The sign said "Jobs Available," but the crowd of men hanging out near the Municipal Building construction site at 14th and U streets NW ignored it. They did not appear to want jobs and, on closer inspection, that proved to be the case. These men already had careers.
One of them, a 24-year-old who calls himself Topper, works as a curb-side marijuana salesman.
"If I got to get all funky just to make some money, then I'm not working up to my potential," he said, turning thumbs down on the construction job offered in the sign.
"Look at them--mud up to their knees, dodging tractors and taking orders from the white man. I don't take orders from nobody," he said.
He keeps his goods in the hubcaps of a car parked nearby and fetches them when a customer pulls up.
"I consider myself a professional person. I dress nice. I carry a briefcase," Topper told me. He opened the brown satchel to show notebooks filled with names and numbers, pencils and a bag of white pills. "Hell, I'm rolling, man."
His partner was standing in the shadows of a nearby storefront, selling jewelry from a black velvet case. He refused to talk about what he was doing unless he could make a sale. All he did was arch his eyebrows in an inviting "See anything you like?" manner. If not, he'd just flip the case closed and walk away.
Sure, there were other jobs available and these men were aware that the local paper published page after page of help wanted ads. But they knew that game; indeed, had played it to a bust. They had worked dead-end jobs that barely kept them alive, they had taken news clips to the employment office only to find the positions filled.
As for construction work, Topper shook his head, saying, "bad vibes." He said he had checked it out but came away feeling they really didn't want him. Who could blame them? Then again, who could blame him?
Construction was still a white man's lair, as this city's 10-year effort to increase the number of blacks in the business had proved. Most of the blacks who were in it were laborers, and technological changes in construction had greatly reduced the demand for them.
Topper, like many young black men, has turned to the underground economy, which is bustling despite hard times above ground.
"I went to the employment office; I'm signed up but I can't just wait," Topper said. "You can't even get a girl in this city without no cash, and now what kind of man would I be without a girl?"
Last week, when a group of employment experts gathered at Howard University, their proposals for reducing black youth unemployment included job training programs, a national "stay in school" campaign and implementation of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act.
"The problem of black youth unemployment," said Dr. Frank G. Davis, a professor of economics at Howard, "is that the market demand for black labor is circumscribed by technological displacement of workers, structural changes in industry . . . racism and classism.
"If changes in the nature of the industrial demand for labor tend to push up black unemployment, then we must look at the structure of the black community as a key to the solution of black unemployment."
So far, however, the solution has been left to the unemployed. And many, like Topper, have examined the structure of the black community with an eye to increasing market demand for their labor--although not in the manner Davis probably had in mind.
"The best time to sell herb is morning and late afternoon," Topper said, explaining his marketing structure. "You have to work the 'drive time' crowd."
With his eyes alert for police, he said that he was satisfied with his work and took pride in the quality of his wares. With unemployment holding steady at 10.3 percent, he said he was under no illusions about newspaper want ads or even construction site posters that offered temporary jobs.
"There are basically two alternatives for a guy like myself," Topper said. "You can live on the streets or you can die on the streets."