The children come out when the sun goes down, strolling along shortcuts through tall weeds and crabgrass to a junction of litter-strewn streets where the suburb meets the city. Among fireflies and drunken men, a few of them with a bit of money to spend munch on chicken and fried fish in the parking lot of Fat Daddy's Carryout. A few pedal their bicycles past Pleasant Liquors and the "Genesee Beer" billboard that provides a summer shelter for the derelicts, Jo Jo and Shorty Ray.
Some children innocently gossip about Sister Rita, the palm reader whose business is just across the six-lane highway, while others kid each other about the attorney next door to her. "That's where you gonna end up, Petey!" The attorney's fees for defending clients--from accused shoplifters ($250) to accused murderers ($1,500)--are clear for all to see on a large white sign that hangs ominously out front.
In this scarred and ragged section of Seat Pleasant, just across Eastern Avenue on George Palmer Highway in Maryland, few things are ever what they were intended to be. The map suggests this is suburb, conjuring images of parks and peace, and 50 years ago it was surely thus--a dreamy distant place with open spaces, fresh air and streetcars and railway lines leading to the city and the beach.
Now, overrun by the city, it's a rundown place where crumbling sidewalks and trash-filled gutters line cracked and oil-stained streets. It's a place peppered with gas stations, abandoned houses, auto repair shops, liquor stores and storefront churches--a ghetto place, really, offering just enough to get on the road when it's time to flee and barely enough to survive if one must stay.
And nowhere is the mood of this misfit place more striking than in the faces and words of its children. Where the suburb meets the city, the city prevails and they know it best. Speak with them and they're likely to betray the kind of edgy suspicion of strangers and questions that only an age far beyond their years could provide. And when the kids do speak, when the wariness eventually peels away, their talk is often about drugs or the latest crime or other reckless things.
They chase evenings into nights at dark and noisy cafes such as M and M Munchies on Eastern Avenue and Skipper's Inn on Palmer Highway where, like suburban kids elsewhere, they slip quarter after quarter into video and pinball games, striving for high scores and a brief relief from nothing to do. But the innocence and the similarity seem to stop right there.
"A few nights ago," said District Commissioner Gwen Williams, who works the night shift at the Seat Pleasant substation of Prince George's County Police, "I had to charge two boys who were arrested for armed robbery. I had to stand up to address them because they weren't big enough to see above the ledge here. One was 9 years old, the other 7. They'd borrowed their daddy's .38 and tried to hold up a store."
According to police, 70 percent of the persons arrested each year in the high-crime inner-beltway district stretching from the Suitland Parkway through Seat Pleasant to Hyattsville are juveniles. In the town of Seat Pleasant alone 45 percent of the population is between the ages of 10 and 21 and of these 2,340 young people, 18 percent have had some run-in with the police and 41 percent regularly consume alcohol. Two-thirds of the 13- to 18-year-olds are either unemployed or have never been employed, according to a recent survey conducted by the Fairmont Heights Youth Crime Prevention Center, a 3-year-old, state-funded project.
In gloomy parking lots and on dim street corners money and drugs are exchanged as easily as pleasantries, among grown-ups and juveniles alike. An odd concoction called "Lovely" seems to be the drug of choice among the youths. It sells for $3 a joint, $15 for an ounce bag, and $200 for a pound. The children, eyes wide with mischievousness, say "Lovely" is marijuana sprinkled with embalming fluid, while the police who patrol these parts say it is marijuana laced with PCP. In any case, "you be lunchin' on it," according to one 14-year-old boy.
When night falls, the streets become a kind of suburban copy of U Street NW. A netherworld where the kids still talk about the exciting time last summer when a young drug dealer was shot in the chest in the parking lot of Skipper's Inn. He stumbled around for several minutes before collapsing dead in the middle of Palmer Highway.
"There's nothing here for kids except trouble," said Thelma Duckett of 6010 Addison Rd., a single mother of four children ranging in age from 15 months to 14 years, who works as a mail clerk in Alexandria. "Every day I go to work, leaving my kids to drive my mother crazy. I worry about whether the drugs are gonna get them, the traffic, or just some crazy fool out on the street with a gun."
"Here," said Herman Carter, director of the Seat Pleasant Recreation Center on Palmer Highway, opening the center's burglar-proof metal back door and pointing at the pavement outside. It's a tiny space littered with shattered liquor bottles and empty yellow envelopes that once contained marijuana. "Kids, junkies, winos--they all hang out here a lot. That's just a couple of nights' accumulation. I've actually found bottle caps and hypodermic needles here. Right here," he said, shaking his head.
The town of Seat Pleasant, bordered roughly by Central Avenue, Palmer Highway and the Capital Beltway, was incorporated in 1931. It grew from a sleepy slice of farm and grazing land into a predominantly white middle-income bedroom community. In 1959, when the town still boasted a thriving business district, an American Legion Post, a civil defense program and its own police force, a law was passed by the city council establishing a weekday curfew of 10 p.m. and a weekend curfew of midnight for everyone under 18. Town parents, concerned about rowdy parties and late teen-age dates, applauded the law, which stipulated that offenders would be hauled to Juvenile Court and their parents fined.
