beloved city. —Jonetta Rose Barras

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