As soon as I was big enough to get a job, and save me some money, and buy me a ticket and catch the first thing smoking, I left. And I made a promise that if they could just keep the thought out of my mind, I'd keep my feet out of the city limits." -- Singer Lou Rawls from the monologue, "Southside Blues/Tobacco Road"

After 21 years, my mother is still in the same place. What I see here is like a plague. Once you move down here -- I don't know if it's the white man, society, oppression or what -- the only time you can do better is when you get out."

--Ricardco Edwards, 21-year resident of Greenleaf Gardens Housing Project in Southwest Washington

"I don't want to die in Greenleaf Gardens." -- Delores Dawkins, Ricardco Edwards' mother

Delores Dawkins describes April 16 as the day "my world turned to living hell," the day the 24-year-old son she knows still loves her threatened to kill her with the kitchen butcher knife and later with a baseball bat.

She didn't know which of several drugs -- cocaine, angel dust or what -- had taken hold of Ricardco. He'd been dabbling with them all. But early that morning, a plesant, and routine, mother-and-son conversation suddenly turned into a horror that lasted several hours until the drug's effects wore off.

In the days that followed, he threatened to kill her several times. After the attack with the baseball bat, Dawkins remembered, she stood frightened and angry in the entrance between her kitchen and living room waving a long meat fork and told her son, "Before I let anybody else kill you, because I gave birth to you, I will kill you myself." Her son then left the house and Dawkins borrowed her daughter's Metro flash pass and headed downtown to file charges against him.

He was arrested and later served six months in jail.

Dawkins' story, more than one woman's song of woe, symbolizes the anguish of many mothers in Washington whose children take drugs or sell drugs and wind up in trouble.

Four days after Dawkins son threatened her, police shot and killed a 28-year-old northeast Washington man who apparently under the influence of the hallucinogen drug PCP, slashed his mother across the chest and back with a broken Coke bottle. A month before, another mother, Ada Griffith, suffered sleepless nights and worried days while police stalked and later shot and killed her son Bruce Wazon Griffith, a small-time drug dealer and alleged cop killer.

"Any mother going through this will understand what I'm talking about," said Dawkins, a deeply religious woman. "She better get help for her son. If you are not in the grace of God, you will be dead."

While theirs is a story of one neighborhood, Southwest Washington's Greenleaf Gardens projects between I and M and Second and Third streets, Dawkins and her son reflect life in many low-income, drug-riddled pockets of the nation's capital -- Potomac Gardens, Washington Highlands, parts of Shaw and the 14th Street corridor, and other neighborhoods.

Drug use and drug traffic, overcrowding in rundown housing and rampant unemployment here paint a picture that mirrors the others, social workers say. Aimless frustration and despair often follow.

Half the young adults and more than half the teen-agers who live in the Greenleaf Gardens area are unemployed. Young people growing up here are more likely to be killed by a playmate than a passing car, according to police statistics. Most families lose fathers to violent death, prison or abandonment. Drug traffic and drug usage, increasing here as much as in other areas of the city, contribute to escalating crime city-wide.

It is here that Dawkin's son lived for 21 years, the latter years angry, insecure and unemployed. Her other children found escapes through marriage or education that eventually landed them jobs. But Ricardco, a seventh grade Jefferson Junior High school dropout whom Dawkins described as sensitive and emotional, turned to drugs.

Ricardco Edwards says, "I have nightmares now, bad memories of the past. I can't seem to get them out of my head. I've got to get out of here, I've got to get my mother and my family out of this neighborhood. That's the only way we're going to make it."

In her living room, sparsely furnished with a blue crushed-velvet couch and chair and family snapshots on the walls, Dawkins listens to her son, small-statured and looking older than his years. She watches as he paces back and forth, fighting off thoughts that he said could easily make him plummet into depression. Edwards spends his days languishing in an environment he has come to despise.

"I keep telling you to keep your head up, you're not a criminal, you've got nothing to be ashamed of," she tells him, as the two try to accomodate an interviewer. "I got faith in you son, I trust you." It has been about a week since his release from D.C. jail on a misdemeanor conviction for threatening her life.

Dawkins, a stout woman with a penchant for recalling times and dates, doesn't like to talk about the details of the incidents because they make her son relive painful events. But she agreed to the interview in hope that the publicity might help him find a job and with it, self-respect.

"I never wanted him to be prosecuted,she said. "Under the influence of drugs, he's a danger to himself and to others. I called drug abuse agencies, I called the hospitals and I called the police. The police said the only way they could take him was if he hurt somebody or committed a crime, which sounded like they were telling him to hurt somebody. What he was doing seem like he was begging for help . . . This boy is fighting for his life and now I am fighting, too."

"I remember the day when the judge sentenced him," she said. "Ricky was so strung out that he pleaded guilty even though I refused to prosecute. The judge asked me to approach the bench and said he was doing this for Ricardco's own good and for me because of my heart condition. He wanted Ricardco to see what [jail life] would be like if he continued the way he was going."

"Dawkins, 49, a mother of six who raised her family on social security payments after her husband died 16 years ago, is a volunteer at D.C. General Hospital's data control center where she processes Medicaid forms. She hopes the training she gets will eventually help her find a job.

