The 14-year-old boy threw back his shoulders so that his arm muscles tensed and bulged like two eggs beneath his skin. "Yeah, I know you," the boy said brusquely to the white-haired man sitting on the hood of a car. "You're Mr. Gleason."
James P. Gleason, the reserved and generally guarded Montgomery County executive, was smoking a cigarette outside the 7-Eleven store on Piney Branch Road in Silver Spring. He was there to talk to the youth and anybody else who cared to tell him about the problems and needs of the tiny and frequently volatile East Silver Spring-Takoma park area of the county.
The executive's jaunt through Silver Spring and Takoma park was one of several unannounced visits he's been making to areas in Montgomery County where he feels he's likely to meet the kind of people "who are falling through the cracks" when it comes to getting help from local government.
prince George's County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. has tried to do much the same thing through a series of town meetings, which he holds once a month, each time in a different section of Prince George's.
But Gleason, who is considerably less gregarious is public than Kelly, ironically dimisses the town meeting concept as "too formal." he said he prefers the one-to-one contact he gets with his constituents by roaming around the county.
On this particular evening, the executive had replaced the suit and tie he wore earlier in the day with checked sports pants and an open collar shirt. He was accompanied by Pedro Sierra and two other county recreation department outreach workers for the East Silver Spring-Takoma Park area.
"Hey man, why don't you put some sidewalks on my block?" asked Tommy Sterling, the 14-year-old boy in front of the 7-Eleven. "Then people wouldn't be falling into the street, you know."
Gleason puffed on his cigarette and asked the boy to name the streets he was refering to.
"If you had one thing you could ask for for the youth in the county, what the hell would it be?" Gleason asked eventually, his eyes set on the youth like two shiny blue stones beneath the cliffs of his eyebrow.
"We need somebody to take us to the beach, you know, and to baseball games sometimes - like they do," Sterling said, pointing to the outreach workers. "We need somebody to help us out with the police."
"All right. Good," Gleason replied. "Wouldn't you also like a place where just the youth could go?" he asked the boy.
"No. man. We got a place to go right here," the boy said pointing to the interior of the 7-Eleven. "And we got another one right there," he said, indicating a wooded area alongside the store.
"(The 7-Eleven) got pinball machines, soda machines. Anything you want, they got it," added the youth, a student at Takoma Park Junior High School.
"Well, I gotta move now," he told Gleason.
"Thanks for spending some time with us," Gleason said.
The boy turned to go, then came back a few seconds later. "Hey, I got something I wanna add. Y'all need more bus transportation to the trips (the outreach workers) take us on. Sometimes we're all piled up in one car."
Gleason promised he'd look into the matter.
Later the same evening, Gleason showed up unexpectedly at a Silver Spring apartment building, which houses mostly Spanish-speaking people, to talk with the resident manager.
Though he'd never before met the woman who manages the apartment house, Gleason eased her into a conversation by asking about the flat orange fish she has in a large aquarium in her living room.
He flipped through the records in the stero stand and asked, "Can you smoke in this house?"
"Don't you know my name? I've written you a letter," said the woman, who asked not to be named in the paper.
"Oh yeah? What was it about?" Gleason asked.
"It was about the 'greasers,' the hippies and the pot smokers who constantly sit on our property," the woman answered. Then she haunched into a long complaint over how slow police are to respond to calls for help in her neighborhood, and how her son, who she says goes to the same school as Gleason's son, has to pay $5 to play basketball at a nearby recreation center.
It ended with Gleason telling the woman, "Look, I didn't come here to be hassled," but promising nevertheless to look into the fairness of the recreation fees.
Later that night, he stopped into the neighborhood recreation center and asked what the fees were. A recreation department staff member told him the gymnasium is open certain hours for free.
"You see how helpful that was (to visit the recreation center)? I found out that the center in fact made free time available and that the real problem was one of communication and so I must assign to somebody the task of making communication (between the public and the center) better.
"And besides," Gleason said, "I would have never seen that basketball hoop all torn up, and I wouldn't have been able to call that to the attention of the recreation staff."
So far this summer, Gleason has spent time with the elderly people living in the Holly Hall senior citizens project in Silver Spring and arranged for youths in another community to talk with the police officers whom the young people said had been harassing them.
He also chaperoned a recreation department trip for youngsters to Kings-Dominion in Virginia and visited with the retarded children attending summer camp at Good Counsel High School, Wheaton.
"I'm looking for the people who are falling through the cracks," Gleason said. That means, quite frequently, going into poorer neighborhoods and smaller communities in the county, he added.
"Too many government officials live behind the doors of their office where they hear from only organized groups," said Gleason.