But for the policeman stationed at the door and the men standing all around in suits and ties with wires running out of their ears, customers yesterday at Sholl's New Cafeteria might not have noticed the casually dressed couple grabbing a late lunch.

The two familiar faces that shone among the usual Saturday afternoon crowd at the K Street NW eatery were Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, lunching on cottage cheese, fruit and red gelatin salad platters.

The former president and first lady had just finished a week refurbishing an 80-year-old, red brick building in New York City's Lower East Side. Along with other volunteers with Habitat for Humanity, an international nonprofit Christian organization that builds low-cost housing for the poor, the Carters sawed, nailed, floored and refurbished 20 apartments to be sold at cost, with interest-free mortgages, to families that otherwise could not afford to own homes.

"The people involved are people who out of religious conviction want to help people less fortunate than themselves," said Carter of the organization that is based in Americus, Ga., nine miles from the Carters' home in Plains.

Looking fit and relaxed in deck shoes, a pale yellow windbreaker, khaki pants and an open-collar white shirt, Carter declined to discuss politics and focused instead on Habitat for Humanity during an impromptu interview while the group's chartered bus was being refueled.

"We're buying one home every day somewhere in the world," he said, adding that work will begin soon on a building in Baltimore. This year, he said, the organization will begin on homes in Nicaragua that will sell for about $900 each.

"We don't give anything away; we're not a charity organization," Carter said. In order to purchase a house, a family must agree to spend 500 hours working on their own or a neighbor's home, he said -- a commitment that teaches poor families building skills they can use to improve their neighborhoods.

After lunch, all the volunteers but Rosalynn Carter, who stayed to visit family members in the Washington area, boarded the bus, which was scheduled to arrive in Georgia today.