David McDowell, 27, walks briskly into the 14th Street pawn shop, unzips the green leather briefcase and shoves it across the counter to the clerk for inspection. Inside is his father's electric clock radio, which McDowell later said he stole. He needs money, and he is desperate.
McDowell is a heroin addict and ex-prison inmate who, like thousands of others, stalk Washington streets searching relentlessly for dollars and drugs.
Tension gnaws at McDowell's insides, building a time bomb.
"I don't want to be this way, I really don't," said McDowell, who lives sometimes with his parents in Northeast Washington and other times with any one who will take him in. "I have problems that I have trouble dealing with. People don't understand me. I build up this tension and then, snap, I oil some junk (shoot heroin) and then I don't have to think about anything."
McDowell is one of 11,000 addicts in the city who have become some of the prime targets of Mayor Marion Barry's war on heroin, aimed primarily at breaking up the drug traffic along the 14th Street NW corridor, a popular hangout for many addicts and drug dealers.
But McDowell, at times confused and low on self-esteem, is more than a statistic. He is a product of the rough streets of Washington where the unemployed and the hopeless view crime as the only way to survive. His parents said he has been in trouble with the law since he was 15.
On a recent rainy day, McDowell took a visitor on a walking tour of an addict's world. Unskilled, unemployed and unable to read or write, he hustles -- sometimes stealing, sometimes selling deceptive merchandise -- to feed his drug habit and to support his style of living.
He contributes to an underground merchandise network in the city that provides expensive goods at drastically reduced prices to those willing to overlook the fact that the merchandise is often stolen.
"Sure, I steal sometimes," McDowell said. "But I've got something they want."
Within a span of six hours, McDowell parlayed a used block radio into a profit of $37 after a round of deals in which money gained from unsuspecting bargain-seekers was used to buy merchandise to sell to others at a profit.
He crisscrossed the city several times, from wholesale stores to back alleys and across vacant lots, into office buildings, department stores and restaurants. With charm and confidence he sold fake 14 carat gold chains to bartenders and parking lot attendants, cheap tool kits to street mechanics and taxi cab drivers and bottles of cologne to whomever and for whatever he could get above his $2-a-bottle investment.
"Time is money. If you're going with me, you got to walk fast," he said. "I'm a businessman, and a wise man invests his money to make more money."
McDowell, like many other addicts in the city, must find ways -- most of them illegal -- to feed a daily heroin habit costing anywhere from $40 to $80, or more a day.
His addiction worries and frustrates his father and stepmother and a young woman who cares about him. Yet, despite their pleadings and sometimes tears, he continues to live the vicious cycle of a junkie -- stealing, deceiving and begging to get more money for drugs.
"Everyday I look for someone to come to the door and tell me David has OD'd or has been killed," said Lois McDowell, his stepmother. "That would make me very sad, but I wouldn't be surprised."
David McDowell says, "I don't know all the reasons why I oil junk. But you feel the hurt that people don't understand you, that every time you touch something worthwhile it seems to crumble.
"Sometimes I feel like I don't have a chance, man," he said, adjusting the hood to his coat in the pouring rain. "The lifestyle is a vice. It just holds you there. There ain't nothing you can do."
McDowell, a short man with a razorcut part, a boy's build and keen features, said his addiction began gradually. He sold narcotics, hustling them to friends or others in his neighborhood. Then he began to "chip away" at his merchandise until, five years ago, he realized that he too, was an addict.
"I guess I started because it was the thing to do, like a fad, and I was bored," he said.
McDowell attended city schools, going as far as the 11th grade at McKinley High, he said. Yet he never learned to read. Truancy was a part of his problem.
Currently, he said, he is on an 18 months parole from Lorton prison on a larceny charge.
For the last few weeks, McDowell has been taking the legal narcotic methadone at a city-run clinic at 14th and Q streets NW. Methadone, which is also addictive, alleviates the pain of withdrawal from heroin, and the treatment at the clinic is designed to keep addicts from committing crimes to support their habits.
Since the city's war on heroin began about six months ago, the number of people treated at the 14th Street clinic has increased by about 100.
Often, clinic officials said, addicts in the program continue to use heroin periodically because of the euphoria it provides, unlike methadone.
Margie Truesdale, manager of the 14 Street clinic, one of 10 in the city that treats about 4,000 addicts yearly, knows McDowell and his addiction.