Today that law rests like a time capsule in the dusty pages of the town code at City Hall, unseen, unamended and ostensibly still in effect. But the tranquil semi-rural town that passed it so many years ago is far from the same. The Legion Post became the Lighthouse Gospel Church of God 15 years ago; what's left of the business district is sputtering for air like a junkyard Ford, and the police force was disbanded in 1975 when the town was no longer able to afford it. With a population of 5,217--down from 7,212 a decade ago--Seat Pleasant is now 91 percent black and suffers an unemployment rate of 18 percent, more than twice the county average.
Nearly a fifth of the households are on welfare and 23 percent are headed by single parents.
"Actually," said Mayor Frank Blackwell, a plump, amiable man, "statistics are misleading. It's a fine place to live for the most part. We have quite a few middle-income people here who care a lot. With the kids, I think the main problem is motivation. They need more of it."
Deatrice Miles, a 17 year-old student at Duval High School, agrees: "What counts is what you make of the neighborhood. Longs' you don't hang out in the streets and get mixed up with what's going on there, it's cool," she said. Adding that most of her friends get high on a regular basis and that she knows more than a dozen neighborhood boys who have been in and out of jail.
The town still includes middle-income families in tree-lined hamlets such as Peppermill Village and Pleasant Valley, but for many, especially the children, the suburb seems no suburb at all. The Jumbo supermarket resembles a medieval house of detention, with thick steel bars and riot-proof screens. It has a large white sign warning citizens that an armed security guard is always on duty. Nearby, a small letterboard sign in front of a tire dealership beseeches the people to "Love Each Other. Talk to Others. Help Them. If You Can."
And it seems that everything and everyone, from the Pentacostal House of Gospel to Sister Rita the Palm Reader, are protected by safety bolts, burglar alarms and high-intensity street lights.
"I once counseled two 14-year-old girls in the neighborhood who'd been suspended from school and didn't know what to do with themselves," said Myrna Watkins, a slender, lively woman who directs the Youth Crime Prevention Center in nearby Fairmont Heights. "They didn't want to go home and they couldn't go to school, so they decided on a plan between themselves, you know, a quick way to survive and earn money and live on their own.
"They were going to head to the airport," she said, "and pick up strangers. They figured there were lots of easy marks over there. They were actually going to prostitute and set up shop in some motel. You see, that was the one and only option that seemed worthwhile to them. That was all they could see. Fortunately, after a few hours, I was able to steer them home again. But sometimes our staffers will return from trips to the city and say how depressing it is to see one or two of the young women from around here hanging outside of bars and lounges there."
As for the boys, Watkins said, "there is some truth to the notion that many of them consider it a form of honor or courage to have been confined at Boys Village or the Lorton Youth Center."
For instance, Keith Davis was celebrating his 18th birthday one recent night at Skipper's Inn surrounded by friends, a sister and a younger brother. Many of the Skipper's regulars hadn't seen Davis for some time, and several of them ambled by to slap his hand in welcome. He had no job, little money and there were, he said, no gifts bestowed upon him. But he said it was all right because he really didn't expect anything.
"Where've you been?" a stranger asked.
Keith remained silent, dragging on a cigarette.
"Tell him, Keith," his brother, 17-year-old Timmy, said.
Keith, a lanky youth with almond-colored skin, abruptly took off the baseball cap he was wearing, and smiled.
"They gave me this at Lorton," he said, displaying a head shaved nearly bald. His brother laughed and pointed. His sister nodded. "He ain't jivin, you know."
"Two years I was there, over at the Youth Center . . . . I got ripped off by this Bama in a crap game, so I went and got a board and beat up on him. Beat on his back and head so hard the damn board broke . . . . Hurt him pretty bad."
"Keith," his sister said softly, "that boy almost died."
Keith replied, "Tha's what they tell me," before sauntering over to a video game.
Summer seems a miserable season in this section of Seat Pleasant, mixing liberation from school with the blues of idleness. The public library down Addison Road from Palmer Highway is usually deserted this time of year, and it costs $79 to send a teen-ager to summer school--a sum few families can afford. Children under 13 can't attend at all because the county excised its elementary summer program from the budget three years ago. And while there are parks and playgrounds nearby, there's only so much time one can spend shooting hoops or riding bikes in the heat and steam.
So summer moves along, the children play, and the police--"the rollers" to the kids--closely watch them grow. Shortly before midnight on a recent Friday, Officer Frank Haring was dispatched to a housing project off Palmer Highway where a tenant had complained about vandalism. As Haring cruised up the darkened six-lane strip, swerving to avoid pedestrians and groups of children on bikes, he checked the address on a front seat manifest and sighed.
"I was there last night about this time," he told a passenger. "There was a knifing. A 14-year-old kid got into an argument with another boy over some marijuana deal and pulled out a blade and cut him from the side of his head all the way down to his waist. The one boy went to P.G. General, and the other was released back to his stepfather."
Moments later Haring entered the kitchen of a ground-floor apartment on Village Green Drive. In a corner beside the stove, David, the short, dark-skinned teen-ager charged with assault the previous night, listened as his stepfather described how several teen-aged relatives of the knifing victim had retaliated by tossing bricks through his windows, showering the living room with glass.
"It's gonna get worse, I'm telling you," the stepfather complained. Haring agreed, shrugging his shoulders and replying that the most he could do for the moment would be to take a report. Back in the patrol car, Haring said he had a hunch someone, probably a kid, would soon be killed over this. But in the kitchen, he could only try to mollify the stepfather as David folded his arms over his gray Pac Man T-shirt and remained silent and intensely guarded . . . a suburban kid with a city face