At first, we were unaware of the passing.
My wife Supalak and I were on our way home, waiting for the D2 bus that would take us from Dupont Circle to our apartment in Glover Park.
There was a palpable sense that something had changed in the cool April air at the north entrance to the Dupont Circle metro escalator. Or, to be more precise, there was a larger sense of something missing.
There were some obvious clues – a bouquet of flowers pinioned to a lone, scraggly tree, itself encased within its city-box of sidewalk concrete. Other flowers had been stuck into the surrounding dirt like multicolored stalks of grass. Near the tree, occupying its own space, empty and significant, was a long fold-out table with a rash of signatures and scribbles. A message on the table implored people not to write anything bad about “my father.”
Supalak was the first to notice these clues.
“Ben, Ben ... he’s dead! Baba is dead!” she called out as she ran toward me.
“He” was Sakhi Gulestan, the “Birdman of Dupont,” the turbaned, bearded and weather-lined stalwart who sold umbrellas, sunglasses, and scarves to the tourists and the forgetful commuters among the hustle and bustle of the city, rain or shine, the peddler of paraphernalia always present with a varying array of season-specific material.
All at once, this passing felt as large and strange as if a member of the family had died, a particularly mute yet memorable figure who occupied an almost daily presence in our lives. How many of these people do you come to know over periods of time wherever you live? They are part of an extended family, and we should honor them.
I had known about Gulestan since the late 90’s when I first came to DC and began commuting to Dupont Circle. He was always there at the north entrance when I headed up Connecticut Avenue in the morning, and was always packing things away as I headed back to the subway ride back to Takoma Park. He was so familiar by his presence and so “un-DC” (an Afghani man in full tribal dress amidst power-suits) that he inspired me in my writing for a DUCTS Trumpet Fiction piece about a reporter who makes up a false story about the merchant and is latter confronted by him and his wife.
We knew a lot more about Gulestan after we moved back to the city in 2006. Supalak gets all the credit for this. She broke the bubble of fantasy and began chatting with Gulestan, and at least one of his sons, in between her daily waits for the D2, and had even brought me over to introduce me. I didn’t bother to mention the fiction story to him. Perhaps I should have.
She was fascinated with his daily labors, the smile on his face, and the way that he seemed to easily converse with passersby. She also felt a strong connection to him simply as a fellow member of the “American immigrant club,” the club with no dues and yet all the pressures of language, culture, and expectation.
On that early April day, we knew only what we read on the table, and we headed home, a bit sad, wondering at details. We heard nothing for several days, but more flowers appeared, and people continued to add their sentiments to the table. Supalak wrote hers in Thai. Thankfully, the son’s request was honored.
A few days later, the table vanished and a bright yellow piece of paper appeared, wrapped with heavy masking tape around the tree, holding the yellow and purple flowers hard to the trunk.
“He was here for 25 years. He was known to some as Mohammed/Baba, and others as Gulistan. He was rich in heart even if poor in pocket and shared what he had with people and animals everyday. He passed away on March 29th, 2008. He was loved. He was a light. He is dearly missed.”
The same week, the City Paper, the local weekly freebie known for its “Savage Love” sex advice column and street-level journalism, followed with an obituary, a full two-page spread of pictures shot by a local documentarian who had been following Gulestan.
We learned this from the obit. Gulestan had met his wife, an American, in Afghanistan, when she traveled there from Nepal. The couple emigrated to DC, in the days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and he began selling items in Dupont in 1983, and had indeed been at the same location for over 25 years. In a city that prides itself on its constant turnover, he was a veritable anchor.
As a sign of his good character, he was known for what he gave as much as what he sold. In the evenings, he would walk about the local eateries and collect leftovers (especially bread) and then distribute it to his family, to the area homeless, and lastly feed the birds with it. In the article, Gulestan was quoted as saying that his time with the birds was his most sacred part of the day. In the end, he died quietly in his rented box truck, leaving behind a wife and several children. It was a very informal obituary, and it raised as many questions as it did answers, but it was also fitting in its style. The article said more with its collage of pictures of his daily activities than it did in words, but still managed to carry some poignant quotes, such as the following:
“There were points where Mohammed was feeding hundreds of people who had nothing,” says Tim, who didn’t give his last name and describes himself as a homeless veteran. “I can remember when I first met him when I came into this town in 1986. He said, ‘My friend, you’re hungry.’ He left for a minute, and he came back and fed me.”
Gulestan carried a larger sense of community with him, and lived with a kind of nobility in his corner of the city, helping others, raising his own family, and every day watching the workers move in and out of Dupont like some sort of choreographed dance.
When I reflect on his passing, I think of both the larger picture and small.
In the larger sense, I treasure the unnoticed in DC, the less-than-famous, the monuments and statues that you stumble upon, the smaller museums that exist in the shadow of the huge Smithsonian, and the good-natured Sakhi Gulestans that toil for so many years in obscurity among the self-promoting politicos and high-paid lobbyists who get all the ink.
In the smaller sense, I will miss seeing him, the colorful and lively presence he brought to Dupont Circle, and the chance that I finally had to separate fiction from fact. I think he deserves a statue, a plaque of some sorts to join the millions of others that are in the city, something small but elegant, which you may walk by and not notice, but then find one day like a gem, and marvel over.
A month later, grass has grown up to cover the flowers that once held sway at that lonely tree, but a black, plastic milk crate, a former stool for Gulestan, sits somewhat majestically amidst the green. The yellow note, sheathed in plastic, and topped by a circle of plastic, purple flowers, continues to hold strong against the traffic and rain.