String Bean Willie straddles an old wooden barrel, working a stained toothpick furiously up and down and around in his toothless mouth. Heat rises in waves from the upper 14th Street asphalt, warping the image of brick buildings across the way and oppressing shoppers who stroll by his roadside stand.
Despite the August swelter, life, he says, "is a bowl of cherries."
For String Bean, 62, a stooped little man in a ravaged panama hat, life is cherries - and bananas, cantaloupes, peaches and grapes. He is one of Washington's street merchants, an old-fashioned huckster who has taken to the streets in search of a buck.
"It ain't bad business," says String Bean, who has been on the District welfare rolls for "quite a few years" but was once a janitor in a local school.
"It's cash without no damn boss lookin" over your shoulder, tell" you what to do. I been doin" this a few days a week, whenever I feel like it, for four or five years now. And I tell ya", it beats the hell out of working."
Though String Bean does not have a vendor's license - and thus vends only sporadically - more than 5,000 other area residents do. Their numbers have doubled since 1977, and today these purveyors of food, junk and jive liberate more than $2 million annually from the wallets of residents and tourists all over town.
"And we love it," says Count Thierry de Chaunac, a Scientologist and buckle vendor, who claims noble French blood.
"You don't find many vendors who are depressed, he says. If they were, they wouldn't be standing out in the heat - or the winter cold - selling their stuff."
The Count, as he is called by his friends, stands on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Dumbarton Street in Georgetown, supervising the vendors at two of the 11 stands he coowns. Shoppers and tourists stream by, an unending people-rush of young women, instamatic cameras and fat wallets.
"Most people think vendors are beggars that can't make money any other way," says the Count, who has worked as a teacher and a waiter and has lived in France, Greece and Africa before he bought into the vending business a year ago.
"But it's not true.... These vendors are artists. They create the business they do. They deal in the abstract." he said.
"It's a good living but I won't say how good," says Howard Wheeler, 31, who has been peddling his stock of silver and Indian jewelry in Georgetown for three years. "I work hard, up to 16 hours a day, six days a week, but I'm doing what I want to do."
Before taking up the jewelry business and moving into the District, Wheeler, whose long, sun-bleached hair and sagging chin give him the air of an aging beach bum, says he was a builder in Suitland. But when he got an offer to work on a job in Hawaii, he says, he was stricken with a case of "Polynesian paralysis...all I wanted to do was go to the beach. So when I came back here, I decided to abandon the whole suit and tie scene and be my own man."
Though Wheeler and his colleagues won't tell how much they are making, some say that on a good day, sales can go beyond the $500 mark. David Lippman, 20, who sells small rugs, belts and costume jewelry for a "vending chain," says that one day his 30 percent commission brought him $33 an hour for a seven-hour day.
And the secret, says Steve Hensby, who at 14 is a veteran street salesman, is in the technique.
Hensby, who lives in Laurel, is driven each day by his father to his family's spot at Constitution Avenue and 15th Street NW. Working out of a converted step van, he specializes in such hot tourist items as bronze-colored Jimmy Carter pencil sharpeners, Welcome to Washington coffee mugs, history of the presidency plates - suitable for hanging - and miniature cannons, handcuffs and models of the White House.
"A lot of this stuff is real junk," says the small, blond youth as he pulls on a cigarette, "but it sells. You just have to talk to the customers nice, tell them you'll wrap it up good, that it's good quality, America-made, that it's on sale...you can get a big lick out of them that way. I think I once sold $75 worth to a lady from Nebraska or somewhere..."
Hensby's rapid-fire lecture on salesmanship is interrupted when a woman in a technicolor muumuu and sandals with white socks steps up to his stand. She goes for a miniature, green glass oil lamp, and asks to have it wrapped. "OK," says Hensby. "Something else for you? How about a nice set of Jimmy and Rosalynn salt and pepper shakers...."
Joe Lawrence, 27, also relies on his salesmanship to attract customers. A former teacher from New York City, Lawrence sells drug paraphernalia in partnership with his two brothers. They operate three stands on K Street NW during the week, one in Georgetown on the weekend.
"Our prices are lower so you can get higher," he yells in his hey-man-what's-happen" voice. "We've got all that you need except the weed...."
Pulling in buyers, Lawrence adeptly shows his wares, pointing out first the lower-priced items - rolling papers and roach clips - and moving them up into the more expensive merchandise - Frisbee pipes and hand-made cocaine spoons. "Everything is approved by our panel of experts before it his the streets," he tells customers, and the money starts rolling in.
"Generally (on the street), sales are down," Lawrence says during a lull. "With the gas crisis and the heat, there aren't as many tourists. But our sales are up almost $50 a day. Even if there's not a lot of money around, when someone sees a good deal, they're gonna spend."
