Unique directs his four Guardian Angels into formation as they wait for the walk signal at 16th and U Streets NW. They’re halfway between U Street nightclubs and 18th Street restaurants. Summertime twilight falls on them at a corner, with three lanes of taxis revving their engines waiting to rush at first green. Unique calls for a perimeter defense. “Turn around,” he tells one new Angel. “Your back should be facing my back. Correct. The purpose for this is so that we have eyes in the back of our headso nobody bum-rushes us.”
Unique, aka John Ayala, 28, of Waldorf, Md., calls for the same defense at every intersection as they reach the see-and-be-scene of Friday night in Adams Morgan. Amid the clinks of glasses and sidewalks of hand-holding middle-aged suburban couples, Unique’s got rear guard and rival gangs on his mind. “They look at us like hemorrhoids,” he says of the bad guys, “because we’re constantly there.”
Well, constantly there most Friday nights between 7:30 and 10:30 p.m., when the Angels come to the neon boulevard to set up their weekly street-corner crime bunker. And when they’re here, well, the theory seems to work, because there’s nothing for them to do. The bad guys must be in some other part of town.
Eventually, the Angels branch off restaurant row onto the side streets west toward Connecticut Avenue. They always take alleys and shortcuts, in an effort to see who else might be lurking out there. When they walk the alleys, Angels flick flashlight beams around to see if anyone’s hiding around garages and garbage cans. There are side trips through apartment clusters, past shadowy figures who shrink further into the darkness. For most of the night, though, the Angels hang out in plain sight.
“This is a normal street patrol,” Unique explains on the wide Columbia Road sidewalk, leading his patrol to the Safeway for 25-cent cans of soda. “We walk around, nothing happens, we did our job. Maybe nothing would happen. Who knows?”
Like many Angels, Unique is an enormous blowhard, but at least he can back it up. If I found myself on the wrong corner, I’d be happy to see Unique sprinting down the street with his crimson beret on, round baby face and all. Despite the growing gut spilling over the waist of his camouflage pants, Unique’s got the eyes, the anger, and the threatening voice that creates a street presence, plus a spiffy pair of black leather fingerless biker gloves. When there is righteous action to be had, Unique runs through people and things to get there like a battleship’s bow in mean seas.
Besides a willingness to throw down, Unique’s got a big title, a large jurisdiction, and a complicated history for a 28-year-old, but his vision of a thug-free D.C. is limited by the half-dozen Angels he takes on patrol. He started drinking the Angels’ Kool-Aid when he was a 15-year-old scrawny kid with no street smarts who joined Angels founder Curtis Sliwa to patrol the South Bronx. Unique was smitten by their refusal to back down in the face of crime and, even more, by their mission to protect the innocent. He also couldn’t help noticing that they seemed to be on TV a lot. He rode the subway rails with Sliwa and the gang, where they once confronted and took down a Colt .45-wielding would-be mugger. The Colt turned out to be a BB gun, but hey, who knew?
The Angels took wing in 1979 and began to register big time on the American culture meter in the early- to mid-’80s. Bernard Goetz was in the news, as were dispatches of daily mayhem in cities all over the country. Much of the street violence, which seemed to have taken on a new and sudden randomness, stemmed from the explosion of crack in many urban areas. The Angels were a powerful countervailing symbol at a time when much of urban America felt at risk. The Angels eventually claimed 60 chapters nationwide, as well as in England, Japan, France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Italy, and Russia. Sliwa, handsome and street-smart, ended up being a reliable touchstone for crime reporters. Throughout the ’80s, he beat down civil libertarians and talk-show hosts with an unswerving, rock-solid-eyeball stare.
As crime rose, so did the Angels’ rep, but other forces eventually came into play to displace the Angels in the pantheon of citizen activism. Myriad intermediate efforts, including community policing, Orange Hat patrols, “zero-tolerance” policies, and arrests for nuisance crimes, made the Angels seem less the lone avatars of order in the midst of mayhem.
