The shifting, nervous junkies among the crowds at 14th and W streets NW have become a Washington landmark.
For five years, scores of heroin and cocaine addicts have invaded the neighborhood daily and transformed it into a 24-hour-a-day, open-air heroin and cocaine market. The drug traffic there is so entrenched that it has not yielded to a year-long campaign by police to close it down. Drug people fill the sidewalk and the street, circling in a morbid, slow-motion dance of find-the-dealer, then scattering into alleys when police make their frequent checks of the area.
Inside Soul Liquors at 14th and W there is laughter, friendly banter and the comfort of old friends getting together. It is more of a meeting place for neighbors, former residents and local cops than a traditional liquor store -- a rather ordinary place made extraordinary by the fact of its survival.
Store owner Allen (Rabbit) Eton presides over the shelves of liquor, stacks of Sunbeam bread and coolers of soda in the store he opened in a former clothing store damaged during the 1968 riots. He said an uncle was responsible for having the building faced with beige flagstone, making it stand out.
Like the host of a large party, Eton glides back and forth behind the high counter greeting most customers by name as he sells a pack of cigarettes, a bag of potato chips, a can of beer or daily lottery tickets. Often there are as many customers behind the counter as out front, with regulars using cases of liquor as chairs as they catch up on neighborhood news.
Eton said he serves just about everyone who comes through the door. But the drug market outside his store has changed the way he does business.
Eton keeps a bottle of rubbing alcohol beneath the cash register to clean his hands after taking money from an addict with running sores. He keeps medicinal soap in the bathroom for employes. And he bought an old-fashioned school bell to ring if someone who has recently injected drugs nods off while waiting to make a purchase.
Eton said that even when his store is busy, certain suspicious behavior stands out. "When it takes three men to buy one soda, I know what they are doing," he said. "They stand by the cooler and finally one picks up a bottle of soda and brings it over to the counter. The other two stay right by the cooler but they don't buy anything.
"Or, if I see two known drug addicts kiss each other, I can safely guess that they just passed drugs. But I don't actually see it, so I don't call the cops. If I called the cops for all the suspicious behavior I saw around here, I'd be standing on the phone all the time. It's that frequent. Sometimes somebody tells me something solid, and then I call the cops."
Eton said having drug users among his customers means double the work for his staff because they have to check the bread rack constantly for discarded syringes and the potato chip racks for hidden packets of drugs.
Tom Kearney, a long-time employee of the store who has an apartment on the second floor, said the constant demands to make change bother him. "They harass the hell out you," he said. "They always need change, big change. They have to have the exact bills to buy the drugs. They want you to change a $50 bill or a $100 bill so they will have the $40 for the drugs."
Drugs are hawked by dealers under various brand names. At 14th and W, heroin is sold as Mellow Yellow for $40 a packet and cocaine is marketed as Red Cap for $25.
Among the regular customers at Soul Liquors are the police assigned to the patrol the Third District, a square-shaped territory carved from the heart of the city that includes several drug markets and prostitution areas.
In the late afternoon, the narrow store sometimes looks like a police roll call room when as many as eight plainclothes and uniformed officers show up to take a break and chat with Eton, use the store phone or drink a soda.
Eton said police are effective in keeping the junkies out of his store. The police are not there all the time, Eton said, but when they are, no one tries to do anything illegal.
Officer Wayne (Booboo) Simpson, a plainclothes vice officer, said he has been visiting Soul Liquors for 11 years. In a neighborhood where more than half the commercial buildings are boarded up along the crowded streets, Soul Liquors offers an air-conditioned oasis, Simpson said.
"This is a friendly place," he said, lounging against the counter with his police radio to his ear. "I started coming in here back when I was pushing a scout car. A lot of neighborhood people come in here and that's nice. But there are also street people who cause some problems and we get them straight. And we save the place from robberies."
Eton encourages the officers to come in but said he gives them no favors except free ice for their soda purchases. He points out that there have been no robbery attempts at his store since he opened, and credits his good fortune to the presence of so many police officers and regular customers.
Christine Denson, wearing her Postal Service uniform, holds court from one of the crate-chairs behind the counter. She said she lived in the neighborhood for 15 years before moving out because of the drug traffic. But she delivers mail in her former neighborhood, and stops by Soul Liquors at the end of her shift.
"The people who come here are the neighborhood," she said. "Before drugs, this was a nice place to live." Not everything in this neighborhood is drugs and stabbings and shootings. There are still some good people here. But the drug people come and do their business in shifts. It's a real rat race, and you get tired of it."
William Stoutamire, who visits the store daily to buy beer and to bet on the lottery, said he moved out of the area after 40 years -- six of which he spent managing apartments at 1424 W Street -- because of the drug trafficking.
"It used to be a real nice place with grass outside and a fence," he said of the apartment house he once ran. "And there were benches for people to sit on. But five years ago, the junkies started to come into the building and it got pretty rough. They would walk in and urinate in the hall. And they would punch the lightbulbs out in the hallway and I'd be afraid to go upstairs to collect the trash."
Now the apartment building, like others in the row, has no fence and no benches, and the bare earth around it is packed hard by the many people who stand there day and night waiting to make their drug buys. The front door stands open and the walls are pitted with holes. The police regularly raid the building and ambulance crews visit often for drug overdose victims.
Eton said he is hopeful that the long-delayed opening of the new municipal building two blocks away at 14th and U streets will bring some change to his corner.
"My way of looking at it is that when the District building opens, Mayor Barry won't want his employes being bothered by all these drug people," he said. "This neighborhood has been down so long, it has to start to come back up. But we've waited a long time. Maybe things will get better. But I'll believe it when I see it."