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Portrait of a Guide

The only thing abrasive about Don Comis as

the rasp I first heard when I called

to enter Greenbelt Homes’ scholarship essay contest

was his beard, kinked and gray like steel wool.

A Vietnam War conscientious objector’s

gentleness emanated from him:

he told of passing a pack of wild dogs

in a field on a West Virginia town’s outskirts

through tai chi’s equanimous strides.

Short and portly, with thinning black hair

and aquamarine eyes beneath acorn-shaped glasses.

A voluble talker—rapid yet hinting

hesitancy, as though doubtful how much

worth you would find in his words,

but too exuberant to refrain from sharing.



He ushered me into GHI’s library

to study those Nineteenth-Century English weavers

who pioneered adopting the Musketeers’

motto as their business model, rural utilities,

packaged food giants like Sunkist and Welch’s;

and to the public library’s Rexford Tugwell Room,

named for the New Deal bureaucrat who planned

our garden city, to dig into our grassroots ventures’ lore.

Don even escorted me over the Potomac

to pound Alexandria’s colonial cobblestone pavement

to a long edifice with many doors and one story

that might have once been a boardinghouse

to question a friend who founded a housing co-op—

frantically flipping wirebound pages to

scrannel her answers at her auctioneer’s pace.


Awaiting the Metro train afterwards,

that stunning dilation of the moment seared my surroundings

into my soul: the oblong hollows in the tunnel’s

arched concrete ceiling, the “King Street” sign across the track,

the platform’s maroon tiles and anonymous crowd.

The one who acquainted me with the subway

was hardly closer to where we each headed,

but the man with me now had been traveling longer;

he guided me more than kept me company.

I knew Don would abide inside me in this place,

crucial in its slight way to where I’d end up,

not retreat indistinguishable among the background bodies.

In time to come I’d stand here again farther away.

I would find here the man beside me

because he never left me—because he conducted me here.

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