The public-assistance checks arrived in the first and third weeks of the month, and at those times, the people who lived around Benning Road NE would line up 40 feet deep inside Sol's liquor store, waiting to get their checks cashed.
The going rate to get a check cashed in the neighborhood was 2 to 5 cents on the dollar, but at Sol's, owner Roy Smith would charge little and often nothing for cashing payroll and public assistance checks for people too poor to keep bank accounts.
It was just one of the ways Roy Smith made himself a part of the life on Benning Road, and when he died last March, shot on the street for the money he was carrying, his former customers came by the hundreds to pay their respects.
"He was one of the nicest fellows that lived," said William Lawson, who operates a dry cleaning store down the block on Benning Road.
Smith was a businessman who lived his life in two worlds, embracing both. He and his wife, Ina, lived in an elegant house in Potomac and enjoyed the fruits of their prosperity--a stable in Maryland, a sailboat in Annapolis.
A world away was the liquor store, its dilapidated neon signs flashing out on a treeless stretch of Benning Road near the Hechinger Mall. Smith worked long hours there and made good money, but he didn't put up the kind of barriers common to the neighborhood. Unlike the take-out chicken restaurant on the corner, there was no bullet-proof shield along the counter at Sol's.
"He trusted people, and that was nice," said one of the small crowd of older men who routinely gather in the parking lot outside the store with a few bottles to drink and enough talk to while away the day.
"That man in the store knew everybody who came to cash a check with him, and he charged cheap," said a man in the parking lot who had done years of business with Smith but, like many of his customers, did not know him by name. "Lot's of times, with a purchase, or for some of the older folk, he didn't charge anything."
Ina Smith has done something to commemorate her husband's attachment to the neighborhood: she has started a scholarship fund for graduating students from Eastern High School.
"It's surprising under the circumstances," said William Roy Norris, who owns the shoe repair shop next to Sol's. "On the other hand, if you think about what a good living they got from the store, it's a small token that was due."
Smith was killed last March 1 as he was leaving a bank on 7th and H streets NE. He had just finished cashing $17,000 worth of public assistance and government payroll checks for his customers when two men walked up to him. One of the men shot Smith point-blank in the head, and the other picked up the bag of money Smith dropped. The two then fled.
Police said that tips from the neighborhood and general community involvement led to the arrest of a Northeast man in connection with the homicide.
Ina Smith put Sol's up for sale almost immediately after her husband's death. She said that she frequently had talked with Smith about selling the business or moving it. "But Roy just felt very safe in the store, and very involved with the people in the neighborhood," she said.
Smith took over Sol's Liquor Store from his father-in-law, Solomon Aronoff, who started the business as a grocery store more than 50 years ago. "Of course he was a good businessman," said Norris of his neighbor. "How else would he have lasted 15 years here?"
Norris said Smith was an outgoing and friendly man. "He invited me to go fishing with him many times because he knew that was what I liked," Norris said. "But I just never found the time."
Ina Smith said that her husband had some of his closest friendships with people in the neighborhood and that this was very much on her mind when, in her first week of mourning, she decided to set up the fund. Smith's friends are helping to raise money for the scholarships, and they plan soon to ask other liquor retailers for contributions. They would like to raise enough to provide at least $1,000 in interest a year.
The money would go to graduating students at Eastern High School, preferably those interested in going on to vocational or trade school. "Roy would have been the last person to think a kid had to go on to college," Ina Smith said. "He would have said 'prepare yourself, get some assets for the job market.' "
She thinks her husband would be happy with the idea of the fund. "I felt if he had his druthers, if he were asked what kind of retribution he wanted for his death, he would have said, 'Get some kid a job, so when he grows up he doesn't have to shoot and rob.'
"Just before he died we went to see Ghandi, and he was very impressed by a line in that movie. Ghandi says, 'An eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind.' I guess that's what I was thinking of when I thought of the fund."