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“What do you do?” is often the first question asked in D.C., where the federal government workers turn over like it’s, well, their job.
Consultant, lobbyist, policy researcher, strategist, legislative staffer. Yawn. They’re a dime a dozen in this town.
But as any good native Washingtonian or longtime resident knows, there’s another side of work that keeps the city going. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted fields that we absolutely cannot do without: medical care, emergency services, education, food production, infrastructure, transportation, and, ahem, journalism to name a few.
But there are also the less obvious jobs that are equally important to the function and character of the District.
The following profiles are stories of odd, ordinary, and otherwise un-thought-of local jobs, and the people who do them. —Mitch Ryals
Black Lives Matter Memorial Fence Guardian and Curator
Nadine Seiler had no idea when she showed up at the Women’s March in 2017 that four years later she would be a lead guardian, and ultimately the preserver, of artifacts on what would become the BLM Memorial Fence.
Seiler wasn’t a member of any activist group then, but she felt in each bone of her 5-foot, 5-inch frame every anti-Black, anti-woman, anti-immigrant restriction and rant under President Donald Trump’s leadership. She felt she had to do something. So Seiler started going to the White House holding a regular rotation of provocative signs.
Her favorite activities included shouting obscenities at Trump supporters who got in her face and educating elementary school kids who chanted “Make America great again!” about the history behind their statements. “Make America great again to when?” she would ask. “When they were lynching Black people?” Her Trinidadian accent both offended and riled up such visitors.
Seiler joined the 2017 and 2018 global women’s protests and most daily Kremlin Annex protests that started after Trump’s 2018 Helsinki visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A shy activist she mentored at the Kremlin Annex rallies called her “Warrior Goddess for the Resistance,” an alias that still motivates her. Seiler had started protesting at Lafayette Square by herself when a White police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis. She joined the ensuing protests against systemic racism and police brutality in front of the White House. When law enforcement put up the first fence, amid the rattling of steel bars, Seiler glimpsed the beauty of Black Lives Matter signs, art, and photos left behind.
During the pandemic, Seiler lost her odd day jobs as a personal concierge specializing in helping local residents organize their homes. (“IF the clutter makes you shudder, get you a Nadine,” the tagline on her LinkedIn profile says.) Soon Seiler started leaving her Waldorf home at night to stay by the fence typically from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. and do what she does best: organize and protect the things that had shown up.
During one of these shifts, word got around to Seiler that the fence was coming down. Seiler and other night-shifters acted on preservation instinct, taking photos and signs off the fence and sorting the items into categories based on material type and size. The processing made for an easier transfer to institutes such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was notified about the collection and came to collect items on June 9, 2020.
While Lafayette Park reopened to the public the next day, law enforcement soon fenced off the area again after some protesters sought to topple the Andrew Jackson statue. This second structure became the BLM Memorial Fence, which Seiler and a few others guarded for the next seven months. But as stunning as the stories and protest artwork posted there were, they weren’t properly secured to the fence, so they made for a messy second home. The home organizer in Seiler couldn’t stand it.
“It just looked bad,” she says. “I didn’t want to be part of the [messiness]. So I just started picking up the stuff and putting them back on the fence as best as I could.” Others also helped secure the items with zip ties and duct tape. The reorganization effort “just grew and grew and grew — and then [the fence] became a focus of Trump supporters,” says Seiler. “They were coming in mad … they wanted to see White House and all this stuff that was negative against [Trump] is on the fence, blocking them.”
In the months that followed, conflicts arose between the fence guardians and anti-BLM activists on a mission to tear down protest art. But the fence was also a site of community and allyship with volunteers and unhoused residents. In late January 2021, Seiler and others organized the memorabilia into more permanent resting places. They couldn’t keep watch over the fence forever. The work didn’t pay the bills.
