20 Minutes With 25-Cent Ashley in Anacostia

A bony, 13-year-old girl and her equally skinny friends wail, dance and laugh excitedly on the 90 bus headed home: Anacostia.

A place that strikes fear in the hearts of some is a lifelong place of safety for the four who hang from the upper bus handrails and offer passengers bus transfer slips for 25 cents, 50 cents and even a dollar.

She announces herself “Ashley C for 25 cents.” She’s bony and brittle, but has a mouth full of brawn. I’ve seen her before on a D8 or a D4 around the Trinidad neighborhood. She’s funny and full of antics. Her friends like to watch her work.

“I bet none of these folks here know that they have to pay for another transfer after three hours,” she says aloud. Fellow riders laugh to themselves at her bluntness. “C’mon, y’all! My offer is the best you gon’ get.”

Once the bus arrives at 8th and H, all bets are off as rush hour riders spill onto H Street. An older couple steps on, and the bus continues over the bridge toward Southeast D.C. It passes old men in fishing hats laughing hysterically on the corner, young women outside braiding hair for the next day of school and double-parked Honda Civics with shinier 22’s blushing in the sunset.

It passes walking blankets of uniformed local children stuffing their faces with McDonald’s and chicken wings from the Chinese carryout as they make their way home from school. Ashley and the group are like a pride of lions as they talk of dinner and television, and leer hungrily at the outside world’s wheelchair riders and uniformed kids.

“Glad we ain’t gotta wear them joints,” Ashley said.

The girls run off the bus all at once, heading down Sheridan Road; two of them break off suddenly from the pride and try to catch the W6 toward Congress Heights. Ashley yells to them that she’ll see them later for a twirl of double-dutch and another run to a carryout place before bed.

She offers me a bus transfer as I walk behind them.

“You’re gonna need it for your trip back,” she said. “I’ll give you all of ’em. I don’t need ’em no more.”

I declined.

It’s dark now, but families and friends still linger on porches and in their gated yards. Buses zoom by. Cars zoom by. Ashley zooms by. Her friends have all scurried hastily in their homeward directions, and she reaches her gate.

Her mother, dad, sister and two young cousins – about my age, in their twenties – are on the porch, talking. The woman, big all around and tall, rises quickly from her chair. She shuffles hurriedly toward the gate, ushering a now quiet Ashley into the house behind her. She is looking eerily at me.

“Thanks for walking my daughter home, Miss.”