Lawrence says that most vendors have a 50 to 100 percent markup on their items, but still sell them about 30 percent lower than stores in the area.
"The people who buy from us are price conscious," says Bob Goodwin, 44, a former Chicago jewelry salesman who is a partner with the Count. "You have to have a good command of your goods and know the prices well. The buyers think at first that they're going to be ripped off, so you have to be an authority.
"One good thing to do is have them try on what they're looking at," says Goodwin, whose neat salt and pepper Afro and assortment of gold rings, chains and bracelets color him successful. "If they can see themselves wearing something, it heightens their desire to have it."
"Working here on the street is nice, laid back," says Lawrence, who has been at it for three years. But while the existence of a vendor seems carefree, it is not.
"It gets downright ridiculous sometimes," says Wheeler. "To get a spot in Georgetown on the weekend, you have to sleep over. I'll get here on Friday morning, and I don't leave until Sunday night.
"We have a kind of code here, that if you stake out a place regularly for a long time, it kind of belongs to you. But that doesn't stop these idiots who come here on the weekends.
"One time I got here to find a guy asleep on a lounge chair in my spot. Well, I took his table and threw it away. Then I woke him up and told him it was gone. He couldn't stay without a table. I got the spot," he laughs.
H. M. Johnson Sr., 60, who runs a refreshment truck, says the competition on Capitol Hill is just as fierce, but a little more orderly. On weekends, says the former welder, lots are drawn on the steps of the Air and Space Museum; on weekdays, the lottery for parking spaces is held on Water Street.
"There are plenty of tourists in D.C., but not enough spots for us to park our trucks. I'd say there are 75 good spots in this (the Capitol Hill) area, and God knows how many more vendors," says Johnson, as he makes a cherry snowball in the 110 degree heat of his truck.
"We could have 14 spots instead of the nine they allow us here at the Air and Space Museum, and everybody could make a decent living.... But they con't do it. Mayor Barry won't even let us in the parks anymore," he says.
"A lot of these people have a lot of money tied up in their trucks," says Johnson, who four years ago paid $10,000 to buy and equip his van with a cooler, freezer, refrigerator, stove and soda fountain.
"But you can't be feuding with your neighbors," says the Count. "You need them to watch your stand while you're away. The lack of space sometimes makes relations kind of strained."
Another problem, says Audri Jacobs, an artist from Wheaton, who sells original work and prints on Connecticut Avenue and I Street NW, "is the bureaucratic mishmash you have to go through just to get a license and follow the rules."
To pay her $15 license fee and do the necessary paper work, Jacobs says, she had to go through five different steps in two different buildings, one at 614 H. St. NW and the other at 300 Indiana Ave.
"I had to make 10 different phone calls to find out the hours they were open, and when I did find someone who could tell me, they weere wrong.... And when I finally found where to get a rule book, it turned out to be wrong, too," she says.
"Recently I've gotten two sets of directions in the mail about paying taxes. They're both conflicting, so I'm not sure what to do," she says.
And Jacobs says there is "no love lost," between vendors and store owners either. "They feel as though every dollar spent at one of our stands is a dollar not spent in their store. They watch us like hawks, and if they think we are violating a rule, they'll call the cops," she says.
If the police are summoned, and find a violation in table size or proximity, "they slap a $50 fine on you, no questions asked," says Lawrence.
"They hassle me all the time because of the type of merchandise I'm selling. They have the idea that I'm selling drugs on the side. I'm not, but I know that some people do," he says.
Goodwin says that, for the most part, the police are good to have around. "We're real open to being ripped off," he says.
"It doesn't happen much, but there are some shrewd operators out there - one favorite act is when you get two shoppers. One shops in earnest while the other scouts the table to see what you might not have on display. Then he asks you, and when you look under the table, they're gone with a handful of your goods."
Despite the problems, though, the vendors interviewed say they wouldn't give up their street-side gold mines for anything.
"You have more responsibility doing this than if you were just sitting at a desk pushing pencils. You're more in control and you're willing to work a lot harder for longer hours because the rewards are what you make them," says Goodwin. "If you aren't successful, you have no one to blame but yourself." CAPTION: Picture 1, Street vending is a $2 million annual business in Washington, and these food and souvenir stands near the Air and Space Museum are part of it. By James M. Thresher - The Washington Post; Picture 2, In the fight to get a choice vending site, Tim Robinson, left, stakes out a spot at 4 a.m. on Connecticut Ave. and K St. NW for a friend's flower stand. By Larry Morris - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Customers pick out souvenirs from a stand near the Air and pace Museum selling T-shirts, beer mugs. By James M. Thresher - The Washington Post; Picture 4, Souvenirs sold on the street include walking peanuts and "liberty bells." By James M. Thresher - The Washington Post