"Red car," shouts Crystal Williams, 12, as a bright red Ford Elite turns into the Citadel Self-Service gas station on the corner of 14th and Corcoran streets NW.
"Red car," yells Steve Thomas, 11, just a second too late.
"Uh, uh. I called it first," says Williams, already walking toward the car.
"Can I pump your gas for you, sir?" she asks the driver, Willie Baker. "Yes you may, little girl," he answers.
Williams takes the hose over to the rear of the Elite, while Baker goes to the cashier's window and pays for $10 of super unleaded. Baker returns to watch Williams, ready to lend a hand in case she needs help. "These young people are just trying to make an honest quarter," he says. "It used to be an honest dollar, but people don't have the money to tip anymore." When the numbers stop turning on the pump, Baker gives Williams a handful of change, and as she hangs up the hose, he locks the gas cap, then pulls out of the station, headed for work as a fleet service clerk for American Airlines.
Several enterprising inner-city youths have turned idle afternoons into fun-filled, money-making ventures this summer: They are pumping gas and cleaning windows at the Citadel gas station.
Taking advantage of the opportunity to participate first-hand in the free enterprise system, 13-year-old Christopher Spriggs, his sister Nishaun Spriggs, 11, and a few other youths who live near the station make about $4 a day.
The youngsters who work the station are between 8 and 15 years old. Often they huddle between the pumps, out of the way of gas station traffic. Sometimes, however, cars are coming in and out of the station while the youngsters pump gas, clean windows with squeegees or roller skate, wrestle, box and run around.
The youths, whose efforts are greeted with approval by some customers and alarm by others, have created a small controversy: A large sign in the window of the cashier's office says "Children Are Not Permitted to Pump Gas."
Charles Lamb, general manager of the Citadel Corp. office, said, "We don't promote what those kids are doing. We don't want it. But what can we do? We call the police, they chase them away and in 10 minutes they're back. This happens over and over, you know. So what can we do? We've warned them and warned them and warned them. We definitely don't want them around there. And that's the whole story. That's all I want to say about it." Citadel is a wholesale and retail gas and fuel oil company.
"Most people pump their own gas," said Christopher Spriggs, who the youths say was the first to start pumping gas for tips about a year ago. "They think we're money snatchers. There are money snatchers around here. Money snatchers hide behind that wall over there (pointing to the cashier's office, where customers pay before pumping gas)."
The large, brightly lit gas station has an overhead canopy that covers the four islands and eight gasoline pumps: two diesel, two unleaded, two super unleaded and two regular. The youths stand on one of the islands, closely watching the cars heading east and west on busy 14th Street, and north on Corcoran. As a car turns into the station, each youth tries to be the first to claim the right to serve it; the first to call out the color or type of the car gets it.
Meanwhile, the station cashier stays inside her cubicle. A cashier on duty recently refused to discuss the situation with a reporter.
All in all, it's a nice place to work if you're too young to get a regular job, Spriggs said. About one out of every five customers lets the self-appointed station attendants serve them. When a customer asks, "What's the charge?" the young workers respond, "Whatever you want to give me."
Spriggs, an eighth grader at Shaw Junior High School who wants to be a doctor, saves most of his tips, which range from 25 cents to a dollar. He said he spends some of it on junk food, sodas and bubble gum.
"Hey, hey, put that back," said taxicab driver Wilbert Wells as Ubol Bell, 8, eagerly removes the gas cap on his "Yellow" cab.
"It's hazardous," said Wells, when asked why he wouldn't let the youngster serve him. He buys gas at Citadel three times a week. "They have no business being out here in this kind of traffic and no business being out here in this type of environment. On the one hand, I condone it -- they're learning how to hustle and fend for themselves, which is something they should learn early. But on the other hand, it's too dangerous. There's no supervision. I don't think they're covered by any insurance in case they're hurt."
Wells was not alone in his observations. Another person who voiced skepticism was the Rev. G. Ray Coleman, pastor of the John Wesley AME Zion Church across the street from Citadel. "I think it's a dangerous matter," he said.
"For them to have to do this to make a little extra money to take home is a mark of the horrendous doings that poverty puts on people," he added. "The situation is the sum result of the lack of parental guidance and the lack of recreation in this immediate area."
Lula Narciso, who as grandmother and aunt looks over four of the youths who regularly hustle at the station, disagrees. "I think it's good for them to work at the station. It keeps them from snatching pocket books, burglarizing houses, joining gangs and hanging out in the street. When they tell me they're going to the gas station, I go by to check them out. If they are not there, they're in big trouble. If they're acting up, they're in trouble, too. When I come to get them, I get their money and put it right here," she said, pointing to a large pocket in her yellow apron.
As she walked her children to their five-bedroom home one block from the station, she said, "They all have their own mayonnaise jars in the house. They don't have to do it. They're not hungry. The money they make is theirs to save or spend as they wish." CAPTION: Picture 1, Several youths pump gas for tips at the Citadel Self-Service gas station at 14th and Corcoran streets, NW. They play while waiting for cars; Picture 2, Steven Thomas, 11, smiles at his $1 tip for pumping gas. Photos by Vanessa Barnes Hillian -- The Washington Post