On a dark evening, a man wearing a gray, hooded sweat shirt walks off the street and into the District's Southeast Neighborhood Library. His hair is slicked back in the middle and wild on the sides. A scruffy stubble covers his face. He looks like someone who hasn't eaten or showered lately. He grabs a chessboard, sits down on one of the small chairs in the children's section and begins setting up the pieces. He waits as he does every Tuesday night. Waits for the roles to change. No more ignored pleas. No averted glances. During the next hour, people will look him in the eye. They'll listen to his words. In this down-at-the-heels library that still beckons to those in search of transformation, he's the chess teacher.

His name is Conrad Cheek Jr., and his one pupil tonight is an 11-year-old boy named Avery. Tufts of Avery's blond hair poke out of his baseball cap with "Cape Cod" emblazoned across the front. The boy stares at the board.

"The bishop has everything on this side," says Conrad. "The knight has this, too. And the rook has this spot. So there is no escape. See a way out?"

Conrad's voice is low, calm, patient. Don't get discouraged, he tells Avery. Conrad has been playing since he was 8 years old. He's 50 now. He's got a natural advantage. He shows Avery how to win with only a rook and a queen.

"See how you do it?" he asks the boy gently.

Avery tries the same moves against Conrad but fails. They try again. And again. And again.

"Checkmate," Avery finally says, grinning.

"Very good," Conrad says. "You learned a little more that time."

The clock strikes 8 p.m., and Conrad puts the board away. He zips his jacket and plunges back into the night. Under an arm is a stack of Street Sense newspapers for sale. He stops in front of the CVS drugstore next to the library. His arms spread apart like he's taken the stage. "Get your new edition of Street Sense, the newspaper by and for homeless people," his voice sings. "And help a hardworking homeless man."

People rush by. They talk on cell phones or to each other. Most never look at him. "Maybe next time," he says to a couple already gone. A half-hour later, he counts out $20 in wrinkled bills and shoves the stash back in his pocket. That's enough for tonight.

The Southeast branch perches on a little knoll on Capitol Hill, right next to a Metro station and two blocks from busy Eastern Market. It's a red-brick building you could easily miss with the bustle around it. Hard to believe that on a December evening 82 years ago, hundreds of people gathered here to glimpse a fresh promise of Washington's future. The dedication speeches that night focused on how this new branch and the D.C library system would serve as "a model for other cities throughout our land." There was more talk about how the city's public schools would lead the nation. The intoxicating smell of hope filled the air. An orchestra started to play, and the crowd flooded inside.

The library has changed little since then. The layout is much the same. The graceful arched windows and the wood trim are still here. But everything looks tired. A rusting cyclone fence now circles much of the property to keep loiterers away. The outside book drop box is gone. Someone put human excrement in it a few years ago, and that was the end of that. There's still a gaping hole in the men's bathroom wall near where someone once ripped out a urinal. Inside, the air is heavy, like a house that needs airing out.

There's no talk about this building serving as a national beacon anymore. Instead, people come here hoping to find a warm place for the day. Or hoping to learn to read a sentence. Or hoping to learn to use a computer. Or hoping to find safety for a few hours after school.

Southeast's struggles mirror those of the other 26 branches in the D.C. library system, which are in such disrepair that public interest crusader Ralph Nader launched an advocacy group on their behalf 2 1/2 years ago. The D.C. Library Renaissance Project has given the library system more political clout. But that has yet to change anything at the Southeast library. There have been plans to renovate the building for years, but the money for hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of repairs has not come through. Some walls are crumbling. It was a major victory when the building's new maintenance man recently used duct tape to fit a handrail at the library's entrance. Working here is like driving a classic but beat-up old car: Things break down, but somehow it manages to creak along.

The District's library system had a glimmer of new hope late last year. The city's proposed new baseball stadium would have pumped $45 million into the system. Then the idea was dropped. Instead Mayor Anthony Williams appointed a 32-member commission, including Librarian of Congress James Billington and Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham, to come up with a plan to reinvent the D.C. library system. The commission is scheduled to issue a report in the fall.

In the meantime, the libraries are fending for themselves within the city's budget. The interim library system director, Francis Buckley Jr., who took over in April, describes what he found as pathetic: run-down buildings, outdated computers, millions of dollars of maintenance left undone. It is not the library system that citizens of the nation's capital deserve, Buckley says. But still they come. These are the only libraries they've got.

When Catherine Stancil first started visiting the Southeast library last summer, it wasn't to read a book. She came to read a word.

