By Courtland Milloy
Friday, November 10, 2006; B01
If you want to see how America looks from the bottom rung of society, visit Terry C. Beckwith at his homestead beneath the 11th Street Bridge in Southeast Washington. He's not your stereotypical homeless person, neither schizophrenic nor drunk nor traumatized by war. He calls himself an "oxymoron," not to be confused with just any moron.
"I'm fragile and tough, warm and cold, smart and dumb -- and it's driving me crazy," he said. When I reached out to shake his hand, he bumped knuckles instead: "I'm friendly, but I don't want to be your friend."
Beckwith is the "mayor" of "Box City," a stretch of makeshift tarp and cardboard shelters near Ninth Street and Potomac Avenue SE. His spread is among the best-looking under the bridge and includes a dinette table decorated with a vase of cut flowers, a tent for sleeping and a spot for pondering -- "the think tank," he calls it, which is actually just a chair with a Malcolm X T-shirt pulled over the back.
The matter for pondering during my recent visit was the Election Day dirty-tricks campaign in Maryland, in which busloads of homeless men, many of whom were black, were recruited from as far as Philadelphia and paid $100 each to pass out voter guides aimed at bamboozling black Democrats into voting for Republicans.
"A hundred bucks?" said Beckwith, 48, breaking out in derisive laughter. "That's mainstream America for you. Just give a guy a fish. Forget about teaching him how to fish."
Backers of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and U.S. Senate candidate Michael S. Steele, both Republicans, were behind the scheme -- which used Ehrlich's and Steele's names as the "preferred choices" on what was described as a sample Democratic ballot.
"That's what you get in a system where winning is everything -- where it doesn't matter what kind of boss you are so long as you get to be the boss," Beckwith said. "Paying homeless people to do your dirty work becomes politically correct."
Ehrlich put it another way. "If folks are here from out of town, that's fine with me," he told a reporter. "That's what the Democrats have always done. It's legal, and it's what the Democrats have done forever."
But the point was the same. And in terms of helping the poor, Beckwith saw about as much difference between Democrats and Republicans as he did between Pepsi and Coke.
"All I've been hearing about is 'Democrats take over this' and 'Democrats take control of that,' " Beckwith said. "But it doesn't matter who's in charge. Nothing changes. The only thing I can count on not being conned by is nature. I know it's about to get real cold, and no Republican or Democrat is going to invite me into their home for the winter."
He paused, having become preoccupied with rummaging through a garbage bag where he thought he'd stored a pair of long johns. "Do you know what Rodin's 'The Thinker' is thinking about?" he asked in one of many such abrupt shifts in attention. "He's thinking, 'I wonder where I left my clothes?' "
Beckwith has lived in Box City for two years. With no fixed address, not even a photo ID to prove his existence, he can't vote. But he stays abreast of politics just the same, using discarded newspapers and a portable radio to get the news -- and Scriptures from a well-worn Bible for interpretation and analysis.
"I would rather wander blindly through the wilderness than see myself exploiting others in a land of plenty," he said, sounding like a preacher, though he wasn't sure if the thought had come from the Bible or he'd just made it up.
A native of the District, he used to work as a carpenter before becoming depressed after a series of deaths -- his mother, fiancee, two of his six siblings and a favorite nephew all died in the same year, by accident, violence or illness. He became a jumble of emotions, his thinking muddled; he couldn't keep a job. By his own self-diagnosis, he concluded, "I needed something to lure me in and hold my attention, but nothing would last."
Before long, he said, nearly everything about his life began to bug him -- even his last name. "The only other Beckwith I know of is Byron De La Beckwith, the man who assassinated Medgar Evers," he said, looking dejected. Moving to the bridge did not bring the relief he so badly yearned for -- but it did bring a kind of clarity.
Asked what he thought of Steele, he said, "I think Medgar and Martin [Luther King Jr.] and Malcolm would be disappointed. But I'm not surprised. It's the way the system works. It's not so much about being black or white as having the green."
He went on to say: "A guy on my level is not regarded as an American; I'm the liar, the thief, careless and soulless." (He flies an American flag at his homestead so he won't forget who he really is.) "But when I look at the so-called real Americans" -- he continued, making quotation marks with his fingers -- "I wonder what kind of people we would be if we did not have our possessions, our positions and our money to validate us. Would we still believe that we had to win at all cost, even if it meant cheating and conning one another?"