It's early afternoon and 103 degrees. A teen-ager, about 14, bounces a tennis ball on the crumbling pavement in front of the projects along 57th Street SE. Three more youths about the same age are sitting nearby, crowded together on concrete wall under a small shade tree, smoking cigarettes and talking.
As a car approaches, the 14-year-old catches the driver's attention, thrusting his hand in the air, flashing five fingers like a neon sign. "Gold! Gold!" one of the others yells. Up the street, an older group of men attract the same car, gracefully fanning their fingers in the air to the beat of the rhythm-and-blues on radio station WOL. Their call is the same -- "Gold! Gold! Wacky (weed)!"
They're drug dealers. their stock in trade: "nickel" ($5) of marijuana, angel dust or PCP. Some sell heroin.
They work the streets, cutting through the poverty-ridden East Capitol Dwellings every day -- Clay Terrace, 57th Street, 57th Place, Southern Avenue. In the summer, most prefer the night shift from dusk until about 2 a.m. because it's cooler and more profitable.
They congregate in the projects from all over the metropolitan area. The fact that police are easy to elude, the prime location and the fabric of the community make conducting their business relatively easy.
East Capitol Dwellings, in the easternmost point of the District, officers them a strategic location for attracting drug buyers from Maryland as well as the District. The area is ideal dealers say, because they can duck the police by disappearing through the labyrinthine dark alleys and nearby woods.
And at least equally conductive are the people who live here -- about 3,500 on the city's lowest economic rungs, in households averaging five to seven persons, most headed by women on public assistance -- who are trapped in what residents call "the forgotten area." They are poor and, generally, afraid.
Most don't dare-confront the dealers. Instead, they do the safest thing -- lock their doors and, as much as possible, ignore the drug activity all around the unless it affects them directly.
The dealers minor drug pushers, out to make the rent money, take home some change or just keep some cash in their pockets.
They and the East Capitol community are locked in an unasy relationship, both trying to survive in their own way. Last weekend, they talked about their parallel lives -- most on a first-name basis.
"I've got three kids and a wife to support," Edward, 28, a 1969 Eastern High School graduate told a reporter. He was on the streets trying to make his car payment.
He uses his drug profits to supplement the meager income he earns frmm a job with a trucking company, he said.
"If I come out here (53rd Street and Clay Terrace SE, near Prince George's County) every day from 9:30 (a.m.) to about 4 (p.m.), I'll make about $150 to $200." Business is even better on the "night shift," between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., he said.
He's saving the money from his combined incomes to finance "getting out of the projects and moving to a nice Maryland neighborhood where I can raise my kids," he says. "I don't want my kids to have to do this."
Edward says he's lucky to have a job. Few of the dealers do. Most are like Michael, 24, who dropped out of school after the 10th grade.
Dresed in a pair of faded jeans and dripping with sweat, Michael says drug dealing is his means of making money "until I get a steady job. With a job I would get off this corner," he says. He and the other dealers say they never stop trying to find jobs. They ask their working friends about job openings, too they say, but for most, no jobs are available.
One dealer, an 18-year-old Woodson Senior High School student, says the only reason he sells marijuana is because he can't find legitimate work. "If I had a job, I wouldn't have to be here."
He's holding about 10 tiny envelopes of marijuana accordion-like in his right hand. "You think I like being out here doing this, he asks, "when I know I can go to jail for it?"
Community residents say that aside from being public nuisance, the dealers pose a threat to their families' safety.
About three times a week, gun shots and loud arguments explode from the heated competition among drug dealers and street corner gamblers, another neighborhood nuisance.
"Me and my kids have to run for shelter (from shooting) many times," says a women who lives near a broken-glass- and litter-strewn playground where drug dealers and junkies gather to get high, gamble and watch pick-up basketball games.
The dealers gather in groups in front of residents' homes; passing cars slow down looking for favorite salesmen. "It's like a drive-in McDonald's, a 40-year-old mother of three school-age boys says.