Seiler and fellow activist Karen Irwin had reached out to museums to see if any institutions were interested in taking the mementos. They received lukewarm responses until a Howard University alum finally connected Seiler to a Howard employee who took 75 pieces for the school. The Library of Congress took 36 fence items, including two pieces Seiler created. Then Jodi Hoover, a digital resources specialist at Enoch Pratt Free Library, exceeded Seiler and Irwin’s expectations. Enoch Pratt would scan the items in batches through its high-tech scanner, which has the ability to keep every piece of debris intact on 3D items. The D.C. Public Library, Enoch Pratt’s partner in the project, would then create metadata to display the items in online archives.
The Black Lives Matter Memorial Fence Poster collection is a project spanning libraries and departments throughout the District. After training in metadata, volunteers spend most of their downtime creating titles, descriptions, and subject headings for collection items. The project will culminate in an archives launch in fall 2022. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is hosting a Black Lives Matter Describe-A-Thon on Feb. 9 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. where the public can help create descriptions for fence materials.
Enoch Pratt specializes in archival projects, and most of its collections are historical, so documenting contemporary history such as the BLM protests is rare. For Laura Farley, digital curation librarian at DCPL, the ingenuity of activists and allies takes us back to the moment when it began.
“If you remember back to early, early in the pandemic, when people first started … to contribute these posters and all kinds of items … people were using whatever they could find at home,” Farley says. “Because nobody was going to the stores, nobody could get supplies. So the creativity of what people used that they had on hand to get their message through … it’s pretty amazing.”
Pro-Trump and other political items aren’t part of the preservation efforts and remain in storage; no organization has shown any interest in them, according to Seiler. These pieces might get scanned after BLM-related items are scanned at Enoch Pratt and if there’s any funding left, but not as a part of the BLM Memorial Fence Collection.
Nowadays Seiler’s daily uniform incorporates souvenirs from the first and last movements she joined. On a recent Wednesday evening, she wears a pussy hat with black ears and a hoodie that says “The Black Guy Did It” during an impromptu video call. Behind her is a poster with her animated likeness photographed at the fence. Both the hoodie and the poster image are for sale in her Tee Public store, Subversive-Ware, which she created to help with the monthly storage fees she pays to keep mementos from the BLM Memorial Fence.
Seiler keeps a running list of institutions and individuals interested in taking items. She says it’s vital that folks value every memento—both the more pristine items as well as those battered by wind and sleet and debris—as a story in their own right and as part of a mosaic of the moment.
“Some of them are torn, and I know why … when … the circumstances under which it got torn,” Seiler says. “Everything has a story.”
The work of preserving the fence mementos, and memories born there, hasn’t ended for Seiler. She’s planning to form a diverse committee of D.C.-area residents in late spring to decide how to parcel out the remaining mementos.
“The fence was a concerted effort, it wasn’t [just] me. … It was … this community effort of goodwill … and it was magical.” —Ambar Castillo
William Reed and Woody
Gas Station Attendant and Manager at the Exxon at 4th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE
Imagine you are a young person. Old enough to drive but not old enough for much else. You possess all the ignorance that comes with that age and, while driving through New Jersey, you stop for gas. A man approaches your car, saying he will pump it for you. You decline his offer. He insists; it’s his job, he says. And you, who should know better but don’t, respond, “This isn’t a job!”
But it is a job. All over New Jersey, in portions of Oregon, and at one Exxon at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 4th Street SE on Capitol Hill.
A man who goes by Woody watches a tow truck navigate the gas station’s narrow curb cut as a dog barks from inside the small office space. He started in 1994 as a mechanic and now manages this place, its two pumps and adjoining garage. Operating for more than half a century, it’s the last full-service gas station in D.C.
Some customers, he says, come here specifically because it’s full service. They don’t want to get out of the car or can’t pump their own gas. These are the people who have been coming here for decades. The ones he and his fellow workers know by name. “This is their station. We’re the neighborhood shop,” he says. Others stumble upon it and some don’t want full service or understand how it works. They think they have to pay the attendant and don’t want to. “Or they think they’re getting robbed.” To preempt that, the attendants wear uniforms.
