Walk into Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club No. 13 and a roach is liable to fall into your hair. Wedged into the basement of a housing project in one of the poorest sections of the city, it is the end of the boys club pipeline. Youngsters in the club can look out at the four-story brick housing projects of LeDroit Park, at concrete courtyards and wash hanging from windows. A scene from West Side Story, only no one is singing.
"The kids know the roaches are down here, but they come anyway," says Officer Jerry Swanson, 28, himself a product of a deprived childhood. Swanson is the leader of No. 13 and as such carries a ping-pong paddle alongside his revolver.
By his estimate half the boys within a five-block radius of the basement club at 251 V St. NW come at least twice a week to watch TV, play pool and table tennis and participate in sports programs. They have Christmas and Halloween parties and bring their school drawings and reports cards to Swanson for approval. For many it is the only recreational outlet in the neighborhood.
Most of them live with a stigma that is not justified. They are young and black in a city where much of the crime is caused by young blacks.
"When we take the boys out of the neighborhood, you can see people watching the boys," Swanson said. "When we walk to the fields in another neighborhood, the police sometimes follow us. The boys are used to it. They accept it."
It is of little consolation to the law-abiding boys of this neighborhood that most of the offenses are committed by a relatively small number of people.
"We've got 1,400 members in this club and out of every 100 that come in here, 90 are straight," Swanson says. "We get some bad kids, some kids we never reach - they come in and go out - but kids barely able to walk will come in here and stay."
Singer Nancy Wilson visited with boys club official's recently but did not go to No. 13 Few visitors do.
The commode, stuffed in a closet, is covered with roach eggs. "We had a woman visitor once and a roach fell in her hair," Swanson says. "She couldn't believe it. We call the exterminator, but in two days they're all back."
Rain comes through the windows. "The best we can do is put paper over 'em," Swanson says. "We take the wrappings off the overhead pipes in winter for heat. They leaked the other day and the water was this deep," he says.
The pool table looks like it has been sanded. "If it was in upper northwest it would be in someone's trash can," Swanson says. The brick walls are painted red and white and the club nickname, "Nighthawks," is spelled out, next to framed pictures of police and boys club officials. Much of the sports equipment is broken or the wrong sizes, but is used anyhow.
There are nine other police boys and girls clubs in the city serving some 22,000 youngsters. No one denies that No. 13, near Howard University, is the bottom of the boys club ladder. "It's because we had to take the space available for a club in that neighborhood," said a boys club official.
Meanwhile, Swanson and his assistants, George Woody and Melvin Hall, and volunteer Leola Byrum, have been making do with furniture discarded by senior citizen projects, sports equipment donated by local merchants and money from their pockets. Says Swanson, "The ice cream man comes around and, well, the kids oughtta be able to have ice cream."
It's 4 o'clock and there are about 75 young people in the basement, mostly between 6 and 14, some in their late teens, a few in their 20s. Only the loudest voices can be heard.
"Officer Swanson, Officer Swanson, can I have a ping pong ball?"
"You got someone to play with?" Swanson asks. The boy runs off. He looks no taller than the table.
Little hands tug at sleeves. "Officer Swanson, can I have a jersey? Officer Swanson, it's my turn Officer Swanson . . ."
A man with a soft voice and quick smile, Swanson is explaining how he has been doing this for four years and would rather quit the force than do anything else when a soft-spoken 16 year old, catches his eye. Down six balls in pool, the boy has come back to win.
"Mark one down," the boy beams, looking out of the corner of his eye to see if Swanson is noticing. "A month ago he couldn't play the game," Swanson smiles. "He's gettin' better."
A little fat boy dribbles a billiard ball and shouts. "Hey," Swanson yells at him, "why you talkin' so loud buddy? You talkin' like it's long distance." The boys sit down. "He'll be good for five minutes, and then he'll be at it again," Swanson says. "They all want attention, they want to be noticed."
Kenny Smith, now 21, has been coming to the boys club 10 years, more so now to work with the younger ones. He moves within the law.
"The bad kids, I don't hang around with 'em," he says. "They don't like to do nothing'; they just sit and talk, stand around outside."
