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George is looking for love. Not the romantic kind—the kind that fills his cup enough to stay at a $92-a-night motel on Georgia Avenue. “I hung out in Wheaton,” he says, but “there wasn’t much love over there. Takoma Station, wasn’t no love over there. Somebody told me to come here. There’s love out here.”
George, 49, and his cup arrived in Bethesda about seven years ago. He sits on a black crate with a cardboard cushion every day in the direct path of people who give him the most love: teenagers. Their hangout is the courtyard outside the Regal Bethesda 10 on Wisconsin Avenue, a concrete cauldron where they’ve gathered for years, cooking up romance, reputations, skater cred, and often enough, a plan to get booze and cigarettes. Some of them say that’s where George comes in.
“I think a Mad Dog was $3. He would charge $6,” says Haley J., now 20, about her interactions with George when she was 15.
Chad, 18, says that he’d ask George to buy him cigarettes and alcohol, specifically vodka. “We’d ask him to buy three or four bottles….We’d give him two twenties. He’d keep the change.”
Jack W., 17, who has been hanging out at the movie theater since he was 13, says everyone knows George—or “Fat George” —and says he’s still conducting a thriving business. People, including his friends, buy alcohol from George “all the time,” he says.
Two years ago, police say George was supplying more than alcohol. According to an arrest report, George “admitted selling…marijuana to the juveniles after the juveniles put money in his panhandling jar.”
The kids were buying canisters of weed; two went for $65, police say. When asked by cops where they got them, the kids said: “George.”
George says he’s not distributing anything to kids anymore.
But James, 19, put it this way: If you’re young and thirsty in Bethesda, George is your guy. “The bottom line,” he says, “is it’s not hard to get alcohol when you’re underage. Everyone has a friend, or a sibling, or an ID.”
“In our area,” says his buddy, Will, “it’s usually George.”
George grew up in Edgewood and says he attended McKinley Technical High School. He says he used to be addicted to cocaine, and the D.C. Department of Corrections confirms he was incarcerated at the Lorton Correctional Complex. George says he was in there for selling drugs.
Avoiding temptation is what brought him to Maryland in the first place. “I want to stay out of D.C. because of my drug issue,” he says. “I started in front of the post office. I’ve been right here at this spot for four years.”
George typically hangs out from 11 or so every morning until it’s time to pack it up around 7 or 8 p.m. He won’t reveal how much money he collects on a given day, but he says he makes “what I need. If I need $50,” he says, he gets $50. “If I need $60,” he gets $60. He says Friday is his best day. “Friday’s a special day. When they get paid, I get paid.” He usually manages to make enough to cover lodging. “People give me money to make sure I go somewhere,” he says. That somewhere, these days, is the Motel 6 on Georgia Avenue NW, where there’s a pool, laundry facilities, free coffee, and Internet access. George says he and his friend, a guy he calls D.K., split the bill. It’s pricey, he says, but worth it. “I want to stay in a hotel where nobody uses.”
And, during the day, he wants to stay in Maryland, where his kids are. “My family walks up and down Wisconsin Avenue,” he says and rattles off the names of their high schools: Georgetown Prep, BethesdanChevy Chase, Gonzaga. “I’m not jiving,” he says, “I love these kids.”
When a young couple walks by, George recognizes the boy but not his date. He teases, “‘Hey man, who’s the girl?’….This is how I have my fun,” he says. A few minutes later, a boy, Adam, rides by on his bicycle and stops to chat. “This is one of my main sons here,” he says.
George’s backstory as a panhandler—battling drugs, arrested for burglaries—isn’t that surprising, unless you consider the specifics of some of his arrests. Around 10 p.m. on 9/11, for instance, he and a partner threw a cinder block into a Sears window and walked out with four chainsaws and a generator, according to a police report.
His most recent case before Montgomery County district court was a disorderly conduct charge in August 2006. He pleaded guilty.
Buying alcohol for kids outside the movie theater is something he used to do, he says. “A lot of things I used to do, I don’t do anymore. I done it in the past,” he says, “not for a 13-year-old, maybe a 17-year-old. I know better now.”
George’s preferred perch isn’t a place where alcohol is taken lightly. Montgomery County is the rare jurisdiction where the local government controls distribution of all beer, wine, and liquor. The county logo is on the front door of liquor stores, which all close at 10 p.m. MoCo stands out in other ways, too. Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, a coalition against drunk driving in and around D.C., says the county has “really distinguished” itself with creative enforcement of the rules.
A suite of programs and initiatives designed to clamp down on underage drinking includes the “Extra Eyes” program, “Parents Who Host Lose the Most,” and one designed for the kind of thing George says he doesn’t do anymore: “Mr. Wouldya.” Under its auspices, police officers are dispatched to parking lots outside of beer and wine stores where they look for homeless people and other adults willing to make transactions.
“A while back in Gaithersburg, we had a gentleman who…would charge anywhere from $10 to $25 depending on the quantity the kids wanted….That was his job,” says Officer William Morrison, who co-founded Montgomery County police department’s alcohol unit. “He was charged repeatedly. After that, he actually decided it wasn’t a good idea.”
Anne May is a nighttime nurse in the emergency department of Montgomery General Hospital. She’s also a volunteer for Extra Eyes, jointly administered by the Montgomery County police department and the Department of Liquor Control. Too often, she says, kids who are drunk and disoriented get wheeled into her ward. Their blood alcohol concentration can be twice the legal level, and sometimes, she says, it’s hard to keep them breathing. What troubles her is what happens to them before they arrive at the hospital. “We had one girl who was 17. Her mom came in. We gave her the clothes we had cut off [her daughter] and the mom said those were not the clothes she went out with. Then she’s left with, ‘Was she raped?’”
