From the bay window of what was a Seventh Street photographaic studio before the 1968 riots, Willima (Dog) Green, the 70-year-old president of the Washington Pool Checker Association, watches uneasily as one of a new breed of street corner youths works his way through a crowd loudly advertising his wares. The youth calls them "the works," but what he's really selling are syringes for shooting heroin.
Hard times are apparent here on this corner in the Shaw neighborhood, located in the shadows of downtown Washington, where large crowds of black men congregate on vacant lots and sit in cars which, like them, do not work.
When police on motor scooters periodically comb the sidewalk for junkies, the youths scatter in all directions. The scene is like an anthill that has been disturbes; chaos prevails for a few moments and then the ants return.
Inside Green's checker clubhouse at 1810 Seventh St. NW, men who grew up during tougher times than these take refuge from the trials and tribulations of the street life and simply thank God -- and their game -- for keeping them out of trouble.
If Seventh Street can be called the other side of the tracks in Washington -- where dope and sex are openly sold -- then here in the confines of the Washington Pool Checker Association is the other side of the other side -- where the law-abiding folk who live among the criminal element make their way through life.
The clubhouse has become an institution that has suddenly been given new relevance by the turbulence that the Shaw neighborhood has seen during the days since 1968. A modest storefront with a kitchenette in back, it has become an island of stability in a neighborhood tossed back and forth by what some call neighborhood revitalizatin and what others term urban removal.
It is a place where the men come to play as hard as they have worked to keep their club afloat. "It's a real nice pastime. A good way to work off excess energy," said Green, who is ranked a "top master" and considered one of the best players in the city.
"A lot us grew up in a rough way, and I'd say without checkers to keep us occupied we could be out there. It's just a strange trick of fate."
If there were more places like this," added Prince Lord Garland, the club's 58-year-old financial secretary, "I think there would be less crime ."
After years of playing checkers on sidewalks and inside local barbershops, Green and several other regulars decided to organize a checker club in 1973. Incorboraged and chartered under rules similar to those governing membershiop in orgainizations such as the Cosmos and Metropolitan clubs, the checker association is a nonprofit group set up in recognition of the adage that boys will be boys -- and men will be even worse.
"We don't care if you get drunk and fight with your wife," Green says. "You can be a member as long as you don't have a police record. You can come in, stay as long as you want, fix some food, wash your clothes. Spend the night. It's just a home away from home."
Trhe big attraction here, however, is checkers. The game played on Seventh Street resembles checkers as it is played in Russia, using a "flying king" that can move more than one spcae at a time.
Showdowns, as a top-rated contests are called, get under way as the summer sun is setting in the west.The club, which faces east, is hotter than an oven in the morning. But by late afternoon, most of the heat centers around the checkerboards.
Checker room banter rings of the South, where most club members were born and learned to play. Describing the game whose popularity appears to ahve ben on the wane since the advent of board games such as Monopoly and backgammon, the older men use antiquated phrases such as "pitch and squeeze," the "fall back," the "crossroad," the "Mason-Dixon line" and the "jump around."
"My grandmother taught me how to play checker when I was 9 years old," sayd E. C. (Five Straight Man) Taylor, who is 62. "She used to always beat me, and I used to think she was cheating. But I developed a real love for the game."
Squared off in a showdown with Robert (Georgia Boy) Miles, 53, Taylor rears back in his chair, one hand in his pocket and the other stroking his chin. When it is clear that he is about to win, he begins what is known in the checker club as "crowing."
"So you want to be the best, huh?" the Five Straight Man asks the Georgia Boy. "You could be, except that I'm not gonna let you."
Green, the association president, is seated at another table squared off against Tony Rivers, a 42-year-old printer from New York who is considered one of the top five checker players in the country. Here is a serious match -- intense but gentlemanly. They don't taunt each other. They just grunt, hem and haw.
"My main thing used to be shooting pool," said Garland. "But pool came to be something of an outlaw sport. You had to be into too many things to be a pool player, so I started looking for something . . . can I say more pasive?"
The checker club has about 50 members who pay $8 a month in dues. The members are ranked according to their ability to play, although, as Green put it, "Everybody is still friends."
The club is associated with the Shaw Community Center, which is located in the same block. A member regularly offers to teach the children in the area how to play the game.
"All you have to have is a photographic memory and a businesslike mind," says Green. You have to be disciplined, and we don't allow no cheating. By and large you find that your checker player is a pretty decent guy anyhow."