Today, as the Angels approach their 20th anniversary in February, you can’t shake the feeling that they’ve gone the way of disco, but with no comeback in sight. Boston, Chicago, D.C., Brooklyn, and Manhattan are the only outposts with legitimate chapter-size claims. It used to be that when distant cities requested an Angels presence, Sliwa would send experienced Angels to the new city, recruit and train new members, and leave a chapter behind. But these chapters inevitably withered when the New Yorkers left and turned patrols over to the locals. That pattern played out in D.C., as well. Unique is now trying to reverse the trend.
Back in 1989, Sliwa offered Unique the chance to move to D.C. and set up a local chapter. Unique says he had headquarters in Landover, Baltimore, Frederick, and Cambridge, Md., as well as in the Trenton Park Apartments in deep Southeast, shortly after he pulled into the metro area. By his reckoning, each office had 50 members, with Landover boasting 100.
In 1990, one year after he got here, Unique got an ice pick in the back at Trenton Park, scuffling with a gang of drug dealers, he says. The pick narrowly missed his spine, and after a night at D.C. General, he told the Washington Times, “This little injury doesn’t stop me. It just makes me want to go out more.”
But he did take a break. For six years he led a more domestic existence, getting married, working in the mail room of a Northern Virginia patent-law firm, and organizing volunteer activities for children. Unique’s D.C.-area Angels chapters died. But then, two years ago, a 12-year-old girl was raped in Waldorf, where he lives. Unique knew the secluded, wooded path by a school where the crime happened, and his outrage prompted him to jump-start the D.C. Angels chapter back to life.
At first his wife, Wanda Ayala, 34, would have none of it. But he eventually talked her into at least putting on a uniform and standing behind a table at a community forum to recruit some female Angels. And after a day of standing around styling in the uniform while people stopped and thanked her for taking a stand, she was hooked. “All that love,” she recalls. “Just being out there, being in the community, helping out.” Today, patrolling the subway in her camouflage fatigues and black boots, she’s occasionally mistaken for special security for the Metro money train. In her day job, she’s a secretary in an immense federal agency.
Because Wanda likes painting her lips bright redbrighter than her cherry-red beretshe took the Angel name Lipstick. Unique’s rekindled force began with this army of one. His reinvigorated target is 200 Angels by the end of the year. “If we can do that, imagine, we would have Angels on trains every day….You’d have so many men you wouldn’t be burning anyone out….[If] we get those 200 people, then the sky’s the limit.”
When the D.C. Angels head up to New York for training, you can taste what they cravethey fall in among a hundred Angels in red satin baseball jackets and red berets that glint gold from batches of nickel-sized pins. Like other chapters east of the Mississippi, the D.C. Angels time their weekend tour in the Big Apple with the National Puerto Rican Parade on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Sliwa anchors the front of the Angels contingent, shimmering in his trademark beret and Angels jacket, waving to crowds as he is escorted by a wing of his experienced lieutenants. Unique mostly walks beside Sliwa, but he also runs up, down, and around, checking on the lesser Angels. Then back at Sliwa’s side, holding his walkie-talkie in hand, Unique reports that the parade’s going according to plan. He’s a caricature of the overly efficient sailor detailing calm seas to a captain staring at a flat expanse of water.
Besides walking in the parade, the New York weekend is an opportunity for the Washington Angels to see how it really gets done. Unique arranges field trips to New York several times a year to show his troops that they are part of something bigger than Adams Morgan, bigger than D.C.
This summer, Unique has brought along Papoose, aka Michele Proctor, 17, and Ivy Horton, 17, two students from Friendly High School in Fort Washington, Md. Ivy has been with the Angels for only two patrols, both of them on the D.C. Metro. Ivy doesn’t look like a Guardian Angel. She wears braces, and she smiles instead of talking. She’s small, very thin-limbed, and timid; she says nothing except yes, no, that she’s fine, and that she’s having a good time. (Ivy doesn’t have a real Angels nickname, but they’ve temporarily dubbed her I.V., “because that’s what you’re going to need if you keep messing with her,” fellow Angel Boot explains.)
This is only Ivy’s second time away from home. At the D.C. Greyhound station, her grandmother was apprehensive. “I don’t feel comfortable with it,” she said. “This is her second time leaving home. Last time was camp. I just trust that it will go well.”
