In 2009, ten days before the inauguration, I was in Washington for the NAS conference but had decided to stay near the National Mall at the ritzy Hay-Adams across from the White House. With Blair House unavailable, President-elect Obama had also picked The Hay, so my stay had been filled with concrete barriers, metal fences, and Secret Service. One night, walking back from the conference, I stupidly headed the wrong way, towards Delaware, 180 degrees from The Hay. In the drizzle, I heard, “Hey, beautiful brother . . .” as a woman on a bicycle coasted by on the wet street. I shook my head but a minute later I heard her again, “I’m no threat to you.” The panhandler had dismounted and was already at my elbow. “You’re following me . . . .” “Yeh, but I can’t hurt you,” she said, looking up. She was slender, with chocolate skin, soulful eyes, a real smile unperfected by braces, wearing a puffy nylon jacket. I started walking but she launched into her pitch: raised by her grandmother, finding her mother dead on the floor. “Some folks have just had a harder time, you know?” I gave detached “hmmms” and “ohs,” but also wondered about her—she was engaging, persistent but gentle, obviously smart. She asked, “What’s your name?” Cautious, I said, “David. I’m from California, here for a conference, but I think I’m going the wrong way.” “I’m Robin. Where you staying?” “The Hay-Adams.” “Oh, you kidding me? That’s where Obama’s staying! Aren’t you going in the wrong direction! C’mon, I’ll take you there!” She wheeled her bicycle around, pushing off into the night. “David from California. You know, isn’t that something? There you was, lost, and I came along and found you.” She shook her head. “That’s how I know there’s somebody more up in the sky than the Man in the Moon.” “Are you from Washington?” “My whole life. I have five kids, but . . .” she ducked her head, “I don’t have any of them.” “Robin,” I said, “I’m a teacher. You seem as able as most of my students.” She was silent. We reached double digit streets, nearing The Hay, but I no longer wanted the encounter to end. “Robin, with your personality I’m sure you could . . .” (I thought frantically how to convey confidence in her without being patronizing) “. . . get a regular job.” She looked down again. “I don’t like living in the shelters. There’s too many drugs. I have to hide my stuff around.” We cut through a Metro station where human figures hunched near the warm wind pouring up the stairwells. Back in the rainy night Robin exclaimed, “Look! Ducks!” Under a sapling, on a patch of wet grass, two young Mallards huddled, dazed by the glare of headlights and neon. “Do you read?” I asked. “Yeh. `DON’T WALK.’ `NO TRESPASSING.’ `CLOSED.’” She smiled, then repeated:
Imagine that, David from California. There you was lost, and I was supposed to find you.
“Are you going to the inauguration?” Her face clouded, “I don’t like crowds.” We saw the floodlit Hay now. She slowed and said hopefully, “I know you would take care of a sister.” Not yet. She had to know that I was not embarrassed to be with her. The moon gleamed off temporary bleachers and metal barricades around the White House as we walked the final block. At the checkpoint, she stopped again. I took the last $50 bill from my wallet and said, “Thanks, Robin. Please take this. I’m glad I met you and that we got to talk.” Robin stared at Ulysses Grant; I wondered what she knew about history. “Oh, there’s more in the sky than the Man in the Moon.” She shook her head, smiled up at me, and we embraced. Then she swung onto her bike, and I turned toward the security tent, the metal detector, and the shiny black cars. These days, I often think of my beautiful sister Robin, huddled in a D.C. shelter, still hiding her stuff, still waiting for hope and change.