On a blustery morning, a man is waving a package of tube socks at drivers speeding west along Florida Avenue NE. His slicker is the same canary yellow as the Wendy's sign across New York Avenue, making him the only other bright spot in this rainy, industrial landscape. While a couple of buddies are hawking steering wheel locks and AA batteries, he has a monopoly on socks. Six pairs go for $7, but "no less than $5. The price is various," he explains.

He says his name is John but he won't give his last name for fear of the "heat." The cops occasionally bust John and his mates for selling without a vending license and confiscate their wares. John swears the merchandise isn't stolen.

"We buy our stuff," John insists.

Where from?

"That's confidential."

Business is better in the summer. On a nasty day like this, people are less interested in rolling down their car windows. Finally, some young women in an Acura wave him over. Alas, no sale.

"They were cheap," declares John, who acknowledges that most people are not looking for tube socks at the corner of Florida and New York avenues. That's why you have to work them, he says. You've got to be fast out here: Grab their attention, negotiate the price and close the deal -- all before the light changes. Traffic, like the customers, is unforgiving. Once he didn't quite make it back to the sidewalk after a sale, and a car ran over his foot and broke it.

"We get robbed. People snatch our stuff and pull off without paying. People put guns in our face," John says.

Suddenly, he jumps away from the street and yells, "One time! One time!" The motley group of vendors knows the code, and the men rush to stash their inventory behind a wall just as a police car whips a U-turn and screeches their way. As they scramble, the cop zooms up to them -- and then turns up Eckington Place. Sighs of relief all around. John and the socks return to the curb.

"Sport socks! Sport socks!"

-- Stephanie Mencimer