Outside, the war has begun. Every park in the neighborhood has become a testing ground for bottle rockets on this Fourth of July evening, with children running among the trees and trying to shoot each other in the butt. Men have blocked off part of Georgia Avenue with a line of mortar-style pyrotechnics and are now setting off the munitions, much to the dismay of barricaded traffic.

Inside Howard University Hospital’s waiting room, however, the people have different problems. A man who’s just arrived has a nose that runs like a brook. When he snorts through it, the sound is not unlike what you hear when you use a straw to suck the last of a milkshake out of a cup.

“I got a real bad fever,” he tells the woman at the reception desk before taking a seat in the waiting room. Set in double rows down the hallway, the hospital chairs are remarkably comfortable, as if designed for extended use.

The glass entry doors slide open, flooding the room with the sound of whistling rockets. In walk three tough-looking men and a large woman. They tell the receptionist they’re looking for John, who’s been bashed in the head with a hammer, or maybe attacked by a guy named Hammer. (The hanging TV, locked on an in-house news channel, drowns out most of the conversation.) The receptionist tells them to wait. They walk outside instead.

Presently, a phalanx of teenage girls marches into the room, decked out in full teeny-bopper fashion: belts heavy with fake-chrome baubles; tight biker shorts; sunglasses, despite the night. At their center is a girl in dreads with her left hand dunked into a plastic mug of ice water. The lighthearted chatter of her six friends muffles her moans of agony.

The girls crowd around the desk. Their friend has burned herself, they explain; she held a bottle rocket a second too long. “I don’t want them to cut my ring off!” cries the injured girl, examining her swollen fingers. They are told to sit. Four do; three others leave for a cookout around the corner. “Bring me a hamburger,” pleads the walking wounded.

Scarcely have the doors slid shut before they yawn open again to admit an EMT pushing an unshaven man in a wheelchair. She parks him directly across from the man with the real bad fever, saying, “You just wait here, honey.” His nylon pants are ripped and his eyes are red. His T-shirt reads: “It’s me again, Lord.”

The bottle-rocket victim hears her name over the intercom and walks into the ER. In minutes, she’s back out in the anteroom. She’s been given an initial look-over and is now waiting for treatment. Her hand is still in the mug.

“Oh, let this water not get warm!” she wails. She spots a water fountain and walks over to refill her cup. When she pushes the fountain’s button, it gives way and falls into the machine’s interior, and her fingers vanish into the opening. She gives a sharp “Ouch!”

“You’re in the right place to be hurt,” observes one of her friends.

A man with his head wrapped in bandages strolls out of the ER. He’s just in time to meet the three toughies and their woman friend coming back in. After raining handslaps on the blood-splattered back of their turbaned friend, the tough guys troop out of the room, to the burning jealousy of everyone else. “OK, now, I’m getting kind of impatient,” says the injured girl.

Through the walls comes a loud thud. The fireworks on the Mall have started. The view from the window, however, is of a man peeing in the hospital’s holly bushes.

The man in the wheelchair suddenly pipes up: “Damn! Can’t get no service!” As if on cue, an orderly in green scrubs comes out from the ER to rearrange his chair. She pushes it into the middle of the hall, then puts it back in the same place. “Thank you,” he says. Seconds later, he’s asleep.

Fever Man is talking a string of trash to the TV, which is playing, for the eighth time, a news story about a guy who spat at a police officer and wound up with a life sentence. Into the room walks a young man with a bloody shirt wrapped around his left arm, right at the elbow-joint’s soft spot. He signs in and sits down.

“Two hours and forty minutes!” exclaims one of the girls. They start a chant—”We need a doctor! We need a doctor!”—but one girl breaks it off when a man hops by on one foot.

“Shit,” she says. “I couldn’t do that all day.” CP