On this day, she's trying to get to the library on time. She scrambles down the stairs of her small Northeast Washington rowhouse. Past the portrait of Jesus. Past the 3-D picture of the Last Supper in a fake wood frame. Past the signed pictures from her former employers, thanking her for her 30 years as a cleaner -- words she could not read until now. With a thermos of coffee in one hand and a binder in the other, the 69-year-old grandmother heads to school. That's what she calls her meetings with her reading tutor. It's the only school she's known since she dropped out of the fifth grade.

She gets to the library right at 10 a.m. and sits at a metal desk in the back. Catherine pulls out a stack of beige index cards, with a word written on each one. Silently, she mouths each word:

"Raise."

"Wrong."

"Brother."

"Wall."

"Slave."

"Art."

"Knife."

She picks up another card, with the word "Partner" on it. "I know this word," she says, letting out a sigh. "I just can't knock it into my head."

Her teacher arrives a few minutes later. She's a freckled 30-year-old attorney named Karena Dees. They meet every Saturday at this table. For Karena, it's an hour out of her weekend. For Catherine, it's an hour that is transforming her life.

"Do you know this word?" Karena asked on a previous Saturday, holding up an index card.

Catherine pointed at the card with her finger as if she were about to burst out with the answer. But the finger slowly dropped.

"It's 'Try,'" said Karena.

"Try! Try! Try!" Catherine exclaimed, hoping to drum it into her memory.

"This word, I know you know," said Karena showing her the next one.

"Tell?" tried Catherine.

"No. 'Took,'" said Karena.

They read from a photocopied sheet. "No one would go look for him," Catherine read.

"Looking," corrected Karena.

Catherine has spent a lifetime being unable to read. When her mail arrived, it sat on her kitchen table until her son read it to her. She couldn't pay her bills herself. Instead, her son would write out the words, and she'd copy the strange symbols. Her stomach would knot up each time she went to the doctor's office. Fill out the forms, they'd say. "I can't," she wanted to reply. But she was too embarrassed. Turn to Psalm 23 in the Bible, they'd say at church. All she'd see was a confusing jumble of lines.

When she was a child in North Carolina, she'd attend the first day of school but then return only occasionally. Her father kept her home. There was cotton that needed picking. Finally, she dropped out in the fifth grade, and the words she knew faded from her mind. For the next 50-plus years, she cleaned. She cleaned a woman's house. She cleaned stores. And for three decades, she cleaned classrooms and offices at Catholic University.

She retired three years ago. A friend told her about a program to teach people to read in this city where about one-third of the adult population is estimated to be functionally illiterate. Too old, Catherine thought. Back in North Carolina, if you couldn't read by her age, it was too late. But she remembered seeing gray-haired people rushing out of classes at Catholic University. Maybe, she thought, it's not too late after all.

She's been coming to the library each week since last summer.

"I have no idea what I'm doing," Karena says after one session. It's Karena's first time tutoring. "Poor Catherine. She has someone who has no idea what she's doing."

But Catherine has progressed. When they first started, Catherine's reading skills were a strange blend -- she didn't know the complete alphabet, but she could understand large blocks of text. She had navigated life by recognizing certain words by sight. But it wasn't reading. Now she can read simple sentences, and each week she studies the new words on her index cards. Nine months of Saturdays with Karena, and Catherine can now pay her own bills. She can read some of her mail. She has joined her church choir. She can read the words to the hymns now. She fills out her registration forms when she goes to the doctor.

Next year, she says, she wants to stand up in church, hold up her Bible and read Scripture to the congregation. And she has started to feel different about herself. Her shame is gone, she says. "Now I feel that I'm as good as you."

It's a strange time for public libraries in the United States. Cities from Seattle to Salt Lake City to Fayetteville, Ark., have recently built beautiful modern libraries in their downtowns. Smaller versions have also opened in growing suburban areas. And the circulation numbers nationwide are at an all-time high. At the same time, the city of Salinas, Calif., birthplace of author John Steinbeck, nearly shut down its library system recently because of budget shortages, a plan that was halted only after a public outcry. Other systems have also suffered financially in the last few years as local budgets have tightened.

Washington has underfunded its library system for decades. The results are predictable. A recent independent ranking of library systems nationwide placed Washington 61st out of 77 in quality and resources among cities with populations over 500,000.

Recent D.C. budgets have restored some cuts. Crews will soon renovate four branches. But only 30 miles from the Southeast library, you can see how far the system has fallen behind. Drive out the Dulles Toll Road past the airport, and soon the roads are wide and new sub-divisions sprout up like wildflowers.

