David Quammen’s basement apartment is a cozy place. There are a thick carpet, some comfy chairs, and the warm, reassuring scent of incense to ward off winter chills. There are also a desk, some files, and a computer.
Quammen has put the room together over the three years he’s been living at 1200 Euclid St. NW. Some of his decorating touches are, well, questionable. On the ceiling by the front door, he says, are a whole slew of unsightly holesthe product of Quammen’s whacking at the ceiling with a rubber mallet. The way he tells the story, the mallet-banging was his way of expressing displeasure with his upstairs neighbor, who he says had turned the building into a ’round-the-clock pot market.
Quammen says the drug traffic caused everything from lost sleep to recurring back pains. One day, he recorded 38 knocks upstairs between 9:23 a.m. and 2:50 p.m. To combat the riffraff, Quammen resorted to shouting, posting crudely constructed anti-drug signs, and banging away at his own precarious ceiling.
Quammen moved into the building in the summer of 1994, getting free rent from owner Robert Nelson in exchange for odd-job work maintaining the place. It was a pretty sweet deal. Homeless just a year earlier, Quammen now had a pleasant basement apartment paid for by what must have been minimal duties looking after a run-down building that contained just four other units.
Interrupted only by the occasional call of the broom, Quammen set to work on Operation Restore Hope in America, his own nonprofit foundation dedicated to eradicating homelessness. He got busy firing off faxes and press releases to whoever would read them. Though few people were anxious to hear the odd grab-bag of utopian solutions proffered by the nonprofit, Quammen did hook himself up with a weekly column in Metro Herald, a small community newspaper based in Alexandria.
Quammen’s weekly columns expressed the idealism that had brought him to the nation’s capital in the first place. When he arrived from California in 1993, he was, quite literally, a man with a plan. Pasted to the side of his 1972 Volkswagen van was a sign announcing that Quammenwho had just lost his apartment and had scrounged together all his remaining cash for the tripwas on his way to the nation’s capital with his anti-homelessness formula. Quammen said he wouldn’t leave Washington until he’d given a copy of the plan to the president himself.
Four years later, Quammen is still here. But unlike so many others like him, he’s not waiting for Bill Clinton in Lafayette Square. And the 58-year old activist can’t blame an unprincipled president or a jaded bureaucracy for foiling his plans. These days, his nemesis is the guy who lived upstairs.
Even as Quammen dove into his own brand of social activism, he says, some nasty pathologies were making themselves felt just one flight up. An errant UPS package to his upstairs neighbor had gone missing, and Quammen says a confrontation had ensued between the neighbor and another tenant. The package, he says, turned out to be full of marijuana. By May 1995, he claims, that first whiff had blossomed into a full-fledged parade of foot traffic from the street to the dealer upstairs. “He sold dime bags and wholesale as well,” says Quammen. “He tried to get 12-year-olds. I saw him transact a $50 deal with a 12-year-old….The license plates were Maryland, Virginia, and the District. And there were New York suppliers.”
By October, Quammen claims, the building’s descent from residence to marketplace had driven the other tenants away, leaving only Quammen and his tormentor. Of course, the squalid living conditions might have had something to do with it, too, but Quammen doesn’t dwell on that.
Quammen says he thought for a while that the dealer might leave as well. He went so far as to field a call for a rental reference for the guy, but says he was ultimately unwilling to lie to the prospective landlord on the line. For the time being, Quammen was stuck inside a thriving dope mart.
Whatever maintenance duties Quammen may have had apparently disappeared with the tenants. When an upstairs ceiling collapsed, custodian Quammen figured he’d make the dealer’s life unpleasant by leaving the rubble in the hallway outside his door.
Instead of keeping the house clean after the other tenants split, Quammen spent more and more time trying to get the police and the landlord to act on his complaints. The occasional cruiser stationed outside sometimes slowed down traffic, says Quammen, but not even a pot arrestthe dealer was arrested after a November 1995 police searchstopped business.
