A Tun­nel to Call Home

Vir­ginia Skin­ner, Off the Radar Un­der the Street

The Washington Post Sunday - - Style - By De­Neen L. Brown

She lies here, sleep­ing on a card­board pil­low, the wo­man who climbed into a tun­nel be­neath the street. Here, she built her bed­room, her cham­bers, a pa­per room, both eter­nal and tem­po­ral. Be­neath Wis­con­sin Av­enue at the Bethesda Metro sta­tion, she lies, curled on her side, un­der that row of blink­ing mood lights that move from yel­low to red to green and back again. Her shop­ping carts, over­flow­ing with lo­tions, liq­uid soap, bleach, am­mo­nia, Pine-Sol. Carts of baby wipes, empty bot­tles, full bot­tles, cans of spaghetti, black plas­tic bags, sil­ver My­lar and yel­low cro­cheted blan­kets.

Har­ried peo­ple walk by; the click of their shoes do not wake her. Men in blue suits, talk­ing on Black­Ber­rys. Not see­ing. Or per­haps pre­tend­ing not to see. Teenagers thun­der by on skate­boards, gig­gling. An old wo­man passes qui­etly car­ry­ing plas­tic gro­cery bags, her head down. The lights twin­kle. An old man is walk­ing with a cane. Softly, care­fully. The af­ter­noon light peeks into the tun­nel. A young wo­man passes in black pumps, so pol­ished, so im­pec­ca­ble they don’t seem to touch the tiles. A flurry of peo­ple flow through this pub­lic bed­room.

Some whis­per. Some ac­knowl­edge. Some ig­nore. Some worry. Some sim­ply want her gone.

And still she sleeps, Vir­ginia Skin­ner, un­der her blue scarf and three hats, un­der a blue sweater, gray sweater, brown sweater and green on a bed of card­board, be­hind card­board walls, tied to­gether ob­ses­sively with gray string.

What brought this wo­man to this tun­nel, slip­ping lit­er­ally un­der­ground into the dark­ness, sleep­ing all day, up all night? Tired, so tired. Where is her fam­ily? Where are her chil­dren? What made her curl up here un­der­ground? Vir­ginia, are you awake? She turns on her side. Vir­ginia, wake up, it’s day­time. Just at the end of the tun­nel, there is light. And red roses for sale in white buck­ets. Vir­ginia, get up. It’s dark down here. Just 28 steps up is day­light.

At the mouth of the tun­nel, there is a man sell­ing flow­ers. He says Vir­ginia has been here, home­less for many, many years, since long be­fore he came here. “I’ve been here seven years,” says Samuel Ho­gan, 48. “Some­times, Vir­ginia talks. Some­times, she don’t. Other than that, she’s all right. She speaks to ev­ery­body who comes in the tun­nel. . . . They treat her like a nor­mal per­son. Like a hu­man be­ing. They give her the re­spect she de­serves. If she’s sleep­ing, that’s her way of say­ing she doesn’t feel like be­ing both­ered.”

A long time ago, he says, she used to stay up there. Up top, above ground, on the benches at the Metro sta­tion. “In 2000,” Ho­gan says, “she came in the tun­nel.” A lady in a brown skirt and black Mary Janes walks up. She is shop­ping for flow­ers.

“Those are $12 and those are $10 and the tulips are $8,” the flower man says. “The roses are $5.”

She puts down her Macy’s bag and se­lects a bou­quet of white tulips and pur­ple tulips. “Let me wrap that for you.”

While he wraps the bou­quets, you ask the lady whether she no­ticed Vir­ginia.

“I don’t have a lot of time to talk,” she says. “But thank you.”

The tulip lady is kind. She has red hair. But she too is in a hurry. And you won­der whether she has ever been down so low she climbed into a tun­nel. But her face seems too fresh to be pressed with wor­ries. And she is buy­ing tulips, happy flow­ers. She slips away in her Mary Janes.

The flower man con­tin­ues: “A long time ago, a lady bought Vir­ginia some flow­ers.” Vir­ginia, wake up. It’s day­time. Just at the top of the stairs is a lovely foun­tain. The wa­ter is turned off. But they are sure to turn the wa­ter on again and then it will be lovely to hear the wa­ter bounce against it­self. And look, the clock on the Bethesda Metro Cen­ter tower is still an hour be­hind. No one has yet moved time for­ward as dic­tated by Congress.

So Vir­ginia, you see, there is still time. It gives you a lit­tle more time to pull your­self to­gether, wash your face, put on your best dress.

The mel­low lights in the tun­nel don’t so much blink as fade from one color to the next.

