Everett Lucas watched the Iraqi war unfold on a 19-inch Magnavox mounted above his cash register. Watched intermittently as he went about his work ringing up chips and sodas, eggs and bacon, cigarettes, flashlights, Katy Dids, lottery tickets, malt liquor. There isn't much Lucas doesn't sell.
For 33 years, his Variety Market has been anchored on a scrappy block in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington, outlasting gang violence and drug wars, sponsoring youth basketball teams and extending credit to those who couldn't survive without it. He has more good ideas in a day than many have in a month.
A good idea: Put up a dramatic billboard in the neighborhood that shows what happens to you if you sell drugs. This is what happens: You'll get robbed, killed or jailed.
"This generation has a reverse mentality," observed Lucas, 62. "They think getting locked up makes you a man. In my opinion, it makes you a damn fool."
Everett Lucas is a throwback to an era when small businessmen hung around long enough to see their customers' children have their own children. In broad swaths of urban America, you can't buy a sandwich without encountering iron bars and bulletproof glass. Not at Variety Market. In this community, where he grew up, Lucas has nothing to fear.
"Sometimes, it's the way you treat people," he said. "You have to give people respect, and they give you respect."
From the war's beginning, the people who give Lucas respect patronized his store as they always do, except they often lingered to catch snatches of the action, the battles fought some 6,200 miles from Variety Market.
Cruise missiles exploding into buildings. Suicide car bombers. Children dying, soldiers killed, bodies stacked up in hospitals. Awful, awful stuff. And now that the war is over, they often linger to catch snatches of the fallout -- the stealing of precious museum artifacts, the bank looting, the nabbing of Saddam Hussein's half brother.
One day a small-time crack dealer rushed in frantically asking the price of a newspaper. He just had to read the latest on all the drama, he said. "They trippin' me out with this war."
The regulars turned Variety Market into a hub of insatiable war-induced commentary, not that they're ever without opinion on some thing or another.
Louise Gray, 78, who lives at a senior citizens center down the street, walked in one noontime. It was early in the invasion, but her view already was formed: unimpressed. How in the Dickens does Bush think he can pull this off without it blowing up in his face? she thought. "You can't fix two things on this street," she explained. "Please." And we're going to impose a regime change in Baghdad? "You know he's not going to stop at Iraq. He's going on to Iran and Syria, Lebanon, because we want to control the whole world."
She grumbled and picked up her cane and was just about to walk out. Except she had one last comment. "It would be like going over to your house and saying, 'Sucker, you get out because I want this property.' Who are we to go around the world and tell everybody how to live?"
And then Gray was on her way, proving it's not just the generals with all the analysis.
On one block of Seventh Street, between P and Q, war and its aftermath have imposed themselves on already fragile lives. This is a block that brings together the drinkers and drifters, the crackheads and their suppliers, the students and seniors, the social workers and small businessmen, the dog-walking yuppies headed to Giant. They all interact somehow, all these subgroups dealing with their own stuff and each other's. Occasionally, a jogger whizzes by the heavy sidewalk traffic. The high school dropouts depress the old-timers for shutting the door on their dreams; the working poor impress everyone for managing to tape together a living.
"I'm still struggling to pay my rent," said Archie Thomas, 48, who scrapes by with a patchwork of odd jobs, friends, family and charity. He lost his regular job as a hotel dishwasher after 9/11 took its toll on the hospitality industry. Been scrambling to make it ever since. "In general, of course, war is bad. But I'm concerned about my own economics."
Which is why Thomas was on the east side of the 1500 block of Seventh Street one day, rifling through a packed grocery bag.
On this side of the block is Bread for the City, a nonprofit organization that provides clothing, legal counsel, medical assistance and other direct help to low-income residents, including a three-day supply of groceries, which Thomas can make last for a week. The east side of the block also includes a liquor store, a check-cashing outlet, a dollar store, a 24-hour laundromat, Lucas's market, DC Winghouse and an empty lot that was once a Salvation Army building, burned down during the '68 riots.
