- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

The moment I announced myself at the reception desk at Howard University Hospital last week, and the operator whispered, “It’s for Number 1,” I knew it was on.

Sure enough, my destination to Suite No. 1 in the hospital’s intensive-care unit was nothing short of a surreal trip.

“Oh, he’s waiting for her,” said the nurse, who then ushered me into Hizzoner’s private chamber. I couldn’t help but remember those heydays when it was through the ornate, oak doors of the mayoral suite I once entered at his behest.

“How do you like my view?” former D.C. Mayor Marion S. Barry asked about his penthouse vista overlooking the shifting Shaw neighborhood.

“Well, it’s your city,” I acknowledged.

Why not? After all, he’s sick, I surmised. What harm to humor him? In certain quarters, it is still his domain. As if on cue, he smirked, stuck out his chest, waved his outstretched arms and pronounced, “Yeah, I’m the emperor.” And, we howled. Two hours later, as I rushed to beat a meter maid on Georgia Avenue, I was still laughing out loud.

Call it another bullheaded Barry battle. No one can look death forcefully in the face and still con and cajole the critics or the crisis like the unbreakable Mayor for Life. Like it or not, deservedly or not, to many of his steady stream of well-wishers, the People’s Prodigal Prince will go down in D.C. folklore still being called “Tha May-ah.”

But he’s hardly ready to go down. All it appears he needed was an overdose of attention.

Clearly, Mr. Barry is revived more by the king-sized catering he is receiving than from the yards of plastic tubing cascading from his frail body. “Hey, you’re going to send me something,” he sort of suggests to one of many nonstop callers. “No, send it today so I can take it home with me tomorrow.

“Hey, what are you doing after work, stop by and see me,” he tells a friend.

He calls the hospital chef to the phone. “What do you all have good on the menu tonight?” he asks before proceeding to special order his dinner as if speaking to the maitre d’ at the Palm.

After his doctor heard him announce his hospital departure to the D.C. press corps, he said, “She said I wish you wouldn’t, and I agreed to stay a day longer.”

All the nurses and health care workers show deference to their pre-eminent patient as if he were royalty. A former Cabinet member’s wife had sent three sets of masculine-colored, 300-count sheets for the high-tech hospital bed. A fawning preacher peeps in to “offer a little prayer” and acts as if he were approaching the Master himself. So we stand to join hands as Mr. Barry remains seated on his blanketed throne.

When I first called for permission to visit, a wary Marion Barry questioned whether I was coming as friend or foe. I went prepared with a reporter’s notebook, but I couldn’t pull it out of my purse until I’d hurriedly left the hospital to jot down notes. (I called him after his hospital release for permission to print the family-friendly portions of our off-the-cuff conversation.)

Watching Mr. Barry trying to talk and cough through an oxygen mask with its hissing mist billowing above him, the larger-than-life figure that I’d covered and often chided for decades suddenly appeared all too familiar.

I felt like I was sitting on the stoop shooting the breeze with my irrepressible, irresistible Uncle James. At once, Mr. Barry and I were no longer constant combatants — the politician and the journalist — but old companions as we slipped into an easy rap that overlooked years of uneasy banter or badgering.

He dissuaded all interruptions, saying he was too busy “interviewing with a reporter” or “consulting with a friend,” depending on how much he cared to divulge to the interloper.

Mr. Barry offered a detailed description of his multiple illnesses, the list of administered tests, and the intricacies of his treatments primarily for pneumonia and diabetes. (TMO — too much information — for me to digest.)

“I was scared to death because I thought I was going to die,” he said. “Do you know what it’s like not to be able to breathe?”

Yes, he’s heard all the rumors about his latest hospitalization. No, he doesn’t have HIV/AIDS, he pronounces. No, his cancer hasn’t come back, he insists. He wouldn’t even entertain the suggestion of a drug relapse.

However, Mr. Barry uncharacteristically divulged other private information. For example, his pending divorce. We gossiped about strange bedfellows in the current and former city administrations. We analyzed the day’s news.

He told ribald jokes, some of them placing himself as the punch line. Always the flirt, he complimented my appearance. Sheepishly, Barry attempted to convince me that he was working to change some of his wanton ways.

“You know, with the womanizing,” he said.

“Don’t even try it; you know you’re going in your grave trying to hit on some woman,” I scolded. We really cracked up then.

As for his future plans? “I’m looking for a house in Ward 8, so I can keep my options open,” he said. “I love Ward 8.”

Ward 8 is undeniably Barryland but “I hope those options don’t include running for office,” I countered.

“Why not?” he bristled. “You’ve got to be kidding, look at you,” I said, giving him grief. “You don’t need it, and we don’t need it either.”

I learned a long time ago never to count Marion Barry down and out. In high spirits and putting his best foot forward that day, he appeared on the mend.

“Wait ‘till they see this 175-pound [expletive] come back,” he boasted.

On Wednesday, when I telephoned, he said “I’m feeling better. That pneumonia knocked me [out], but there are some good doctors over there and the Lord took care of me.”

The past notwithstanding, I’m not alone in wishing “Tha May-ah,” who continues to Barry-battle all manner of adversity and mysterious maladies, a most speedy recovery.

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