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Everything is mellow at Cafe Luna on P Street NW this late summer afternoon: pastel decor, low lighting, the Ben Folds Five’s alt-pap whining on the house stereo, and a handful of bookworms nibbling at salads. Everything, that is, except Raymond Avrutis.
At a side table, Avrutis is putting on a one-man show, clapping his hands, stomping his feet, and chanting his adaptation of a civil rights anthem he sang as a teen. “Ohhh textbooks,” he bellows in closed-eyed rapture. “Ohhh textbooks! Ohhh textbooks over me, over me. And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” Loud and overbearing as it is, no one pays much attention; Avrutis is a regular at Luna.
Besides, this is only a rehearsal. Avrutis plans to play chorus leader at a sit-in as part of his campaign for the Ward 2 seat on the D.C. Board of Education. The dearth of up-to-date science and social studies textbooks obsesses Avrutis, and he has made it the main plank in his platform. He’s still seething that the school system has failed to order new books, leaving inadequate materials in the desks of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) students. “We have complaints periodically that the texts are older than the kids,” confirms Mary Levy, researcher for the advocacy group Parents United.
Not that there’s all that much Avrutis can do about it, elected or not: The school board can’t compel DCPS to buy erasers and rulers, let alone solve the textbook shortage. In November 1996, the control board stripped away nearly all of its powers and entrusted them to the D.C. Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees. That’s why it falls to radicals like him to use old-fashioned, nonviolent protest to speed up the reforms of DCPS Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. It’s a deeply personal vision of electoral governance and direct action that yields an odd prospective list of job duties. “The school board can appoint charter schools and get arrested to get textbooks for the children that’s about it,” says Avrutis. “So I want the parents and teachers arrested and me arrested, to get these books. I see my role in this not so much as a school board member but as the children’s representative. I want to raise hell for the children.”
And yet Avrutis readily admits what many a politician dare not speak: Sure, he cares about the children, among the most underserved, cheated students in the nation. But he also cares deeply about Raymond Avrutis, who has been mostly unemployed for more than two decades. So even if November’s school board election isn’t exactly the most anticipated event of the political season, it’s a chance for Avrutis to finally nab his first steady paying gig since the Nixon years. “I’m 50 years old,” he says. “And when you’re 50, you find your mission. And I’m also looking for a job.”
Back in the ’60s, Avrutis picked up his radical sensibilities at the now-defunct private Walden School in the District. He says his parents tried to enroll him in public schools but he was rejected due to his diagnosis of schizophrenia. He remembers fondly his time at Walden, particularly the faculty. “They were a bunch of beatniks,” he says. “They were teaching us about sex and love and relationships. We read Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. It was an experimental, bohemian high school….That’s probably why I’m in favor of charter schools now.”
After graduating from Walden in ’65, Avrutis enrolled at American University, where he made a brief foray into politics as senior class president, and later garnered a graduate degree in sociology from New York University. Back in his native D.C., he earned an M.S. in labor studies from the University of the District of Columbia and became a research writer at the National Council of Crime and Delinquency; then he was laid off and his world fell apart. “I couldn’t do the job as well as they wanted it done,” he says. “And I didn’t fit in with the straight-laced people at the office.”
His exile from the workplace soon became permanent, and his journey through unemployment offices resulted in a book, How to Maximize Your Unemployment Benefits, a between-opportunities homage to Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. First published in 1975, the acclaimed how-to guide survived through three editions and three publishers before it went out of print last month. No one has benefited more from the book’s lessons than Avrutis himself: By working sporadically as a clerical temp and repeatedly getting laid off, he has managed to exhaust his unemployment claims no fewer than 11 times. For nearly 20 years, the bachelor has resided in a rent-controlled Dupont Circle efficiency and subsisted on disability checks and an annuity left by his late father, who was run down by a speeding fish delivery van on a New York City street.
And yet, all this time, Avrutis says he has never stopped looking for a regular job, anything short of manual labor. His brief stint as a fast-food cook ended in his dismissal. He carries a business card that reads “$100 Reward for Information Leading to My Obtaining a Full-Time Job” and the motto: “I Don’t Smoke or Drive.” According to Avrutis, he has handed out more than 2,000 cards and has yet to find a taker for the reward money. Meanwhile, he has continued to write articles and pamphlets in the for-the-downtrodden tradition of his book, which he likens to Noah’s Ark (“a lifeboat in the flood of capitalist greed”). His most recent piece, entitled “How to GET FREE FOOD from a Quality Restaurant,” features such tidbits as “Vegetarian places and eateries staffed by hippies are often good for many free meals” as well as the caveat to those who would abuse the advice: “Those pretending to be poor and needy who really aren’t may have the reality of poverty thrust upon them in their next life, perhaps in a foreign country.”
It’s a brand of homespun wisdom that Avrutis wants to bring to local politics. In 1996, Avrutis tried to run for a seat on the D.C. Council, but he fell short of the required 250 signatures on his petition. In his bid for a school board seat, he exceeded the 200-signature threshold and filed his papers before all of his opponents. So far, he has spent nearly $100 on copies of his seven-point campaign platform; his pet project is the so-called Slum School of the Week, an expose that would feature a photo and editorial harangue against the offender.
The candidate’s election war chest tops out at $5 and comes from one source: a Ward 2 voter who met Avrutis in a McDonald’s. (Avrutis says he will accept no individual donation more than that amount.)
Though a long shot, Avrutis says he’s ready for the upcoming election, which may be the most ignored contest this November. Even the incumbent has decided it’s not worth the effort. Not only does the school board have no power, but the control board slashed reps’ salaries from more than $30,000 to $15,000. “It was a difficult decision, but the money was an issue,” says Ann Wilcox, an attorney who opted not to run for another term as the Ward 2 rep. “I wanted to have something more full-time. And while I think the board may transition back to getting its authority, I think its position is still precarious.”
To Avrutis, those words ring of the mainstream politics he is vowing to uproot. “She’s a good lady, but she’s like Jack Evans, who’s a good city council person. They’re not radical like I am. I don’t have the social graces to fit in with the wealthy. I want to change things up.”
Avrutis, though, may need more than radical fervor and five bucks to overcome his five challengers, who range from a concerned parent to a minister to a policymaker who worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations. “I have an 11-year-old in a D.C. school, and that’s the reason I’m running,” says longtime activist Westy Byrd. “The money needs to go into the classrooms and not into a bloated bureaucracy. We don’t need any trips to Florida in the wintertime for administrators when our teachers are spending their own money on toilet paper.”
Avrutis can match her outrage word for word, and add in some invective for good measure. “We need an accountant to come in and see where the money’s been going, and find the thieves those sons of bitches who stole from the children,” he says. “Like it says in the Book of Mark, ‘If you make the little ones suffer, it is better for you not have been born.’” Avrutis says DCPS’s little ones suffer every time they bite into a school lunch. “[Former DCPS head Gen. Julius] Becton was quoted as saying that the food in schools was ‘bland but passable,’” says Avrutis. “I will be dipped in dog turds and sued for having a bad odor if I’m going to send any kid to school for 12 years and expect that kid to eat ‘bland but passable’ food.”
If his rhetoric doesn’t shake up this year’s school board elections, maybe some of Avrutis’ proposals will. To help children from broken homes get through their classes, Avrutis advocates hiring former military personnel in uniform as mentors. And he wants every labor union in the city to hire DCPS students who don’t want to go to college as apprentices. “The best social program is a job,” he says. On this subject, above all others, Avrutis knows whereof he speaks.