"I don't want to die in Greenleaf Gardens," she said.

Her volunteer work at D.C. General, located a few hundred yards from the D.C. jail helped her feel closer to her son while he was being held.

"I used to sit on a bench outside the hospital at 4 a.m., even though I didn't start work until 9 a.m., just thiking and looking at the jail where Ricardco was for 180 days, 32 hours and 22 seconds," she said. "Ricky has a good heart. I asked God to put a shield around him.

"I've seen changes and a big improvem ent in him since he's been home from jail." Dawkins said. "But he's back here where it all started. He's got no job and nothing to do. Idle hands are the Devil's workshop."

As he walks outside, Edwards sees constant reminders of what they do not have just across the street from his M Street project home. He sees landscaped, expensive high-rise apartments and condominiums filled with possessions of people who make more money in a day than many welfare families see in a month. Glass shards litter weedstrewn yards, sidewalks and parking lots where barefoot children play, and young adults sit idly on splintered wooden benches in a small park a block away.

"When I was in jail, I prayed to come home, to get out," Edwards said. But now that I am home, I am not happy."

His mother's $86-a-month, four-bedroomapartment, tidy though dingy and decrepit, suffers from want of paint, screens, and a bedroom door for privacy. The plumbing often doesn't work. In the winter, they sometimes have gone for weeks without hot water and days without heat, and in summer, mosquitoes buzz through screenless windows. Legions of roaches reign in Dewkins' roost, in cupboards, on walls and on floors where Dawkins and a visitor casually squished several underfoot during an interview.

Dawkins complains about the conditions, but not too much, because, "If they kick me out of this place I have nowhere to go." She receives $216 a month in social security payments for her 5-year-old daughter and $180 in welfare herself. Her adult children, including Ricardco, who has been unemployed for about two years, come home to live when there is nowhere else to go. "I can never close my doors to my children," she said. Edwards feels bad about not being able to help her.

"I know what it's like to be poor and down in the gutter," Edwards said, pausing to watch two teen-agers examine a Coke bottle with a bee trapped inside. "I now how it looks to carry yourself like a rich person, I've been around people like that, and I can see it on TV. After 21 years, my mother is still in the same place. What I see here is like a plague. Once you move down here -- I don't know if it's the white man, society, oppression or what -- the only time you can do better is when you get out."

"There are so many pressures on people in this community," Edwards said. "You can't find a job, and if you do, it's washing dishes or doing maintenace. "At the same time, you can have a buddy in the street, doing ordinary street hustling, selling dope or whatever, who can make a couple hundred dollars in just a few hours. There are so many pressures on you just to survive in this community. I know that I have a long life span ahead of me, but man, this place will kill you."

At Greenleaf Gardens, mounting tensions are the tinder that explode with the least, often unrelated, spark. Residents of the projects frequently strike out at the nearest and closest person -- stranger, relative or friend.

"With any group of people living under depressed conditions, you have people turning on each other," said Rae Williams, a social worker at Southwest House, a community social agency that serves the Greenleaf Gardens area. "If you are sitting in that kind of situation, anybody can be your enemy. They are also taking up the space and the room. It isn't necessary that you don't like them. They are just the closest ones to take out the frustrations."

"These kids suffer from bad influences and nothing to do," said Laretta Acty, an southeast Anacostia social worker who lived in southwest Washington for 28 years. "Idleness leads to the type of behavior that we see projected now. They can't go any higher [up the economic ladder] because everywhere they go they are rejected. If yu don't have education or skills, you don't have anything to offer the commercial world.

"Black people today are just holding on to faith," she said.

Social worker Williams thinks "the trapped feeling is something that must be an awful situation to live with all your life. They see fathers or parents trapped. They go to school and teachers are trying to teach them something that doesn't make sense to them. They know people on the streets with education who don't seem to be getting anywhere.

"Someone says 'Get a skill,' but there is no money for the skill," Williams said. "It takes money for tools and fees to get into an apprenticeship or union, you have to have good transportation to get to a job and it goes on and on."

"I've got a 5-year-old son that I have to take care of," said Edwards. "Jobs are important because with women at home, and with no job or one that pays so little, it's hard for men to be men.

"I want a job, I want a wife, I want to take care of my 5-year-old and I want to have an apartment," said Edwards. "I want a job that won't fold on me, a job with security, with a future."

His jobs skills include welding and upholstery, something he learned during a stint at an Opportunities Industrialization Center. Edwards said he has stopped taking all drugs except prescribed medication for anxiety and a nervous condition. He worries that his jail sentence, though for a misdemeanor, may hinder his job prospects.

Privately, his mother says she is worried that he may be tempted to return to drugs because the pressures he thought he left behind still exist.

"The pressures here are horrendous," Edwards said. "I took drugs: cocaine, pot, angel dust, to make me feel numb, to escape the pressures of living in this place. There was no one to talk to, no one to turn to, to help me be strong."

"Even now, I get discouraged just looking at this place," he said, frowning and gesturing around him. "I try to walk with my head up, but there is always something . . . something to bring me down."