His smile revealed teeth that were as bright as the White House’s exterior. He was pushing a dollar bill into my hand and his dark complexion contrasted the glowing spirit that left me bewildered. This man was homeless. Money was being placed into my palm, not his. I could see his makeshift bed of faded blankets behind him on the concrete bench that wrapped around the replicated Liberty Bell memorial. A group of three or four other homeless looked as if they were guarding the bench; their eyes fixated on us but wavered every few seconds. They had to. The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says at least 17,800 people are homeless in Washington, D.C. over the course of a year. Iron and concrete benches, metro train stations, every corner outside the centuries-old government buildings and the grass are claimed in the morning, at noon and night by the homeless to nap or sleep on. Escaping my memory was his name but what he taught me escaped any defining notation.
My two friends and I had just figured out the metro train system that brisk September weekend where leaves crunched beneath our feet and a breeze tickled our skin. The orange line was our line. Taking us everywhere we needed to go from Capitol Hill to Arlington Cemetery across the Virginia border. We conquered the Smithsonian and climbed the steps to Abraham Lincoln. Pages and pages of history books were catching up to the current time we spent in the national mall. Staring at the homeless did not become normality. Police officers could do nothing as the problem is rampant. Joggers ran past them and tourists, including ourselves, easily disregarded them. Homelessness may be an issue but in the country’s capital it had become a daily sight just as much as the World War II memorial and the Washington Monument.
After reaching one of our stops, we exited Union Station. This magnificent building has played host to 17 Presidents and countless foreign dignitaries, according to its Web site. However, the site also mentions what may be most impressive, the fact that Union Station’s marble floors echo with the footsteps of over 25 million people each year, making it the most visited site in all of Washington, D.C. Union Station is the most exciting and dynamic shopping destination in the country. Maybe that is why the homeless man came walking toward us as we stepped outside the door that evening. If people were leaving this building we had to have some sort of expendable money, right? Confidence exuberated in every step he took. And when he offered his hand that reached out in business-like form from the sleeve of his shaggy shirt, my hesitant hand remained next to my side. This was not the first time he acted his part I assumed and this would not be his last. To present himself accordingly, he stood straight-backed with his two feet close together and offered his best thirty-second pitch. Masterfully.
Three pairs of eyes were upon him and he did not falter. Words of a well-prepared monologue poured out of the experienced actor, a political speech if you will at a vital campaign stop. One of us, he said, would have the opportunity to win or lose. First things first: money. He needed the evidence that we were not wasting his time. I pulled out my bill and he pulled out his. If you win, he began, I give you this but if you lose, you give that to me, his finger pointing at the dollar resting in my hand. That’s all. What do we have to do, my friend asked. That White House smile appeared. No, no, he said, only one of you gets thirty seconds to find the misspelled word on this replica of the Liberty Bell. Immediately our bodies shifted to look at the sculpture to our left that we had not even given notice to as the homeless man led us from the station. So who will it be, he inquired with a grin. Both my friends turned to me and without a word I had been nominated for the simple fact that they knew I was a grammar geek. They left my side and joined the homeless man who nodded his head. Go.
Within ten seconds I knew the word. But I felt like amusing my friends longer and kept circling the tarnished bell with its signature crack. Inside my head were thoughts on why this word of all words would be misspelled in the first place. I did not know the answer and yet, the homeless man had. Worried looks decorated the two faces across from me while I saw the hope bursting from the squished up cheeks of the homeless man whose smile never seemed to cease. His fellow friends watched the show from their concrete-bench bed. Starting to count down 5, 4, 3, he began walking toward me confidently again. Two and one. I stopped. So, he said, do you know the word? Certain and full of myself, I answered: Pennsylvania, it is spelled with only one “n” when it should have two. Correct, he stated without hesitation and disappointment in his tone. Continuing, he explained that the spelling had not been adopted at the time and presented his dollar bill to me, placing it into my palm. Without pause I looked at my friends who instinctively had the same reaction.
A closed fist shocked the homeless man. Insistent, he began to follow us and attempted to give us the money but we refused. I said, no, no, that it was quite alright and thanked him for allowing me to use my grammar skills. Even deeper inside was the embarrassment I felt for not knowing the history of the bell and its grammatical error. Laughter left his lips as we left his location. He returned to his friends and as we rounded the curve of the concrete wall, the corner of my eyes witnessed him moving back to his spot, straight-backed and two feet grounded in place. Normal workday people would be returning home through the doors of Union Station as the sun set a pink and red backdrop to the national mall. He, on the other hand, would be working overtime, awaiting the next contestants to his game until the very last person disappeared into the darkness. But it wasn’t really a game for him. He depended upon that one simple fact for his day to day necessities. Pensylanvia was a lifeline.
Whether it is the shoe shiner offering a quick polish outside the restaurant door or the homeless man who took claim of the misspelled word engraved upon the replicated Liberty Bell outside Union Station, I learned that they are just as much a part of the history that Washington D.C. stands for, helping us remember times gone by. The museums with their entrance fees may share textbook pictures and artifacts behind glass smudged with fingerprints from school kids and tourists but until the history walks up to you in the most unexpected way, you will never learn just how much the past remains in the present.