“Are there any other ladies from this area going?” she asked Unique. “She’ll be with other people? Will she be trained in karate and all that? She’ll need that.”
“She’ll be fine,” Unique promised, a smooth-faced portrait of competence.
Not necessarily. Patrolling the subway in New York a day later, Ivy’s school chum Papoose gets hassled by a bona fide gangbanger.
“He was in my face!” she exclaims, once she’s off and the train is gone. “He was trippin’! Getting in my face!” she continues. “He asked, ‘Why are you an Angel, you’re so young? You out here doing all thishave you ever been shot? Have you ever been stabbed?’ and he pulled up his shirt and showed me so many marks.” She got off and waited by the door, as the Angels are trained to do. “He said, ‘Why don’t you get back on the train? Get back on the train.’”
“Did he reach into his pocket?” Unique queries. Papoose says yes. “Right there! He violated you! You were a victim! You know the Bloodsit could have been an initiation. He could have sliced your face. He could have reached in his pocket and pulled out an ice pick.”
Papoose is confusedUnique often refers to ice picks in his lectures on danger. “What is an ice pick?” she asks, and “Are they popular?” Unique and Boot explain that an ice pick is a long nail with a handle on it. They hold their hands a foot to 16 inches apart to show how long one is and explain that it can cause severe internal bleeding.
Papoose steps back, crosses both arms across her chest tightly. “Dang. People are so bad,” she says softly.
Unique says the confrontation is part of becoming an Angel: “Let that be a learning experience. In fact, I’m happy that happened.”
Papoose is a few more street hassles away from being a bona fide Angel. The only distinction in rank the Angels make is in the printing on their white T-shirts. The standard trainee T-shirt reads “I Support the Guardian Angels.” Only after three months to a year of reliable service does a trainee’s shirt drop “I support” and get the coveted “Safety Patrol” in black letters instead. Once they earn the Safety Patrol shirt, Angels are called “Safeties.” Until then, they’re known as “I-Supports.” Safeties who misbehave are demoted to I-Supports. By the end of the summer, Papoose’s regular attendance at patrols earns her Safety.
At night on the New York outing, Unique takes Boot, Papoose, and Ivy out on foot to bust crack users in the West Side’s high 30s, a standard Manhattan business district by day, a crack alley by night, according to New York Angels. Three times in a row, with some I-Supports looking on, the Safeties take crack from the users and stomp it to dust on the pavement without incident. The fourth time, the procedure doesn’t go so well.
At a corner of 8th Avenue, Unique says he sees three rocks in a man’s handthe man is showing them to other men in a tight circle. Unique rushes in to bust himfollowed by the I-Supports. The other corner men scatter. Unique grabs the guy with the rocks by the wrist, but it’s too late. “He threw the crack in his mouth!” Unique yells. Unique pulls one move and the man is downflathis stomach on the wet Midtown corner, his chin just inches over the cracked cement. Unique heaves a knee into the man’s back, cranks his arm back, and jams his wrist forward toward the man’s forearm. “AaaahAaaahAaaah!” screams the man.
“Cough ’em up! Cough ’em up now!” Unique yells. “He threw the rocks in his mouth!” he yells again to his crew.
“No! Dude took ’em!” screams the downed man several times.
After a bit of this back and forth, Unique gets off him and insists he saw where the rocks went. The man slowly gets up, picking his white baseball cap out from where it fell under his belly.
“Dude took ’em!” he yells, now in disbelief and frustration, walking around to collect himself. “Aw, man! Dude took ’em. Aw, man…”
Unique eventually lets the guy go without a hint of remorse. “[T]hese guys are breaking the law,” Unique explains later. He’s not worried about the legal implications of taking someone down, or even making a mistake. “We’ve been around for 19 years. Our tactics have never changed. We’ve never been sued. Why’s that? We must be doing something right. The average guy we’re dealing with is the average thug. You go in a building, you put them down, they have drugs. You think these guys are going to sue you? Let’s be real. These guys are committing a crime.”