Every night 20 to 30 dealers line the streets of her neighborhood dealing drugs to passing cars, she said. At times the traffic is so heavy, she complains, "you have to wait in line to find a space to park your car."
She and other residents have done more than complain. Last December the community organized anit-drug protests which drove the dealers away temporarily. Community residents marched with picket signs through the neighborhood, warming themselves by portable heaters to keep to their vigil.
But most residents are afraid to challenge the drug pushers. Some who overcame their fear have suffered reprisals. Two years ago, a youth threw a fire bomb into the home of a woman who had taken a stand against drug dealing in her front yard. Her daugher, then eight, suffered second- and third-degree burns which left permanent scars on her face, hands and legs. She filed charges, and says that to the best of her knowledge, the man is in jail.
The drug problem has been escalating for about five years, East Capitol residents say.
"It's easier to sell drugs up here than in Northwest," one 21-year-old dealer explained.Their East Capitol location, situated near the Prince George's County line, is hilly and at strategic spots dealers can see police vehicles approaching far in advance.
Many times a dealer will put his merchandise in a paper bag and stash it behind him in shubbery so that if police were somehow to catch him by surprise, he would have only enough marijuana to fill about five joints.
Dealers know they can be arrested with as much as two pounds of marijuana in their possession without having to face felony charges. Thus, a dealer can be arrested, charged with misdemeanor drug possession, released and back in the community selling drugs within a few hours.
Police and residents are frustrated because it is so easy for drug dealers to get back on the streets.
"The guys selling drugs out here feel they don't have anything to lose," a 42-year-old East Capitol resident said. (He started to give his name, but a woman onlooker warned him against it.)
"They know how much time and parole they'll get for the amount of herb (marijuana) they're caught with," he continued. "They even know exactly what the judge will say to them. Drugs is their meal ticket. They have to be professionals, you see."
Most of the dealers are from outside the projects. "There's no question that the vast majority of the dealers are from outside the comminity," 28-year-old Wayne Lockett, a youth leader for the D.C. Department of Housing and Comminity Development, said. "They come from Maryland and as far away as far Northwest D.C."
He said they invade the projects if they're moved out of other areas in the city.
Sixth District police confirm that. Police say they need help from residents in the community to curb the drug traffic.
"We receive less than two complaints each month," Sgt. Darryl Harris, of the Sixth District vice squad, said."There's a tendency to forget about areas like that as long as there are no complaints and no tips on what's going on."
Harris said although most of the drug buyers are from other areas, some community residents support the drug dealers by buying their merchandise. What's neded to eliminate the problem, he said, is 24-hour police surveillance, but the necessary force just isn't available.
The seeming futility of arresting people on minor drug possession charges against the drug dealers leave police feeling they're fighting a lost cause, Harris said.
The lifestyle the drug dealers and users present to the kids in the neighborhood is a further problem, Lockett said. Born in the East Capitol area, he still lives there, devoting much of his time coordinating activities for the youth in his community.
"These kids need someone to show them how to make it without turning to crime. They need skills so they'll be able to earn a decent living," he said.
"Youth unemployment, which is more than 50 percent in this far southeast area, complicates the problem."A lot of kids get summer jobs only because they have relatives or friends in the right positions," Lockett said. "These kids don't have that clout."
Lack of support from city officials is a further complication, he added. "It's been more than four years since we've had a 24-hour community center around here." The center, run by the city, closed after administrative and funding problems. It was extremely beneficial to youths, he said, nearly all of whom now have hour after hour of idle time of their hands.
When he was a student at Woodson High School, Lockett said, he attended activities at the 24-hour center.
"There were counselors and training facilities to help young people learn reading skills, learn how to apply for jobs, go through interviews (and) apply for college and government grants." Lockett said the East Capitol community has a desperate need for such a center.
"Without that center," Lockett said, surveying his environment, "me and a lot of other dudes would be just like those drug pushers out there now."