There are two paths to the cheerful white-red-and-yellow McDonald’s with the big WELCOME sign. One path leads up First Street NE, from D.C.’s Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration—APRA. Among people coming up that path are those who have been drug-tested and methadone-dosed for the day. They mix like kids on recess with the well-dressed, confident counselors in McDonald’s. A second path is down New York Ave. from North Capitol Street—where the wacked-out crowd trudges, hoping for a hot cup of coffee to tide them over from a cold spell on the corner. Yes, and there are those who wander in by car for a pick-me-up before a long haul on I-95, or from the produce warehouses off Florida Avenue, hungry after rising at dawn.

The entrance can be crowded with the pathetic, the near-dead, who haven’t got a nickel or cigarette to their name, and plead with their eyes. But inside it’s a fair, a marketplace, its buoyant self: the New York Avenue McD’s. Though it’s past 11 a.m., breakfast is still a popular item. Business (both for food and for side deals between customers) is better than brisk. Women in pretty hats of leopard skin and black velvet greet each other kindly: “How you feelin’?” A number of men have canes and hobble. One older man at the counter with an aluminum crutch is shaking so badly he can’t manage to carry his coffee back to the table. He bends over it and sips noisily right by the cashier, who ignores him. People step around him to give their orders. He beams and nods hello between sips.

At the tables, four men in wool hats seem to be arguing, arms flailing, all talking at once, a quartet with syncopated rhythms. They stir and tend the conversation as if it were a pot of stew. Then they laugh. “He 67 years old. We had two men up, two men down. You had to wear boots.” Men at a nearby table, one in a beret, the other in Muslim garb, are drawn in. A small woman with gold earrings and leather jacket joins the jumping group. Waving hands heavy with rings, an old man says, “Hey. You do the proper thing, do it with respect.”

Elegant in a spotless pea jacket, a tall man administers his escort service over a cell phone. “Just introduce yourself. Use first names,” he tells his office manager about a male model who is a prospective employee. “Keep good records.” A minister earnestly says to a man whose head hangs down, “In time of need you didn’t come to me….” A man with a magnificent gray mustache joins his Sikh brother; they are identically dressed in pink turbans and white shirts. Amid the buzz, their table is an island of formality.

The crisp manager dashes about, tending to every crisis, trouble with the deep fryer, a receipt that needs to be canceled. The order counter is spotless, despite the swirl of activity, the constant commerce. A man in a sweat shirt is sweeping up outside. The inside mop-up woman stops for a moment to exchange family news in Spanish with a young man vigorously biting into a Big Mac. They laugh softly.

A sign says “Official Metropolitan Police Work Station.” No cops at this hour.

But law is in the air:

“Then I got a letter saying I was terminated for misconduct.”

“You in trouble. Check out the D.C. Code, Substance Abuse. Still, it may not apply to you.”

An old man whose life belongings are piled on a nearby chair has been dozing with his head on the table, a cup of cold coffee by his ear. Suddenly, he wakes, stands, and neatly folds and rolls his goods. He walks quietly out of the First Street entrance, not greeting anyone.

Outside, at each of the five pay phones, there are two or three folks making deals, appointments, working out of jams. A man in a bright-red jacket circles the building, peering in the windows, anxiously looking for someone. On New York Avenue, a man wrapped in a blanket is dancing and shouting.

Down by APRA, a young man looks over his shoulder as he crosses the street, unzipping his pants. He pees at the base of a tree when he reaches the other side. A woman steps through the APRA door and tosses the remains of her lunch into the air, then stands there watching the pigeons and gulls dive for it. —Judith Larsen