In order to grow the chapter back in D.C., Unique hasn’t been able to be too choosy. In a city where people who get in the way of criminals occasionally get killed, it’s not as if hundreds are lining up to don nifty T-shirts and go after crooks. Wearing an odd hat and falling under a chain of command isn’t the kind of hobby that entices street-proven warriors. As a result, some of his charges look more scared than scary. And their berets only emphasize the fact that they are, for the most part, all hat and no
The Angels’ promotional flyer could be a solicitation to join the Boy Scouts: “Bravery. Responsibility. Commitment. Solidarity. Dedication. Courage. Real life heroes.” The fine print goes further: “We travel in groups of four, and are trained what to do when we see a crime in progress; we know how to protect ourselves and the victims…We are REAL-LIFE HEROES! Guardian Angels are positive role models. We are taught discipline, responsibility, respect, loyalty and self-esteem.”
It’s not mentioned in the flyer, but there’s also a good possibility that you may end up famous if you stick with the Angels. After an alleged rape in the Wheaton Metro station last spring, the Angels were interviewed on the radio and said they were going to increase their patrols in the suddenly menaced burg of Wheaton.
It’s an odd spectacle, watching self-appointed crime warriors hit one of the safest subway systems in the country. During their once-a-week subway patrol, Unique wanders car to car, checking on his troops. He stares blankly forward. Burdened with a red first-aid kit, a pager, a flashlight, a pen sheath, handcuffs, and a walkie-talkie on his Bat Belt, he looks as if he’s going camping. The rubber antenna on the ubiquitous radio wiggles with his heavy steps.
Angels ride one to a train car. The two patrol leaders, usually Unique and Rondu, aka Roland Watson, 49, station themselves at the front door of the front car and the last door of the last car and communicate by walkie-talkie.
“Unique to Rondu, over,” Unique says once, twice, then a third time. Rondu comes back in a burst of screech from the squawker.
“How things looking at your end of the train? Over.” Unique asks.
“No problems,” comes back through the fuzz.
“Everything calm and cool this area also. Ten-four, over and out,” Unique says as he clips the walkie-talkie back on his belt with a flourish.
“That’s the way I like it,” he says, with the satisfaction of a job well done. “No problems.”
Anthony Jackson, 24, of Southeast, rolls his eyes, smiles, and shakes his head while an Angel patrol rides his Anacostia-bound Green Line train. “The Metro is safe!” he booms. Angels riding the Metro are “like driving a tank in Bermudait’s overkill!”
The Angels make no concessions for the hermetic safety of the Metro system. Their rules for riding are endless: Keep your back against something solid when you ride the Metroso no one can stab you in the back. Always look toughbut smile and be nice when passengers talk to you. (Unique calls that “customer service.”) Never sit down on the MetroAngels stand alert. When the train comes into a station and the passengers are out of the way, take command of the open doorway. Look side to side on the platform for wrongdoing, but do so from a crouch, your red-topped head out the door at waist levelthat way the subway conductor can see the length of the train and signal the “doors closing” chime. “At the same time, when you’re on your knees, watch your back,” says Unique.
When the other AngelsBoot, Peaches, Shamrock, Papoose, DJ, Bishop, Robo Cop, Rondu, Bizzy, Raven, and Undertakerfollow procedure, it looks as if everyone’s lining up to make the hundred-yard dash out of the stainless-steel subway. An Angel seeing crime or fearing danger should wave his or her beret out the open subway doora “Code Red.” All the crouching comrades should see it and come running.
Unique takes any Code Red very seriously, even when it’s a drillbecause it’s always a drill. Once, on the Yellow Line, he wiggles his beret out the door while everyone’s doing the knee check. All the Angels are instantly out of their crouches and running on the platform. They pile into the car willy nilly, bumping each other through the doors.
“You all messed up,” Unique barks when everyone’s on board, as if the Angels are alone in the training car. Commuters already seated in the car courteously oblige by pretending to be in their own worlds. “Code Red is a life-threatening situation,” he barks again. “When I throw that signal, you all should be in that train in 15 seconds. You never know if it’s a drill or if I’m getting my butt kicked. You didn’t make it. That means I got my butt kicked.”
The drill at least has some practical applications. The same cannot be said of “Saluting the Train,” a particularly freaky set piece of the Angels’ repertoire, deployed when they switch trains. As the subway doors open, all the Angels walk out and face the train, planting their feet shoulder length apart. As the train moves out and the last car of the train passes each Angel, each turns 90 degrees as the last car slips by, to face the tunnel where the train is disappearing.