Woody says the station will stay full service as long as they can find people to do the job. Which isn’t easy, he says. “It’s cold in the winter, it’s hot in the summer. It’s demanding. You’ve got to deal with the public, and they’re not always very nice.” Nevertheless, as cars pull up to the pumps, an attendant arrives without fail, ready to provide whatever services the driver needs. One of those attendants is Mr. Reed.
William Reed, 74, stands tall and his gray uniform bears his last name. He has worked at this gas station for “too long,” which equals roughly 37 years. He used to work days for DC Public Schools and nights here before retiring from DCPS. But he’s still pumping gas. “It’s something to do,” he says. “Most people, when they retire, they die. I work and keep the body going.” When his kids ask him when he’ll retire, he says, “What am I gonna do? Stay home and die?”
The key to being an excellent attendant, according to Mr. Reed: “Wait on the people and see what they want.” Some people don’t want you to use their credit card, he explains. Sometimes you have to let people pump their own gas, even though it’s your job and they’re paying you to do it. It doesn’t hurt to know something about cars, too. Woody makes sure to note that you’ll learn about cars on the job.
What person at his age can do what he does, Mr. Reed asks rhetorically. It’s a good question, and pumping gas is not all he does. Here they’ll put air in your tires and check your oil too, if you want it. (In New Jersey, they just pump your gas, Reed is quick to point out.) You pay a premium on the gas here, but you get a service for it.
Which is fortunate, because young people, you will remember, are ignorant. “Most young kids nowadays don’t know nothin’,” Reed says. Nothing useful, anyway. They don’t know how to “check oil, put air in the tires. The only thing they know is smokin’ weed.” —Will Warren
In a scene in the musical A Strange Loop, Usher, the story’s protagonist, has sex with an older White man. The graphic scene involves anal foreplay. It’s an intense scene for the characters and an incredible moment of physical intimacy for the actors.
Enter Chelsea Pace. As the show’s intimacy choreographer—a relatively new role in live theater productions—she works with actors to tell the story authentically while respecting their personal boundaries.
“Theater is super uncomfortable,” she says. “That’s what makes it worth making a play out of.”
For the scene from Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s production of the Pulitzer Prize winning musical, Pace worked with Jaquel Spivey, who plays Usher, on where he’s open to being touched and where his counterpart, Antwayn Hopper, is open to touching. She coached them on specific movements and gestures, showing Hopper how to move his hand and arm to simulate digital penetration without actually moving his fingers.
Pace is currently the resident intimacy choreographer at D.C.’s Studio Theatre and Arlington’s Signature Theatre and is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her journey to intimacy choreography started with a six-week streak of wearing “good underwear.”
As an undergraduate at Binghamton University, she was cast in a farcical play as a character who spent a lot of time running around in their undies. She came prepared to rehearsal for more than a month because she never knew when she would be asked to perform without clothes.
As a young actor, she didn’t want to ask the director when she’d be able to rehearse without clothes for fear of appearing overeager or ignorant. She notes that she had a good relationship with the director, who was also her professor, and says her reluctance to ask the question was due to her own nerves.
But it also speaks to the power imbalance that can exist between directors and actors, who are often told they’re replaceable, Pace says. Those who ask questions, make demands, or speak up in defense of their personal boundaries can be labeled as “difficult,” which could cost them work.
It’s that dynamic that Pace seeks to address.
“Actors are always in a position of ‘Yes. Yes, we’ll do that,’” says Tatiana Williams, an actor working with Pace on Studio Theatre’s production of White Noise. “You finally got the job, beat out the other people, and you want to make it work, but sometimes you may not have the language or feel comfortable to say, ‘Hey that’s a trigger spot for me’ or ‘I’m going to get there, but I need more time.’”