Drive past the lake with the fountain in the middle, and you come to Loudoun County's Ashburn Library.

Walk inside, and the air feels light. The sun streams in from a wall of windows. There's a section for DVDs and books on CD that looks like it's right out of a Borders bookstore. While the Southeast library has three computers that connect to the Internet in the adult section, here there are 10, with more to come. And the entire building is networked to let others wirelessly surf the Internet on their laptops. Here circulation has increased by 59 percent this fiscal year. While the Southeast library circulated just over 35,000 items in fiscal year 2004, this neighborhood library circulated more than 600,000.

When the Ashburn Library opened two years ago, thousands gathered outside. There were speeches about what this library would mean to the community, to its future. Then the crowd flooded through the doors to see the new building, with some waiting an hour to get in. When they finally got inside, they could hear a jazz band beginning to play.

For those who can't afford a home computer, the Southeast library's computers are a lifeline to the outside world. "To my Dearest Soul Mate," one middle-aged woman slowly types at the start of an e-mail. Another woman, wearing a shiny gold-and-tan head scarf, fills in her church's quarterly finances on a computer spreadsheet. Others drop in to hunt for jobs online. It's to one of these computers that Sandra Harris has come to conquer a fear.

A week earlier, her Baptist church needed someone to create a flier for an upcoming dinner. She volunteered. She went to a Kinko's copy shop. A clerk told her the store could design it for her, but it would cost her. Go to the library, the clerk told her. Save yourself some money. So she crossed the street and stepped into the library. It was the same library she came to often as a child. Now, at 57, she hasn't been here in more than a decade.

She gingerly touches the keys. The letters begin to appear on the screen like magic. Sweat begins to build in her palms. After an hour, she has finished a one-page invitation for her church's prayer supper. She stares at what she created on the screen. Then she removes the floppy disk and examines it like an exotic relic. To many, it's a simple feat, almost automatic, like breathing or talking. But for Sandra, it's a step into a new world.

"It's like seeing the first light bulb after using candles. I don't know where I've been." She pauses. "I knew I was missing out. I just didn't know how much I was missing out."

While she was raising her kids over the past decades, the outside world raced on without her. It's haunting her everywhere she turns. She took a class. The teacher told her to type her papers on a computer. Her body tightened. Search the Bible on the Internet for a reference, a church member told her. A wave of embarrassment rolled over her. She was afraid to try.

But maybe, she's beginning to think, this is what life is all about: Doing what you don't think possible. She never thought she could drive here from Florida by herself in an old $500 car to look after her frail mother. But she did. And she never thought that she could live in a homeless shelter in Tampa when the housing that her hotel housekeeping job promised didn't come through. But she did.

She has surprised herself in other ways. At the shelter, she'd sit on the edge of a bed with other women who had been beaten or raped and comfort them. She'd go with women who had job interviews and sit outside to give them support. Black, white, it didn't make a difference. She got her commercial driver's license. Now she's a school bus driver.

As she sits looking at the screen, she says she feels she is actually seeing God. He's made it possible, she thinks, to do this. Her mind races forward to all the ideas that she can pour into this disk. She dreams of other things that are possible for her. Maybe she can move herself and her mom out of the cramped studio they share and into a place with a few rooms and maybe a little garden. If she can, maybe there will be room for a computer like this.

Jane and Doug Alspach have been visiting this library for the past 17 years.

A couple of years earlier, the pair moved from Alexandria to Capitol Hill and stayed to raise their daughter. They didn't want Sarah to grow up in a place where it seemed everyone had a Volvo and shopped at J. Crew. In this neighborhood, their daughter would see the full spectrum of people, they believed.

But the Capitol Hill they knew is slowly disappearing, they say. People who can afford to buy $1 million or even $2 million townhomes are replacing the funky mixture of residents from all backgrounds. The gathering places have also fragmented, the Alspachs have noticed, as more money has come into the area. The new set, Jane says, gathers at the organic market. Go to the Murky Coffee cafe across the street from the library on a Saturday morning, and it's filled with young white professionals sipping $4 mochas while surfing on wi-fi laptops. There aren't many places left, the Alspachs complain, where people from different backgrounds, races and incomes mix on a daily basis.

"We came for the frontier, but the frontier has left," says Doug, who muses about moving to Baltimore.

