My friend's house is smack in the middle of the block, down the street from a corner where many of the young neighborhood boys sell drugs. The sound of sirens is as frequent as the telephone's ring, but he has lived there many years and he loves his neighbors. The boys know him, even help in unexpected ways. It was comforting when they lay spread-eagled on 18 inches of snow last winter and speedily changed his tire so that he could visit a friend at D.C. General Hospital.
But my friend is also the widowed father of two teen-aged boys, and he is worried.
One by one, over the last year, he has seen all of the boys on his block and around both corners get recruited as drug peddlers by an elusive dealer. One by one, he has seen the same kids who grew up with his sons tumble out of Samarai Jeeps and BMWs driven by flashy strangers. Others occasionally tool around on motorcycles, wearing an outfit in a matching color, that their parents certainly didn't buy.
"What are you planning to do?" I ask him. "Aren't you afraid your two boys may be the next recruits? Are you going to move?"
He shakes his head. "No, I see moving as giving up. It's always been my notion that if we could survive this we would all be better for it. If this overcomes us, it's no telling how we would respond in adverse situations in the future."
My friend's house is in midtown Northwest, in the Shaw section. Of Caribbean extraction, he works "in the mainstream" as a journalist. The neighborhood he lives in reminds him of the one in which he grew up, except the old homestead "had a bar on one side and a winery on the other side . . . yet all my brothers and sisters did pretty well."
But 40 years and part of an ocean divide the two experiences. Today, Washington is in the midst of its worst drug epidemic. According to officials, 143 people have died of fatal overdoses so far this year and officials think the number may exceed 200 in the remaining 2 1/2 months of this year. One sign of the drug epidemic is that 1,400 District children, 38 percent of them 15 or younger, were arrested on drug-related charges during an 11-month period in 1986-87.
My friend knows all this, and he is anxious about it. But he is counting on his sons.
"The major factor in my decision to stay here for as long as possible is my kids themselves," he says. "So far they shock, surprise and please me with how well adjusted they seem to be. They're not overly interested in designer clothes, they worked in the mayor's summer program, saved money and bought all their own clothes. So far they haven't shown much interest in street life. We talk."
At 16, they attend public high school in their neighborhood, watch no television during the week except "Cosby" and are friends with many of the neighborhood boys.
"I keep looking for signs of their interest in street life, drugs, even smoking cigarettes, and I don't see it. I know at some point they may show these signs, but maybe because of the home environment, my work and the people they meet through me, they have different goals."
Indeed, it is the lack of goals, even hopelessness, that is prevalent in so many of the young black men who are selling and being killed by heroin, cocaine, crack, and now a potent blend of cocaine and Dilaudid. "They're willing to take a chance on taking and selling drugs and even dying because they don't see too much to shoot for anyway," says Ron Clark, head of RAP, Inc., a drug rehabilitation center here.
But I am not through with my friend. "If a marksman was loose on your block and had shot every kid but yours, would you sit around waiting for the bullets?"
He responds warily. "Their bulletproof vest is character. I can't be sure I have been able to impart enough character to cover them completely . . . . I'm always looking for little chinks in the armor, but at this point I'm staying the course."
I warn him that the boys who are peddling drugs are criminals, possibly selling death.
"How am I going to turn them in to the police?" he asks. "That's a hard choice. I don't know that jail is best. And they're so alienated, it's hard to persuade them that a minimum-wage job is going to be better than earning $400 a week selling drugs -- until somebody puts a magnum up beside their head or the police arrest them."
I could only shake my head and sadly wonder how we will get past this place at which we have arrived, where thousands of our children are selling their futures -- and ours.