Across the street, on the west side of the block, is Kelsey Gardens, an apartment complex where Diane Wade's family has lived for three decades. "It's more peaceful now," said Wade, a former government worker who lost her job after a nervous breakdown 10 years ago. The kind of drug violence seen during the '80s and early '90s has ended, she noted, and whatever dealing is left doesn't seem so bad by comparison. "I can sit on my balcony without a crowd of people out there carrying on."
One block, many voices. The short-order cook. The street poet. The supermarket checkout lady. A man who goes by the name Rasheed Kareem, formerly homeless, twice incarcerated for assault. The Iraqi war, what was it really about? It was about revenge, liberation, hard-to-find chemical weapons, oil, and raw, naked power arrogantly flexed by the world's mightiest nation, according to the Seventh Street regulars.
On this block you hear many worries about war, and not just the war that ended in Iraq.
"It's a war out here every day, right here on this street," said Rasheed Kareem, spotted one afternoon planted in the middle of the sidewalk, cap backward, decked out in baggy black hip-hop gear, looking like a 22-year-old in 42-year-old skin.
And what's this other war about? "Envy. Jealousy. You can't see it visibly. People are just doing what they can do to survive."
Putting the War on Hold
When the Iraqi war was launched, Emily Price had too many things her mind was juggling. That's the way it is in the social services business.
Price is Bread for the City's social services supervisor, meaning she tries to help low-income residents find solutions to their problems. Some of her clients have been on Section 8 waiting lists for a year, on public housing waiting lists for three years. Some of these lists are so long that applications are no longer being accepted.
Housing is the most talked about issue in Shaw, a community born during the Civil War. It's named after Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the first all-black regiment to fight for the Union in the North. Shaw's historic boundaries are North Capitol Street to the east, 14th Street to the west, U Street to the north, and Massachusetts Avenue to the south.
"It's a neighborhood in transition, poised for a renaissance that will enable many residents to have the same quality of life that other parts of the city enjoy," said Alexander M. Padro, a Shaw historian and member of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission. "At the same time, there are many challenges that could make the neighborhood unattractive to people who have had to weather the storm."
On the one hand, a new rec center is being built a block away, the landmark O Street Market is being renovated nearby, the new Washington Convention Center has just opened down the street. New residents are moving in; abandoned buildings are being fixed up. Bakeries and coffee shops may be on the way.
On the other hand, property values are rising, and longtime renters and the marginally employed are being displaced. In one building, monthly rent on two-bedroom apartments has jumped from $700 to $1,200 since last summer. There are parking and traffic concerns. Some longtimers worry that the character of the neighborhood will change for the worse.
Price hears it all. Her clients include struggling laborers who are paying a third of their income just to rent a room. Rumbling just below the surface of real need, she knows, are racial and class tensions. Price knows this firsthand. She is 25, white and from Kansas, with a master's degree in social work and a rented rowhouse five blocks from where she works.
"I am the diversity in my neighborhood," said Price, who lives in an area that's 66 percent black and 10 percent white. More than a quarter of the residents have incomes of less than $15,000, and nearly a third have no high school education, according to 2000 Census data.
Often, she walks to work and encounters some of the same people she counsels, people in need of emergency assistance -- they can't pay their rent, can't pay their utility bills, maybe they've gotten eviction notices, maybe they're battling drug addiction. Or worse.
"You're walking down the street, and someone's living in the street," Price said. "Living here, you can't escape the poverty. There are days you walk away [from this job] and feel exceptionally defeated."
Ironically, March 20, the day the war began, was not one of those days.
A homeless guy, a Vietnam-era Army vet, dropped in on Bread for the City asking for a hand. "The war was on his scale," Price recalled. "But it wasn't his 10. It was about a 4 or 5."
The man's leg was shaking, he was upset, anxious. He had injuries, he believed, that were related to his military service and thought he might qualify for veterans benefits. But he didn't have any documentation and neither the means nor the wherewithal to even pursue the matter. No telephone. No money for transportation. No mailing address. His residence was a shelter, and only from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Price got him an appointment with an agency that specializes in veterans benefits, the Vet Center, and he was able to get on track. Then another client reported finding a job and got connected to medical assistance.
