"Who taught you to cook North Carolina barbecue?" the lady, grinning mischievously, wants to know.
Clarence "Binky" Ross just grins back and keeps on working at the speed of light. He doesn't even answer. Heck, he's too busy slathering hot barbecue sauce on a ragged stack of pork ribs cradled in white Styrofoam.
He drops it all in a white plastic bag along with some napkins and soft drinks, and hands it to her.
"I love barbecue, so I'm gonna put this to the test!" the lady, Karen Ferguson, promises. "I'm from North Carolina," she informs Ross, "and I know my barbecue. I've tried it all over the world."
Ferguson, a self-described domestic engineer, came all the way from her current home in Fairfax--on the recommendation of her flagstone layer--to sample the delicacies at Ross's Smoke Shack, located in a little old trailer pulled up alongside the service road just off Indian Head Highway about a mile and a half south of the Beltway.
Such a smoke shack as in time may linger as mere fable:
Because the neatniks who ever seek to squeeze the juice and zest out of life are eager to shut Binky down, along with all those other roadside vendors of fish and shrimp and song and fable who have over the years helped bestow upon Prince George's County its special je ne sais quoi.
Just the other night, Ross, 26, and his partner, Larry Washington, 32, barely survived another zoning hearing. Now operating on temporary permits, they say they're still in business--maybe till the end of the year.
"They want to get rid of us, they say we're wrecking the atmosphere for all these half-million-dollar houses going up around here," Ross said as he worked furiously to feed truck drivers and secretaries, nurses and retirees and other folks--most of them regulars--who didn't seem to mind waiting in the 90-degree heat for their ribs, chicken, baked beans, potato salad, slaw.
A dump truck pulled up and its driver, a very large man indeed, got out and headed for the rib window. A gleaming black Lincoln stretch limo arrived, and the chauffeur--neat and tidy in his uniform, complete with cap--joined him.
Lynn Norris, leaning against the trailer, revealed that she regularly comes all the way from Gaithersburg to chow down at the Smoke Shack. "It's worth the drive," she said emphatically.
Or, as Calvin Simm III, a D.C. public schools maintenance worker, put it somewhat more poetically: "The sauce--wheee-ou! You'll be lickin' your fingers!"
A utility company guy sheepishly turned away his head and refused to give his name. "I'm not s'posed to be here," he admitted. "I went outta my way."
Riddick Bowe comes here, the owners say. So does Marion Barry.
But not for much longer. While there used to be a whole bunch of truck vendors along this stretch of highway, now the Smoke Shack and one other place--McKay's Jumbo Fried Fish and Crab Cakes--are alone along this stretch.
Soon, Ross and Washington say, they'll be forced to move into a regular, permanent building on Livingston Road nearby.
An era is ending.
Gone the days when you drop the tailgate on your pickup and sit in the hot sun, flap open the big Styrofoam container and let the sweet hot barbecue scent blast right up into your eyeballs so they sweat and you feel happy happy hungry.
You eat. You suck. You get it all over your fingers. It is dripping on your shirt.
It is good. There is a lot of it. The sauce is about an inch or so deep in the container, and you dip each rib in just before you eat it.
Binky, you realize, is not stinting on it, not at all. Nope. This you know absolutely, though much else about Life and the Universe remains mysterious.
Soon, you are full. Traffic hums by on the highway.
It is a pure, beautiful moment.
"The county is trying to say we're an eyesore," chuckles Washington, who is burly and muscular and is using a fork to flip masses of meat the size of Rhode Island on the grill of the big steel smoker next to the trailer. "All we're trying to do is make an honest living like everyone else."
He tosses some water on the coals, and the effect is just splendid. Masses of smoke suddenly rise around the meat.
Then he sprinkles the meat with a special, secret seasoning--plenty of it. ("There's eight different seasonings in there," was all Ross would reveal to a customer who bought a jar of the reddish stuff. "That way, there's not too much of any one thing to give you high blood, and you can put it on hamburgers and steaks, too.")
The men have been running the business for eight years. At about 9 each morning, they buy 150 pounds of pork and beef ribs, plus some whole chickens. They open at 11:30 and remain open till 6:30 each night, seven days a week. A third partner, Christopher Fountain, works a day job elsewhere; he's actually from North Carolina and taught the other two how to cook.
It's hard work but they enjoy it and their customers seem to enjoy it just as much. The ambience just won't be the same.
Something will have been lost.
For one thing, as customer Diane Howard put it last week, "It's convenient now. You can park."
Maybe that's it. You can pull right up in front and park your SUV the way Robert M. Beach did.
And, like Beach--a 75-year-old guy who owns three Harleys and a 1936 Indian--you can march briskly up to the Smoke Shack window and deliver to Binky Ross that most wonderful and ageless of American lines:
"Gimme a racka ribs!"
CAPTION: Limo driver William Gray, taking his Smoke Shack ribs to go.
CAPTION: "They say we're wrecking the atmosphere for all these half-million-dollar houses going up around here," says stand owner Clarence "Binky" Ross.
CAPTION: Clarence "Binky" Ross, above left, smokes up some barbecue for trucker Mike Moody; Brenda Addison, of Columbia, S.C., eats ribs in front of the Smoke Shack on Indian Head Highway.