After college, Pace pursued an MFA in theater performance at Arizona State University, and she remained curious about consent, boundaries, and power dynamics. Friends in the theater came to her for informal advice with intimate scenes they were working on.
Eventually her curiosity became part of her research, and a few years after she graduated, she co-founded a company called Theatrical Intimacy Education with her colleague Laura Rikard. The company offers workshops, choreography, and consultations for students and professionals. Pace has also written a book on the topic: Staging Sex: Best Practices, Tools, and Techniques for Theatrical Intimacy.
Intimacy choreography involves sex scenes, sure, but there’s a spectrum. At one end are moments where characters appear as if they’re in love but never actually touch.
“There are physical ways to make people look like they’re in love with each other without them having to actually fall in love with each other,” Pace says. “Which is better for everybody, including those individuals and their respective relationships.”
Williams says that’s one major way intimacy coaches have helped her.
“You might come out of a scene, and you can’t shake off what you’ve done,” Williams says. “So how do you separate yourself from that moment? They’re not your therapist, but they do have a good way of checking in in a different way: ‘Are you comfortable with what we just blocked? Do you feel comfortable in your costume?’ It’s just another voice in the room that’s championing the actors.”
At the other end of the spectrum are scenes of graphic or hyper-realistic physical and sexual intimacy.
Before Pace begins working with actors on individual scenes, she instructs them on how to speak up for their boundaries. It typically includes introducing a self-care cue, which acts like a safe word. It’s a tool for an actor to stop the scene and ask for what they need: a hand to be placed a little higher, for example, or less pressure in an embrace.
Then she has them do a “show, guide, tell” exercise. Each person physically shows a partner where they’re open to being touched, then guides their partner’s hand on their own bodies, and finally reinforces those boundaries verbally.
When rehearsals begin, actors walk through that same exercise before a scene.
“I’d be working with them to make a touch here, or make that touch just a little bit longer because it will help us understand that [the characters] have been together a long time,” Pace says.
When it’s time to try a kiss for the first time, Pace first has the actors stage it with a high five in place of locking lips. That allows them to talk through the movements that make the moment feel authentic.
“Who closed the distance? What was the duration of the kiss? What was the depth of touch on the kiss? What’s the destination of your hands on your partner’s back? What was the power shift there when you pushed him down?” Pace says. “We craft all of that, but they’re finding it through palm to palm.”
The work also extends beyond sex and romance. Onstage intimacy also includes scenes where actors are asked to draw from their personal experiences to tell a story. That could be experience related to race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or other aspects of their identities that can come with vulnerability.
“That vulnerability has been really poorly managed,” Pace says. “We put actors in these ridiculous and impossible situations without acknowledging that we’re asking them to do something impossible by being both a sponge and having the world’s richest inner life and having absolutely no qualms about bringing any and all of yourself into the room. But please don’t bring yourself into the room if you’re having a bad day.”
When Pace first started this work more than a decade ago, she says most professionals were defensive. Directors were resistant to the idea of ceding control and insisted that they could create a trusting relationship where actors could say “no.” She noticed a shift leading into 2017 that accelerated around October of that year, shortly after the story broke about movie producer and serial sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein.
These days, Pace works on about 20 productions a year spanning film, television, and live theater. Her job is part of a cultural shift that’s giving more attention to actors’ boundaries.
“I’m not the sex police,” she says. “I’m just here to support.” —Mitch Ryals
Director of Tree Operations, Casey Trees
If you ask Robert Shaut what his favorite tree is, he doesn’t hesitate. The question, which is perhaps too easy, elicits not just a reply, but a memory. He remembers one tree that stood out to him when he was younger. When he reminisces about the platanus occidentalis, or the American sycamore, it brings back memories of the tree that grew outside his childhood home in Glen Echo. He remembers the way the trees grew along the bank of the Potomac River, thriving along the edges. He would climb the trees and swing into the river water, he says. The giant sycamore inspired Shaut to build a life and career around trees.
