A Tunnel to Call Home
Virginia Skinner, Off the Radar Under the Street
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.”
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.
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.