The Pettus family's produce stand at the D.C. Farmer's Market off Florida Avenue NE is an oasis of calm in the midst of a garish visual riot -- the red of butchered meat, shelves full of brightly packaged supermarket fare, even a "head shop" featuring shiny green and red and blue waterpipes that sparkle across the jumbled arcade.
Betty Pettus and her 27-year-old son, Louis, dispense more subtly hued wares like collards and frilly mustard greens, pale cabbage and yellow-gold onions. And when asked, especially by longtime customers, Betty Pettus also dispenses advice. Yesterday's wisdom: Vote for Jimmy Carter.
"I didn't like Ronald Reagan as an actor, and I know I wouldn't like him as president," Pettus says, arranging a display of sweet potatoes. "I don't like the way he talks. I just don't like his conversation."
The conventional wisdom holds that this year's presidential election is a snoozer, a noncontest no one much cares about. But Betty Pettus and the black, essentially lower middle-class customers who buy her produce say they care a great deal. She concedes that she has found the election somewhat depressing, but believes it makes a real difference who gets chosen on Nov. 4.
"I think Reagan is a racist," she says, though no specific action that the Republican nominee has even taken has led her to that conclusion. It's what she perceives as a pattern -- the endorsement of Reagan by a faction of the Ku Klux Klan, his anti-government rhetoric and pledges to cut back on social programs, a vague feeling that he would make things worse.
And Carter? "I feel he's just about as good as anybody," Pettus says. "A president can't just move mountains. Time brings about a change."
Pettus was born during the Depression. Her father, now retired, was a preacher who supported his family in Northeast Washington with a job at the Government Printing Office. Betty Pettus is a tall, proud woman with streaks of silver in her dark hair and rock-solid Christianity in her heart. "I put God in front of everything I do," she says. "You've just got to pray. You've got to live 'til you die, right? And you've got to be happy while you're here."
William Hawkins, also of Northeast Washington, steps up to buy some greens. Betty Pettus weighs them in a hanging scale, and Louis makes change out of his pocket, a process that seems anachronistic in a world of laser-triggered cash registers and Universal Product Codes. Hawkins also plans to vote for Carter.
"You want to know the truth? Neither one of them is worth a damn," he says. "But I'll still have to go with Carter. Carter hasn't done anythng, but Reagan in my opinion would do less."
Hawkins, 48, works as a skycap at National Airport. He is an Army veteran, and his greatest criticism of Carter is his failure to win release of the hostages in Iran. "That was our biggest deal in a long time, and he flopped it," Hawkins says. "He had to send the raggediest equipment we've got" for the aborted rescue attempt last spring. Hawkins says he has no reason to believe current efforts to free the hostages will be any more successful.
Still, he fears a Reagan presidency. "He's made a few statements about black people I don't like," Hawkins says, though he can't be more specific. "And he's going to cut the programs out that are most beneficial to black people. He wants to cut Social Security.Everybody knows that when you work all your life, you depend on Social Security to get you through."
"Why is it that all of a sudden Ronald Reagan says he understands black people?" asks Virginia Sims, a young D.C. woman awaiting her turn at the counter. "He never understood us before."
A slender woman in neatly pressed blue jeans with skin the color of mahogany and a blue scarf around her head approaches the Pettus produce stand. "I don't have a thing to do with politics," she says. "I don't know a thing about it one way or the other. I don't vote," She declines to give her name.
"Did you hear that?" Betty Pettus asks. "That's the saddest thing. 'No, I don't vote.' Well, you've got to do what you can do. It's so sad, especially the men who don't vote and don't know a thing about politics. They are supposed to be the breadwinner. It's a sad world."
"You know," she continues, "most people think we're Democrats just because we're black. But I have a mind of my own. I try to keep myself briefed."
She says the decision by black leader Ralph Abernathy to endorse Reagan has had no real impact on her thinking. "Mr. Abernathy and all are supposed to be educated people, and I can't match them for education. But I just think they made a bad decision. If Reagan gets in, what's he going to do but promise? How many others have promised? I was born in the Depression, and as far as I'm concerned, this is a depression for me. When are we going to get rich?"
Mark Smith, a 64-year-old post office worker from Oxon Hill in town to do some shopping, eyes cuts of beef at the meat counter in the next stall. "Reagan did a good job in California for rich whites," he says. I don't think he did much of anything for blacks."
Louis Pettus hasn't said much. He is a quiet, hefty man who functions as a second pair of arms for his mother, lifting heavy crates, making change, waiting on customers when things get busy. He finally opens up, explaining that he started accompanying his mother and grandmother to the market when he was eight years old. "You used to be able to make a good living here, a good living. Now, it ain't so good."
He, too supports Carter. "I think Reagan is a prejudiced man," he says. I wouldn't vote for him. No use making things worse, that's what I say."