Though the city’s tenancy regulations make it illegal to just kick someone out into the street, Quammen says that he wanted to do it anyway. He says that on Nelson’s orders he eventually stopped accepting rent from his neighbor and cut off his heat. Meanwhile, Nelson’s attorney Carol Blumenthal says that Quammen’s calls and faxes to practically every bigwig in Washington finally did have some impact. An official from D.C.’s corporation counsel approached Blumenthal and suggested they begin proceedings for eviction under D.C.’s drug haven laws.
It was to no avail: The dealer turned up at Quammen’s door with a civil suit for nonprovision of heat and smoke alarms. The upshot of it all, Quammen says, was that no eviction procedures could be undertaken for the next six months. Quammen would be driven even farther around the bend.
David Quammen is a weird guy. Though he tells a pretty good story about being driven to the brink, he may never have been all that far away to start with. Sitting in his apartment, he looks like a solid California citizen: sinewy physique, blue eyes, and leathery good looks that wear well under white Lee Marvin hair. But between his endless prattle about “the [never quite explained] plan” and his (inexplicably financed) nonprofit, Quammen exudes the air of someone whose perspective about himself might have gotten lost a couple of ups and downs ago.
But nothing Quammen has told me about himselfnot the shifting fortunes of business and love, not the periods of homelessness, not his ponderous poverty columnsexplains his next step in the struggle against his nemesis.
After a second bust came down, the dealer disappeared. A couple of days later, though, Quammen learned that he was on his way back. That was it. Before he knew what he was doing, Quammen had ripped the dealer’s door off its hinges and broken his windows, sending shards off glass flying all around the room and into the yard, and rendering the room uninhabitable in cold January Washington. The homeless activist was suddenly using all his time and energy to put someone out on the streets.
Instead of just packing his bags and checking out, Quammen says, his neighbor responded by calling in city hall. Even though he was physically elsewhere, the dealer remained an official tenant and neighbor of Quammen’s. His complaint snaked through the D.C. bureaucracy more quickly than the eviction proceedings against him, and Quammen was promptly hit with a maintenance citation.
The citation preceded other discouraging developments for Quammen. The first police search of the drug den was thrown out of court because the warrant had been served too late. A second search was inadmissible in the civil suit against Quammen and the landlord, because the issuenonprovision of basic serviceswas unrelated to drug dealing. Winter turned to spring, and Quammen continued to stew in his basement. One day, he says, he received an answering-machine message from his neighbor saying, “I’ve got something for your white ass!”
“I took it as a death threat,” says Quammen. A dead chicken appeared in the doorway a little while later.
It wasn’t until June 1996nine months after the other tenants had left, and five months after Quammen’s rampagethat a judge issued an eviction notice against the dealer, who failed to appear in court to answer Nelson’s charges that he had “allowed premises to be used as a drug haven.” But the neighbor took his gripes with him. Still pressing against Quammen and Nelson, Quammen’s one-time friend, was the dealer’s civil suit.
Quammen hasn’t lived below his nemesis for a year and a half. But until this month, the caseand the ragehung like marijuana smoke over the house on Euclid Street. In the meantime, a dispute over copyright privileges for the book-length collection of Metro Herald columns Quammen wanted to publish ended his relationship with the newspaper. (“He’d be one of about 10 people who’d have a copy,” says editor P.J. Robbins.) Despite the dope peddler’s exit, the building hasn’t returned to its apartment-house form. When I came over to meet Quammen, he warned me to go to the bathroom before visiting because the house no longer has running water.
Still, Quammen’s future looks brighter than his former neighbor’s. The dealer’s D.C. court arrest sheetwhich includes numerous marijuana offenses and an arrest for assault with a deadly weaponcites pending trials for “escape from institution.”
But to Quammen’s eyes, the real crime is that when the dealer settled out of court with Nelson the day before Halloween, he walked away with $1,200, minus attorney’s fees, according to D.C. court records. All of which means that the energy Quammen brought to Washington four years agopromoting sustainable agriculture, community development, and greenhouse farminghas a new target: loose marijuana laws and the dope dealers who he says exploit them. In Quammen’s form of justice, his neighbor’s “rights should have ended right then and there,” when he started complaining. “It’s a total farce.”CP