Be­hind her, a pale light flashes a palm tree on the wall. An orange light flashes a snowflake. There is an ir­ri­tat­ing chronic buzz. Vir­ginia still sleeps. Near the en­trance to the tun­nel, a man throws a set of keys at a wo­man. They ar­gue. She walks out of the tun­nel on the east side. He through the west. She de­scends the es­ca­la­tor to the train plat­form. Then she as­cends the es­ca­la­tor again and re­turns to the tun­nel. Re­vers­ing her­self and fol­low­ing the man. There is drama in the tun­nel.

An­other man walks by. He has the face of a char­ac­ter ac­tor in one of those movies you can’t quite re­mem­ber the ti­tle of. He no­ticed Vir­ginia in the last five months as he has walked through this tun­nel to buy lot­tery tick­ets. “If I hit the lot­tery, she would spend a cou­ple of nights in the Four Sea­sons,” Ron­ald B. Zisk says of Vir­ginia, who is still sleep­ing. Zisk, 67, grew up in the Bronx, where he says his par­ents taught him that other peo­ple some­times come first, so he wor­ries about Vir­ginia.

Just then a man in a black suit stops. “Is she mov­ing out of here? We’ve called the po­lice many times,” says Chembe Chibwe, who works at the Hy­att. “But the po­lice say it’s Metro’s re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

A Metro of­fi­cial says later: “It is not our prop­erty. I don’t know who it be­longs to.”

Es­ther Bowring, a spokes­woman for Mont­gomery County, says the county owns the tun­nel. County of­fi­cials have made sev­eral at­tempts to move Vir­ginia into per­ma­nent hous­ing through home­less pro­grams but have failed.

Chibwe says he is wor­ried about the health of peo­ple who walk through the tun­nel. “This is a pub­lic place; small kids might fall down. It’s re­ally dan­ger­ous. My main con­cern is the health of other peo­ple. I pass many times and peo­ple com­plain. Maybe this time they will re­move her, by the grace of God.”

She rises, rests on her el­bow, then slides into her chair, an of­fice chair on wheels. “What time is it?” It’s 1:32 p.m. It’s Tues­day. Come on. Let’s have lunch.

Vir­ginia Skin­ner smiles a broad smile. She is miss­ing teeth, but her skin is rosy. She will not tell her age but says she was born at D.C. Gen­eral Hospi­tal. She says her mother worked in a hospi­tal and her fa­ther worked in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment: “He worked in the de­part­ment that did re­pairs on sol­diers when they got hurt.” She says she grad­u­ated from East­ern High School and from Ge­orge­town Univer­sity in 1971. As she talks, she is ty­ing her bas­kets to­gether with strings.

She says she worked as a med­i­cal ad­min­is­tra­tive sec­re­tary. “In ER.” She says she was mar­ried. “But can we skip the hus­band part?” She says she had three chil­dren. “Then two more came. That makes five.” But she doesn’t say their ages. “I can’t tell you that.” She says she has a grand­daugh­ter “who is 2 or maybe 3.” She says her fam­ily knows where she is. “They want me to come to live with them, but I wanted to get a place of my own.” She says her sis­ter comes to have din­ner with her pe­ri­od­i­cally “some­where near Mazza Gal­lerie at some French restau­rant.”

She says she left a group home in­tend­ing to move into a ho­tel, but ended up in the tun­nel in­stead. She says her fam­ily in­vested in stocks and she is liv­ing off the in­ter­est.

She has a sil­ver safety pin in her black sweater.

She says she doesn’t want to be home­less be­cause “you don’t feel like you can get enough rest. It’s not that spir­i­tual.”

She says she lived in Wash­ing­ton, then moved to Mary­land. “I had an apart­ment in Bethesda. I gave the apart­ment up. I was in a group home and I came this way. . . . I’ve been here since April 2006. I’ve been in the tun­nel since Au­gust 2006. My things can­not be all over the place, so I came inside here.

“When it started get­ting cold and the wind started blow­ing, I came down here. I’ve been here wait­ing for hous­ing. There is noth­ing for me up there.”

As she talks, she ties her bas­kets to­gether with gray strings, as if the strings hold her life to­gether. She says she is preg­nant with twins. She of­fers ear­phones to lis­ten to her stom­ach with a baby mon­i­tor. Some­thing inside her belly thumps. “I’m so tired. I’m go­ing to sit down now.” There is a faint smell of Pine-Sol. Packed in the “bed­room” are CVS shop­ping carts full of cleansers: Arm & Ham­mer Bak­ing Soda, Lysol spray dis­in­fec­tant. Ajax. Am­mo­nia. Dark choco­late, in­cense, a broom, a mop, a cane, suit­cases. A ra­dio is play­ing classical mu­sic.

