The children of East Capitol Dwellings, who live at the bottom of the hill, know the routine: When an argument erupts among the young men who deal drugs or shoot craps on the cracked concrete walkway, run home. If you can't make it home before the shooting starts, run to a neighbor's.
When the shooting starts--when the semiautomatic gunfire claps like thunder and the bullets begin to rain--take cover. Move away from any windows. Hit the floor. Move to the lowest level of the house, if possible. If you can't, just stay down. Stay down! Lie still.
That's the drill. Survival 101. They are instructions given by mothers, like Gail White, Rosie Jones and Peeair Bassil, to their children. A page from their unwritten but well-scripted manual-for-life in this public housing complex in Southeast Washington where residents have learned to live in the shadow of death.
"'Get in the house and get down on the floor.' That's the best we can tell them," White said late this week, standing in the warm sunshine a few feet away from where her neighbor, 55-year-old Helen E. Foster-El, was gunned down by two stray bullets fired by a group of feuding young men.
"It's hell because you can't let your kids out," said Bassil, who is raising her four children and five foster children. "It's a living hell around here.
"So many people around here done got killed. Half of the stuff they don't even put on the news."
Jones has put her children through basic training.
"My kids will haul tail," close the door, turn the television off and cower in their mom's bedroom on a lower level of the house, Jones said. "They know what to do."
The city's largest and one of its most violent housing developments is battle-scarred and occupied by semiautomatic-gun-wielding young men who make peace untenable. On the door of a vacant apartment, a few doors down from where Foster-El lived, is a testament of life and death here in the 100 block of 56th Place SE. It is written in white graffiti. It reads: "RIP JR. 56 For Life."
The violence here extends beyond the clothes lines where residents dry their laundry, beyond the chairs where mothers and grandmothers recline on warm summer nights, and the walkway where children skate and ride their bikes.
It extends to the mind. Maybe even the soul.
"Mentally and physically, these kids are being scarred," Joyce Stoddard, another resident said. "We need some counseling down here. We need church services 24 hours a day. We need to have a town meeting."
"Nobody cares," Stoddard said, echoing the sentiment of many neighbors.
The effect of dwelling in what Bassil calls a "living hell" is perhaps incalculable. At least Bassil and other mothers who live in East Capitol Dwellings seem to think so. So now, after this week's shooting, many say they want to pack up their children and move.
Until their time comes, Jones said, she consoles her 4-year-old daughter, Annastasia, one of the children Foster-El was ushering to safety when she was killed: "Just pray until we get out of here."
They have learned to cope, to reemerge slowly from their houses after the smoke has cleared, after the shooting has stopped and the bodies have been carried away. Like a predictable sunrise, a kind of normalcy always resumes in this corner of the world. And the children, flocks of them, always come back out to play in the sun.
But for residents here, the sun seems a lot less inviting this time.
A Different World
There was grass and peace when Sina Brown moved here in 1983. Nothing but "nice and quiet," the 78-year-old woman recalled, sitting in a chair behind her house, less than 72 hours after Monday night's deadly shooting.
At Brown's four-bedroom unit, the back door was wide open. Her grandson, Gary, 4, sat in the doorway. "The Price is Right" blared over a television, spilling outside.
Brown is a round woman with reddish brown hair who is raising three small grandchildren. She doesn't have cold water in her apartment. She said the cold was disconnected a couple of years ago because of a broken water pipe under the house that remains unfixed. Her kitchen floor is rotted and sinking. So is her bathroom floor. But what Brown worries most about is the safety of her grandchildren, the crumbling neighborhood.
"I get angry with them boys for being around here . . . rolling dice, cussing and everything," Brown said. "I want to get away from here on account of my grandkids."
Brown said she can't remember exactly when things turned for the worse, when the grass on their front lawns turned from emerald green to red dirt and rock, or when the drug dealers and the shooting overtook the neighborhood. Maybe three or four years ago.
But police confirm residents' contention that drugs and shootings plague the area. In fact, seven homicides occurred there during the first 10 months of last year, compared with three during the same period in 1997, police records show. Three of the homicides in the first 10 months of 1998 took place within a block of where Foster-El was gunned down.
On this warm afternoon, on the walkway a few feet away from Brown's apartment, the white plastic chair that her friend, Foster-El often sat in still stood. It was empty, except for a dingy pillow and a smeared red stain that one boy insisted is blood.
Further up the walkway, in the opposite direction, three boys took a break from riding bikes, trying to keep this week's shooting from their minds, at least off their lips.
"I don't want to talk about it," said William, 9.
His friend chimed in, "I ain't see nothing."
Anthony, 11, didn't want to talk about it either. He saw something: Miss Helen dying.
"It makes me nervous," he said.
Sleeping in Fear
Days after the shooting, Gail White's three youngest children still have trouble sleeping. The two eldest, both teenage girls, are staying with relatives, too afraid for now to come back home. The youngest won't leave their mother's bedroom at night.
"It's a lot of fear," said White, still shaken by the shooting. "They will not go in that house unless I go in there. Me and my kids fear from it every day since it happened."
A family friend, a man, has agreed to stay in the house overnight, until the children are more settled.
Rosie Jones's children have had trouble sleeping as well. So have Ericka Hawley's children, especially Latreviete, 9.
During Monday's shooting, in which police say young men fired at least 20 shots, a bullet ripped through Latreviete's third-floor bedroom window, below the "I love you" card written in gold glitter that hangs above the window frame. The bullet traveled across the room and tore a three-inch-long gash into the wall where Latreviete's Mickey Mouse clock hangs.
At the time of the shooting, Latreviete was not in her bedroom. She was cowering on the floor downstairs. Outside her house late last week, she mingled with her girlfriends near her back door.
"I'm scared to sleep in that room," she said, her words heavy. "Because it seems like somebody's gonna be shooting again while I'm in there."
In the early afternoon, three days since the shooting, nearly two dozen children frolicked in the walkway. Several little boys rode bikes, their voices rising in the warm air. A few houses down from where Foster-El was collapsed with one bullet in the back and another in the leg, girls jumped double-dutch with a telephone cord.
The trail of television cameras had disappeared, as had the detectives. No crisis intervention team ever showed up. A police squad occasionally passes on the hill.
Jones stood outside her apartment talking about moving when Bassil, Jones's next-door neighbor walked up. Bassil was smiling. She told Jones she had given the rental office 30 days' notice. Bassil is buying a house and had planned to move in August. The shooting expedited her move, although she hadn't found anywhere to stay until her new home is ready.
"But I'm going to find one," she said, smiling and sounding sure. "I'm rolling. I'm getting up out of here. Ain't nothing going to change around here."
Jones knows. Everybody knows.
A car was waiting for Bassil. She turned to leave but not before comforting Jones.
"I'll come back, Rose, and make sure you're safe around here," Bassil said.
Rose Jones managed a smile.
CAPTION: Erica Hawley looks out a window that was pierced by a stray bullet this week.
CAPTION: Gary, 4, sits in his grandmother's rear door in the 100 block of 56th Place SE, near where Helen Foster-El was killed.
CAPTION: Above, 4-year-old Annastasia was among the children saved by a grandmother killed by stray gunfire on 56th Place SE. At left, a rear view of the 100 block of 56th Place.