Looking back, I suppose I should have been nervous. In fact, I guess I should have been very nervous.
I should have figured that what was about to happen simply shouldn’t have been happening at all. I should have assumed I was dreaming, that I was hallucinating, or that I was having an extreme bout of wishful thinking. I should have reasoned that the Donald Whitehead I had always been, the Donald Whitehead that I knew so well, would have had no business at such a place at such a time. That Donald Whitehead would have been an interloper or kitchen help; that Donald Whitehead would have been approached by security or the police and given only seconds to explain why he was there and what he had in mind. But the truth is, I was there; I was there legitimately, and people were treating me as if I had every right to be there. Donald Whitehead was, as I came to learn, “on the list.”
And, of course, I really was nervous. Not in the sense of panic or having my knees knock, but more in the sense of that inner apprehension as to what might happen that day; that sooner rather than later, someone in authority would come up to me with an expression of superiority on his or her face and I would immediately thereafter be out the door, booted out as the fraud I really was.
Even though I knew that that was not to be the case, old habits and old self-doubts really do die hard. The photographer was a surprise, though. I had hardly expected that anyone would want any sort of a visual record or even that I might have the chance to request such a record. But there the photographer was, explaining to me how many shots he would be taking, assessing what problems I might present, and then disappearing, not to have any interaction with me until I saw the event’s photographs some weeks later and wanted to order pictures. Following the photographer, a young staffer approached to check that the information they had for me was correct, including the pronunciation of my name, which I would have thought to be rather obvious. Satisfied, he headed for the next guest, and his place was taken by another staffer (apparently half the people in Washington D.C. are on someone’s staff), who put his hand on my shoulder and begin gently guiding me into an appropriate position, as well as giving me the protocol for what was about to happen – “please, don’t reach for anything, and keep your hands out of your pocket,” and telling me how long I could expect to wait.
And I did wait. Waiting is a way of life in Washington, much like in the military, and you learn rather quickly that Washington is a city where important things really do happen, and the necessity of dealing with important matters trumps everything and – almost – everybody. And, because of that, you learn to wait, you learn to master the art of small talk, the art of simply having something to say to pass the time. I talked to the people next to me – they were Directors of other national non-profit organizations-- and so we talked about jobs and poverty, about what programs might work and how and why and what could realistically be done regarding legislative needs. I talked to someone behind me; she was new in DC, but had come from Kentucky, right across the river from my home in Cincinnati, where I had grown up and lived almost all my life. She asked about a constant topic in Washington for any new person: housing. Not housing for the poor, but rather, potential apartments, places to live, locations, traffic patterns, and above all the horrible, horrible rent rates that make life in the nation’s capital often seem almost beyond financial hope.
Strangely enough, the call came sooner rather than later. Yet another staffer walked out, holding a clipboard, much like a quarterback on a sideline. He motioned us forward, with the two Labor people leading the way, and Tracy and I following the lady from Kentucky. The room would probably have been best described as a small greeting room, attached to a larger office, and that office attached to the remaining areas of the home itself. As we entered, I saw the four men in dark suits move quickly but smoothly, in what was obviously a practiced pattern, heading for, and then opening a second door across from where we had entered. The staffer with the clipboard put his hand on the elbow of the first of the Department of Labor people and gently maneuvered him more to the center of the room. We followed and stood waiting. There were no chairs, although various pieces of furniture did line the left wall of the room, under a huge mirror.
I remember licking my lips as we waited, and I remember rubbing my hands together. But it was only a minute before the men in the dark suits fanned out to flank the opposite door just as yet another staffer, obviously an even more senior person, entered through that door. He quickly stepped to the side, as yet another man walked in. This man stood still for only an instant before he began what must have been for him a long-perfected litany:
“Lady and gentlemen, please give your attention….
The last man to enter was pretty much exactly as I had seen on the television and in the hundreds of pictures, although a bit taller and a bit heavier than I had guessed. He thanked us briefly for coming, and then began what struck me as a fairly impassioned series of quick comments on the shame that America had to feel given that so many of its citizens were poor, homeless, unemployed, or all three. He promised that he would personally see to it that something was done about this disgrace.
When he finished speaking, the two Department of Labor people were introduced to him and he spoke with them for at least a couple of minutes; the lady from Kentucky (I later learned she was with HUD) received slightly less time, and then it was my turn. I stepped forward, smiled, and suddenly had only one thought in my mind: again, that this could not possibly be true, that this could not possibly be happening. Not to Donald Whitehead, not to the man who had lain on the floor of an emergency shelter in Cincinnati, Ohio, not to the man who had been so desperate and homeless.
But it was happening.
I stepped forward, smiled, and put out my hand.
“Mr. President,” the staffer said, “let me introduce to you, Mr. Donald Whitehead, the Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.”
And I stepped forward and shook the hand of President William Jefferson Clinton, and we began to speak, as if we were old friends, about homelessness in the United States of America.
Later in the evening, I had a chance to speak with Hilary Clinton as well, and I was tremendously impressed at how knowledgeable she was about homelessness. We talked and I was astonished as she really seemed to listen to what I was saying. Listening to Donald Whitehead, listening far more attentively than others had listened to me when I had been a homeless addict in the gutters of Cincinnati.
When I left the Clinton Home that evening, I felt as if I had become somehow a different person; I felt as if the Donald Whitehead who had left the office of the National Coalition on Homelessness to go to the Clinton Home had been transformed; had become someone who was different in some new and invigorating way. I felt somehow raised up, somehow changed. And yet, I knew in the deepest recesses of both my heart and my mind, that that was not the truth. For I realized then, as I do now, that I was the very same Donald Whitehead as I had ever been. I realized, in fact, that I was the same Donald Whitehead, who had lain on the floor of the Drop-Inn Center, on 12th Street, in Cincinnati, completely drunk, unable to get up, and unable to take care of himself. And it had not been that many years earlier.