They are gathered on a corner, full of youthful certainty and exuberance. Well dressed.

Street smart. As they put it, "clean." And drunk, at least some of them.

They are seven. High-school age boys who, if they had not dropped out, would be juniors and seniors.

Going to school interfered with their main activities -- hanging and drinking -- and when they had to make some choices, school lost.

They are not official drop-outs yet, but are what school systems call "hardcore truants." They go to school when they have to, when it comes to someone's attention that they haven't been around for a while. But that does not happen often.

"Look around," one says. "School ain't like where it's happening. It's got so the ones who go to school ain't got no better chance than the ones who decide to break out.

"You talked to anybody about gettin' a job lately? About gettin' out of D.C.? About gettin ANYwhere?" He opens a vinyl attache case and pulls out a small, wood-grain plastic flask filled with a dark rum. Bacardi, he points out proudly. Someone passes him a can of Coke with a paper cup on top. Mixing the two, he lifts the cup to his mouth and gives a visitor a cold, cynical stare.

"Cheers, baby."

He is not an alcoholic, not yet. But the signs are not good. He and his friends all drink heavily and a few are constantly teased for being "one sip wonders." They get drunk faster and with less alcohol than the others. Eventually, they could become part of the ever increasing number of black alcoholics.

"Alcoholism in young people is a great masquerader," Dr. Karl Hammonds, a D.C. preditrician, warns. "Often, it may be diagnosed as something else because the appearance of a youthful drinker is going to be very different from the guy whose been out there on the streets for 10 to 20 years. But it's definitely a problem, even among elementary school-aged children."

Robbie is one of the kids on the corner of Martin Luther King Avenue and Talbert Street SE. He is 17, but he had his first drink 10 years ago. His mother gave it to hime because her six children and their clamor were too much for her. "There were too many kids in that apartment," he explains matter of factly, "and too much noise."

As he got older, he went to the kitchen cabinent and got the liquor for himself. When he was about 13 he began to drink regularly with older boys who used fake IDs to buy whiskey or who'd entreat a willing adult to get it for them.

"I always loved getting high," he says. "It's great to just not be thinking about what's going to happen to me, where am I going to go, will I get a job, you know . . . all of that. It's just too f----d up to be thinking about all the time."

In his group, display and flash are everything. It's important to be seen drinking and just as important to be drinking the right -- that is, good quality -- liquor.

Looking good counts, and so does keeping everyone quessing where the money comes from. They do not deny suggestions that the money might come from petty theft and drug-dealing.

They are wearing jeans with fancy labels, expensive shirts and t-shirts, and each one sports a more expensive running shoe than the next.

But they are as depressed as they are sophisticated on the surface.

"I just feel like I can't make it, no matter what I do," says Jimmie, peeking around the corner of the building where his group hangs. He's just "checking to see what's going down out there," he explains.

"I ain't heard of nobody who could overcome being a poor black man and living in Southeast," he says, returning to the conversation, "unless they play basketball or something. I was never tall enough . . ."

Jimmie is about 5 feet 5, but after three shots of gin he fancies himself "a real Dr. J."

The kids say they feel trapped. Hopeless. Locked into a time warp of despair and poverty which seemingly has no end. Each of them, in his own way, has found an escape through drink, and the unlucky slowly start preferring an alcohol-induced haze to real life.

They laugh, nudge each other, and brag a little as they tell tales of who drank how much of what, who passed out, who got sick and who got laid.

None sees drinking as a problem.

"Alcoholic," Keith repeats through his laughter. "Not likely I'll turn into an alcoholic unless I wake up tomorrow and find out that I'm a white lawyer uptown or something."

His drinking buddies are highly amused by the remark, and a loud burst of laughter follows.

A school guidance counselor explains their attitude. "They don't view drinking as a problem," she says, "because society doesn't present it to them that way.

"I couldn't tell you exactly how many kids miss school because they're too drunk or too hung over, but I'm sure the numbers are great . . .

"The problem with other drugs, pot, pills, is worse. Those are the things that they'll do right here in school. I've called parents whose kids were caught drinking and they've said, 'Oh thank God he isn't smoking pot at least."

"You see, as long as alcohol isn't regarded as a drug, as long as it's legal and the parents use it, how are you going to tell these children that it could destroy them?"

Back on the corner, they are all buying drinks for Keith, whose 29-year-old cousin died two days before. Keith says his cousin was like an older brother, and had made him feel better about not having a father. Keith's mother was single when he was born, and never told him who his dad was.

Ironically, Keith's cousin had died of cirrhosis.

Keith is cloaked in the kind of jumpiness that doctors say often accompanies serious depression. His friends all think he'll be all right if he just keeps drinking. He isn't so sure, but he blindly accepts the liquor as it comes his way. No one wants a turn at gin that's being passed around, so he holds onto it, pouring some into a half-full bottle of 7-Up.

He rationalizes his drinking to a buystander slowly, in slurred speech.

"I have to go to the funeral home tonight and look at something I don't want to see. Have to be tough, This'll help me get in shape."

Barely able to support himself against the dirty brick wall, he closes his eyes, leans back, and takes another drink.