Amid the change, the library has been a constant. The Alspachs come hoping to find a bit of the past. It's one of the last outposts, they feel, where a cross section of people still comes together. It's where Sarah, now 17, was in reading groups with kids from wealthy families and those who were just getting by. It's where they gathered on holidays for parties, where they caught up with neighbors during the weekly story times. And it's a place that remembers them. Francia Baker at the desk this eve-ning has seen the Alspachs' daughter grow up. She still keeps an eye out for the John Grisham books that she knows Jane likes.

"It's like coming home," says Doug.

Homeless people gather at the library each day, sometimes one or two at a time, sometimes half a dozen. On a cold morning, they line up outside, waiting for the doors to open. Then they camp out in the corners, lean against shelves or sit at the tables, pretending to read. It's been this way for decades. A detente has developed between the library staff and the homeless population. As long as the homeless patrons don't sleep or disturb anyone, the library staff won't bother them. Today, one homeless regular sits at a table with his eyes closed, snoring as his hands hold up the latest copy of Esquire. "How To Be Your Best Man," the cover shouts.

There's Ann, surrounded by piles of notes that she writes hour after hour. She's hoping to record the story of her life, she explains. Or she's hoping to expose the "vampire rat eaters." Or she's hoping to prepare for a court case against former U.S. presidents. Her hopes change by the second. When it's time to go, she neatly stacks all the pages together and puts them in her bag. The next day, she starts all over again.

One day Candice Townsend, the library's elegant young branch manager, picks up the phone and makes a call. A few minutes later, a large hulking man with a blue jacket that says "POLICE" in yellow letters on the back arrives.

"You've got that visitor again?" the officer asks.

"He's not bothering anyone, but we have so many complaints of odor," Candice says softly, pointing to the area next to the magazines. The officer walks over and leads a tall, lanky man with a blue cap away until they're both standing just inside the front doors.

"There has been a complaint about your hygiene," the officer says, sounding as if he doesn't know how to break this to him. "I don't want to offend you or diminish your manhood."

The man bows his head. He doesn't say anything.

"Do you have any place to bathe?" The officer lists places he can go. Right now, he tells the man, he must leave. "I understand your circumstances, and I know you aren't doing it deliberately." The man doesn't argue. He quietly goes back to his seat, grabs a tote bag and leaves without a fuss.

"No one is mad," the officer tells Candice, puffing out his chest noticeably a few extra inches. "Let a man feel like a man, and he'll leave."

The Southeast staff's daily hope is that everything goes smoothly in this mixing bowl. Who knows who will come through those doors. They might look up and see "Legal Outburst Man," who, while surfing the Internet at the library, has a tendency to shout out phrases like: "Cease and desist!" or "That is contempt of court!" or "That's stalking and aggression!" Everyone ignores him, as if what he's saying is normal. And here, in a way, it is. But other outbursts can't be ignored. This is the case one Wednesday afternoon when a tall man wearing a red Nationals baseball cap gets agitated after being told to wait for the library cards he wants for his children.

"You're being an idiot!" the man says to the pregnant circulation clerk.

"Don't abuse the staff!" replies Tavon Hargett, another library staff member sitting nearby, his dreadlocks dripping down his shoulders.

The man glares at Tavon. "You are a homosexual," he says. "Faggot . . . Don't tell me to wait for no reason." Candice rushes over to try to calm things down. She tells the man that she's sorry that he's had a bad experience. She promises to get his children the library cards. The man apologizes, too. He's had a bad day, he explains.

After the incident, a debate breaks out among the staff. The front counter workers believe the guy should've been thrown out. But Candice tells them they have to expect some outbursts. "It's something that comes with working with the public."

The library staff has watched circulation numbers decrease annually. The staffers do what they can to keep them from dropping further. Sometimes Faith Williams, the children's librarian, checks out children's books herself so the titles look like they are in demand. Books that don't get checked out can get purged from the shelves, even if they are wonderful books, she says.

With a doctorate in American literature from Columbia University, Faith wasn't supposed to become a librarian. That wasn't ambitious enough, at least not in the '60s, when she graduated from college. A woman with a PhD from a top university was supposed to become a professor, redefining the way we look at the next wave of American writing. And for a while, Faith bought into that. But gradually she began to feel she wasn't making enough of a difference. So here she is on the ground level, trying to get books into kids' hands, trying to nurture thoughtful, engaged readers.

