It's 7 a.m. on Connecticut Avenue and K Street NW. The early morning coolness has already given way to a sticky haze, but a small army is ready to do battle with the heat, exhaust fumes and the excruciating desire to play several rounds of hoop.
Its members form the ever-growing band of teen-aged street vendors, a horde of junior high and high school students who solved their summer employment problems by employing themselves -- sort of -- as youthful hawkers of fruit, vegetables, flowers, belts and juices.
"I really kind of wanted to be a maintenance man, but I settled for this," Ken Stewart, 16, a Wilson High School junior, said from his oasis at 16th and K streets NW.
He peered out from behind the wall of potted vegetation he manages in this street-corner branch of Tropical Plants of Georgetown, a job he found through persistent perusal of the daily want ads.
"I like plants," he said, "and, well, on some days we've made as much as $750 (per day) back-to-back. My commission is about 25 percent."
Across the street, Mike Rolnick, 15 1/2, plys a brisk trade in fruit salad from a stand that he and a family friend, Michael Haberman, put together. Haberman, a student at Brandeis University, decided to start the stand, Rolnick said, "when he saw that the fruit market wasn't being done."
The two of them work three days a week each. They get up at 5:30 a.m. to cut up fruit and hotfoot it downtown by 6:30 a.m. to ensure that they find a good location in the thickly vended downtown area.
"It's really just sitting around," he said, "and it's better than minimum wage. On good days we take in $80 or $90, on bad days when it rains, maybe $40. I get 20 percent. It's only hard on the voice.
Kaki Blevins cast a slightly less mercenary eye on her flower and houseplant stand on Capitol Hill. "The best part about vending," she said, "is being outside and getting a good suntan."
For this group of largely middle-classed teen-agers, a combination of luck and hard work has resulted in well-paying employment in a summer when many of their friends have nothing to do. Those who work hard enough and are savvy enough may earn more than the $3.10 an hour minimum wage.
They can assume large slices of entreprenuerial independence without many of the burdens of actual business ownership.
And, ulike their adult counterparts, teen-aged vendors do not, as a ruld, have to worry about obtaining supplies, applying for permits, getting carts inspected and so on.
Although city vending regulations require that self-employed vendors be at least 18 years old, the laws do allow younger enterpreneurs to peddle under the wing of an adult sponsor.
Hank's Flower Company, of 1231 G St. NW, employs 14-year-old flower salesmen Roderick Houser and Timothy Porter and 15-year-old Charles Davis. It is typical of a number of businesses which hire younger sales people. A driver for Hank's takes responsibility for getting the vendors to work and back and for setting up their stands.
"We need the younger people," Jimmy Malone, a driver and shop manager of Hank's said. "They're smarter than adults at figuring out how to make a buck."
The boys, positioned at their K Street stations, appreciate the job for a variety of reasons.
"I like to get out of the house," said Timothy, with a scratch at his scarred and hard-driven adolescent knees.
"I like it 'cause I can meet more women!," adds puckish Charles, immediately calling to a parade of bemused passing women, "Hey, slick! Hey there, slim!"
For industrious Southeast resident Roderick, the job is a lucrative break from his more arduous job as a custodian. From 9 a.m. to noon he cleans floors, then takes a three-hour break until he starts his flower shift.
He might take from $11 to $20 a day home. "It's ups-and-downs money," he explained.
But the money also represents a bridge to a goal. Roderick wants to start his own band and buy all of the equipment himself. "Then if that don't work out, I want to be an architect," he said with youthful enthusiasm.
Local business support and parental assistance seem to be the biggest factors in helping younger vendors find their jobs.
David Goldstein, owner of Tropical Plants of Georgetown, who employs Ken Stewart, said, "I'd hire a high school student any time, even though business has been falling off lately. They just seem to have the energy and the enthusiasm to stand out on the pavement all day."
Jimmy Malone said the practice was just plain good business. "Put out an adult (on the street) and people will walk away. Put out a kid and people will buy. People are drawn to a young kid."
Eric Freeman, 14, and his cousin Mike Fite, 16, operate in front of the Farragut North Metro station on L Street a fruit juice stand that Eric's dad, William, built and financed for them. The father seemed almost more excited about it than the boys did.
"I thought it was a good idea to give them work for the summer," the elder Freeman explained, ducking under the green beach umbrella that is the stand's only refuge from the blazing afternoon sun. "They were both eager to work." The boys exchanged disbelieving looks.
"And the idea was to teach them marketing skills," he continued, "the philosophy of selling, basic administration."
"We had nothing to do, so we decided to come out here and make some money," the tall, wiry Eric said. He added, "If we break even, he'll give us the business."
The vendors occasionally are disgruntled by the long hours, the inconsistent pay and the agony of separation from their lounging friends. But some parents occasionally are surprised by the eagerness with which the young vendors discuss profit margins, the state of the market and break-even points.
And many of these young traders said they might try hitting the streets again next summer.
Debbie Petrovic, sitting behind her belt-and-buckle stand, said, "This job's better than being a waitress." After a pause, she added, "but maybe next summer I'll get a better job. Next summer I'll look sixteen."