The sun was hot and fuzzy behind a thick curtain of humidity as 30 street vendors gathered on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum. Strung out along Independence Avenue was a colorful caravan of Meal Mobiles, pizza wagons, hot dog carts, ice cream trucks and souvenir stands.
It was 8 o'clock on a sultry Sunday morning, but nobody seemed to mind the heat. Instead, 30 pairs of eyes stared at an orange-and-white Serutan jar held by a young blond woman in long denim overalls. The medicine bottle had been emptied and replaced with 30 small slips of paper.
These curbside capitalists had assembled, as they do seven mornings 2 week, to draw lots for the right to park their vehicles at one of the eight hottest vending spots in the city - in front of the Air and Space Museum. To have one's number called, could mean a good day's earnings; to lose would mean sending the vendor out searching the city for another legal spot or just packing up and going home.
With fingers crossed and breath sucked in, the crowd waited tensely as the blond woman shook the jar and pulled out the first scrap of paper.
"Fifteen," she exclaimed, and vendor 15 yelped in pleasure. One by one she extracted, unfolded and read aloud the numbers on the remaining slips of paper.
After the eighth and final number was called, several vendors broke from the crowd and dashed to their trucks. Having lost, they raced away to the Capitol to try to find one of the few remaining legal vending spots. Most of the 22 unlucky vendors hung around the steps, waiting for all the numbers to be called, making sure there had been no hitch in the drawing, before they headed for home.
"In this business, working depends on if you're lucky or not," shrugged James Speropulos, of Bethesda, who said that last year he had "extra bad luck" and ended up going home every other day.
"If you don't win in the lottery and try going down to the Capitol, you can end up with some of the worst spots. I once sat for 10 hours and made $10 - only $5 of it profit."
But those who do win, win big. While many vendors were reluctant to divulge exactly how much money they made, most admitted that the trade can be lucrative.
"It depends on what you've got on your truck and what trucks on around you," noted Hanna S. Tannous, who said that he once made $400 when he got a choice spot in the lottery.
Most vendors said $150 to $250 is the average day's take in a "hot spot." But one cited a $600 a day, and stories flew about the vendor who in $1,000 on the Fourth of July.
It's this kind of big money that has attracted more and more of the city's 2,000 licensed vendors to the streets of Washington's 1st District, one of the city biggest tourist spots, emcompassing the Smithsonian museum, the mall and Capitol.
"There may be close to 200 or 300 more vendors in the 1st District this year than there were last years," noted police officer David Brooke, of the 1st District's David vending squad.
Created in 1976, the five-man squad handles vending problems and supervises the lotteries in its jurisdiction - at the Capitol, the Museum of History and Technology, the Museum of Natural Science and the Air and Space Museum.
While the lotteries have helped vendors pick spots in an orderly, fair fashion, the increased competition this year is bringing back some of the infighting and dirty tricks that characterized vending in its pre-lottery days.
On this particular Sunday mornings, the formulate lottery-winning vendors waited two hours to set up while a colleague argued with a police officer over a parking ticket.
The vendor claimed police harrasment and a broken transmission in a truck that wouldn't budge, while the officer claimed that the vendor intended to cheat another vendor who had drawn the spot fair and square.
While this incident was more severe than the small squabbles that occur occasionally, it was minor compared to some of the fights that occurred before the lottery system began, according to vending veterans.
Fist fights, slashed tires and camping on the streets all night to stake out a prized spot were not unheard of before the lottery days. The most popular lottery is the one for Air and Space Museum spots, held in front of the museum on weekends and in the 400 block of 8th Street on weekdays. It attracts 12 to 45 hopeful vendors.
With only eight legal vending spots at the Air and Space Museum, the majority of the vendors are out of luck and out of work most days. And many are bitter.
"It's a good idea to take a chance on a good spot, but if you don't get the best spot you should get some place to work," protested George Vakas, who has been a vendor for 35 of his 60 years. "We need more avenues of vending."
"This is my third year and it's getting worse and more competitive every year," added summer vendor Kurt DeSoto, a philosophy major at Georgetown University. "I have to pay for my college tuition, and some people are earning their livelihood in this business."
When the vendors do get to work, the hours are long.
"We're up at 5:30 and we don't get home till 10," said Carol Randall of Lanham, Md., who comes to the District seven days a week to vend along with her 14- and 16-year old daughters.
But most don't begrudge the long hours or the blistering hot conditions. What they want is the chance for steady, secure work.
"It's not fair to the old vendors who don't get a place to work," said Cookie Lowry, a vendor for half his 50 years. "They should have grandfather rights for the oldest vendors who've been here longest."
Lowry said the increasing number of vendors is hurting his business. "I claim $19,000 a year, and the way we're going presently I'll be down to $14,000."
"I think the main source of irritation is big business versus little business," said Ronnie Pickrel, a third-generation vendor who, with his father, runs Star Vending.
A member of the D.C. Vendor's Association board of directors, Pickrel blames the shortage of vending spots on the monopoly Government Services, Inc., has on the mall concessions.
"They pushed us to the outskirts of the mall to take the leftover spots. And it's hard to get the vendors together (to lobby) because nobody wants to take the time, when they don't know whether they'll be working from day to day.
"But I think the lottey is the only workable system considering the amount of vendors," added Pickrel, who lost out in that morning's drawing. "I guess I'll just have to go home and eat hot dogs."