What does the National Mall look like at 4am? For work, they found out.

During the day, the National Mall is very lively. Middle schools parade on class trips, visitors flock to the Smithsonians and intramural athletes compete on the verdant lawn, driving the number of visitors to the site to 32 million a year.

But night is when Earl Lee was stationed there earlier this month – when tourists slept in their downtown hotels, when the crusty gravel of the mall’s walkways remained untouched., when the sparkling storefront he guarded along Seventh Street NW provided some of the only light around, fluorescent and soft white.

“You don’t get jobs like this all the time,” Lee, 52, said early one morning as construction hummed at the National Air and Space Museum a block away. . He looked up at the night sky, but his gratitude was more grounded. “You don’t have anyone on your back or any of that,” he said.

The National Park Service requires organizations holding events on the mall to ensure “no equipment or materials are left unattended at any time,” including overnight, and so Lee was there, overseeing the baby blue 1952 Hudson Hornet parked inside. large glass box. The show was part of an annual “Cars at the Capital” exhibit hosted by the Hagerty Drivers Foundation, a subsidiary of a classic vehicle insurance company, whose mission statement calls “American Automotive Heritage.” deserves to be saved and celebrated”.

Lee owns a few cars and motorcycles, but it was mostly a job, and his own mission statement — as he sat low in his lawn chair next to the Hornet, hours after his 6 p.m. 6 a.m. – was crossing it.

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Lee was the third generation of his family to be born and raised in Prince George’s County and, like many locals, rarely came to the mall; he had last visited, he said, during his son’s field trip to the Museum of African American History. He calls himself retired, though his list of jobs, formal and informal, is long: running a restaurant business; rental of party equipment; making tombstones and tombstones; run errands for neighbours, friends and relatives. A father of two and grandfather of three, he says he learned craftsmanship from his father, who worked as a carpenter for Washington Gas.

Lee was a plumber until he was packing for the last job of the week in June 2011, strapping cargo to the back of his car, when a bungee cord closed over his right eye, causing the leaving him partially blind. He won a workers’ compensation lawsuit, but time out ate him.

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“I’m so used to taking care of your family, and it comes down to where — nothing, no money coming in. It was tough,” he said. “Those were times when I got in my truck, set the cruise control to 75 and let the wheel go. It was just so bad. But I’m fine now. That’s why I try to stay busy.

But also be careful. In August 2021, he thought he had heartburn, but sweat started pouring out of his body. When he stopped by his local fire department, his blood pressure and sugar levels were skyrocketing. “They said they didn’t even know how I got there,” Lee recalled. “I had a heart attack and I didn’t even know it.”

He’s fine now, he said. “I have to take it slow, but I can’t slow down.”

The guard service was quite slow. Lee and one of his fellow guardsmen, Enrique Galvan, spent some of their time streaming on their phones and tablets — “Alaskan Bush People” that night for Lee, “Jurassic World Dominion” another night for Galvan and trying to dodge the mall’s sprinkler system. They spent other parts of the time sharing information about the Hornet with passers-by. At around 11:30 p.m., an amateur photographer waved a light around the car and took time-lapse photos. Soft piano singing emanated from a pop-up church on the grass nearby, itself guarded by three other workers.

Galvan, 42 and soft-spoken, said he had worked for security on and off for five years, including gigs at the Bullpen at Navy Yard during the Nationals World Series in 2019. He was an optician for 18 years, until he lost his job during the pandemic. Now, like Lee, like many district night workers, he juggles gigs, sometimes driving his Toyota Camry wherever Lyft or DoorDash orders take him.

Eventually, Galvan, a Bowie native, wants to cook for a living. He thinks, on these quiet nights, of trying to perfect his jerk chicken recipe, and the shorter term things. “What bills you have to pay, things to do during the day,” he said. ” … I do not sleep. I am a night owl.

And so the men sat down. Around 1:30 a.m., tourists passed by on scooters and bikes, glancing at the passing Hornet, symbol of a vintage, sepia-toned snapshot of Americana. According to Hagerty, the muscle cars have sold for up to $1.2 million.

Lee and Galvan worked there for a company owned by Lee’s sister-in-law, where a recent publication lists wages ranging from $20 to $24 an hour. A few weeks prior, the company had deployed the men to the Citi Open at the Rock Creek Tennis Center.

“I had to be there at 7 a.m.,” said Lee, who drove up from Clinton, Maryland, in his Ford Flex. “I didn’t leave until 1am, 2am, because I couldn’t leave until all the players left. So, I was there before the players and after the players, and I’m going to drive 45 minutes home, sleep for two hours, get up and then go straight back up there.

The weather on the mall was a change. Galvan was left in advance with his young nieces. Lee was left thinking about a trip to the farm, to pick up a pig for a customer’s whole pork barbecue, his retirement hustle continuing.

A stream of runners passed around 5 a.m., the first visitors to the mall’s mechanical wave. Sunrise would soon follow and, with it, the end of the day for Lee and Galvan, who were heading home and preparing for the start of a new night.

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