WASHINGTON -- The Gran Caudillo of the capital -- the Ali Pasha of the Potomac -- the Moammar Gadhafi of the metropolis -- the Mayor-for-Life who is still alive but no longer mayor -- the felon who uttered four of the most famous words in American political history -- "Bitch set me up" -- is late for the debate.
It's getting near twilight on a Wednesday in Washington's Ward 8, where the sun set long ago. This is a swath of the city cut off from the shimmering marble monuments by a river, a railroad, a freeway, and decades of neglect and pathological despair.
Geographically, it is designated as Southeast Washington, but it might as well be rural Mississippi for the alienation and the unemployment and the all-consuming poverty.
"We are the last, the least, and the lost," a local woman sighs to me.
This is Sandra Seegars, one of the handful of candidates for the District of Columbia city council who has turned out for a public forum and verbal joust with the Haile Selassie of Southeast -- the Kim Il-Sung of councilmen -- the big-talking, big-strutting, big-hat-wearing celebrity who was this town's Hugo Chávez when Hugo Chávez wasn't cool.
But Marion Barry has yet to arrive.
The venue for the debate is a bar and soul-food eatery called Georgena's -- catfish, chitlins, cornbread -- a haphazardly decorated and joyously friendly joint with a long wooden bar, a reinforced steel door and no windows looking onto the homeless and jobless men who are pitching quarters against the brick wall of a liquor store out on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, just north of its intersection with a boulevard named for Malcolm X.
Georgena's is a regular haunt of the incorrigible Mr. Barry, who was here last week, belting out Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad) on karaoke night in honour of his 76th birthday. His photographs are prominent on the walls, along with those of firefighters, Motown stars, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and deceased parishioners who were sent home to Jesus with a wake at the popular taverna.
"Dive bar + dive food + STRONG drinks + Marion Barry recipe for fun with a side of regret in the morning!!" moans a review of the café, which is the only sit-down restaurant in all of benighted Ward 8 on yelp.com
But now it is time for the debate to start, and Marion Barry -- the passionate and incorrigible civil rights leader and municipal Mobutu who served four terms as Washington's mayor before and after serving a prison term for perjury and possession of crack cocaine -- is nowhere to be found. His sleek silver Jaguar, which he customarily parks wherever he feels like parking it (across intersections, on the sidewalk) is not visible out front.
So the debate begins anyway, without the strutting cock-of-the-walk, featuring three comparative Cornish game hens who have grown weary of walking under Mr. Barry's huge legs to peep about and find themselves dishonourable graves, electorally speaking.
To say all three are long shots in next month's Democratic primary, which is tantamount to election in a neighbourhood where Republicans are as rare as giraffes, would be an understatement. Indeed, in 2004, when Marion Barry, having relaxed his grasp on the entire city after a bout with prostate cancer, decided to serve the citizens of Ward 8 exclusively, he squeaked through with only 95 per cent of the vote.
So it is natural for the moderator, a local television newsman, to ask the trio of contenders why in heaven's name they think they have a chance to defeat a man whose life story has been a remarkable demonstration of the arrogance of power, and the power of forgiveness.
"We love him, we respect him, and we always will," responds a well-spoken candidate named Jacque Patterson who has served on local school boards and committees. "But he's not the same as he was when he was mayor."
"I thank him for all the people he helped to get government jobs and construction jobs, back when African-Americans weren't getting hired," says a younger community activist named Darrel Gaston, who announces he has knocked on 7,000 doors and personally spoken to 10,000 of Ward 8's 76,000 residents.
Gaston then asks rhetorically why the City of Washington was able to afford a new stadium for the baseball Nationals, but not the funds to put a dent in Ward 8's unemployment rate of 20 or 30 per cent.
"Forty per cent!" someone calls out from the back of the saloon.
"We need someone who is incorruptible, which is me," offers Sandra Seegars. "Someone who won't steal. The top people need to be clean for the little people to be clean."
"I don't want people to be afraid of Ward 8, I want them to LOVE Ward 8," says Gaston.
"I'll get anything done that's legal," vows Patterson.
This, of course, is a rather unsubtle jab at the incumbent.
"He's a legend, but 'legend' means that it was in the past," Seegars says. "Legends die, even while they're still alive."
Marion Barry never shows up.
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.