One night this past winter, in a week when nothing was working out, Meguiel Merritt called his ex-wife and asked her to pray for him.
“You been drinking?” she asked.
He’d been sober for eight years, but Merritt knew why she asked. As their marriage had unraveled in the early 1990s, he’d started drinking heavily, a prelude to a lost decade on crack cocaine.
The problem now, though, wasn’t drugs. It was money. He was 52 years old and had a full-time job with benefits as an assistant janitorial supervisor at Howard University. But he was living in a homeless shelter off North Capitol Street, in a room with six other men.
Merritt had always felt his needs were simple: He wanted an apartment of his own in DC. His hometown. An efficiency would do, so long as his TV got the Westerns he loved and there was a gas stove to cook liver and onions, chicken and sliced potatoes, and other beloved meals.
But rents had rocketed so fast that a man making $29,000 a year no longer felt welcome. He’d seen listings east of the Anacostia River for less than $800 a month, but he couldn’t go back there, not without seeing ghosts from his old life.
The week Merritt called his ex-wife, a rental rep at one DC building told him he was too deep in debt to his last landlord to qualify for an apartment. Then, when he looked outside the District, in Greenbelt, to see if rents were better, a building agent said he had nothing for less than $1,000.
If he wanted to live in or around DC, Merritt began to fear, he’d need a second job. But after starting an online exam for a night job sorting mail for the US Postal Service, the website malfunctioned, stranding him mid-test.
Merritt started to think about a scene in the movie The Color Purple, when the character played by Whoopi Goldberg puts a curse on her good-for-nothing husband. “Until you do right by me,” she tells him, “everything you think about is gonna crumble.”
The past weeks had left Merritt feeling as though someone had put a “mojo” on him. He’d made mistakes enough in life, he knew, that blame for the greater part of his troubles lay on his shoulders. But he needed some sign that the family he’d wronged over the years wasn’t actively rooting for him to fail.
His former wife assured him that was not the case.
Would she be willing to say a prayer for him?
She told him she would.
• • •
One wet morning as we drove together to see the high school he never graduated from, Merritt let his mind flood with daydreams. “I’d love to lay out on the beach, look at the white sand,” he said. Then, in the present tense, as if already there: “I have two bikinis on each arm and say, ‘I wonder what the poor people are doing.’ ”
But as he looked through the rain-blurred windshield of his truck, he saw not paradise but the streets—Lamont, Warder—where his life had gone under. “In my addiction, I’d come here to party, to buy drugs, to meet women,” he said. “You had to be careful in this area because if they didn’t know you, they’d rob you real quick, real fast.”
It was 10:40 am on a Saturday, and we pulled into an empty parking lot overlooking the football field at Roosevelt High School, in DC’s Petworth. Merritt had dropped out in 11th grade, when the money from his minimum-wage job and the girls his paycheck attracted made him feel like more of a hotshot than any honor roll.
“I should have stayed in school,” he said now, the rain still coming. He rolled down the window a little: Glistening out there was the field where he once might have worn a football uniform but never did. He was husky even then—six-foot-one, 250 pounds. But when he quit school, football was another thing that got away from him.
Merritt is a heavy man with a baby face, glasses, and a voice somewhere between a rasp and a whisper—a gentle giant, some say. His half year at the shelter hasn’t been kind to his body. The kitchen is off limits to residents, so Merritt, a onetime cook, has indulged a weakness for carryout. His weight has ballooned to 350 pounds. He wheezes as he climbs stairs. He sometimes has to stop for breath.
When we spoke in his basement janitorial office one day, Merritt told me he expected neither handouts nor some music-video fantasy vacation. He wanted only the barest dignities of a man who had held the same, steady job for nearly 30 years. “I don’t need to live like the Joneses,” he said. “I just want to be more comfortable.”
I asked him what that meant. “A little money in the bank, to where I can pay my bills and don’t have to worry: Will I make the water bill? Will I make the electric bill? I’d like to just sit down and write those checks and just live that American dream.”
But in his search for that dream’s bedrock—his own place—he has struggled. “My problem is I want it today,” he said. “I just want to get out of the shelter and start living again.”
He’s too old to live in a dormitory with a half dozen strangers. To shower in a group bathroom. To swallow warmed-over slop from a food kitchen. To ask for a pass to stay out after curfew.
But the new DC isn’t handing out second chances the way it used to. So he works and he waits.
When I followed him around the job one morning—HOWARD UNIVERSITY stitched above the left pocket of his denim work shirt—he seemed invisible to the undergraduates whose toilets he fixes and whose dorms he cleans. The bright lives they were racing toward, he knew, would have little in common with his.
Merritt allows himself one DC Lottery ticket a day; a lucky number sometimes feels like his only shot at a new life. But mostly he practices patience. A life of wrong turns can’t be righted overnight. “I need to stop rushing God,” he says, “because it’s on his time, not mine.”
• • •
The trim house on Sixth Street, Northeast, where Merritt spent most of his childhood borders the leafy campus of St. Paul’s College, in the District’s Edgewood section.
For his parents, it was a beacon of middle-class arrival. The family had lived in a series of small apartments in rougher parts of town—in the last place, a pyromaniac regularly set the building ablaze—before finding their way to this pistachio-green house with the white stone chimney at the end of a quiet block.
Meguiel Merritt was born in 1960, the middle of three children and the only boy. His father, Charles Jackson, returned from the Vietnam War to a job as a National Park Service groundskeeper on the Mall. His mother, Eula, started as a cafeteria aide at Howard University and was on a slow but steady path to management. (She retired in 2002 as operations manager for residence life.)
Meguiel got decent grades and was a bruiser at playground football matches. For a time, it looked as if he might hoist the family further up the economic ladder.