City Paper is not for tourists
The dog is very big and would be wagging its tail if it had one. Its owner, Art Suarez, takes an aerosol can in his left hand and grabs the dog—a 120-pound Rottweiler aptly named Moose—by the collar. Suarez slowly and methodically spray-paints Moose from the back of his head to the stub where his tail would be. Moose seems to like this.
The can contains glitter: Moose’s black fur now sparkles brightly even in the dim light of the stairwell outside Suarez’s apartment. “It makes him look like a rock star,” Suarez insists, and with a swift backhand he hurls the can through his front door, where it caroms through the corridor, past the three chairs with (between them) six legs, past the Chinese anatomical wall charts, past the office where the phones are ringing and the fax machine grinding, until it comes to rest beneath the Solar Powered Briefcase That Is Definitely Going to Save the Planet.
“Lets go,” Suarez says.
Down the stairs, full speed, Moose leading the way with a clatter of nails on linoleum. At the front door to this 17th and T Streets NW apartment building, a woman spots Moose and melts into the wall. “He’s protecting our building against crime, ma’am,” Suarez informs her without slowing down, and the duo spill onto the sidewalk and head for Adams Morgan’s restaurant zone in the gathering darkness.
Art Suarez—born Artemus Suarez right here in America, of Argentine extraction via Fort Apache the Bronx, business consultant and lobbyist, hyperactive street activist, one-man employment agency, perpetual self-promotion machine, sometime-candidate for D.C. Council, amateur pamphleteer, and free radical of the charity scene—doesn’t slow down for anybody. Suarez bolts around the corner onto 18th, turns uphill, and spots his first prey, a Latino man striding purposefully toward us.
“Hello, sir, do you know anybody who needs work?” Suarez says in Spanish, shoving a slip of paper at the man and departing before the fellow has time to say anything.
Onward. Two Latinas receive the notice and thank Suarez as he flies farther up 18th. Onward. Suarez papers a Latino man at an intersection, and the fellow nods politely as he reads the message:
IF YOU WANT WORKCall MeLeave a Message on the Machine WithName-Telephone and Type of Work You Want
“Si Quiere Trabajar.” Well, who doesn’t? Among the Latino immigrants of Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant, everyone knows someone who needs work. Suarez doesn’t demand that the applicant speakEnglish, nor does he demand residency or working papers—“I’m not the INS,” he says. So of course people welcome the fliers as though Suarez was handing them a gold coin. But is it fool’s gold?
Suarez describes himself as a teacher, a businessman, and an entrepreneur. “Fixer” might fit as well. A lobbyist and consultant by day, he calls this off-hours project the Washington Self-Help Association, though it’s not a formal organization, merely him and his street antics. By giving out his phone number a hundred times a day—to Latinos on the street and to potential employers in shops, restaurants, elevators, and passing cars—Suarez bypasses the bureaucrats and social service agencies to put workers and work directly together.
At least in theory. And at times Suarez seems to have more theory than reality behind him. Along with opportunity brokering, he toots more instruments than a one-man band, running his own lobbying group, typing résumés for immigrants, aiding a Chinese healer with legal problems, promoting a man who claims to be the Mexican government-in-exile, and pushing the Solar Powered Briefcase That Is Definitely Going to Save the Planet.
The only solid footing beneath all these fanciful projects is the pavement that Suarez pounds tonight. He continues up 18th, taping employment offers to trees. A child cries at the sight of Moose, so Suarez wraps the leash tightly around his own waist. The dog and man rush onward, tangling on each other, on passers-by, on lampposts. Suarez spins as he walks, unwinding himself from the leash even as he quizzes every Latino that he sees and interviews shopkeepers who may need workers.
At the corner of 18th and Columbia, Suarez fixes his gaze on a group of five Latino boys in baggy jeans and fade haircuts. They are Salvadorans, and—as they confess to me later in the evening during a second encounter—they are deeply stoned. Without so much as a by-your-leave, Suarez steps forward and begins frisking them.
The boys smile nervously. Suarez pats them down, armpits, sleeves, pant legs. He lectures them in Spanish and English on finding work. “We are a race that knows how to work, aren’t we, boys?” he says. “We are a race that knows how to learn.” Mindful of the dog, the muchachos make no move to resist this impromptu interrogation and search. Even through their red eyes and fogged minds, the picture is clear: They are being frisked by a strange character in a suit and tie who speaks a courtly Argentine Spanish and is accompanied by a very big dog and a gringo. The boys make the logical deduction and begin to address Suarez as “detectivo.”
Suarez is so busy lecturing them on self-improvement that he doesn’t hear. He stuffs employment notices in the pockets of their jackets and is still instructing them as he turns up Columbia Road.
He breaks into a run and disappears in the darkness, a glittery dog trailing behind.
Suarez claims to sleep only two hours a night, and it’s easy to see why. There’s no place to lie down in his apartment.
There must be a floor in his combination office/bedroom, beneath the magazines, press releases, phone books, and thousands of other documents that form a treacherous, slippery heap. The bed is covered with another alluvial deposit of information.
“Every piece of information on the floor is worth a fortune to someone,” Suarez insists. “Information is valuable.”
