With a microphone clenched in his meaty left fist and his jowls trembling with passion, 55-year-old Booker T. Hines was on quite a roll. For more than an hour the portly Anacostia preacher held forth at Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Avenue SE broadcasting "an outdoor message for Southeast Washington."
Punctuating his sentences with a stomp of his foot, his thick body draped in a red-and-black gown, he fulminated about drug dealers, prostitution and teen-age pregnancy, beseeching passers-by to "Wake up!" and "Save the chil'rens!"
"Shut up, you old fool!" a passing skeptic cried, but Hines didn't miss a beat. Not even the mocking sight of two kids spray-painting the words "Gangster George" and "Loveboat Lonnie" on a nearby brick wall could daunt him.
It was his message that mattered that sultry Saturday night, and by the end of the oration, when only five or six folks bothered to stop and chat at his Refreshing Rock Church of God in Christ, the preacher remained surprisingly buoyant.
"All you can do is try," he said, his gentle face creased with a smile.
On Good Hope Road, the art of trying comes in many splendid forms. To a 23-year-old haircutter named James (French Fry) Bellamy, creativity means forging a successful career at Danny's Barber Shop in the face of severe social and economic odds that have defeated, or killed, too many of his friends.
At Chase Auto Repair, "trying" is personified by three middle-aged brothers named Paul, Joe and Phil who, after decades of working as mechanics for others, decided to go into business for themselves this year and are finding on Good Hope Road the unlikely realization of a lifelong dream.
And to the workers at Real One Hour Cleaners, six sturdy women who sew, wash and press clothes eight hours a day in a workshop that seems 10 degrees hotter than the outdoor swelter, the art of trying is more precisely the simple art of survival.
"Each second that goes by I praise God for strength," said seamstress Barbara Stocks, a 29-year-old mother of three, as she stitched a torn pair of jeans. "There have to be some die-hards. You constantly have to remind yourself, 'I must stay, I must suffer the heat, I must work.' "
Between Martin Luther King Jr. and Minnesota avenues SE, Good Hope Road is not a pretty place. The three-block stretch comprises the commercial heart of Anacostia, the city's poorest community, and about a quarter of its 30 or so storefronts are either boarded up or abandoned.
It's known as "No Hope" to some, a grim patch of territory where the smell of desperation seems sharp. But a closer look reveals something far more precious about life on this historic little street, which 120 years ago was used as an escape route by presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth.
It's a place where people and their dreams endure.
"If I had to leave this place I don't know what I'd do with myself," said 44-year-old Paul Chase, his face moist with sweat, as he bent over the steamy metal innards of a customer's 1983 Buick. "Me and my brothers been workin' so long to get here that a day missed is a day wasted."
Down the street at a soul food restaurant called the Happy Inn, owner Ernest Williams merely chuckled when a visitor asked if he planned to escape the Anacostia heat this year. "Vacation?" he exclaimed. "A vacation doesn't pay the rent or feed the kids."
And at Danny's Barber Shop, French Fry Bellamy explained that he couldn't imagine taking any time off because he was trying to save enough money to open a barber shop of his own one day.
"That's not the only reason," he admitted in a soft voice, as he clipped a teen-ager's afro. "My mother had a pretty bad stroke last Saturday. I'm not about to leave her."
To an outsider, every day would seem a dog day on Good Hope Road, regardless of the season.
This time of year, when the sun hangs above the smoggy haze like a great white ball, the small clusters of neighborhood drunks and panhandlers retire to the shade of abandoned storefronts, leaving the sidewalks a virtual no-man's-land of broken bottles, cigarette stubs and flattened wads of gum.
Business here includes sprawling branch offices of the District's Social Services Commission and Department of Employment Services, an understandable phenomenon considering that the average household income among Anacostia's 80,000 residents is $13,167 a year, the lowest in the city. Its 13.5 percent rate of unemployment is equally distressing.
Indeed, there seems to exist very little to inspire either hope or creativity. Yet among the merchants, workers and storefront preachers there are riches of both.
"So what's it look like, Mr. Fry?" a young fellow asked French Fry Bellamy the other day over the strains of a pop tune playing on the barber shop radio, as Bellamy finished clipping his hair.
"Tell you the truth, bro, you look better than you deserve," he replied, elicting gales of laughter from the crowd of 15 or so young men waiting to have their hair cut.
