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Turning a Corner

Amid Columbia Heights' Changing Streetscape, the Signs Are Pointing Up

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page D01

Ablack man in a black sweater orchestrates a flock of black birds loitering along 14th Street NW.

"Che-ching, Che-ching," the man yells in "made-up Spanish" at the birds.

Mattie McLain, co-owner of Carrie's Foodmart and Deli, talks to Domingo Salazar, who has come to buy cigarettes. Miss Mattie is closing out, having rented the store to a woman from Central America. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

The birds descend in a black flutter, flapping their black wings, beating their black chests.

Then they sc A tt ER a n d fl y awaY, surrendering to the air.

"Che-ching. Che-ching," the man shouts, mimicking in jest a language often heard in this neighborhood. He turns and grins at two Latino men leaning on a fence between two houses, watching and laughing with him. It is the man's attempt to speak their language. And they nod.

"Che-ching, chingvienchingpolla," the man says, and the black birds return briefly, as if they, too, understand.

Then they fly, right up 14th Street in Columbia Heights, right on by Carrie's Foodmart and Deli, owned by sisters Mattie McLain and Carrie Fulse.

Miss Mattie, 67, is bustling behind the counter. She has to get those boxes packed, clean out the refrigerator, get up to her brother's. She and her sister are trying to make this their last day at the store they've run for 38 years. Despite the locked gate outside the locked door, customers keep coming, peeping through the window.

Wanting things.

Right now, a man on the stoop wants "nickel cigarettes."

"I don't have no nickel cigarettes," Miss Mattie tells him kindly. "My cigarettes cost $5. Do you want a pack of cigarettes?"

"No," says the man, Domingo Salazar, 57, from El Salvador. "I want nickel cigarettes."

"Well, I don't have nickel cigarettes," Mattie starts again.

She's smiling, trying to help, without a clue in the world what a nickel cigarette is.

So she brings him a cigar, slipping it through the gate.

"No," the man says politely, breaking the word into two slow syllables, "nick -- el cigarettes." Confusion hangs there for a split second. Two people on two different sides of a door, wanting -- needing -- to understand each other.

Another customer arrives. She speaks Spanish and English.

"He wants Newport," she explains.

"Now, Newport, I can understand," Miss Mattie says. "Let me see if I have Newport," and she disappears into the store to search among its shelves, packed with concoctions from the past.

Outside, three teenage girls pass by, jackets wide open despite the sudden cold wind. They see the closed door behind the closed iron gate. "Why they not open? They selling?" asks Cassie Stanton, an eighth-grader at Lincoln Middle School.

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