This leads Suarez naturally to the Solar Powered Briefcase That Is Definitely Going to Save the Planet. He places the prototype on a board, which is balanced on a cardboard box, which is balanced on a broken chair balanced on a milk crate. The case is simply an extra-large attaché with 16 solar panels on one side and a pair of wires that run inside to a battery the size of a shoe.
The Solar Powered Briefcase will work anywhere, of course. Stick your laptop in there, plug in, and you’ve got cyberspace-to-go. Darkest Africa, the remote peaks of the Andes, the middle of the Kalahari, they’re all going to be on-line with this machine. Suarez didn’t invent the briefcase, but he champions it, explaining that Third World masses need information to survive but usually lack electricity to power computers that will bring them the facts. What facts he doesn’t say, but with the Solar Powered Briefcase the good people of Burundi will somehow save themselves from overpopulation, desertification, and an AIDS epidemic. Or maybe they’ll just play Tetris.
It’s not hard for Suarez to envision a digital revolution that other people can’t quite see. He already exists as a kind of Virtual Suarez, a cyberbeing of telephone lines, computer files, and fax transmissions. Though his office is a disaster zone, he sounds like a high-priced corporate lobbyist when he punches the speaker-phone and dials the White House. He asks for the “NAFTA war room” and is transferred, then asks for Rahm Emanuel, the top Clinton aide marshaling pro-NAFTA forces. A secretary demurs, explaining that Mr. Emanuel is busy, but Suarez can’t take no for an answer. He tells the woman that he represents the “Coalition of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies for NAFTA” and he needs a letter of support from the White House. Suarez claims that his coalition is “prepared to invest $950,000 in the next 12 days” in pro-NAFTA efforts.
Emanuel comes to the phone. Suarez gets his letter.
But nobody gets $950,000. Suarez invented the group himself a few weeks ago, and though he claims to be “working with” nine companies, he won’t provide their names and gets very angry when asked for evidence to back the story up.
This isn’t his only claim with all the substance of the glitter on Moose’s back. Suarez describes himself as a former “field producer” for CNN in Central America, but CNN says it has never employed him anywhere, and though his business card states that he is a “Candidate for the Washington D.C. City Council,” he has not informed either the Board of Elections or the Office of Campaign Finance.
“I don’t want to talk about politics,”Suarez says.
There’s a squeal of tires at the intersection of 16th Street and Columbia Road NW. Suarez and Moose have strolled into traffic, calmly facing down angry drivers. Suarez stops a battered Toyota, notices that the driver is a Latino, and shoves an employment notice through the window. He stops a BMW in the middle of an intersection and negotiates with the driver, a Latina, about perhaps hiring some immigrants to paint her apartment. “See,” Suarez says, “she has lots of work.” Someone leans on a horn and in less-than-polite Spanish urges Suarez to move out of the way.
He dips into a small park and approaches a Jamaican man who is quietly giggling. “I call him the Laughing Man,” Suarez explains, and quickly frisks the fellow, who doesn’t seem to notice. There is something written in ball point on the Laughing Man’s left shoe. I bend down closer. It is Suarez’s fax number. The Laughing Man is still chuckling.
Onward. Several men in the park cheer Moose and shout, “Dawg!” and “Now that’s a big dog!” as we pass. Suarez turns up Mount Pleasant Street, where the number of Latinos on the sidewalk increases dramatically. He asks a woman if she has found work here in America (“Of course,” she replies. “This is the land of opportunity”). He tapes more notices on lampposts, engages in a lengthy discussion with a drunkard, and visits a Korean shopkeeper who smiles broadly at the sight of him and presents a bag of bones for Moose, who wags his stump at the smell.
Outside the shop, Suarez does something incredible. He pauses. He has spoken to a hundred people tonight, immigrants and gringos, shopkeepers and alcoholics, motorists and pedestrians. He has frisked half a dozen people, frightened several children, nearly caused two accidents, been yelled at by one store manager and asked one woman on a date (she declined). He has been mistaken for a police detective once and a nut case several times.
“I want to be famous,” he explains. The world needs leaders, Suarez says, teachers and motivators who can fix things and make them work with simple solutions. He hates bureaucracy. He wants to do everything himself. He has a dozen projects, a hundred ideas, a thousand sayings, all passing simultaneously through the parallel processor of his brain. You might deduce that he is slightly…crazy?
“Yes,” he says earnestly. “I’ve been to see doctors.” Five different health workers have told him that he suffers from a “controlled mania,” a condition of frantic, anxious energy which Suarez insists is no danger to himself or anyone else. Except for the risk of dodging through traffic or frisking the wrong person, this seems to be true. He doesn’t really do any harm, and does some good along the way. For all his bizarre qualities, Suarez might actually make a decent councilmember. If he can talk his way through White House gatekeepers, he can probably master even the D.C. government’s Byzantine functions. Controlled mania might suit the council quite well.
“Remember, Thomas Edison had this condition,” Suarez says, tapping his head. But he is already looking elsewhere, looking for the next opportunity. Three Latino boys are sitting in a car, and Suarez yanks on Moose’s leash and heads for the curb. “Oiga, muchachos….”