She says there are many like McDowell, who she describes as "generous, intelligent and warm, with all the qualities necessary to get ahead except the skills for a decent job."
"He's like so many of our youngsters who, after years of wasting their time and getting high, find out its too late to go back and get what they've missed," Truesdale said.
"They go around hoping for that magic something -- jobs and opportunities -- to come along. But it will never happen. They get caught in the quagmire without any tools to get out.
"In order to change the addict, you've got to change the lifestyle," she said. "You can replace the addiction, but how can you replace friends. You've got to replace one lifestyle with something better. If you're accustomed to being able to pick up a stolen $250 leather jacket on the [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] for $30, you're not going to be willing to spend your $30 on a cloth coat from Montgomery Ward. You end up drifting back into the streets where your friends and ties are."
McDowell said he feels alone and sometimes unwanted. Even though he has "friends" who endure the same lifestyle, he knows they are motivated by the same driving hunger that he says makes him take advantage of family and stranger alike.
"I'm not a criminal, man, I'm a nice guy," he said. "I feel that I'm into survival, and where I might take from you, I will give to another guy who needs help.
"Stealing is a spur of the moment thing," he said, after showing the clock radio to a man known simply as 'the Godfather' at a service station on 14th Street NW. The Godfather, without saying a word, unzipped the green leather briefcase. "No," he didn't want to buy.
"Sometimes I don't want to steal, you understand. But there is nothing else I can do," McDowell said. He pointed to a dollar sign tattooed on his right hand.
"This represents all that's going on in the world," he said, offering the radio to a woman sitting inside a restaurant at the Trailways bus station at 12th and I Streets NW.
She, too, said no, and McDowell walked ahead to the Burger King restaruant inside the bus station. He stood behind a middle-aged man with khaki pants and a slightly soiled workshirt. McDowell looked into the man's back pocket quickly and then reached in front of him for a napkin.
"It's too easy man," he said, after stepping back from the counter. "You see that man up there, his back pocket is opened and unbottoned. I'm a professional pickpocket. I didn't bother him. He probably didn't have much anyway."
From the bus station, McDowell crossed the street to the Greyhound station constantly looking for opportunities to pick pockets or steal something of value. He encountered a man in a long coat and carrying a suitcase. McDowell bumped into him, feeling the man's back pockets for a wallet. But it was in the man's front pocket, McDowell said.
Minutes later he was quick stepping down 12th Street and through Woodward and Lothrop, where he offered a cosmetics salesclerk his father's clock radio "for anything you can give me." She too, did not buy it.
And so it went for six hours through a wholesale shop, a beauty parlor, a parking lot.
By then, McDonnell has sold four chains, two metric tool kits and three bottles of cologne. His net was $37.
McDowell began to feel the grim reminder of his addiction in his stomach, and he headed for 14th Street near U Street; where a man in a floppy hat sold him "bam" -- street talk for amphetamine -- for $16.
McDowell took the amphetamine tabs to 13th and U streets NW to a two-story, rundown rowhouse, where others were shooting narcotics in what is commonly called a shooting gallery.
After injecting himself with "bam" in the privacy of the bathroom, he left and talked about a conversation with his parents the night before.
"My father loves me, and I love him, but he don't understand me," McDowell said. "He wants to me to live his way, but I can't. The average guy with any intelligence out here can make up to $100 a day just hustling. Why work for $15-$20 a day when you can't get anything better? I can't even fill out an application form."
David McDowell Sr. said, "I had hoped my son would get a good education and have a better life than I had, cooking and cleaning for a living."
McDowell's father threw up his hands and angrily stomped around the living room, hurling comments about laziness and thievery at his son.
"He stole a tape recorder from one of my boarders, and one of my $250 suits" his father said. "He's stolen his (stepmother's) wrist watches and three weeks ago picked her pocket and took $160. We won't give him keys to the house."
McDowell remembered the conversation and shrugged his shoulders. "Sometimes I do these things because they expect me to."
He boards a bus with a borrowed transfer and stares out the window as people and buildings whisk by, in blurred images reflected in the glare of rainy streets.
"You see that man back there," McDowell said, pointing to the back of the bus. "I would like to be wearing a $250 suit, have nice shoes, carry a briefcase and have my nails polished and cleaned.
"But I can't have that, he said, looking down at himself. "Here I am fresh out of Lorton and I want new shoes and new clothes and the only way I can get them is to hustle. There is only one thing I know how to do, and I've got to keep on doing it until something better comes along."