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Forget the tour buses and cherry blossoms. The authentic harbinger of spring’s arrival in D.C. is the appearance of glass-stuffed brown paper bags around the city, as another season of drinking in public begins. It’s hard to walk by the open-air imbibers and not feel a trace of furtive envy.
On one of those balmy, breezy spring days when it seems impossible that Washington is really just a glorified swamp, a group of Salvadoran men drinks the afternoon away in Unity Park on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan.
A triangular sliver of concrete and dirt, the park is no shady nook. Its seven scraggly trees are completely leafless; weatherbeaten shoes dangle from the uppermost branches of one. Though it’s as exposed as any street corner, Unity Park offers an ideal place to get plastered; unlike a bona fide grassy park, patrolled during the day by park police, Unity Park is more like a desert island, a haven for the quiet joys of alcoholic brotherhood. Alfresco drinking is one prerogative of citizenship these immigrants are allowed.
“We don’t have jobs or permits,’’ explains one man in Spanish. “Everything is expired.’’
The men have managed to pool enough pennies and change for a half pint of Odessa vodka, $1.90 from a liquor store across the street. They pass around the precious bottle, greedily eying the gulps of their companions to make sure nobody gets more than his fair share. Then they sip from jumbo cups of orange soda from a nearby McDonald’s.
Despite the 65-degree heat wave, several wear threadbare overcoats. All sport shabby, donated wardrobes: Juan Antonio, who is from a tiny village in El Salvador, has a red Chicago Bulls jacket and a battered cap that says, “Sears: Your Hometown Store.’’ Sitting on the park’s concrete steps, the men talk without bitterness about all the things they don’t have: work, family, money.
“I saw Gato’s wife on a bicycle today,’’ says one.
“My cousin is buying a house in Langley Park,’’ sighs another.
“I need a dollar,’’ says a third, less ambitious man.
A friend arrives with a bag of bologna sandwiches; another scampers up clutching a bottle of vodka. The sandwiches lie on the ground (“That food makes me vomit,’’ scoffs a toper) while the bottle is plundered.
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Just then, a Bronco roars through the intersection at 18th and Columbia; bullhorn loudspeakers mounted on its roof blare a message from the D.C.-based Unity Nation. The group is promoting an upcoming rally by one of “Farrakhan’s flamethrowers’’ about “the conspiracy to destroy the black community,’’ according to a banner fluttering from the jeep.
“YES, YES, YOU WANT TO CALL IT RACIST, MY HISPANIC BROTHERS!”
The jeep stops in traffic beside the park as a passenger in wraparound shades barks into a microphone.
“REMEMBER THE ALAMO! REMEMBER PANAMA AND NIC-
ARAGUA! REMEMBER ALL THOSE RAIDS ON THE RIO GRANDE, WHEN THE WHITE FOLKS USED TO CROSS THE RIO GRANDE, IN VIOLATION OF INTERNATIONAL LAW AND THE U.S. CONSTITUTION, AND INVADE MEXICO AT WILL, AND KILL THE HISPANICS AND NATIVE AMERICANS ALL ACROSS THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY.”
The Salvadoran men can’t decipher much of the angry message even though they listen in rapt silence. But as the jeep rolls out of sight, the speaker adds a coda that echoes all over Adams Morgan: “I LOVE THE HISPANIC PEOPLE—VIVA LA RAZA!”
A bloated, bearded man who had passed out—a slumbering bear sprawled on bare concrete—rolls over at these words precious to any Latino. Juan’s face, red and round as a soccer ball, spreads into a wide grin, and he shouts, “Viva Zapata! Vivan los Centroamericanos!’’
His companions don’t appreciate his outburst, because they know what it can lead to; next month marks the fifth anniversary of the riots in neighboring Mount Pleasant, which were sparked by the arrest of a Latino drinking in public. “Watch out with the police,’’ says one quietly. “Take it easy. You have to behave to stay in this country.’’
More to spite his buddies than to show his patriotism, Juan lets loose another volley of “vivas.’’ But the cops at a nearby bicycle shop continue to pump air into the tires of their 10-speeds; they don’t even look over before pedaling away as peacefully as a pair of Mormon missionaries making their rounds.
Fueled by the vodka, his eyes gleaming through tiny slits, Juan launches another “viva’’ salvo, but a friend nearly wrestles him to the ground to stop him. A scuffle ensues, leading to a brawl. By the end of it, the two men face off: One waves a rusty pocket knife; the other, glaring and ready to strike, tosses a small boulder in the air as if were a hand grenade.
“Don’t let yourself be driven by those guys,’’ censures a companion. “Talk about the strength of God.’’
They finally slouch away from each other, thirsty, and the conversation returns to the men’s recurring predicament.
“Go to McDonald’s and get another soda with a cup of ice. We need a dollar for another bottle.’’—Eddie Dean