Ismail sleeping in the foreground as a cyclist pedals by on Rock Creek Parkway. (photo: Reed)
I made my way back from Pennsylvania to DC on Tuesday. It was such a beautiful drive home that I thought I should get outside and go for a bike ride. I got my Moleskine notebook, my camera, $10 and my audio recorder together and packed my Swiss Army backpack and headed out on my bike toward the Potomac River.
It was a perfect day. The sun was shining and people were out running and biking. As I got close to the river I saw lots of people practicing crew and
Ismail still trying to wake up. (photo: Reed)
others just leisurely enjoying the calm waters. About 100 yards from the manicured grounds of the Kennedy Center I found a man taking a nap on a shaded patch of grass on the northern bank of the Potomac.
I cautiously approached him, trying to make a little bit of noise so that I didn’t startle him, and called out, “Excuse me. I’m sorry to bother you, but do you have a minute.” Ismail slowly roused from a groggy state. He rubbed his eyes and wet his lips as he studied me and we slipped into an hour-long conversation about his life, politics, religion, economy and one Don Vito Corleone.
“I came here from Sudan 26 years ago to meet Marlon Brando,” Ismail says fighting off a cough. He shares that he has seen all of Brando’s movies. He is especially fond of Sayanora (1957) and the classic The Godfather (1972). To Ismail, Brando was not just an actor, but much more. “His movies had meaning and Brando himself stood for things. His movies didn’t have any garbage.” Still fighting off the sleep, he admits that he unfortunately never got to meet his idol.
I dug around in my backpack for my Moleskine notebook where I take notes about the people I meet. It also has a handy folder where I keep my ten dollars and cards that I give people. I realized I had left the book on my kitchen counter. Shoot. I checked my wallet, all I had was two twenties and four singles. Hmmm. What to do? Well, I will just offer him $20.
A crew team glides by behind Ismail. (photo: Reed)
“Oh! I’ve read about you. I remember you. There was a story about you in the Washington Post several months ago,” he says taking off his black modern looking glasses. “But you normally give $10, right, let me give you $10 change,” he offered. I told him to keep the extra ten; it would make for an interesting deviation in my giving.
“Did you think that I would ever find you,” I asked.
“If I tell you, you’re not going to believe me, but I was thinking about you two days ago,” he says. He had read an article somewhere about a guy who gave some money to a homeless guy in Rosslyn and he thought that perhaps it was me. I don’t think it was, but you never know. I have given to some people in Rosslyn which is just across the Potomac river.
Ismail originally came to the US from Sudan, the largest country in Africa and the Arab world. It’s a unique country in that it has nine neighbors with a variety of different cultures, religions and languages.
His move to the US was related to his work with the League of Arab States. 18 years ago, he left the organization and began driving a cab in DC. He recently was forced to stop driving his cab after racking up thousands of dollars of unpaid fines. He got his license revoked and had to give up his taxi cab. That was six months ago. “I sent my wife and son home to Sudan and moved out of our apartment to save money,” the father of three said. He tried the shelters but said that the conditions are so poor in most shelters that he prefers to sleep on the streets of DC. “I am saving money to pay the fines, so I don’t need to have extra things to pay such as rent right now.” He talks of a nice facility on Wisconsin Avenue where they allow eight individuals per day to shower there. “I go there and sometimes even receive mail there.”
Ismail has been homeless for six months. (photo: Reed)
He said he owed almost $5,600 in fines. I never fully understood how he accumulated these fines or what they were for. “I offered to pay them $150 per day every day at eight o’clock, but they said I had to pay everything at once, which I can not do.” He says he has saved up a couple thousand dollars through working as a dish washing but still needs approximately $2,075. Although he didn’t ask, I said maybe some of the readers of the Year of Giving would be able to help him. He at first declined this offer saying that he was healthy and could work so he didn’t need to receive any assistance from others, but then said, “Well, I would accept the help with one condition. If they would send me their name and address as well so that I can pay them back once I get my cab back.” I believe he was sincere with this promise.
“I’m going to put your twenty dollars toward the money I owe,” he told me.
Ismail laughs easily. (photo: Reed)
We chatted about the challenges of being homeless. Ismail paused as a plane on final approach to Reagan National Airport passed overhead before saying, “Even if someone is homeless or crazy, he still has dignity. He still needs to be listened to.” He said that if you take a person’s dignity away they don’t have anything left. I agree. It reminds me of Anthony from Day 6, a homeless man who I met sitting in the snow near Dupont Circle Metro who was sending Christmas cards to his family members. “I still have my pride,” Anthony told me last December.
I enjoyed my time with Ismail and I know I will see him again. If anyone wants to help him, let me know, I have his cell phone number.
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