As dusk settled, the one they call "Shades" leaned against a crumbling brick wall, a slit-eyed junkie floating in space and time on a chilly autumn day.
"Yeah, the PO-lice always trying to move us out of somewhere," he said, thumbing a tam back on his head and taking a drag off a Kool. "But it don't bother me. When they come down one block, I just go over to the next."
Until last month, when police moved in for a two-week crackdown on drug traffic there, Shades, 23, spent his days like hundreds of others -- high of heroin on Ridge Street NW.
Today, 300 arrests and one week later, Ridge Street is clear of addicts and the police have gone. And Shades passes his time just around the corner, partying on Fifth Street.
So it goes with the mayor's war on drugs. It happens all over the city.
Pushed by police from streets elsewhere in the city, dealers and junkies move into small, blighted neighborhoods like Ridge Street. Word flies, and the street becomes a market: "Bam-bam-bam-a-lam ," dealers chant, hawking their heroin, and the street people party, chugging down paper-bagged pints and blowing off joints. Suburbanites tie up traffic, hanging out car windows looking to score, and addicts hide in back alleys, poking needles in their veins.
Crime leaps, and the residents -- janitors and laborers and welfare mothers -- get scared and call the police.
Finally, the police launch a major campaign, writing tickets and making arrests in a show of force they hope will drive the whole bazaar from the area.
And it works -- almost. The drugs and the dealers do move, but usually just down the block to a new location.
That was the story on Ridge Street.
After a month-long effort by 3rd District police in July to rid the 14th and T streets NW area of its drug epedemic, much of the traffic drifted down to Ridge Street, a tiny block of rundown and boarded up homes between Fourth and Fifth and N and M streets NW, where it thrived once more in startling proportions.
Others found havens in the Sixth through Eighth streets areas, between O and Q streets NW.
Ridge Street residents say the area always had its share of neighborhood junkies and drugs, but that the new influx of strangers "was beginning to get out of hand.
"There were some addicts around, but they were relatively harmless," said Frank Wright, program director for the Northwest Settlement House, a community service center on Ridge Street.
"But after the 14th Street busts, we were getting the hard-core nickel-and-dime junkies down here -- the kind who'd cut your throat for a fix.
"They came from all over -- there were cars with Maryland, Virginia and even Pennsylvania license tags, and the streets were so crowded you could hardly walk, much less drive . . . I've lived in this area for 16 years and was never afraid, but during this summer you would have never caught me in the alleys," he said.
"Our attendance at the center went way down," added settlement director Guy Jones, "and we were beginning to get some cancellations for our fall programs . . . Parents were getting hesitant about picking up their kids here. They'd have to double park and then weave their way around 10 shady looking characters to come in."
Besides the inconvenience, the influx of addicts and drugs brought more crime to the neighborhood, police said. Street robberies and assaults increased, and there were four drug-related shootings recently, including one in which a District policewoman was hit in the leg during an exchange of gunfire with a narcotics suspect during a frantic back-alley chase.
Finally, after repeated complaints by residents, 1st District police moved 14 members of their special tactical squad into the area on Oct. 7, beginning a massive, two-week crackdown on drug trafficking there. Three-hundred people were arrested -- most for being disorderly, drinking in public or carrying small weapons, though there were 10 drug-related charges -- and the police declared a victory.
"The idea," said Sgt. Frank McLaughlin, director of the police effort, "was to go in fast with scooters and squad cars, draw our wagons, salt some plainclothes people through the area and make our arrests."
"We were instructed by the U.S. attorney that if we observed an exchange of money for a small object, that was enough probable cause to go in and search the people involved," explained Sgt. Jack Atkins.
"But since that kind of thing is so hard to catch, we told the officers to strictly enforce police regulations. If someone was seen throwing trash in the street or drinking in public, we could arrest and search them," Atkins said.
The tactical squad's dragnet even had a little TV drama of its own. McLaughlin said that one drug dealer, apparently enraged over the loss of his most prosperous market, hired a hit man from New York to kill one of the officers involved in the Ridge Street crackdown.
After an informant alerted police to the scheme, detectives arrested the alleged hit man, who carried a chrome-plated .45 caliber pistol, and extradited him back to New York, where he is to face trial on several outstanding charges.
By Oct. 20, a tired but satisfied McLaughlin called off the effort and pulled his troops home.
But by last week, the enemy was back. At least 200 of them had gathered their drinks, drugs and portable tape players and moved around the corner to Fifth Street, where they partied undaunted, feeling safe once more. c
"The problem," said Sgt. McLaughlin, "is that we can only move the users and the small-time dealers around. We can clear an area effectively, but in an operation like the one on Ridge Street, we never get the big guys, the dealers who bring quantities of heroin or cocaine or whatever into the area."
McLaughlin said that lack of police coordination is another problem. "The districts tend to act separately. Third District will make a move like the one on 14th Street in July, and they'll scatter the people out of their district and into another. I can understand that. My job is to get them out of the 1st District.
"These addicts are stubborn people," he said.
Shades agreed. "We got stayin' power," he said, scratching his side with a shaky hand. "When you got to have (heroin), you got to have it. You get it anywhere you can.
"I know I can get what I want here," explained Shades, who says he lives off welfare and had been using heroin for six years. "I don't have to go scronin' for it. It here, the people here, the party here."
But the residents on Ridge Street say they are tired of having the party in their neighborhood.
"I do feel a little better now," said Twanda Harris, 47, who has lived on Ridge Street for 15 years. "Before, I was afraid to come outside, and I sure wouldn't let the kids come out to play.
"Now, they've cleaned all the people and the trash off our street, and the kids are out playing. But look up there," she said, pointing to the corner of Fifth and Ridge, where an assortment of droop-eyed junkies and cool-talking pitchmen danced their ghetto dance in the waning light of day.
"They'll probably be back," Harris said. "Ain't much you can do to keep them out."