“People see that and say, ‘Wow, these guys really look sharp. They’re really on point,’” Unique says.
Maybe some do. Others wonder what in the world this underground ballet has to do with making the bad guys quake with something besides laughter.
Once the train disappears into the tunnel, the stationary Angels watch Unique for the signal. When he lifts an arm to 10-o’clock high over the still-blinking lights, the Angels double-time down to him and fall into a single-file formation, shortest to tallest. When the Angels change off the Green Line at L’Enfant Plaza during an evening rush hour, on the opposite platform 200 Huntington-bound Virginian commuters in ties and shoulder-strapped bags watch the curtain call in blank amazement. And then, with the steady clomp of marching boots echoing in the cavern, the Angels are gone.
It’s true that the D.C. Angels as a whole are not a tough bunch, but Angels generally have enough of a rep for kicking ass that it creates uncertainty among street crews. “You must complete extensive training in our self-defense program,” reads their introduction packet. “We are taught to act quickly and decisively.”
“Martial arts is confidence-building for [us],” Unique says. “You teach how to kick, punch, block.” But he chuckles and adds, “When you’re out there, you’re just fighting.”
Some nights, Unique skips subway patrol and makes the crew jog from the Anacostia Metro station to a large, overgrown grassy triangle bordered by ramps to the Anacostia Freeway and Welsh Memorial Bridge. On three sides, trucks and cars flash and roar by in windshield-glinting rush-hour sunlight. In the middle of the triangle, five uniformed Angels sit on their butts and stretch in a circle.
Then, although Unique demonstrates karate punches and kicks several times, “just fighting” is really what training turns out to be. After the demo, Unique assigns two Angels to fight each other while the rest of the gang stands in a circle around them, keeping score. Each fighter gets a point for a contact hitfist or footto the opponent’s upper torso. First Angel to score three wins. All the Angels take turns.
Then he assigns two to take down one. He wants them to get hit, and to feel hits, he says, so that they lose their fear. That way, when street action flares up, fighting will be denuded of its weighty scare. He says one of the higher rituals of Angel graduation is for an Angel to pass through “the circle of death,” in which a half-dozen or more experienced Angels set upon the subject with all of the punches and kicks they can muster. Not unlike the Bloods, actually.
On this warm summer night, Unique calls on everyone to jump Shamrock and take him down in the unmowed grass. Shamrock is a big dude and fights off Papoose, Ivy, and Lipstick easily until Unique jumps on him and the inevitable happens. Shamrock writhes on his side in the grass. Unique hits flank and back shots with his right, laying into the downed Shamrock with his left shoulder: “Think you’re a Guardian Angel, motherfucker? [punch] Take that, fucking Guardian Angel! [punch] Think that beret’s going to protect you, Guardian Angel? [punch].”
“All my superheroes fought crime!” says Undertaker, or Keith Warren, 16, an I-Support since this spring. In the Angels’ comic-book world, the superpowers also extend to their enemies, too, or “mutants,” as Angels
dub them. Of course, the bad guys aren’t that
bad, and the good guyswell, they’re more comic than hero.
Still, amid all the nonsense, it’s a lot of fun butchin’ around with the Angels. It’s fun to call drunk beggars by their first names, with your feet locked wide apart on a street corner and a walkie-talkie in your hand. It’s even more fun when accompanied by a constant swivel of your head from shoulder to shoulder, looking out for mutants and crime, smooth as windshield wipers on low.
At 18th and Columbia, Unique drinks in a mutterer in dirty shorts and an Army parka. “How you doin’ tonight, Tracy?” he says with laughter in his voice and a knowing glance over his shoulder to his buddies. Tracy blabbers but straightens her back, telling Unique she knows where it’s really going down. She, too, looks knowingly side to side, but her act wears out quickly. Unique dismisses her with a loud reference to her brown-bagged bottle.
