The guy they call "Old Man" pivoted and twisted his long, lean body. He arched his arm and lobbed a hook shot, which swished through the hoop and brought smiles on young men's faces.
"All right, Old Man," said one of the young ones, as he backslapped 40-year-old Conway Smith, who was huffing and sweating like the best of them on the outdoor court at Melvin's Crab House and Sea Lounge, a brick and cinderblock shotgun shack on the Maryland side of Eastern Avenue.
Smith laughed, mumbled something about retiring and joined a dozen hell-raising others for swigs of beer at the picnic table beside Melvin's and the basketball court, twin focal points for a little known, some say forgotten, community that straddles the far northeastern boundary between Washington and Maryland.
"The rich folks go to their little bars downtown and sip cocktails," said Dwight Jones, 26, recently unemployed and a longtime Deanwood resident. "We sip beers at Melvin's. They go to their country clubs and play golf, or maybe tennis. We come to Melvin's and play basketball. You could call this place the poor man's country club."
The unemployed start gathering at Melvin's around 1 p.m. and are joined late in the afternoon by bricklayers, carpenters, electricians and other handy men. They buy their beer inside and stand or sit on weathered wooden benches at the building's edge and the nearby, always bustling basketball court built by proprietor Melvin Roberts.
On this day, there is Darrick Willis, 32, a Detroit electrician and construction worker who comes here each year for his two-week vacation. He sits with Jones, unemployed but yearning for the college degree that will help him feel better about himself.
There are also regulars like Anderson (Andy) Wiggins, a meatcutter and a father who worries that the lack of recreation activities and facilities will create situations in which youngsters like his own son might eventually turn to crime.
And Armedd (The Bull) McIntosh, a quiet, scraggly bearded 38-year-old dropout and Vietnam vet who briefly listens to the banter but then goes back to his crossword puzzle. He spends his day doing odd jobs for beer change, beating his buddies at chess and working newspaper crossword puzzles.
They come here for the comforting camaraderie that chases off the demons of uncertainty frustration and despair that sometimes overwhelm in times of unemployment, inflation and the hellacious daily grind.
They come to Melvin's for basketball, beer and sympathy; for steamed crabs and spiced shrimp; for a warm handshake from the buddies they grew up with whose mommas knew their mommas and some for the daily Maryland lottery ticket. Melvin writes the winning number on the blackboard tacked to the street light on the corner.
Melvin caters to a mostly black and blue-collar crowd that is an easy-going world apart from the three-piece suits and stuffed briefcases, towering office buildings and red brick row houses of hurried, downtown Washington. They'll be the first to tell you "this ain't Georgetown" and raise a can of beer and say they're damn proud of it.
Melvin's ramshackle crab house is at the mid-court of two communities -- Deanwood in the District and Fairmount Heights in Maryland -- that are such a peculiar mixture of rural Maryland and urban Washington they really look like neither. Paved roads and running water didn't come to Deanwood until 25 years ago, half a century after they were standard in downtown Washington. Parts of Fairmount Heights are just now getting paved roads.
Old folks still grow corn and beans and raise chickens in the back yards of detached cinderblock homes covered with aluminum siding. Their new neighbors, or sometimes their more prosperous children, live in suburban-style, split-level, detached red brick homes with El Dorados and Monte Carlos parked outside. Neighbors are better known for their nicknames -- Goose, Buddy, Pig -- and young boys grow up to marry their sixth grade sweethearts.
"For many of us, this is home court," said Smith, a Metro bus drivewr with salt and pepper hair who grew up a black away from Melvin's basketball court. "I live in Adelpi because it's most like California where I used to live -- tree-lined streets, a racially mixed community and nice homes.
"I've lived in several places but I feel safer here than anywhere else," said Smith, father of five, who moved to California, but returned to recuperate after a serious accident and never went back. "You can't yell 'Hey man, bring me a beer!' across the street to your neighbor in Adelphi, Md. You can come here every day see the same people, people who were kids with you and now their children play basketball with you, too."
Smith wiped his brow and joined the others at the picnic bench to gab and wtach perspiring men pump setshots and loft lay-ups in poetic motion.
"My father knew Melvin's father who sold coal and wood right here on this lot," said R. J. (Ronnie Jenkins, 24), his comments competing with the loud talk of others and the ball bounce and shoe-scuffle sounds on the basketball court. He works part time for Melvin, full time as a secruity; guard for the Marriott Corp.
"Melvin took the place over when his father died, later opened up the crab house and seven of us in my family at various times have worked for him at this crab house," R. J. said. "This place is like a circle, people go all round here but come back to Melvin's. You look for people here, and if somebody's been missing, someone's going to start asking questions."
