Friday, August 25, 2006

A caseworker with a cult following

  • David Montgomery contributes a fascinating profile of a DC-area writer named Mark Opsasnick in The Washington Post.
This is what it's all about:
It is as if the prescribed geography of his existence, and the predictability of his routines, set him free. They allow him to plunge deeper into his subjects than anyone else. What he is after is the bedrock, the gritty essence that made a place different from any other place, before the great cultural sameness began settling over the land.

"He is just totally obsessed, as am I, with documenting the denizens, the vibe, the atmosphere," say filmmaker Jeff Krulik, a fellow Prince Georgian who made "Heavy Metal Parking Lot."

"When things get bulldozed, there's a facade job, all of a sudden when things are cleaned up and made to look nice and nobody has the appreciation . . . [he] verifies and validates that it existed."

Friends have watched Opsasnick's metamorphosis into a bard of the obscure with a that's-just-Mark acceptance.

"He likes dates and names and stuff, and he just remembers them," says Julie Ward, a friend who's a licensing management systems analyst at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Once he gets interested in something, he just goes to town."

Take the amateur men's basketball team he formed in the early 1990s. Characteristically, Opsasnick wasn't content with pickup games in some high school gym. The players were stunned to find themselves going on the road to play Harvard, Providence, Holy Cross, Xavier. "Once he starts digging into something, he goes all the way to the top," says Ken Adrian, who coached the team and now is athletic director at Neuse Baptist Christian School in Raleigh, N.C.

To do this research, he haunts libraries and historical societies, performing such prodigiously tedious feats as reading every edition of the Prince George's Post from 1932 to 1984, and every entertainment section of the Washington Daily News from 1950 to 1971. He chats up old-timers in bars and records hundreds of hours of interviews.

Lately he's been giving bookstore readings, to an audience of nearly 50 in Kensington, more than 100 in Alexandria. He wears a beatnik beret he picked up at that Rehoboth Kmart. Bands play Doors tunes while he signs books.

He has a routine for preparing for the readings. He writes his speech on notecards. Then every evening for a week he walks from his house to the woods by Greenbelt Lake.

There, he stands on a log and lectures to the squirrels about the Lizard King as the sun goes down.

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