Youth dealing dope and robbing can be found in the shadows of LeDroit Park. "Kids want things other kids have," Swanson says, "and if their parents can't afford it, some of them get it any way they can."
Along 3d and 4th and V and W Streets northwest are burned out buildings, boarded up windows and youngsters going to and from school, all within blocks of the home of Mayor Walter E. Washington and the well-preserved Victorian mansions that form the other part of the two worlds of LeDroit Park.Next to the boys club, a few men sit on stoops, clutching brown paper bags.
"Most of the people who live here are one-parent families," Swanson says. "The guys take the short cut out, and the kids usually wind up with the grandparents because the mother can't afford 'em. So they all go on welfare and wind up living in a place like this."
Glass underfoot. A car sits rusting, the tires long gone, the interior gutted. "It's been there for two years," Swanson says. "I've heard the owner is somewhere out West."
As in most areas of the city, taxi drivers seldom pick up young men in LeDroit Park because they are afraid of being robbed. Police cruisers prowl the neighborhood and women passing through clutch their purses.
While some youths in the neighborhood were breaking and entering, Kenny Smith was studying photography. He is in his second year at the University of Maryland now, taking Graphic Arts, and he works part time at the Government Printing Office and for his church.
People have marked up his car with crayons, stolen his battery and punctured his tires, all behind his back. He guesses they are jealous. His immediate goal is to move out of LeDroit Park.
Smith lives with his mother and five brothers and sisters. He learned to avoid temptation at his mother's hand. "You just gotta know my mother to understand," he says.
The character of a boy, of course, depends on more than whether he belongs to the boys club. Family support, for instance, and the ability to learn from mistakes. Take the case of one member of No. 13, a 16-year-old who told a reporter he beat a man senseless two years ago because he wanted money.
The youth lives across the concrete courtyard from the basement boys club, and had attended regularly since he was 8. By the time he was 14, however, he figured he was ready to step out of his own.
"People were flashing money around sayin', Hey, lookie this, I got a picketful," he recalled the other day from the spare apartment where he lives with his grandmother and younger brother. "I knew where they got it. They wasn't working. I figured I'd get some too."
A stocky youngster who has played fullback and linebacker on boys club teams, he stalked his prey near a southwest dock. "Gimme your money," he said to a middle aged man in the dark.
The man started running. "I knocked him to the ground and was beating on him, he had blood on his coat, and I took his ring and his wallet," the 16-year-old recalled. "He said something like, 'Why are you doing this for?' and I didn't say nothin' cause while I was goin' for the money, I was blockin' everything else from my mind."
The youth tried to make his getaway at a bus stop, but the bus never came. The police did, though, and the judge gave him two years for robbery by force and violence.
There were no smiling faces in the courtroom, he recalled. "The judge said my crime was vicious and he called me a menace to society. At the time I didn't know what a menace to society was. My lawyer told me."
At the Oak Hill youth center he learned what it means to be confined. "I got into a fight over a piece of pie. The counselor said, 'Anybody want some pie?' and this other dude pointed at me and said, 'He want some pie,' and I said, 'How you know I want some pie?' and he said, 'Take it,' and that's when the fight started. I popped him and he popped me back. I got three extra days in seclusion."
He learned how to run a printing press and made himself a promise he wouldn't get into more trouble. "I don't want to let a man tell you when to get up, when to go outside, when to go to the bedroom and what channel you can look at on TV."
While he was detained, his grandmother, who is 63 and a retired domestic worker, would bring him meals, newspapers and friends every [WORD ILLEGIBLE] I mean hard too, for him to straighten up, the grandmother said.
Says the 16-year-old now, "She didn't have to tell me what she wanted me to do. I saw it with my own eyes and felt it with my heart."
He has since worked at summer jobs, painting houses and buffing floors, and is studying accounting in high school. He's attending boys club regularly again, talking to the younger ones, and the walls of his room are covered with athletic and academic achievement awards.
"Youngsters start snatching pocket-books around 12 or 13," the boy says. "And from that they go to breaking and entering and then to robbery and to bank robbery - it depends how mature they think they are. They can't get on jobs, they're tired of being broke and they want to go out and don't have any funds for it. But a criminal can't accomplish nothin' but a name, that's as far as he can go."