Press-Republican

Columns

October 1, 2012

A soulful voice on a D.C. sidewalk

The atmosphere on Capitol Hill's brick sidewalks stays frosty year-round as the power-walking professionals rush along in suits of wool-blend armor, their earphones in place, smartphones loaded and eyes focused dead ahead.

But things changed at the corner of Second Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE. That's where streams of pedestrians converge near Union Station, the U.S. Senate office buildings, the Federal Judiciary Center, the Heritage Foundation and other buildings packed with prestige and power.

For the past decade, this was where the late Peter Bis kept his office, sitting on a blue plastic crate under an oak tree, sharing cigarettes, coffee and conspiracy theories with whoever passed by, greeting most of them by name. He was the friendly homeless man with his own website, business cards and a life story that -- even when warped by schizophrenia -- touched thousands.

"Hey professor! Happy Easter," he shouted a few years ago. I nodded and returned the greeting.

A few paces later, Bis hailed me again. "Wait a minute," he said. "Orthodox Easter isn't 'til next week this year, right?"

He was right, of course. Had I shared that personal detail with him or did he glean that tidbit of liturgical minutia from one of the newspapers he read, day after day? Anyone who knew him could describe similar mysterious encounters.

That's precisely what people have been doing lately at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, a block from that oak. The parish held a memorial Mass for Bis last week, a month after he died of a heart attack at age 61. Worshippers entering the quiet sanctuary passed a copy of a painting of Bis called "The Contemplation of Justice."

Over the years, many people offered advice about how he could get off the street and put his savant-like memory to good use, said Deacon Gary Bockweg, who delivered the homily. At one point, Bockweg suggested that he work as a Wal-Mart greeter, but Bis said he was over-qualified for that job.

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