It was a long, hot, mean summer last year in 16-year-old James Webster's neighborhood in Southeast Washington.
"You couldn't walk out on the street without somebody trying to stick you up. Or they'd come up to you and ask you for money even if they didn't have no weapon. And you'd know you'd have to fight 'em. Either way someone was gonna come out all bruised up . . . " said Webster, who lives near Wheeler Road and Ninth Street SE.
"It be a pretty rough neighborhood . . . If you ain't got no money to give 'em, they'd tell you to take your shoes off . . . At night you'd go to sleep and hear people hollerin' and screamin' and the police always be comin' around."
Webster says he doesn't think he could take another summer like the last one, where all he had to do was hang around the streets, maybe play some basketball in the alleyways and empty lots along Wheeler Road and Southern Avenue. "I said to myself, 'I'm gonna get me a summer job.'"
Webster was one of about 5,000 teen-agers who showed up yesterday despite the snow and blistery cold at the D.C. Department of Labor to be among the earliest of applicants for the city's summer jobs program.
At one point during midday, the line for job applicants wound around two stairwells into the underground parking lot of the labor building at 500 C St. NW. And some youngsters and their parents had to wait as long as four hours to register for a summer job in one of the city's agencies, day care or recreation centers.
"We really had no idea so many would come," said William Ford, director of the city's Labor Department. It was the first time labor officials had tried using a mass registration centered in one location for the summer jobs program. "At one time, it was said this couldn't be done in the District of Columbia, that you just wouldn't be able to get the people out."
Advertisements for yesterday's registration were broadcast on radio and television. There will be another registration of the labor department next Saturday as well, Ford said.
The early mass registrations are part of an overall plan by city officials to avoid many of the problems that plagued the jobs program last year.
Last summer, many youths accepted into the jobs program had not been given their employment assignments by the date they were supposed to report to work. Youths were reporting to jobs each day where there was no work for them to do. Their paychecks were frequently late or made out for the wrong amount.
This year, said Adolph Slaughter, spokesman for the Labor Program, there is a staff of 18 people working on developing "meaningful" jobs in the private and public sector. A "payroll division" has been formed to devise a new system for keeping time and attendance records and distributing paychecks.
Slaughter said the city expects to provide between 18,000 and 20,000 jobs this summer for youths between the ages of 14 and 20.
Slaughter said, however, he expects less money to be available for the program this year -- $8.6 million through the federal Comprehensive Employment Training Act of (CETA) and $5 million from the D.C. budget.
He said the D.C. Board of Trade has taken over the process of finding jobs for youths in the private sector. Those jobs will be in addition to the 18,000 jobs in the public sector. "If every business in the city offered one job, we'd have jobs for an additional 17,000 kids," Slaughter said.
This is also the first year that parents must accompany their children to the registration and sign statements certifying the correct income level of family on their child's job application. Youngsters must meet certain economic criteria to be eligible for jobs paid for through city or CETA funds.
There are no similiar guidelines for youths employed in private businesses, although first preference is given to youngsters whose families are on public assistance or living below the national poverty level, according to manpower specialist Gloria Root.
Many of the youngsters at yesterday's registration had worked in summer jobs before. There was 16-year-old James Page who got up at 8 a.m. to take the subway from RFK Stadium in Southeast to the labor department to be one of the first in line. He had worked last year at a day care center in Southeast.
The wait to register, he said, "ain't never been this long." But he added, "I still want to work, no matter how long it takes."
He used the money he earned last summer to buy school clothes and sneakers, a sweat suit and a mouth guard so he could be on the wrestling team at Woodson High School.
Slaughter said youngsters can still sign up for summer employment any weekday at the small job service centers in each of the city's high schools.