At 23, French Fry Bellamy has become something of a legend on this block, a cheerful young man who grew up in a fatherless home in a nearby public housing project and got his first job when he was 14.
"We were so poor I didn't know whether we were going to eat from day to day," he said, leaning against a sign on the mirror behind him that reads, "Fry Time! 8:30 to 6, Monday through Saturday."
"I figured there had to something more out here than the welfare check we were getting."
One July morning he came to the barber shop, owned by Nathaniel (Danny) Harper, and was given a part-time job sweeping floors and shining shoes. A slender man with skin the color of a french fry, he was affectionately given his nickname by barber shop regulars and has been known by no other name since.
He grew to appreciate the easy camaraderie of the customers and the skill of the barbers, and he soon felt a swelling sense of ambition.
"I was so young I didn't know anything outside of the projects," he said. "It was like a miracle coming here. I found something I really wanted to do."
He wanted to cut hair, and to do that he went to high school at the District's Chamberlain Vocational Education Center, where he earned a master barber's license and a certificate in cosmetology in 1980.
His life easily could have turned out much differently, he said, dropping an apron over a customer. "I mean, look at the odds. I had three main running buddies when I was kid. You know where they are now? One was murdered a while back; the other two are locked up.
"I think my mother's the main reason I'm not with them," he went on. "She used to run up the street with a broomstick to get me to come back home."
Nine years after that first July morning, Bellamy is the chief barber among the four at Danny's, a popular figure who cuts as many as 20 heads a day and seems as skillful in crafting a "Philly Cut" as he is shooting the breeze with his faithful following about life on Good Hope.
The other day the men at Danny's talked about musical groups that were performing in town, such as Ayre Rade and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, and the relative merits of songs such as "Bustin' Loose" and "I Need Some Money."
Then Bellamy, running his clipper along the sideburns of a drowsy, sad-faced, elderly man, mentioned an extraordinary raffle that was being advertised at Union Temple Baptist Church around the corner.
"They're going to give away a new Mercedes to the winner," he said wistfully, one tooth missing in the corner of his smile. "They had it parked out front the other day."
"Yeah, I saw that bad boy," a youngster seated near the door answered. "Thing was sitting there all afternoon. I'm surprised nobody took the hubcaps."
It was then that the elderly fellow awoke. "Hub caps, hell!" he exclaimed in a gruff baritone. "Around here, they takes the whole damn thing!"
Of all the laughs that rocked the shop, the barber's seemed the merriest.
It was the heat that figured most prominently in conversations on Good Hope Road last week, and nowhere was that topic taken more seriously than at Real One Hour Cleaners.
"Don't come back here, son!" 50 year-old Gloria Jackson yelled at a stranger, as she stood, a towel around her neck, pressing shirts on a steam machine behind the counter. "You'll pass out, I'm warning you."
Indeed, the indoor heat, fueled by hot-air dryers and other contraptions, was utterly numbing in the shop, despite six large ceiling fans that created a small tornado.
As if adding insult to the inferno, the place was jumping with noise, including the whoosh and clanky-clank of washing machines and the loud, staccato puff of the presses.
Yet the women at Real Cleaners seemed to endure it all with quiet grace, making their way through another eight-hour day with grit, humor and a truly heroic sense of optimism.
"When I first came here a couple of summers ago, I really didn't know if I'd make it," said Loretta Johnson, a 28-year-old mother of one, as she slipped another pair of trousers on her press. "I said to myself, 'All the jobs in the world and you pick the hottest one in town.'
"But it wasn't just the heat," she went on, as her mates looked on with the kind of sympathy often shown by old war buddies. "I burned my hands so often on this darn thing I had bandages all over my fingers. I kept getting terrible colds, too. I figured it was because I was sweating so much."
But she persevered, she said. "I took it all as a personal test. I had to; $150 a week may not seem like much, but I need every penny."
If the heat and noise isn't enough to defeat even the most rugged of souls, there's always the sheer drama and occasional danger of life on Good Hope Road. "Last year one of our girls was mugged one night just after quitting time," said Jean Bailey, a grandmother and veteran counter clerk who has worked at the cleaners for 18 years.