On good days, she believes what she does is important. Like one Saturday afternoon, when three excited grade-school children materialize before her, asking if the library has the Captain Underpants series. "Oh, yes!" beams Faith as she leads them to the shelves. She asks if they've read any of the Ricky Ricotta books by the same author. The children trail behind her, and soon they're excitedly grabbing those off the shelf. She's on a roll. She takes them to the Lemony Snicket books, and the kids are jumping up and down. Then she shows them the library's Spider-Man comic books. With their arms full, the kids lie on the foam pads in the children's section and take turns reading aloud. As she watches them, Faith begins to hum.

At moments like this, it's easy for Faith to forget the child who spit on her. Or the obscene message that flashed in block letters on the computer when she touched the keyboard. She laughs when she thinks about that -- it was creative. Or those afternoons when the Hine Junior High School students flood into the children's area to play on the computers and hang out, showing no interest in the books around them. And then there are the hot, slow summer days when it seems like no one comes in except to use the bathroom. Days like that depress her. She's heard all the talk about how libraries don't matter as much these days in the era of the Internet, Barnes & Noble bookstores and Amazon.com. Who needs to do research at the library when you can just Google it instead? Why read at the library when you can curl up in an armchair at a modern bookstore with a better selection?

She was in one of those down moods one morning when she headed to work a few months ago. When she came out of the Metro station and walked across the plaza, she could see that someone was already outside the front door of the library, waiting. Her spirits lifted.

Someone couldn't wait to get inside, she thought. The library mattered! Then she saw the person slowly lean down and steal the library's copy of the New York Times.

It was Faith who asked Conrad to teach chess. It was Halloween night 2003, and he had come to the library to play against a professional. But the pro didn't show. Faith knew Conrad was homeless. She thought the structure would be good for him. She also wanted a chess teacher.

Conrad is a local, having grown up in Benning Heights. He went to McKinley High School in the '70s, where he says he was undefeated in chess. Then, he says, he worked as a technician repairing medical equipment at big-name hospitals. He lost his job about 10 years ago. His boss told him he smelled like alcohol at work. He says his bosses had it in for him. It's always the same, he says: He's smarter and does better work than his peers, so his superiors fire him. They see him as a threat. That's how he explains it one afternoon on a park bench near the library as he eats macaroni from a local soup kitchen. He doesn't like talking about it. It still makes him angry.

After he lost his job, everything un-raveled. First came the eviction from his one-bedroom apartment with the wood-burning fireplace. Then his wife left.

For the past eight years, he says, he's been sleeping wherever he can: his car, a stairwell somewhere. There have been rooms in other people's apartments. But they're all temporary, like the room he had a little while ago. He made enough selling his newspapers to rent a room for $100 a month from a friend with a federally subsidized apartment. Then someone complained, he says, and he was back sleeping in his '93 Toyota Camry. Now he's paying someone else $50 a week to rent a place in her subsidized apartment. That will end soon, too, he knows.

But all of this will change, he explains. He's invented a mobile cell-phone charger. He just spent $500, earned $1 at a time selling papers, to patent the idea. It's just a matter of time before the royalty checks start coming in and he's making six figures, he says.

For now, he's at the Southeast Neighborhood branch every Tuesday at 7 p.m. sharp. At the beginning, one or two children showed up for lessons. Now eight or more is common. Outside, the parents might blow by him when he hawks his homeless newspaper. Here, they and their children listen to him.

"I didn't connect it. He sells Street Sense!" says Ann Crystal to her husband after watching Conrad teach her daughter and son one evening. Conrad is already heading out the door. "I'll buy Street Sense next time!" she shouts out to him.

Conrad feels a sense of accomplishment when he sees a child learning -- a feeling he doesn't get anymore in his daily life. He tells his students that chess is like life. You make bad choices and bad things happen. You make good decisions, you prosper. And he knows that if he played his life like he plays chess, his life would be different. But sometimes he worries he's falling short in his teaching. He's sure there's a better method. Still, parents swear by him. Jameelah Muhammad watches Conrad work with her 9-year-old son, Ali Osman. She explains how her son's confidence has soared playing with Conrad, how he brags to friends about being a chess player.

"We owe it all to Mr. Conrad," Jameelah says of her son's progress. "We love him."

They call him Mr. Conrad here.

The chess hour comes to an end. Then the children leave one by one. Soon after, the library will close. Each night after the lights have dimmed, the staff members gather near the front counter. They button their coats. They stuff books into their bags. They laugh about the day's events. They ask one another about the homeless regulars who didn't show up. And before they head home, they tell one another in the darkness to take care and get some rest before the library opens again.

Eric L. Wee is a frequent contributor to the Magazine.