Charles and Matthew, both 20 years old, talk to me about cutting paths down to the Anacostia River while police gather around us in the Subway sandwich shop. Maybe they would share more about their experiences on the streets if an officer weren’t eating at the table behind us. But they act like it’s no big deal and explain that the police stare at them all the time. “Even if you’re a good person, they ask you what you’re doing,” Matthew says. Things were worse before Charles and Matthew cut their dreads, though. “Everyone got into it [having dreads], and that look became another stereotype. We were always looked at funny.”

So I’m the only one counting officers, and while I count, Charles rereads the back cover of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. I’ve brought him this book because he tells me he loves to read, and has not yet discovered Baldwin’s magic. I’m counting, Charles is reading, and Matthew talks on about how they’ve got to “stay five steps ahead of their generation” and off their neighborhoods’ dead streets if they’re going to go positive and get to the next level.

Charles and Matthew, now good friends, didn’t know each other before applying for the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) program and beginning “tryouts” five weeks ago. At first glance, they couldn’t be more different. Matthew will talk my ear off, making good points and confirming with every word the determination his recent actions reveal. He’s one of the lucky ones, he tells me, to have had his father around growing up. Matthew’s parents divorced when he was 13, and he rarely stayed in the same school two years in a row, but his father kept him focused.

For much of the past year, in addition to graduating from high school and working, Matthew tended to his father, a type-2 diabetic. “It was like a roller coaster, taking care of him. It was only me taking care—bathing and feeding him—but it kept me off the streets. A lot of people in the program don’t have a father around and that’s a problem.” Matthew’s father died less than two months ago.

Charles has been taking care of himself since the age of 13, living with his grandmother from time to time and living “around” Anacostia otherwise. He’s seen little of his father, who’s currently incarcerated, and will soon take the GED exam. After that, “I want to apply for a job that gives me a career,” he says. “The river’s a good job. If it’s a career, I’d do it. Anything to do with the environment, I’d do.” He talks less than Matthew and doesn’t go into detail about how he spends his spare time, though he has more of it than he wants. He can’t stop looking at Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.

They both came to ECC seeking a way to a career and out of a street life they don’t want and can’t escape easily. Approximately one-half of last year’s class dropped out, and one member was murdered weeks before graduation. Charles and Matthew are not daunted. They’ve made it through the trial period, one path-cutting day at a time. Now all they have to do is wait for confirmation that they’re accepted, and keep themselves busy and off the streets until the 11-month program starts, in mid-September.

The first time Charles and Matthew worked on a riverside cleanup, they were asked to cut a trail from the middle of Kingman Island to the Anacostia shoreline. These trails have to be cut and cleared before wetland planting along the shoreline and other water cleanup efforts can occur. “We were surrounded by trees,” Charles tells me. “I asked Josh [their service coordinator] how much to cut. He said it was for us to decide.”

As they describe cutting that first path, and the many others they made in the five weeks, they shake their heads and laugh, and the Subway customers, police and nonpolice alike, look over at them, as if curious to find out what could crack up people unlucky enough to be working down by D.C.‘s navy yard on a Saturday afternoon. They describe being surrounded by trees and feeling like there was a never-ending land of bushes separating them from the Anacostia River. “We would try one way that seemed like a path, but was a dead end,” Matthew tells me. Often, they ran into “spider bushes,” Matthew’s name for the crazy bushes that thwarted their best bushwhacking attempts.

Charles leans in, pushing aside the Baldwin book for the moment, to tell me of the Matthew Rule: “Don’t stop for a full lunch break, because if you do, you’ll have a hard time getting back to work.” This cracks them up again. And I am struck by how much younger they suddenly seem, talking about paths they cut during hot summer weeks that they both describe as tiring and dirty but fantastic all the same.

I put down my pen at that moment and say, “Not to get too into metaphors, but it’s kind of cool, right, that you were tasked with forging paths to the river, when that’s what you’re doing for yourselves, through this program?” Their reaction: polite nods and slightly blank expressions. I feel old, even though I’ve just learned Matthew hangs out weekend nights in the same neighborhood, Adams-Morgan, as I do. Of course, by the time he arrives, heads for one of those shops along the 18th Street strip that sells massive pizza slices, and takes in the sidewalk scene, I’m leaving the local salsa club, Habana Village, for home and sleep. I try to explain. Then I pick my pen back up.

No matter how many shopping carts, lawn mowers, and tires Matthew and Charles have to remove, and no matter how many days the temperature climbs into the 90s, the challenges of working by the river pale in comparison to those they’ve faced in their neighborhoods. That bad things can happen to kids trying to change was made all too clear to them when Aaron Leon Teeter, the first ECC volunteer in the previous year’s class to finish his hours, was murdered. Aaron had taken the long way home from work each day to avoid the people he’d known during his life on the streets. He was determined to break out, just like Charles and Matthew are, but it didn’t matter. He was shot after yielding to an old acquaintance’s insistence that he come outside one night to watch others play basketball.

Charles has been on the streets for seven years and was expelled from high school five years ago. His best friend lost his life over a jacket, and that moment marked the turning point for Charles. He describes the jacket, how his friend was given the jacket, and how no one else around Anacostia had a jacket like it. And then he just shakes his head. Charles has seen things he’s not going to share with me anytime soon. But the fact that he’s made it this far, healthy and holding a plan for his future, tells me he can hold his own.

Matthew alludes to the times he screwed up early on, but doesn’t elaborate. What he does talk about is the ease with which his friends dropped out of school around the 11th and 12th grades and the way so many headed for the streets. Serious support from his father pulled Matthew back on track, and he’s working hard to stay there. “I went to night school for the final credits I needed. They got straight to the point and got it done. I liked that, because I like getting things done yesterday.” Now that his father’s gone, Matthew is looking for a second job to supplement the anticipated ECC pay and give him something to do. Neither Matthew nor Charles wants to spend any free time on the streets. They’re counting on acceptance notices from ECC to help them find their way.

These two stand a great chance of winning slots in the program, but the staff they now consider family has disbanded for reasons they don’t want to share in great detail with young people needing to believe in the program. The ECC board must now hire new staff, and the start date has been pushed back to September, giving Matthew and Charles unwelcome days on the streets.

Both are excited that Josh, their now former service coordinator, may need help putting up drywall. “I surround myself with good people and good influences,” Charles tells me. “I don’t have no education or work history and they accepted me. Josh is one of the best people I’ve ever met, and I never stopped trying to help him, because he was trying to help me.”

Josh and the other staff played enormous roles in the experience of these volunteers. When I asked Charles what the hardest part of the program was, I expected to hear about hauling tires out of the mud, or baking under the August sun. His answer: “Seeing everybody part ways.” Matthew says, “I feel like they’ve left us just after we got used to them.” After suffering the shock of so many departures, they’ve determined they can’t get too attached.

“Every time I try to go positive, it’s negative. So I think negative first,” Matthew says. I look to Charles, wondering if he’ll have a different take on things. Charles just nods and then shrugs.

We wait on the metro platform for trains headed in different directions. Charles almost misses his Anacostia-bound train, so engrossed is he in our conversation. Once he finds a seat, I wave and the train pulls away. He’s already reading the first page of Go Tell It on the Mountain and never looks up. Soon, Matthew and I are on a train heading the opposite direction.

As I move toward the doors at my stop, Matthew promises to buy me one of those giant pizza slices when he sees me around Adams-Morgan. Then the doors shut behind me and the train takes Matthew back toward the dead streets.