"What Melvin has done is help bring people together," said "Old Man" Smith, who remembers the days when a step across Eastern Avenue either way was an invitation for a fight with those who lived on the other side. "When I was growing up, all we had was dirt fields. You would stomp your feet twice and that would be your screen. Melvin's father let us use the field where he kept some of the coal and wood."
According to his friends who tease him incessantly, Melvin threatens to take away the basketballs or turn out the lights when he loses a bet or a ball game.
Melvin, who laughs a deep, gravelly-voiced "Heh, heh, heh," says he paid for the court because he loves playing basketball and knew the court would be good for the community. "Teams are serious business in Washington," he said. "These people play for keeps."
Although Melvin doesn't say it, it's also good for business.
Crab house regulars say thousands of people gather on steamy summer evenings to watch without charge as basketball teams from recreation centers and neighborhood clubs all over the area come to Deanwood for annual tournaments. They gather on the benches eating Melvin's spiced shrimp, drinking beer and cheering favorite teams.
Sometimes, as folks will quickly tell you, these games draw the big names: University of Maryland coach Lefty Drisell and players like "Mod" Howard, formerly of Maryland, Moses Malone of the Houston Rockets and Northeast Washington's own Ed Spriggs, a junior at Georgetown University.
Melvin hosts a charity tournament as well, last year raising $6,000 he said, for the Woodson Sr. High School recreation center.
Meanwhile, over at the benches, Smith tells a visitor his wife is white and heads turn toward him in curiosity. This is the same man they've been playing ball with for years and this is news to some.
"I want to know how your kids are handling this," said Charles Stewart, stocky, with dark brown curly hair. Smith tells him his kids handle it just fine, when anyone asks them what they are, they say mulatto.
"That shuts the other kids up because they don't know what mulatto is," Smith said.
"But, what I mean is, is this a heavy thing for them?" asked Stewart, his body language intimating he knows something about the situation.
"My father is black, and my mother is German, and she's as white as the president," Stewart said. "When I was in school, I had to fight everyday because of that. Things were okay as long as mother didn't come to school. But when she did, that messed things up. Kids started calling me "whitey" and I had to fight 'cause I wasn't going to be a pushover."
The bench crowd grew bigger, and Stewart told them how hard it was for him as an elementary school child -- the son of a soldier and his German war bride -- not to know whether to identify with being black or white. He knows now. But that time, he says, steeled his character.
"I went to a Catholic high school where there were a lot of whites and I learned how to deal with them, how to talk to them," said Stewart, an inspector for a Silver Spring nuclear compressor company. "For a lot of young blacks, the first time they have to deal with a white person is when they go to get a job.
"When they go to the white man for a job, they are dealing with a superiority situation where they have to ask for something they really need," he said. "If they didn't grow up with whites, all this is forced on them and they resent having to deal with it and really don't know how to. They stand there in front of the boss knowing that they didn't grow up with his son or date his daughter."
The conversation continues at one end of the benches and a visitor asks about the man sprawled across the top of another bench away from the maddening din.
"His name is Armedd -- that's what he's been called for the past 10 years," said Dwight Jones.
"Do you know his real name?" he asks another.
"He's a nice person," comments Dwight Miles, 29.
"He's a damn good electrician," says Andy Wiggins, the meatcutter. "He reads a newspaper from front to back everyday. But he won't talk to you."
In time, Armedd, wearing his scuffed combat boots and nondescript work pants and shirts, ambles over for a beer and to assauge his curiosity. And yes, he will talk.
A Deanwood resident since 1947, Armedd McIntosh said his family used to live on Foote Street near where the Woodson High School bleachers are now. He lives with a brother and sister-in-law in a cramped Deanwood apartment.
A stint in the Marine Corps fighting in Vietnam -- Da Nang quickly comes to his mind -- helped shatter his nerves, he says, and since then he just can't hold onto a job.
"I'm just tired of things in general," he said, shaking his head, lost in his own thoughts but clearly aware of what's going on around him. "Things are just not right. These days I'm mostly depressed.
"When I got out of service I took eight months to relax," McIntosh said.
"It was real traumatic to have rockets drop all around you. I would drink four double Scotches every night just to go to sleep. By the time I was 21, I was getting heavy into alcohol."
After Vietnam, McIntosh said, he got a job as an "electronic technician," only to learn later that meant cleaning vending machines for a company in Cheverly.
McIntosh quit and got a job working for a computer firm, but says he resigned when he lost his driver's license following an accident. In that job, he had to use his own car to go to assignments. Disgruntled, it was his last full-time job. Now he has set up shop in the yard next to Melvn's, fixing radios and stero receivers and other electronic equipment.
"It may sound like a rosy picture, but we're a big family here," said McIntosh, who has even stopped playing his favorite instruments, the trumpet and saxophone. "If you need a ride somewhere, someone will take you. We help each other out. When somebody needs change for cigarettes or a beer, we help one another.
"This is just like home."