Government workers spoiled by free food, an open milk container where they made their own change, and the luxury of running a tab until next payday have gathered hundreds of signatures on petitions to persuade local authorities to allow a popular vendor to return to his spot.
The vendor, Frank Queen, parked a homemade sandwich and coffee wagon at 13th and C streets SW, in the shadow of the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, for nearly nine years until police cited him for violations several weeks ago. Today, Queen is scheduled to go to D.C. Superior Court on a charge of "failure to move after a sale."
Armed with petitions signed by nearly 1,000 of his loyal customers, Queen plans to protest what he calls "police harassment" during the past two months. He wants to win the right to stay parked at the location he had held, rain or shine, for so long.
"I will not be shoved around, I will not be harassed," said Queen, 40, a Vietnam veteran who has not returned to his vending spot since receiving his second vending violation within 27 days.
Hero to hundreds, Queen is known for his fresh but inexpensive lunchtime fare of full-bodied, half-smoked sausages slathered with a secret mambo sauce, and fresh-brewed coffee--served with a friendliness that made everything taste even better.
"It's really quite unfair. Something is not quite right," said Department of Agriculture computer aide Lora Jones. "Frank is not just a businessman, he's a humanitarian. We want him back."
Jones' co-worker, Orsery Cordice, has been leading the campaign to get Queen back. With the endorsement of her boss, James Patterson, Cordice has been taking thirty minutes a day for the past two weeks to whip up support for the Get-Frank-Back petitions. She has visited every level of the department's six-story South building, up and down the seemingly endless corridors, asking maintenance men and GS-16s alike the same question: "Did you sign the petition?"
Victor Fowler and Robert Harrison, who work in Agriculture's motor vehicle operations, signed. "He'd tell us to get what we wanted and to pay him when we could. He was all right with me," said Fowler.
Jessica McEachern signed. "He was always there, rain or shine, and his food was always fresh that day--at the end of the day, he would give his sandwiches away."
James Lewis, of the maintenance crew, signed. "I would always pick up his trash because he was a good guy. His food was not only fresh, it was cheap. If he didn't think it was fresh, he wouldn't sell it to you."
Computer clerk Mary Bronson, after whom Queen's secret sauce was named--the vendor calls the homemade concoction "Mary's Sauce" because Bronson is one of the few who doesn't like it--ignited the petition-signing effort with a letter placed in the employe newspaper. In part, it said: "If Frank Queen, the vendor of food on C Street, has helped you in any way, now is the time for you to help him. There are reports that the police are harassing him."
"Send it down to the plumbing shop and we'll all sign it," said a member of the plumbing crew.
When Queen was told about the fervent activities on his behalf, he choked up: "They're a great . . . They're a great bunch of people."
How did a cozy relationship that lasted nearly ten years, five days a week, from 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., involving 1,500 daily customers and Frank Queen, suddenly go awry?
Rumors have piled as high as the legendary sandwiches Queen and his wife, Lorenza, used to prepare at home nightly before each workday.
Some of Queen's customers believe that operators of the two cafeterias in the Bureau of Engraving were responsible for calling the police and complaining about his business, but a spokesman for the cafeterias denies the charge.
Ron Allen, manager of the bureau's two cafeterias, which are co-run by two private firms, said that he was not aware of any complaints filed by his employer. "Why should we try to make him leave ?" he said. "Our sales have been pretty steady. I know of him, but I didn't even know he was gone."
Queen's steady customers are puzzled, however, by the vendor's sudden eviction. "To be harassed after nine years of providing an alternative to what's inside doesn't seem right. Why pick him up on a technicality after all that time?" said Roger Lewis, an international organization affairs officer for the Department of Agriculture.
Although Allen said the cafeterias' management did not complain about Queen, "There were several recent complaints from persons who identified themselves as vendors stating that Queen wasn't conforming to all regulations," according to Sgt. Robert Gruitt, head of the First District's vending squad. Gruitt said he doesn't know the identity of the complainants.
Officer Robert Dudding, who wrote the first violation on Feb. 4, was unavailable for comment. But Gruitt, who visited the site of Queen's truck, said "I would have written the tickets myself."
Henry McCoy, a business service specialist for the District's Business and Economic Development Vending Task Force, said Queen was "technically in violation" by "not moving after a sale." McCoy read section 19a of the Regulations for Vending Businesses that states: "No roadway vending vehicle shall remain in any one place longer than is necessary to make a sale when stopped in a legal parking space."
Gruitt charged that Queen would stay 15 to 20 minutes after a sale, moving napkins and arranging wares. "He failed to move on," said the sergeant.
But why the sudden police attention after Queen had operated on the same spot for nine years? "Things go along for years which are in violation, like walking a dog without a leash, then suddenly you come up against an officer who goes by the book," said McCoy.
Queen said Dudding told the vendor that he should move to a metered area next to the spot where Queen's truck had been stationary so many years. In addition, Queen said, Dudding told him to keep moving down and around the block when each parking meter expired after one hour.
"I wasted gas like you wouldn't believe trying to appease that man," said Queen.
Queen paid the first $50 violation, he said, "just to keep that man (Dudding) off my back." He also said that he continued to drive around the block, hopping from meter to meter, until Dudding hit him with a second ticket in early March: "I'd had enough, the man was costing me $400 to $500 a day when I wasn't in my usual spot. I started ending my day at 8:30 a.m., just to get away from him. He was harassing me more and more. When I got that second ticket I had no intention of ever returning to that location."
Sgt. Gruitt disputes Queen's story. "I don't believe it. Dudding knows the regulations. He is far too experienced a man to have done the things Queen said he did."
After deciding that he was going to appeal the second ticket, Queen said he met with both McCoy and Gruitt to complain officially of "police harassment." McCoy told Queen to "be patient--a spot will open up soon."
Queen countered with: "How can I be patient with the amount of business I'm losing and the threat of a ticket every minute? I've tried everything." Then Queen went home to Waldorf, Md., to his wife and four children, never, he thought, to return.
A week ago, a sign appeared a few feet from Queen's old location that announced, "Reserved For Vending Truck." It appeared one day after a Washington Post photographer snapped a picture of protesting government workers who stood where Queen used to park his truck, and two days after a reporter began asking questions. The location now is a legitimate vendor parking spot, available on a first come, first served basis. McCoy said that the decision to post the sign was arrived at "after talks with Queen." Frank Queen could have slipped back to his old spot and resumed business but he, too, arrived at a conclusion and a decision.
"They did that because of The Post," said Queen, "so I can't go back until I have my day in court. I can't let these people (the petitioners) down; we worked too hard for nearly ten years to build a relationship of trust and understanding. I'll go back when the air is cleared as to why anyone would want to destroy it."