As police chase drug peddlers through the alley in front of Christopher Johnson, he does not blink. With a bowler's stance, he concentrates instead on the task that could make him mayor of Girard Street Social Club.
Suddenly, a motorcycle cop, trailing a fleetfooted narcotics suspect, putt-putts across the dusty vacant lot at 1416 Girard St. NW where, for more than 10 years, the men of the Columbia Heights neighborhood have been pitching horseshoes for what they frequently describe as "good clean fun."
Johnson bows his head until the dust settles. To club members, seated at card tables on old sofas and mildewed easy chairs, Johnson proclaims before his final toss, "I am the mayor. There were none before me; there will be none when I am gone."
With an underhanded flip, the shoe flies. When the two pound, U-shaped shoe clanks around a metal stake some 40 feet away, the crowd of about 40 members and spectators cheers.
"The shoe fits," yells Thurman Grady, unofficial referee. Scores of tiny white styrofoam cups filled with Canadian Mist and Pepsi suddenly appear from hiding places beside the tables and chairs.Hizzoner Christopher Johnson is toasted.
The Girard Street Social Club is something of a soul saving station for men frustrated at being black and blue-collar in a city that offers them little for recreation. Too old to disco roller skate, they are not yet ready to settle for bid whist and checkers.
"Whenever we get off work, everybody just bunch up and start pitching shoes -- just something to pass the time until you go home, shower and go to bed," says Herbert Garrett, 35, and "engineer" with the Shoreham Americana Hotel.
According to Johnson, 38, who works for Claxton's Seafood restaurant in Wheaton, the Girard Street Social Club offers members enduring friendship. "A friend is the best thing you can have these days," Johnson says. "Most of us guys can't get tickets to the football games so we have to come up with something ourselves."
In recent years, as Columbia Heights has become more attractive to real estate speculators and new home buyers, concern has mounted among club members that one day they will be priced out of the neighborhood.
"When you look at what these houses are going for there is no way blacks like us can take up the slack," Grady says. "A lot of people have been moved out, but that don't mean we ain't still friends. They still come back to pitch shoes."
There has emerged among club members a sense of protection from the increasing number of street drug dealers. "It's too many of us to rip off," Johnson says. But the unruly youths still cause them embarrassment by focusing "bad publicity" on the area around 14th Street NW.
"Most people have the wrong impression about us," Johnson says. "As long as they figure only drug users are up here, then it's going to be hard to hold onto what we got.
Like the game of horseshoes itself, "The big thing around here these days is watching to see who gets knocked off next," says Garrett. "If you watch how we play, you learn how we live."
The "average" club member is a native of either North or South Carolina or Virginia, says Johnson. "We didn't have gymns [down south] but all of us knew about pitching shoes. Native Washingtonians call us 'Bama's [meaning countrified] so we keep ourselves segregated from them. Like black and white, man. In fact, we got white guys come over and play shoes with us. Of course, they're from the Carolinas."
Club talk often turns to the job that someone was supposed to get, or the woman who got away. Women are usually not allowed around the game.
Many of these men rarely see their families in the late afternoon. After work they go straight to Girard Street then home after dark. Sometimes home is just too hard to face.
On Girard Street, problems that arise from children and wives can be mulled over in the sympathetic environment of the guys.
When Garret had had a bit too much to drink one recent evening, he brought home to his children a stray cat that he found on the horseshoe field. The next day he was depressed.
"Cat crap on floor," he told his friends. "My children ain't gonna like it, but the cat gotta go."
The horseshoe games and conversations continue to a cacophony of music that pulsates in the background. Golden oldies from Otis Redding pulsate from a portable tape deck. There are car radios and stereos from the apartments across the street.
As the sun sets over the playing field, the men have become less discreet with their plastic cups. Many now sip straight from the bottle.
"Save me some, man," Grady asks Garrett. "All I got is a corner, man."
From a small tape deck speaker resting against the leg of the card table, there comes a song that strikes a responsive chord with the Girard Street associates. It is by the Commodores, a ballad about leaving a woman who had done wrong.
Some men rise to their feet to wiggle their hips; others do crude disco dances up to the horsehoe line as the Commodores wail:
"I've thrown away the blues; I'm tired of being used. I want everybody to know I'm looking for a good time . . ."