Angels carry no weapons on patrols. They are human jewelry, a walking motif designed to deter with style. They cover their berets with metal pins, often miscellaneous military ones that make it look as if they’ve earned their Angel rank. Officially, the pins mean nothing but an attempt to bluff the bad guys, but unofficially they mean experience and loyalty. New recruits don’t dare put on too many too fast, although no one knows how fast that is.
Times and criminal behavior may have changed, but D.C. Angels are creatures of institutional habit. They patrol the safest subway in the nation because standing on moving underground trains is just what Angels have always done. They run around town to the crime-scene microphones because that’s where the profile-building cameras are. The Angels hear plenty of critics who tell them where they should go, but they’ve got ways of protecting their turf, or at least their choice of turf.
Angels go where the crime-fighting amenities are, and if a neighborhood can’t come up with a donated headquarters, it’s shit out of luck. And even if neighbors offer up an HQ, it may not get them a patrol. The office that Barry Farm Dwellings offered Unique and Lipstick wasn’t good enough, for example. And when passers-by and subway riders suggest they visit a particularly hairy neighborhood, Unique and his minions remind them that it’s part of the Angel credo that they must be invited in by community leaders before they’ll patrol a neighborhood.
And there is always the ultimate stopper: They’re volunteers, anywaythey don’t even have to be here! “This isn’t even my community!” exclaims Lipstick when an Adams Morgan man tells her she should go where people’s butts are really getting kicked.
Another sidewalk critic, who says he’s from New York, urges Lipstick to patrol Trinidad, in Northeast: “Youths are not surviving out there. They shoot youths down like a motherfucker.”
Lipstick starts explaining about being a volunteer again.
“Listen, baby,” the guy says, identifying himself as Bob Mabery, 32, “you can explain all that to me, but the truth is that the real Guardian Angels came to [Manhattan’s] 125th and Amsterdam.” Mabery has been eating a chicken dinner and using the top of a public trash can for a table. He knows the old-school Angels’ script. He knows Curtis Sliwa’s name. “With only his little hat,” he says of Sliwa, “he went where it’s hard-core. He made a stand. You don’t go there.”
After that Lipstick hits him with the Angels’ ultimate put-up-or-shut-up”Why don’t you join us?” she says in her coy, melting, head-tilted way, lipstick smudged on her bright white teeth.
“Join you?” Mabery says, stunned. “Join you with my fucking 9!”
“We get that all the time,” Lipstick tells me as we walk away. “We get a lot of negative things. Tonight, they’re just coming at us. They’re telling us what we’re not doing instead of concentrating on what we are doing.”
Later, at debriefing, Lipstick tells everyone about Mabery’s advice to patrol Trinidad. “Arrange that?” she exclaims in disbelief. “What? Arrange our own funeral?…If there’s shooting in a community, what makes you think they won’t be shooting at us?”
The Angels’ abundant profiling in some neighborhoods that aren’t all that sketchy is not without value. Unique’s strategy follows three steps. First, attain visibility: Go where crime has a sudden, splashy profilelike Wheaton after the alleged rape or Georgetown after the Starbucks murders. Demonstrate an Angels presence at the ensuing public forums. Second, start community leaders thinking about getting the Angels into the neighborhood’s crime-deterrence act. Third, strike an agreement in which the citizens help pay Angels’ costs and donate space for a headquarters.
From the HQ, the groups can recruit as well as run more area patrols. An HQ bestows prestigeestablishing the Angels as a fixtureand provides them with a Bat Cave where they can invite experienced members from other cities to visit D.C. and patrol D.C. streets. Not to mention it gives the crew a place to pee.
The sequence was effectively carried out in Adams Morgan after a January 1997 murder and a series of rapes brought a good deal of news coverage to the cafe-littered neighborhood and sent flocks of residents to evening meetings with the chief of police. (In June of this year, a 17-year-old pleaded guilty to rape, kidnapping, and burglary in two Adams Morgan rapes.)
The Angels made a show of force in the wake of the headlines that yielded them a new HQ, a donated second-floor office in the 2200 block of 18th Street, at the base of Adams Morgan’s restaurant row.