Look, Vir­ginia. Other peo­ple have made it out of the tun­nel. Look! There is a wo­man in a baby-blue pantsuit with shoes that match, high-heeled shoes the color of blue­bird eggs. She is car­ry­ing a bou­quet of flow­ers. A wo­man in a black flare skirt, on her way with pur­pose. A wo­man with a golden or­na­ment in her hair. You could fix your hair like that. Put on a touch of pink lip­stick. You would look pretty.

Vir­ginia, get up.

Her fam­ily says her life started out sweet in child­hood and ended up in pain. Lay­ers of big hurts piled upon one an­other un­til the wo­man be­neath them broke.

“Vir­ginia has been home­less for a long time,” says her sis­ter Delores Skin­ner, a mail clerk at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. “She was a young wo­man when she started liv­ing on the streets. She is a very in­tel­li­gent young lady. She’s been through a lot of hurt. She’s been hurt a lot in life.”

Vir­ginia was the old­est of six chil­dren who grew up in a house on Capi­tol Hill. “She’s five years older than me. That makes her 57. There were three girls and three boys. I had a good child­hood grow­ing up with my sis­ter. She would take us shop­ping and would take us sight­see­ing ev­ery Sun­day af­ter church. There were just so many good things I re­mem­ber about my sis­ter.”

Their mother, Delores Skin­ner says, was a teacher’s aide and their fa­ther was an en­tre­pre­neur. “Dad was al­ways self-em­ployed, owned tow trucks and junk­yards. Sold ice cream. Sold wash­ing ma­chines and dry­ers. He never did want to work for some­body else.”

Skin­ner says it is true that her sis­ter grad­u­ated from East­ern High, then from a med­i­cal sec­re­tary class at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity Hospi­tal. She worked as a med­i­cal sec­re­tary at the hospi­tal for six or seven years. “Vir­ginia has four girls and one boy. She has beau­ti­ful chil­dren, all nice kids.”

Her life seemed to be go­ing well. Then one day, her baby was out­side in Vir­ginia’s mother’s yard on Capi­tol Hill. The fa­ther of the baby, to whom Vir­ginia was not mar­ried, came by that day and took the baby out of the grand­mother’s yard, Delores Skin­ner says. “The baby was six months when he took her,” she says. “That was dev­as­tat­ing to her. ” Vir­ginia left the other chil­dren in search of the baby. She trav­eled to Ohio and Vir­ginia, look­ing for her.

“I re­mem­ber the day my cousin was taken from the yard. I re­mem­ber my aunt was try­ing to find her. She couldn’t get her be­cause he was hid­ing her through the fam­ily,” says Vir­ginia’s nephew, Nathan Hardy, 35, a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ist who lives in Prince Ge­orge’s County.

The re­main­ing chil­dren even­tu­ally went to live with their fa­ther, who was a dif­fer­ent fa­ther from the miss­ing girl. The sep­a­ra­tion from her baby may have trig­gered Vir­ginia’s prob­lems, Skin­ner says. “She was schiz­o­phrenic. I don’t know where it comes from or what side of the fam­ily. I don’t know why she went to the street.”

And for the next 30 years, Vir­ginia, a tal­ented artist whose paint­ings still hang in the house of her grand­mother, has lived on and off the street. For pe­ri­ods of time she has lived with her sis­ters. Some­times she has had her own apart­ment, in­clud­ing an apart­ment in Ten­ley­town. “Her ac­tual home is on Capi­tol Hill . . . where she grew up,” Hardy says.

Her chil­dren are all grown up now. The baby she went look­ing for, now 33, was even­tu­ally re­united with her sib­lings. Her fam­ily says they have tried over the years to bring Vir­ginia in to live with them, try­ing var­i­ous meth­ods of coax­ing her off the street. “My mom was try­ing to get her to come in the last time,” Hardy says. “She said she had to wait for her hus­band, who was com­ing. She would tell us, ‘I’ll call you and he’ll drop me off.’ ” But the hus­band never came and she did not call. “We didn’t want to force her. The last time my other aunt forced her to come and she just left the house.”

Delores says, “She won’t come in for any­body. We tried. She says, ‘Maybe I will.’ But she doesn’t want you to keep talk­ing about it. I said, ‘Ginny, you have to come in be­cause it will be cold soon. You can go to . . . your daugh­ter’s or son’s.’ Her son wants her to move to Ari­zona with his fam­ily. He has eight chil­dren and they need to know their grand­mother.”

