His ears must have been burning. "Marion did this," says one. "Marion did that," says another.

On the 2700 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, beyond the windowless red door, is the Players Lounge -- the only sit-down restaurant in Southeast Washington's Ward 8. At Players, you can get some of the best soul food in town and sing karaoke until your lungs explode, on Tuesdays and the first Thursday of the month.

And you can still catch Marion Barry on some weeknights here, maybe enjoying one of his favorites, a plate of liver and onions, says co-owner Georgene Thompson. This is one of the places, after all, where the man who has taken the District of Columbia along for the ride in his roller-coaster life is still royalty, the undisputed king to the lunching queens.

"Who doesn't love Barry?" asks Diantha Ross, 58, sipping on sweetened iced tea, surrounded yesterday afternoon by a dozen or so women on their hour breaks from their jobs as teachers and social workers and librarians. Like most of the women there, Ross was once a Ward 8 resident but now lives in Forestville. She works at Johnson Junior High School, a social worker for Head Start.

"But I voted for him every time he ran," she says, "and I'd vote for him again."

The women -- some watching "The Young and the Restless" on the television, some chatting with girlfriends while Maze's Frankie Beverly crooned "Golden Time of Day" on the jukebox -- nod in agreement. They know Barry, know him the way a sister knows a brother, at least they say they do.

What you think of Barry depends, most likely, on what quadrant of the city you live in, these women say. In a city swirling with change and development, Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River, remains the poorest, with four out of 10 people living under the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census. It's here, the lunchers at Players say, that Barry will forever be the District's Mayor Emeritus, and whether he runs for City Council again -- as the political chatter goes, much of it thanks to Barry himself -- is irrelevant. Over baked chicken, catfish fillet and smothered pork chops, over mashed potatoes, yams, cabbage and corn bread, Barry is always welcome, always at home. He's here at least once or twice a week to chow down, says Thompson, and to do what he does best: talk to people.

"What do you want, baby?" Georgene, a vigorous 60, cries out to a customer.

Her husband, Steve, wearing a white apron, waits for the order.

Steve Thompson bought Players in 1973, when it was called Massey's Tavern. It was a strip club then, a real hot spot in the 1970s and 1980s, until the devastating whirlwind of crack cocaine -- still a problem in the neighborhood, some say -- hit the streets. Violence surged. So Steve got rid of the dancers, served up some food and gave birth to a catering business. Karaoke is a hit, too.

Players also became a political watering hole along the way, and became famous as the place where Barry, fresh out of prison in 1992, planned his comeback. Just how much is Barry still revered here?

"Let me tell you something," Georgene says to Ross and her girlfriends while refilling a small pitcher of that iced tea. "If Barry were to come here right now, people would give him an ovation." She paused. "If Mayor Williams were to come here right now, he'd get booed."

They laugh.

Ross's daughter, Nancy, sits alongside her mother, eating liver and onions. Barry's early years still hold sway with this lunchtime group.

"Because of Barry, I had me a job every summer," Nancy adds, a fork in her hand. She's a manager at Check 'N Go, "in my thirties" is all she'd reveal. "People here remember. If Barry ran, he'd win. If . . ."

That, of course, is a big if. Last week, Ward 8 Council member Sandy Allen says, Barry told her he planned to challenge her in the September election. Only he isn't. Or maybe he is. He's done this before -- gotten folks stirred up with talk of yet another campaign, then let it drop. But this is not 1978, when Barry was first elected mayor, not 1965, when Barry, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, arrived in the District. He's 68 now, a politician for some 39 years who knows how to grab the spotlight. That's vintage Barry, Billie James says.

"He's a master politician," says James, 55, smoking a Newport and waiting for her carryout order. She's a librarian at McGogney Elementary School. "But he cares, you know. He always -- always -- championed the causes of young people, poor people, senior citizens. He cares."

Geraldine Edmonds has a fond memory. It was 1997, at Spingarn High School. Barry, for some reason, Edmonds says, was at school that day. When he found out that students, especially eight young men, were being inducted into the National Honor Society, he made it a point to show up and give a speech. "He encouraged those boys," says Edmonds, 64, a guidance counselor at Southeast Academy, a K-8 charter school.

"You have to understand something about black culture: We're forgiving people," says Edmonds, her voice deepening. "Barry is a man -- a human being. His past mistakes have nothing to do with his abilities."

Barry's abilities are not in question, says Ted Adams, 34, an educator from Prince George's County. He works in Ward 8, has friends and family living there. What's at stake, Adams says, is the present and future of Ward 8. He, for one, thinks the plan is to move folks out to " 'Ward 9' -- Prince George's County."

"It doesn't matter who represents Ward 8, if it's Sandy Allen or Marion Barry. What matters is that people living downtown understand what's going on with people here. What's going on with the schools? What's going on with the infrastructure? What's the plan for Ward 8?"

Georgene Thompson, co-owner of Players Lounge, where talk about Marion Barry is a specialty of the house.