A good day for Emily Price.
"Here you are in the bubble of your world, the scope is narrow," she said. "You step out of it, and it dawns on you that halfway across the world despair and tragedy are occurring. You go back to watching TV and seeing this terrible war unfold."
Heard on the Street
Some blocks in America never sleep, the sidewalk is always an energetic mix of chatter and sideshow. Here: The lady with the painted face who looks like she could be performing in "The Lion King." She walks back and forth, smiling, pulling a cart of her belongings.
On such blocks in America are people who've never been asked to comment on world affairs, or even their own lives. In the early 1960s, Elliot Liebow went to the Shaw neighborhood to do "a study of Negro streetcorner men" for his PhD dissertation in anthropology at Catholic University. The result was a widely acclaimed book, "Tally's Corner," which became a classic in the exploration of urban poverty.
Four decades later, the black street-corner men are still around, just a different group. Nelson Reno, 75, yellow shirt, blue suspenders, squinty eyes, an amputated right leg, was sitting in his wheelchair, which was backed up against a chain-link fence. Everybody who walked by seemed to pay him homage, and then a scraggly guy who's known him for 40 years approached.
"You pay me my money!" Reno screamed at him. "Boy, I'll shoot you!" Clearly some debt was owed, and the two jawed back and forth, trying to sort it out. "I know you're going to shoot me," the man told Reno, though he hardly seemed afraid.
"No," Reno piped back, "the dead can't pay me."
It was all an act, of course. The man hugged Reno, and they parted ways.
It was a cloudy day, the day the United States launched 1,000 cruise missiles aimed at hundreds of targets in Baghdad, the day widespread protests erupted across the Arab world.
Reno was asked for his thoughts on the war. He looked suspiciously at his questioner, and his eyes narrowed. "Okay, I do a lot of reading in the Bible," he began. "Any time you don't have God involved in things you're already losing. There's a war going on, but I'm talking to you. You've got to be aware of demons. Demons! Write that down."
They talk about everything out here on this block, even the most sadly absurd behavior -- like "crack rentals," the latest in street commerce: You want dope? Give up your car for an hour in exchange. Cars come back with fender-bender damage, missing keys, some are used to commit crimes. Ridiculous.
They also talk a lot about senseless death, and a loss of decency.
"Brothers killing brothers, sisters killing sisters. People disrespecting their mothers," said the young man in his early twenties they call Sleepy. He was shot twice in the stomach last summer during an argument. But he's recovered fine, and on this day he was doing a slow stroll along the block with his toddler daughter. "That's how it is out here sometimes," Sleepy said. "You're going to hit speed bumps." His shooting? "That's a speed bump."
Not much to say about the war, he said, except it's one more reminder of an unknowable planet. "I think the world is going to end, about another two years or so."
As far as Karena Gaines is concerned, the end might as well be now. She had just picked up a three-day bag of groceries from Bread for the City and was outside comparing grocery notes with another recipient.
"April is always real hard for me," she said.
It was April 1985 that her sisters, Darrena and Sabrina Shelton, were shot dead in a family apartment by a landlord who went berserk. A dispute over back rent. The landlord then dragged the lifeless Darrena to the building's concrete front yard, doused her with a flammable liquid and set her afire.
Gaines hasn't been the same since, she said. She started taking antidepressants. She's been in and out of group homes, in and out of St. Elizabeths Hospital, and now lives in a room in Southeast. She used to work for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Now, work is hard to come by.
"I try to wonder how I'm ever going to get out of this rut," she said. "People ask me how I feel about the war. I don't feel about the war. I feel about my own situation."
Rhymes and Reasons
It was mid-afternoon and the "Bread for the City Boutique," as Bernice Minor calls it, was open for business. It's really just a room with metal racks of shirts and jackets and coats, suits and dresses. Minor was behind the desk with a sign-in sheet. People with a need can sign their name and get 10 minutes of free shopping. All they need is their own bag. Minor runs the clothing room like a captain in the Army: "Ma'am, your time is up. You only get 10 minutes in here."
