After the brawl: "It's like an addiction to come down here."
This is one in a series of pieces that will appear on Story Lab Wednesday based on reporting by seven Washington Post staff writers who spent Tuesday night in Washington's East End, taking in the scene in the aftermath of last Friday's brawl in the Metro system, talking to the teens who have taken to hanging out in the city's new tourism and entertainment district, as well as to police, residents, tourists, and business owners. Reporter Brigid Schulte spent the evening talking to the young people who hang out in front of the Portrait Gallery and the Verizon Center:
Malik Monroe is 19 years old. He wears skin-tight, stone-washed capri jeans, a tight white T-shirt and ice blue Air Jordans. Half of his long dreads are dyed a flaming red and all are bundled into a knot, held with a band and stick straight up from the top of his head like a floppy carrot top. Gallery Place, he said late Tuesday night, sitting on a low wall near the Metro station on 7th and H streets NW, is like a second home.
“It’s like an addiction to come down here,” he laughed, his eyes widening with the admission that he comes to hang out here nearly every other night in the summer, at least on nights he doesn’t have to babysit for his two-year-old son.
He lives “across the bridge,” on Minnesota Avenue NE, he said. On the nights he’s drawn to the lights, the commotion, the crowds and the excitement of the unknown — anything can happen down here — he gets himself ready, boards the Orange Line train in the evening and, if the street is jumping, he’ll stay until 1, 2, sometimes 3 in the morning, when the Metro trains stop running. “It depends on how lively it is.”
The nights down here are full of possibility. “It’s been like this since I was 14,” he said. “Everybody comes down here. You see your friends and stop and have a chit-chat. And there’s different people all the time. You never know who you’re going to meet.”
His cell phone rings. He nonchalantly puts one ear bud in. “Yeah, uh, where you at?”
John Johnson, 19, saunters over with one of the free cans of Pringles potato chips that volunteers in Mardi Gras beads have been handing out along the crowded street all night. He perches on the wall next to Monroe. Johnson wears a bright yellow T-shirt with a scoop neck, a blonde wig with the dreads hanging down into his eyes, giant earrings in the shape of gold stars and bright green tennis shoes. Beads of sweat from the heat of the night have gathered in the razor stubble above his lip.
Johnson, like Monroe, is a regular here. “It’s chill and relaxed,” he said. He comes in from Benning Road on the bus or Metro to hang out. “We like the stores. And it’s colorful.”
During the day, Johnson and Monroe attend Luke C. Moore Academy alternative high school in the District. (Its website reads, “We’re known for our second chances for youth.”) Monroe works at a McDonald’s near his house; Johnson, at a Starbuck’s.
But the night belongs to the raucous strip here that runs from the noisy Jumbotron on the corner near the Chinatown gate, past the shops on 7th Street to the steps of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
Back and forth and back and forth, they walk the noisy strip among throngs of tourists and restuarant goers, street preachers, do-gooders handing out “Truth About Drugs” pamphlets, fans heading to the Verizon Center and gawkers. Sometimes they go to the movies. Most nights, they eat something, usually at Chipotle. They shop.
They refuse to have their photos taken. “Oh, I’m not camera ready,” Monroe said, patting the back of his head and giggling.
More friends saunter by. One — he sports large gold earrings that spell out “Loverboy,” purple Ked-like tennies, a cluster of copper bracelets running halfway up his forearms and his hair knotted in clusters of small, tight knobs — refuses to give his name, saying only that he works at a Safeway in Southeast and that he’s a runway model from Maryland. Another, smoking a cigarette and calling himself Lemon Meringue Pie — “That’s what people call me. They say I dress so colorful, like a lemon meringue pie” — shows off the leggings and tunic top he just bought at Forever 21.
Keeona Calvines, 19, who lives in Upper Marlboro and has the name of his ex, “Gary,” tatooed on his arm with stars around the name, said he loves the lights and the scene around Gallery Place. “It’s basically like a D.C. Times Square,” he said. “It’s just fun.”
An ambulance screams by. A corner preacher cries above the screeching feedback on his sound system, “Sing it loud and strong! Sing it all night long!” A tatooed couple stroll by handing out 20 percent-off gift certificates to Topp Dog Tattooz. Calvines squeals, “Ooooh!”
A young girl hanging out with a gaggle of other girls a few yards away hauls off and spits defiantly.
“Girl, stop acting ghetto!” Calvines calls out.
Lemon Meringue Pie said he never hangs out on the Portrait Gallery stairs. “Those are ghetto people. It’s all gang-related.”
Calvines opens his eyes wide and shrugs.
Monroe yawns. He has been waiting for the H Street bus. It’s 10:21, the night is young, but he’s had it and is going home. “It’s boring tonight. There’s nothing to do. It’s not alive.”
The best nights, he said, are Fridays. “It’s real, real popular on Friday.” That’s when there’s so many people, things can get crazy.
Crazy like last Friday, when Metro Transit police said 70 youths were involved in a massive brawl that spilled onto the Metro, injuring four passengers, scaring scores of others and resulting in three arrests?
“I wasn’t here,” he said quickly. He and the other youths hanging around the Metro station rush over to the free U Street shuttle, making one of its 20 runs a night between Chinatown and the Minnesota Avenue Metro station, and pile on.
They make it through the light and disappear into the jostling traffic of 7th Street.
| August 11, 2010; 1:08 PM ET
Categories: Build-A-Story, Local Life, coffee house newsroom
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