But in January of this year Unique went to the HQ one night after work and found the locks changed. The plug had been pulled by Jubilee Housing Inc., a nonprofit housing agency that runs eight low-income housing apartments in Adams Morgan. Jubilee had donated the office in exchange for Angel patrols in their apartments. Hugh Hammet, Jubilee’s executive director, who came to Jubilee after the deal with the Angels was struck, says he gave the Angels the boot only after patrols of Jubilee properties fell off and he noticed they had run up a $585.16 long-distance phone bill on the line Jubilee had also agreed to connect and pay for.
Unique denies that the number of patrols fell off but acknowledges the huge phone bill. He says he warned Jubilee to lock out long-distance calls. “They were told to put a block on the line,” he says. “They chose not to. That’s their fault. I didn’t even knowI would have made me some long-distance calls.”
The Angels, who find safety in numbers, are down to four die-hards as they patrol the subway one night. Unique and Rondu hold down the front and rear of the trains, with two new recruits, Papoose and Bizzy, riding in between. It’s the first patrol for BizzyChris Patton, 16who attends Friendly High School with Papoose.
Transferring at Metro Center from a Blue Line train, the Angels find the platform busythe Washington Capitols hockey team is in a playoff game tonight, and sports fans in jerseys are everywhere. Unique grouses about how many Metro police the patrol keeps coming across tonight. They’re out in force because of the game. Usually, he says, the cops neglect the subway stations in order to protect Metro’s suburban parking lots.
Suddenly, a bike cop is running over to him.
“Who’s in charge here?” he demands. Unique steps forward and is briefed about a suspicious package on the platform. The cop wants the Angels to seal off the area around it until help arrives. Keep the citizens away from it.
Unique tells Rondu and Bizzy not to let anyone past the escalators and runs upstairs with Papoose to post her at the top of the mezzanine elevator. He takes the top of the granite stairs between platforms.
It’s a good thing the police show uparriving in droves from each incoming train, in factbecause the Angels don’t handle the situation too well. Rondu stands by the escalator, holding his palms up and out, cryptically telling the confused passengers, “It’s all sealed off. It’s all sealed off.” Bizzy stands behind Rondu, keeps his hands in his pockets, and does nothing. He’s a new guy, after all.
A huge German shepherd on a leash sniffs all around a big burgundy plastic suitcase wedged between a granite bench and a newspaper-recycling bin. The nose picks up nothing. A Transit Police captain taps the case a few times and opens it carefully. Empty.
“Somebody must have just left it,” says the bike cop, Sgt. Neil Frebowitz, with a shrug. He says he called the Angels into service because “I use every option available. I’ve used Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, and now the Guardian Angels.”
Despite being lumped in with kiddies, Unique swells with pride. “It makes you feel good. I’ll go home tonight and feel good about what I’ve done….Did I put my life on the line? Yes, I did. [Papoose] did, too. She put her life on the line standing above that bomb on the elevator.”
This reference”that bomb”becomes a recurrent theme for the Angels. When they discuss it later, the phrase is always the same, “that bomb.” After a week passes, Rondu, asked what’s been happening, replies, “We had a bomb.”
“They might be over the top. They might be preposterous. They may slip over the line on occasion, but it’s citizen involvement. It’s that simple,” says Anthony V. Bouza, the retired chief of police of Minneapolis. Bouza and Curtis Sliwa have known each other since Sliwa started patrolling the Bronx and Bouza was ranking New York Police Department brass in charge of the area. Bouza was running the Minneapolis police department when Sliwa came to town to get a chapter going. Bouza thinks the Angels are more important symbolically than practically. “It doesn’t get said often enough that citizen action working with the police makes crime fighting work in a democracy. I think it’s wonderful and ought to be encouraged.”
Deborah Bandzerewicz, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who just arranged the chapter’s new headquarters near Barney Circle, wants them not as crime-fighting action heroes, but for that little extrabecause Angels will walk alleys and tread dealers’ turf where the local Orange Hats fear to go.
Her position is understandable. No one is capable of taking the Angels as seriously as they take themselves, but the Angels are taking their version of a stand. By scaring away nuisance criminals, Unique is doing something worthywith attitude alonethat fear-struck Americans lost about the time Kitty Genovese suffered a long, painful death in front of hundreds of do-nothing witnesses back in the ’60s. What he’s doing to the riffraff is nothing you and I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, do.