She has to keep the crowd moving, as there is a queue. A row of chairs, all of them filled. "Sometimes they think they're in Hecht's when they come in here," Minor said.
A Howard University sophomore was picking out dresses for her mother. Darryl Coleman was also here. He comes about once a week for sneakers, sweat pants, jackets. The outing helps him stretch his dollars as a cook at Florida Avenue Grill. "It gets me over the hump." This day's haul: T-shirts.
The war has left Coleman mostly with questions: Why didn't President Bush tell us about the war's costs beforehand? Why haven't we found the weapons of mass destruction? What's the difference between weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and weapons of mass destruction in North Korea?
And this: "How can we want to turn Iraq into a democracy and we can't even make Washington, D.C., a democracy? We're paying taxes without representation. Sometimes you just have to question some of these things."
Coleman picked up his red-and-white Lord & Taylor bag with his five T-shirts and left.
It wasn't long before Christine Martin arrived. Took her three buses from Southeast to get here. The long ride "is therapy," she said. "Makes me feel better." She comes here often to pick up food and clothes for her grandchildren, and books for her great-grandchildren. She's 62, a street poet who goes by the name Nandi.
I gave you my all
But that wasn't enough
I handled you carefully
You let me down rough
I gobbled your lies
Because, man, they were good
I love you so desperately
Much more than I should
After she recited her poem, eyes closed, with feeling, everybody in Bread for the City applauded. Some gave her a standing ovation.
"I'm not bragging," she said, "but I'm good at what I do. One day I'm going to make it."
Some Things Won't Wash
Dianne Pinkston was doing her laundry. The war was essentially over -- Baghdad had fallen, Hussein's statues had been pulled to the ground. But she wondered: Is it really over?
"Have they killed him yet?"
She waited for an answer she already knew. No, she was told, Saddam hasn't turned up.
All right, then, Pinkston said. "It's not going to be over until they have his real body. When President Bush gets that call, 'We have his body,' then it's over with."
Pinkston, a Giant cashier for 19 years, was wearing jeans and a red cotton top that matched her red DKNY sneakers. She had a French manicure. The TV was on in the 24-hour laundromat. War-related news, as usual. She took out a load from dryer 33, and dumped the clothes on the table in front of the TV.
This is a nice laundromat, practically immaculate. It has a Fruitopia machine, a snack machine, a gum-ball machine, a "soap center" and a bank of video games for the kids. Thirty-five pounds of laundry requires 13 quarters -- that's what the sign says.
The television newscast was showing pictures of Iraqi revelry, but something else caught Pinkston's eye: a story in the paper about 83-year-old civic activist Lorraine Whitlock being stabbed. Police have charged her 60-year-old son.
"I mean, you work all your life. After you turn a certain age you just want to enjoy your life. And then you're going to have somebody in your family take your life?"
The more she read, the more upset she got, until she was just about trembling with rage. "Come on. What are they going to do, put him in St. E? And this is your mother who brought you into this world? This is pathetic."
She was now consumed by thoughts of Lorraine Whitlock, and her own grandmother who raised her and lived to age 96. She put in another load, the dryer whistled. She retrieved her 7-Eleven coffee and glanced up at the TV. The newscaster was not talking about Lorraine Whitlock, just the news from Iraq.
"I was praying for it not to happen, every day," she said. "There should've been another way to solve the problem, other than going to war."
She took a sip of coffee and shook her head.
"I hate washing clothes."
Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.
Christine Martin refers to her long bus ride to Bread for the City -- where she gets free clothing for her family -- as therapy.Marvin Potter, second from left, and Curtis "C-web" Mozie joke with friends on the street. When residents' conversations turn serious, Iraq isn't the issue of gravest concern.
Everett Lucas owns Variety Market, a gathering place in the District's Shaw neighborhood.