May’s tired of wondering what happened to these kids. She’s tired of pumping their stomachs and hooking them up to catheters. So, at 10 p.m. on a recent night, the silver-haired grandmother from Gaithersburg is on a stakeout. She and her partner for the night, Brian, who declined to give his last name, are sharpening their surveillance skills in a parking lot across the street from a Wheaton beer and wine store.
They’re looking for people who are under 21 or simply too drunk to be out on the streets. It’s May’s maiden voyage with Extra Eyes, and she’s quiet, observant. Brian, a veteran of the program, is more excitable. He holds a walkie-talkie in one hand and a doughnut in the other as he watches people shuffle up to the store. “It’s a great feeling taking somebody who could kill or injure…off the street,” he says. A cheerleader was killed by a drunk driver when he was a freshman in high school. He never forgot it, and he’s vowed to protect his wife and his 2-year-old son from similar fates.
For safety reasons, Extra Eyes volunteers generally aren’t supposed to follow their suspects, but Brian can’t help himself. He sees two young men exit the store with a case of beer, and he’s off, gunning the engine as he trails them through an alley and across the street. When he gets a closer look he says: “Yeah, they’re of age, both of them.…Dagnabit.”
Extra Eyes is in Wheaton tonight because local businesses have asked the police for backup. In December, volunteers conducted surveillance in Bethesda. There’s no set schedule for it. The cops, volunteers, and liquor regulators show up when they’re called.
Currently, Montgomery County is putting a lot of its anti-underage drinking muscle into busting teen alcohol parties, says Officer Morrison. Police scour Facebook and other Web sites to find out where the parties are and who is hosting them. Then they show up, lock the place down, hand out citations to the kids—and to the parents if they’re there. This year, police have issued 1,156 citations for underage drinking. By this time last year, they wrote 1,139.
Drawing the Line on Under 21 Alcohol Use, the county’s anti-underage drinking coalition, also created “Safe Line,” a tip line for informers to call in about places where kids might be drinking. In the spring, the coalition puts together a list of all prom locations and alerts nearby liquor-store owners. It also hosts a training session for limousine drivers, instructing them on how to identify kids who are drunk or high.
All these prevention efforts get a boost from MoCo’s centralized liquor policies. Kathie Durbin, division chief for licensure, regulation, and education for the county’s liquor control department, points to a 2006 study that backs up strict control of liquor sales. The study, conducted by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) compared the drinking habits of high school students in controlled jurisdictions with their peers in states and counties that are not controlled. The authors of the study, “Retail Alcohol Monopolies, Underage Drinking, and Youth-Impaired Driving Deaths,” found that 14.5 percent fewer high school students reported drinking alcohol over the course of a month in areas with retail monopolies on booze.
“What’s happened over the years is less underage drinking in Montgomery County than elsewhere in Maryland,” says Ted Miller, one of the study’s authors.
The high level of regulation isn’t lost on the kids. “Our county is really strict about alcohol,” says Chase, 18. “They have the whole alcohol force. There’s a section of the police department that their job is to bust parties,” says Steve, who’s also 18. But Steve says the enforcement only gins up teens’ enthusiasm to drink that much more. “It’s like telling a kid, ‘Don’t do this.’ He’s going to do it because he’s not supposed to.” Steve says he’s spent hours waiting outside liquor stores for an adult to buy him alcohol.
“The shoulder tap, that’s when you’re desperate,” Chase says. He usually gets alcohol from friends, or friends of friends, he says, and typically, getting a drink isn’t that hard. “Liquor is harder but beer is so easy,” he says.
Kids also tailor their tactics to Montgomery County’s restrictions. They know the cops are out to bust their parties, so they keep them small. “When we do have parties, it’s…10 or 15 people hanging out,” says Andrew, 17. “They’re not tiny parties. They’re just not sprawling, spilling out to the yard,” says Carol, 18. Kids say sometimes they’ve gone to D.C. to buy liquor. Sometimes they’ve gone to George.
The kids need role models, George says. “We try to keep them in line. Kids want to hang out late. You gotta motivate them to do the right thing.…Kids need to know they have a chance. A lot of kids today don’t know that. Mother’s busy. Father’s busy. So that’s what I tell them.”
Tekle Gislassie, who works at the Exxon station across the street from George’s post, says he doesn’t know what George tells the kids. But he has a guess there’s more than good advice being exchanged.
George comes in every day for cigarettes, sometimes multiple times, even though he doesn’t smoke. It’s how George makes money, Gislassie says. “There are a lot of people who do it. It’s not only him. A lot of people come to buy for the kids. I can’t refuse him.”
Just after 8 p.m. on a recent night, normally quitting time, George and his friend are still in their spot. A teenage boy with shaggy blond hair approaches, hands George what looks like a movie-theater soda, and they talk. A few minutes later, he hands him something else. The friend gets up and wanders away. When he returns after about 20 minutes, he points to the Exxon station. The boy follows his arm, ducks behind the station, and emerges with a black plastic bag in his hand.
For his part, George says he plans to keep on preaching to his kids, just as he always has. “Every year in school, you’ve got new kids,” he says. “They got to know me.”