On the face of it, the self-described world of the Angels seems to be validcitizen saviors, honest upholders of a social contract, a gang gone good, and all that. But it doesn’t really end there. It’s tough to ignore their affected I’ve-seen-everything facesthey haven’tthe Kalorama dirt on their boot soles, and the faux badges of rank and achievement on their berets. And whenever you feel like patting them on the back, you always find their own hands already there.
Sadly, Unique’s a con man who’s sold himself his own con. He’s only got one MO: an ultra-ratcheted, high-gear Angels schtick that doesn’t fit so nicely into the real world. When asked to train a Capitol Hill Orange Hat group, he tells them to patrol their streets with a “pointer” in front and another as rear guard. More scary still is when he tries to graft his little gang of high-school wannabe street toughs onto the real Angels’ world of New York City. He inserts low-caliber Angels into high-caliber New York streets. He’s blasécarelessabout making busts and marching his crew past menacing midnight corner-boys who reach under their shirts and itch their belliesthings he doesn’t do here in D.C. If they don’t like it, he reasons of his Angels, they won’t come back.
Still, at his most level and reservedwearing a half-dollar-sized Guardian Angels tie pin at a business lunchUnique demonstrates his own share of perspective: “We’re not law enforcement. We’re not there to be the police….The police are always talking about getting citizens involved. We just get a little more involved than the average citizen would.”
Near the end of the summer, the Angels are back on another Adams Morgan street patrol, but it’s a struggle to rustle up a posse. Ivy’s mom decreed that there would be no more Angels for Ivy when she heard about the drug busts in New York. And Rondu is suspended from the club for getting lost on the Metro and then claiming to have caused a narcotics arrest on the Red Line. (Metro has no record of the arrest or the call he says he made from the box at the end of the car.) Afterward, he also mouthed off in front of the I-Supportsinsubordination, by Unique’s lights. For the Friday night 18th Street patrol, Unique has called in reinforcements from New York, Midrange and Iceman, because he and Lipstick are the only Safeties left in the chapter.
Unique leads the patrol to the Ritz Apartments, in the 1600 block of Euclid Street. The Ritz is one of the Jubilee Housing apartments that the Angels used to patrol before they lost the headquarters. With the New Yorkers along, Unique wants to “slam and jam” the Ritz.
If the raid is going to work, it’s got to be stealthy. Approaching the building from two blocks away, the Angels remove their berets and walk in pairs instead of a group. Before they round the last corner, Unique gives the final directions: Five Angels are to go five flights up the back steps, count to 10, and then come down some other steps. They’ll flush the mutants out into the other half of the waiting patrol.
“Guys up there are selling and smoking. Drinking beer, smoking weed, and all that shit,” Unique whispers. Make no noise, he says, and he runs through a list of all the things that could go wrong. “If we get seen, then it’s going to be really clean. If it’s locked, then we’re going to be fucked, too. Hopefully, it’s not locked.”
“If it looks like they reach for anything, put ’em on their ass,” Unique says.
Turns out the back door’s locked. They go to the front door, still carrying their berets in their hands. Mothers call playing children away from the passing Angels. Some homeboys chant Hut-two-three-four, hut-two-three.
Unique opens the scarred Plexiglas front door of the Ritz and immediately hears a bunch of excited, screeching voices coming from a nearby room. The mutants apparently know what’s coming. Quickly throwing on his beret, he runs toward the noise. He breaks in past some bewildered young women. Then, just inside the door frame, he stops. Angels rushing to follow him bump into his back and each other’s as they pile, domino style, into the narrow corridor.
There sits a bunch of shouting 11-year-olds with cake and frosting the colors of Easter-egg dyes on paper plates. Unique has just busted a kid’s sixth-grade graduation party. Sheepishly, the Angels back up, patrol the halls, and make a fuss about finding a razor, a few empty drug packets, a pack of rolling papers, and a used condom in the stairwellnothing the unfortunate residents don’t see and step over daily. But they catch no users. Unique thinks the regular users must have had respect for the kids’ party and stayed away. There’s also a cop car parked in front.
The patrol is still a success, he says: “When nothing happened, it’s a good night.”CP