'Haves' get more, and all the rest can go begging

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 16, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The old man at Falls Road and Lake Avenue asked for a dollar. The old man on Baltimore Street asked for $349 but, owing to various economic pressures, said he'd settle for $40.

The old guy at Falls Road seemed to evolve out of the darkness. He had an old woolen sport coat wrapped around him, and sneakers and baggy pants, and a voice that whispered with a kind of controlled urgency.

''Could I have a dollar?''

He was pushing 70, and carried a shopping bag.

''Huh?''

''Could I have a dollar?'' he asked again.

You do not expect this on Falls Road at the foot of Lake Avenue. You do not expect it with Roland Park and Mount Washington within shouting distance, with the spiffy Lake Falls Village right across the street, with the inner city and its homeless presumably eight or 10 miles south of your consciousness.

You wanted to examine the face a little bit to search for traces of a damaged past. How does a human life reach its seventh decade and end up on a Sunday night asking for handouts outside a convenience store on Falls Road?

But you do not look at the face. You reach into your wallet and fumble for a bill and turn your eyes away. It's not clear why: your own embarrassment, or his. His need, or your own guilt. A dollar becomes the little tribute we pay to conscience.

In the new American economy, it's a dollar here and $349 there. On Baltimore Street last Friday night, outside the Mechanic Theatre, the old man held open a little velvet case with necklaces inside.

''Feel the weight,'' he said, holding out one glittery piece.

He looked about 60, and most of his teeth were missing. A few feet away, people sat on benches and waited for buses to take them home. The man with the necklaces ignored them. People waiting for buses are not in the market for necklaces, even at spontaneous sidewalk sale prices.

''Go ahead,'' he said. ''Feel how heavy this is.''

The Mechanic's marquee said ''Tru'' was playing inside. The lights from the marquee glimmered off the necklaces. A couple of security cops lingered nearby but looked the other way.

''You could buy this at a store for $349,'' the old man said.

''Oh, yeah?''

''Yeah,'' he said, and paused for a beat to see if there were any takers at such a price. There were none. ''But I really need the money,'' he said now, ''so I could let you have it for a third. Feel how heavy it is.''

The necklaces had some pretty good weight to them, but you shook your head negatively and wished he would go away and kept walking toward a lighted area.

''Tell you what,'' he said now. ''I really need the money. I'll let you have it for $60.''

''Nah.''

He muttered something then about needing to get to Owings Mills, about stores opening and closing. A bus pulled up and seemed to sigh.

''Forty dollars,'' the old man said.

Inside the Mechanic Theatre, tickets for "Tru" were $35 apiece. We live in a country that more and more is divided into haves and have-nots. The richest people in the country have never been richer, and the poor ask for money on Falls Road and on Baltimore Street.

You can see it live, or you can watch it on television, where the president urges everybody to back his budget package, and almost everybody says no. It's beginning to dawn on people: They've been sold a bill of goods.

In his new book, ''The Politics of Rich and Poor,'' Kevin Phillips writes how the United States ''by several measurements . . . leads all other major industrial countries in the gap dividing the upper fifth of the population from the lower -- in the disparity between top and bottom.''

Phillips is in a position to know. He was chief political analyst for the 1968 Republican presidential campaign, and his first book, ''The Emerging Republican Majority,'' was the political bible of the Nixon years. It predicted the coming conservative era in American politics.

It did not, however, predict the era of greed, the cashing in by the rich while the middle class crumbled and the poor struggled to hold on. And it could not have foreseen a president meeting the worst budget crunch in memory by trying to cut benefits to old people while holding firm against new taxes on the super wealthy.

You want numbers, Kevin Phillips has numbers: In the Reagan-Bush years, the top 10 percent of American households controlled 68 percent of the wealth. While this was going on, the hTC after-tax family income of the lowest 10 percent fell 10.5 percent.

What happens in that kind of a nation is simple: Lives come apart. Young people with middle-class aspirations postpone having kids and stop thinking about buying their own homes. Old people worry about maintaining a sense of dignity in their declining years. The poor, seeing no honest exits, turn to dishonest ones. An underground economy takes on a life of its own.

On Falls Road, the old man with the dollar was last seen walking toward the Kelly Avenue Bridge, and then he faded into the darkness. On Baltimore Street, the guy with the necklaces found nobody buying.

Everybody with a few bucks was inside the Mechanic Theatre by now, watching ''Tru'' and telling themselves they were OK, the new poverty was out there in the darkness, on the other side of the doors.

They thought something as fragile as bricks and steel could keep it away from them.

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