The last time the fam­ily found Vir­ginia, she was sit­ting in front of the Bethesda Metro Sta­tion, above ground. Hardy was work­ing for Clark Con­struc­tion. “I saw her,” he says. “When I was there, I would come over and bring her lunch. We got her the GoPhone to give her a way to stay in touch with the fam­ily. Then she dis­ap­peared. Her chil­dren went out look­ing for her to try to bring her in. There was a time when she would come in for pe­ri­ods of time. Then we couldn’t get her to come back any­more. When we started en­ter­tain­ing the prospect of her com­ing in, she would dis­ap­pear.” Mary­land laws say that the men­tally ill can­not be forced into treat­ment un­less they are a dan­ger to them­selves or oth­ers, or are so in­ca­pac­i­tated they can­not care for them­selves.

“I want her to be safe,” Skin­ner says. “But we all have a choice in life. No­body can make you do what you don’t want to do.”

Vir­ginia is ly­ing on a park bench that she dragged into the tun­nel. She says she took the bus over to a Rite Aid, bought the bench in a box and as­sem­bled it yes­ter­day. “It was some­thing I promised my­self I would do.” She says it’s cold to­day. You wouldn’t be cold if you went to live with your fam­ily. They re­ally want you to come.

“Oh,” she says, “if I get an apart­ment, I still have that op­tion, then they can come visit me.”

Your fam­ily says when the baby was taken, it broke you.

She glances up. The sad­ness comes back. She spreads a gray wool blan­ket over her­self. “Be­ing sep­a­rated is a hard thing for a fam­ily,” she says. But she says that she and the fa­ther agreed that he would take the baby to live with his mother. “We talked about it. My fam­ily was kind of crit­i­cal of it. They knew I took it hard. I healed. I mended. I didn’t hold it against him. Some peo­ple made re­ally bad de­ci­sions in life. It wasn’t the worst de­ci­sion to let her go. She still knows I love her.”

She pulls the blan­ket up.

She wakes. Sits in her chair. Wipes her hands with baby wipes. Puts on hand lo­tion. She squirts some per­fume. Are you okay? “I’m just tired. I’m just catch­ing up.” “Are you go­ing to come out of the tun­nel to­day?”

“I don’t know. I’m just catch­ing up on my sleep.”

The light has changed in the tun­nel as the day ends.

“Through the years,” Vir­ginia says, “peo­ple have ac­com­plished a lot of things. But they have lost some­thing, some­thing spir­i­tual. That is not a ser­mon, just a thought.”

She pours a liq­uid on her hands. “I have to keep my things clean, al­ways,” she says. “I have to keep my hands clean. Pine-Sol and bleach. I di­lute it be­cause it’s so strong.”

She says she just ate. “I ate a can of spaghetti and meat­balls. It’s good at room tem­per­a­ture. It’s good for the glutens.”

What is it like sit­ting here all day? What do you think of the peo­ple who walk by?

“Some peo­ple are friendly and very con­cerned. That means ev­ery­thing to me. Some peo­ple walk by and don’t say any­thing.” She be­gins to bite her nails. “A lot of peo­ple from the world come through the tun­nel,” she says. “You see peo­ple come back and forth. They are from a sep­a­rate world. Only peo­ple who come from my world talk about pos­i­tive things, like hope.” Then she tells the story of a man she watched for a long time, who never seemed to ac­knowl­edge her. Kept pass­ing her by with­out speak­ing. She says she prayed for him. “Then one day he came up and al­most fell over me. He said some­thing pos­i­tive, like he hoped to see my life get bet­ter.”

Vir­ginia sits in her of­fice chair, says she is tired. She leans her head against the card­board wall of her bed­room. Her head presses against the words writ­ten on the box: “FRAG­ILE! Han­dle with Care. FRAG­ILE! Ma­nip­uler Avec Soin. FRAG­ILE! Moneje Con Cuidado.”

BY MICHAEL WIL­LIAMSON — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Rel­a­tives, friends and strangers alike have tried to help Vir­ginia Skin­ner move out of the Bethesda Metro sta­tion un­der Wis­con­sin Av­enue, but she re­fuses to leave the tun­nel where she has slept for a year.

PHO­TOS BY MICHAEL WIL­LIAMSON — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

At Bethesda Metro sta­tion, hun­dreds of peo­ple pass by daily, but few see Vir­ginia Skin­ner tucked be­hind her “wall” of carts and card­board.

Ev­ery night, Vir­ginia moves her be­long­ings to the front of the tun­nel. Ev­ery night, she sweeps the area where she stayed, usu­ally sleep­ing, dur­ing the day.

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