"Crime's a fact of life here, but you can't let anything defeat you. You should see how some people act when they walk through that door. I thought one guy was gonna have a heart attack, he was screaming so loud about a spot in his pants we couldn't get out. I mean, I was scared."
On Good Hope Road, she said, you have to think and act "creatively" in order to survive.
"I was very quiet and listened to this guy rant and rave until he ran out of breath," she said. "Then I said very softly, 'Sir, I'm real sorry, but I just can't sing with you. But if you want, I'll be more than happy to talk.' "
Bailey's mates laughed along with her for several moments as they continued working the presses. Then she sighed, wiped a bit of moisture from her brow and moved a little closer to the doorway to catch a breath of air from the street.
It was 89 degrees outside, but she said the breeze felt relatively cool.
At Chase Auto Repair, meantime, where it seemed just as difficult to find haven from the heat as it was to sort out the lively crowd of Chases who were busy tuning cars and changing tires, coolness was far more a state of mind than body.
"You should have been here Tuesday. We had to work on a cab that had an overheated motor," said Paul Chase, as he stood smiling, wrench in hand, against a greasy pillar in the garage. "Now that was hot."
There were seven Chases on duty this day, including Paul's brothers, Phil, 42, and Joe, 55, and an assortment of sons and nephews who joined the family operation shortly after it opened in March. The family hails, appropriately enough, from Mechanicsville in rural southern Maryland and prefers the 58-mile round-trip commute to the prospect of moving to the city.
"There's no jobs in St. Mary's County," explained Joe Chase, a shy, bespectacled fellow who considers himself an expert in front-end alignments. "But it's much easier on the mind to live there. All of us have been coming to work in Washington ever since we were young."
Among them the three brothers, who were raised on their father's tobacco farm in St. Mary's, acquired more than 80 years of experience in auto repair at various garages in town.
"But we always had this idea, ever since we were kids, that one day we'd end up working together, like the three musketeers," said Paul Chase, the garage manager.
"We weren't getting any younger, so one day last winter we finally got together and said, 'Let's do it.' All of us were tired of sweatin' so much for other folks."
"But the main thing," added Joe Chase, "was we wanted something to leave for the kids."
And of those there are many, he said with a sigh. Among them the Chase brothers have sired 18 children, who in turn have made them grandpas 31 times over.
So they scraped up as much cash as they could, scouted a few vacant garages and settled on 1320 Good Hope Road SE despite the unsavory reputation of the neighborhood.
"Couple of years ago a guy was murdered over there during a robbery," said Paul Chase, pointing at a desk in the lobby. "But you have to take risks. To tell you the truth, this is a great place to work. We haven't had any trouble at all."
Ken Chase, Paul's 20 year-old son, agreed, but had one complaint. "The people in this city are too wild," he said. "I take cars out for a test drive and I can't go two blocks without somebody coming up to me wanting to sell some drugs."
Today, six months after the garage opened, the Chase brothers are averaging 14 cars a day, according to Paul, a growing volume that goes a long way toward tempering the fear of failure with which they started their adventure.
"The whole time we were working for other garages we had regular customers who liked our work. They just followed us here when we moved," Joe Chase said. "We also do work for seven different cab companies."
The $2,000-per-month rent they pay for the garage, a sum that originally seemed "astronomical" to him, is now easily met by the end of the first week of each month, he said.
"What we'd like to do now is get an option to buy the place," Joe Chase added, so sure are he and his brothers that their Good Hope dream will continue.
The other day, amid the cacophonous sounds of air-powered wrenches and hydraulic lifts, the brothers and their sons were hard at work on seven cars, razzing each other about everything from Phil's hairdo to Joe Junior's taste in clothes.
At about 3 p.m., however, their labor was mirthfully interrupted when Paul Chase's wife Carolyn suddenly strolled into the garage with four of their grandchildren in tow after spending the hot afternoon visiting relatives in the city.
Upon seeing their grandfather the children squealed in delight and raced after him to a stairwell. Up the stairs they bounded, through an open door, across the floor of the lobby to a vending machine against the wall.
There, as the children watched in breathless glee, Paul Chase pulled a shiny key from his pocket, a telltale gesture that augured a certain magical relief from the August heat.
"What'll it be?" he said softly, eyes sparkling, as he finally opened the door. "Coke, Sprite or root beer?"