Since February of 2018, Shaut has worked as the director of tree operations at Casey Trees, a D.C.-based nonprofit committed to restoring, enhancing, and protecting D.C.’s tree canopy. His role often entails tons of prep work and logistics, while facilitating leads to plant new trees, and ensuring that the field crews have nice, smooth days of planting, pruning, maintaining, felling trees or “whatever the job calls for that day.” His staff plants trees whenever the weather is “reasonable,” and despite the recent snow, the winters have been “more and more plantable,” he says. Shaut notes that he’s the one who has to consider which trees will still be here in 20 years, or even in 100 years. To determine this, Shaut and his team research and study tree species’ climate adaptivity and resiliency regarding temperature and precipitation variance. Certain trees that have more “Northern nativity” are “maybe starting to fade out of the District,” says Shaut, while trees that have more “Southern nativity” are starting to phase in.
Casey Trees was established in 2001 and works with several organizations including the National Park Service, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, and DC Public Schools, as well as cemeteries and places of worship. Shaut says that many clients want crape myrtles, dogwoods, or cherry trees. But when it makes sense, he may sway them to “larger, environmentally impactful trees.”
“There’s a right place for every tree,” Shaut says, “but if the situation calls for a larger tree—can allow for a larger tree—that’s absolutely what we’re pushing to put in.”
Part of this push is the organizational and citywide goal to cover 40 percent of the District in tree canopy by 2032. At one point, D.C. had the moniker the “City of Trees” thanks to its diverse array of native flora, with about half of the city covered by trees in the early 1950s, according to the Washington Post. By 2001, the tree canopy fell to just over 35 percent, WAMU reports. As of January 2022, Shaut tells City Paper that the most recent satellite imagery shows the current tree canopy in D.C. is now at 38 percent, a growth of 424 acres of tree canopy since 2006. In 2021 alone, Casey Trees planted 4,543 trees throughout the region. While Casey Trees may be close to its goal, Shaut notes that 1 percent of the District’s tree canopy is on the National Mall, which is substantial.
To meet this goal, Shaut has been allocating a lot of the organization’s efforts to lower-canopy areas. He says that 75 percent of the tree plantings in 2021 were in wards 5, 7, and 8, areas that are also susceptible to the urban heat island effect. Planting trees in these and other similar areas can help reduce stormwater runoff and carbon footprint, improve air quality, add wildlife habitats, help reduce energy bills, and increase property values, according to the “District of Columbia Urban Tree Canopy Plan,” published by the D.C. government in January 2013.
Since Shaut took the reins as Casey Trees’ director of tree operations approximately four years ago, his vision hasn’t changed. His goal has always been to “be as impactful as we can, to really just make as much positive impact on local communities and to our environment, and I think we’ve been able to grow.”
When he started, Casey Trees was planting 2,500 trees per year, but the organization’s target for this year is 5,000 trees.
“I think that every tree offers something,” says Shaut. —Michelle Goldchain
Washington Wizards Team Attendant
Getting from the visiting NBA team’s locker room to the bus entrance inside Capital One Arena requires a lengthy walk, so Chase Rieder hops into a utility cart and drives it to meet the first of three buses carrying Philadelphia 76ers players, the team’s staff, and their luggage. He loads the cart with three layers of suitcases from the bus, then navigates back through the arena corridor, past the Washington Wizards dancers practicing their routines, and parks it in front of the locker room. Rieder and his colleague Royce Reed then unload the cart and line the various equipment bags and personal belongings along the hallway before repeating the trip two more times.
It’s 10:53 a.m. on Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the Wizards are facing the 76ers in a 2 p.m. tip-off game. Rieder has been at the arena since 10 a.m. For the past 15 years, this has been a regular routine for the 30-year-old from North Bethesda. Rieder is a Wizards team attendant and contributes to the vast game-day production that largely takes place out of public view and away from cameras.
