LAST FEBRUARY I put my television in the closet, and once again, I'm on the couch reading a book. It's well past midnight and I'm looking to relax, but I'm wide awake, I'm hungry and I'm restless.
Sitting with a cup of coffee by the living room window, I gaze across the way at the apartments illuminated by that telltale- blue flicker. My eyes fall to the activity on the street below and fix on the white banner with foot-high red letters: 2 FRESH HOT DOGS/99c. Oh, thank heaven.
My apartment faces Columbia Road, and across the street is a 7-Eleven. In the middle of the day, you couldn't tell this place from any other 7-Eleven in the country -- the yogurt is in the back with the loose cans of soda, the batteries are up front with the People magazines, and the Slurpee machine is behind the counter whipping up some iridescent substance.
But after about 10 p.m., as other places close for the night, this small store becomes a hub of activity for Adams Morgan, and through its doors pass a clientele as infinitely varied as the neighborhood. Chances are slim that you'd catch these same people together under any other circumstance. But they're here tonight picking up a quart of milk, a Hot-to-Go burrito or tomorrow's Post.
Right now it's close to 1 a.m. and I'm downstairs. There's a small crowd on the street, singles and couples drifting in and out of the 7-Eleven. By the bus stop polishing off Big Gulps are a group of kids with a boom box the size of a small car. The music they play is a soundtrack for this whole scene, and it's impossible for anybody walking by not to step to the beat. Next to them on the bench are half a dozen cab drivers on a break, talking and drinking coffee. Both pay phones outside the store are occupied by people engaged in long conversations, and by the door is a man with vacant eyes soliciting change from passersby.
Inside, a line winds from the register to the back of the store, some customers with arms full, others just waiting to buy a pack of cigarettes. Behind the counter are two young men, one from Ghana, the other from El Salvador. The common denominator is English and they understand each other better than I do. There are cops pouring coffee, a young couple picking out ice cream and an old women talking to herself back by the cat food.
I'm next in line, and suddenly the questions I've wrestled with for half an hour become clear. I believe I will have those two fresh hot dogs for ninety-nine cents and a medium Coke to wash them down. "Mustard's behind you, napkin's on the counter, may I help someone?"
I turn to leave and encounter a legion of young punksters, all spiked and chained and leathered. One holds the door for me, bowing with excessive politeness, and the others laugh as I pass into the street. My ears pick up the sounds from the boom box still pounding by the bus stop.
As I cross the street, it occurs to me that I've been making this same trip for years. But it never is the same trip -- there is always enough different to keep me coming back. I used to feel like an observer, like I was watching a movie and was never quite sure of the story line. But I realize that I've become part of this show, if only as a bit player. The plot line out here may be a little thin, but the audio and the visuals beat anything I could pick up on that 12-inch black-and-white back in the closet.