By 4 p.m. most weekdays, Manor Park delicatessen at 6224 Third St. NW is alive with the sounds of Ms. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, an assortment of pinball machines and a lot of youthful swearing.
Proprietor John Ssemanda, a Nigerian native who has been in Washington for 15 years, has 14 video machines and a clientele that lines up at his door the moment school lets out.
District zoning laws permit a business, such as Ssemanda's, a delicatessen in a residential area, to fill only 5 percent of its floor space with amusement devices. He holds a license for three machines.
Ssemanda is one of a number of small-business owners in the city who have turned to the income from video machines to keep their grocery stores, carryouts and other enterprises afloat. They seem to feel little pressure to comply with zoning and licensing regulations. City agencies charged with enforcing those regulations lack the manpower and money to do so, according to some officials.
Many "underground" arcades are appearing in residential neighborhoods throughout the city, amid protests from advisory neighborhood commissions, City Council members, parents and school officials. Struggling entrepreneurs, such as Ssemanda, say they are surviving on video quarters while trying to minimize the truancy, vandalism, burglary and other juvenile crimes often associated with arcades.
"I make about $500 per month from these machines after the company that owns them takes their $500," Ssemanda said. "The food--well, my profits are only about $900. These machines pay my rent."
The company that owns and services the machines has never bothered with zoning laws and neither do two D.C. police officers who frequent the store, shooing youths to nearby Coolidge High School during school hours, he said.
Six blocks away, Vance Robinson runs the Uptown Seafood Carry-Out at Fifth and Kennedy streets NW, with nine machines in his restaurant. Robinson also said hard times have forced him into the easy-money underground arcade business. "We can't even afford to stay open with the one or two machines we're allowed," he said.
According to zoning office administrator Lacy Streeter, shopkeepers, such as Robinson and Ssemanda, would be liable for fines that start at $25 a machine even though they don't own the machines, and they risk being closed down. But merchants say these laws are seldom enforced unless other crimes occur on the premises, and they would just as soon take their chances.
"There are laws and there are laws," said Patricia Waugh, owner of Fog's Sweet Georgia Brown Ice Cream Parlor, 5832 Georgia Ave. NW. "But you're talking about people's livelihood here. If the District government wants to look the other way, then I say good for them."
Waugh, who also operates arcades at 1332 G St. NW and at 2009 M St. NW, said the machines in her ice cream parlor bring "a nice little piece of change." Last month, Fog's had 21 machines.
D.C. Police Information Officer Wendell Samuels said police do not investigate zoning and licensing violations at the arcades. "You can't expect us to walk around counting machines and reading licenses," he said. "That's up to the licensing department."
Ted Gordon, chief of investigations for the Department of Licenses, said his department visited l88 of the city's 400 licensed establishments last year, serving 209 violation notices and collecting $5,240 in fines. "These damn things crop up everywhere," he said. "Bus stations, peep shows, you name it."
An employe of that department's zoning office, who asked not to be named, said, "With only four zoning inspectors for the whole city and a very limited budget, we can't exactly run after these people."
Most underground video parlors are in carryouts or grocery stores, but they also are found in barber shops, bakeries and hardware stores. Dennis Brown, owner of the Shaolin Wu Shu karate school, two doors from Uptown Seafood, until recently operated 12 machines in his reception area. Across the street, a boarded-up bicycle shop has three machines in its window--apparently one of many area businesses that resorted to video in a last-ditch effort to remain open.
Merchants generally do not own the machines, which cost about $2,500. They typically rent from distributors who collect about 50 percent of the profits. Robinson said the licensing fees ($19 to $3l9) and zoning limitations make it difficult to comply with the law.
"You can't just make it easy for someone to run an arcade out of their home," said Greg Dyson, an aide to D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4). Although they say they realize the economic problems merchants are facing, other council members and their staffs are trying to increase restrictions on arcades.
The council is reviewing two arcade bills introduced in January. One, submitted by Nadine Winter (D-Ward 6), would require children under 12 to be accompanied by parents or legal guardians, and children under 16 would be barred from arcades after 10 p.m. on school nights.
The other, introduced by H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) and co-sponsored by council chairman David A. Clarke, would fine youths under 16 up to $10 for frequenting arcades during school.
"We've got too many kids playing hooky from school, stealing money from senior citizens and storekeepers who just don't give a darn," Crawford said. "We don't want to put anybody out of business, but we don't want them continuing to break the law either."
Many in the arcade business maintain the machines keep children off the streets and introduce them to computers. Both Waugh and Ssemanda say they go to great lengths to discourage schooltime use of the machines: Ssemanda by turning them off between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and Waugh by operating on tokens sold only after school.
Ronald Miller, assistant principal at Coolidge High School, said the arcades have never caused truancy problems at his school. "Our students recognize the value of their education and are here during school hours," he said.
But Crawford said "you could definitely blame arcades for the recent increases in truancy and juvenile crime."
Brown, who removed all video machines from his karate school in December, shares that view. "Why, you have kids spending $5 or $10 a day on the machines, and they will beg, borrow and steal for those quarters. They're addicted . . . ," he said.
"I remember one kid who broke into my place and stole $700 out of one of the machines. They found him two days later in an arcade downtown. Would you believe he spent $600 of the money playing those games? I mean you've got to consider the moral side of this kind of thing."
Arcade crime is a major concern among residents near Alabama Avenue, SE, where ANC 8B commissioners receive numerous calls from residents fearful about shopping at neighborhood stores and worried about their children's school attendance.
One store, the Discount Mart, 2824 Alabama Ave. SE, has 16 machines and a security guard. "These machines tend to attract all the wrong elements of people," store manager Sam Franco said. "You can't leave the kids alone for a minute, or they will try to break into the machines." Yet the revenue, he said, is "definitely worth it."
Some shopkeepers said they simply are unaware of the city regulations. "We were cited for licensing violations last year," Franco said, "and the city gave us a real runaround. Sometimes the police threaten to shut us down if there are problems with the kids, but they're always very vague about what the laws are."
Brown recalled similar confusion at his karate school. "The guys who installed my machines said I could have three, and then the next guy who came around said six. I called licensing and got so many different stories that I never knew how many I was allowed. But none of those people ever bothered me . . . not even when I had 12 machines and drug busts out the front door."