As Rieder prepares for the next bus to arrive, he goes on a quick walk-through of the visiting team’s locker room. Headshots of Rieder and Reed adorn a wall near the entrance below the words “TEAM ATTENDANTS.” Popcorn, fruit, coffee, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches await the players. The bathroom is stocked with mouthwash and deodorant, and towels and heat packs are piled nearby. Shirts, pants, and jerseys hang on each individual locker. Rieder describes this part of the job as similar to a hotel concierge service. “When they come in, I want them feeling like they’re in their home locker room at their city,” he says.
Being a team attendant isn’t always glamorous. The Wizards have about 10 to 12 part-time staffers who work under Brandon Mango, the team’s recently hired director of equipment and logistics, and the job involves long hours on your feet, whether it’s rebounding for players during warm-ups or mopping the floor during time-outs. Team attendants are essentially on call throughout their entire eight-hour game-day shift. But for die-hard NBA fans such as Rieder, it can be a dream job. Rieder, who is a special education teacher at North Bethesda Middle School and the boys’ varsity basketball head coach at Northwest High School in Germantown, started as a Wizards team attendant when he was 16. (Applicants now must be at least 18.) He worked all 41 home games of the 2007-08 NBA season during his junior year at Walter Johnson High School, forgoing the opportunity to play varsity basketball to be a Wizards team attendant.
Rieder served as a home team attendant for his first seven seasons with the Wizards, and has been working in the visiting team’s locker room for the past eight seasons. The biggest misconception about the job, both Rieder and Mango believe, can be derived from the sometimes dismissive names that team attendants are called: “ball boys” and “ball girls,” “court moppers,” “water boys.”
“Some people think we’re just there to watch,” Rieder says. “But we feel like a lot of the games wouldn’t run if there weren’t any team attendants.”
Mango agrees: “Without my locker room and team attendants, the show does not go on at Capital One Arena. I can be honest with that.”
It’s 2:11 p.m. when the game tips off, and Rieder takes his position on the court next to the 76ers bench. The coolers behind the players are packed with water and Gatorade bottles. A hydrocollator is stocked and ready for whoever needs a heat pad.
The 76ers, including 7-footer Joel Embiid, tower over Rieder, who isn’t exactly short at 6-foot-1. As each player checks into the game, Rieder picks up their warm-up gear and neatly folds it into a stack. When the players return to the bench, he has a towel and their clothes ready. The players’ shirts and pants are all labeled with their jersey numbers. Rieder is no longer on mopping duty due to his senior status, but his current role calls for constant vigilance and a familiarity with the sport. He bounces back and forth between his “seat” on the court and the scorer’s table, and is so close to the action that he can hear players trash talking and the conversations between coaches and players during time-outs. It’s one of Rieder’s favorite perks of the job. Team attendants may go unnoticed to the general viewer or fan, but for an NBA player accustomed to routine, having a team attendant nearby allows them to focus on the task at hand. Visiting NBA teams tip team attendants after each game, and Rieder has befriended several players over the years.
As the final buzzer goes off, marking the Wizards’ 117-98 victory, Rieder heads back to the visiting team’s locker room, where he will stay until the last player leaves. He packs their bags and transports their luggage back to the bus with the utility truck. Around the same time, Wizards acting head coach Joseph Blair is speaking to media members in a postgame press conference. Blair was thrust into the position for the first time because head coach Wes Unseld Jr. and assistant coach Pat Delany are both out due to health and safety protocols.
After the game, inside the home team’s locker room, Wizards forward-center Montrezl Harrell doused Blair with a bucket of ice cold water in celebration. The coach needed a new shirt, quickly, and so he turned to the person he knew would come through. Blair thinks about that moment while answering a reporter’s question. “My back is pretty soaked right now. Big ups to Brandon Mango for getting me another shirt to put on,” he says with a laugh.
The show, as Mango and his team attendants made sure, went on. —Kelyn Soong