The flames would die out, I knew, and order of a sort would be restored. But you had to wonder if the smell and sting of the tear gas in those gutted, looted stores would ever go away.

Over the last 5,475-plus days, more than a little air has whistled through the boards on the windows of those creepy structures and other buildings have rotted into collapse or curled up in the jaws of steam shovels. Still, a walk along 7th Street on Friday becomes a living flashback.

Here and there are some new sights--public housing, the great new Giant at 7th and P and a few fast-fooderies. But the stares start to get to you--the empty stares of those zombie buildings. Why don't they go away? Unless you have to live there--and people do--and unless you don't have anything better to do than meander by, lean against or sit in front of these ghosts-- and too many people don't--you would make it your business to be someplace else, as merchants did and still do.

There is lively commerce, all right, but the transactions are as quick as they are careful; it's one long drive-in, but the curb-service car-hops here deal in little bags. There is entertainment, in the comedy of sidewalk card-players and the ramblings of the drunks in the alcove next to the trash-can fire.

Elsewhere in the city, where people in better clothes sit at desks and discuss federal grants, write-downs, joint ventures, rehabilitation projects, purchases of "parcels" and "revitalization," there are explanations for why it takes time to make nicer neighborhoods. After all, there are surveys, drafts, proposals, reviews and sign-off procedures, preliminary approvals and financing and interagency coordinating to be effected.

In the life of a city or of its government, 15 years is a relatively brief period. But wait-- those teen-age car-hops over there: they have lived their entire lives in this grim aftermath of three days' damage. Will they die on the same set?