Meter's running for city hooked to petty thievery


November 13, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Fat Harry and Maria emerge from the taxicab with shopping bags in their hands and thievery in their hearts.

The two of them wish to do a little business in the chilly sunlight at Fayette and President streets, where the Jones Falls Expressway bottoms into a maze of construction work and multi-syllabic obscenities, which are hurled through the air as dazed drivers unintentionally slide into each other's lanes.

"Zip up your fly," Fat Harry says, leaning against Maria as a truck rumbles past. He wants her to look like a lady. She is wearing blue jeans and a hooded sweat shirt and high-topped sneakers with the laces untied. From such wardrobes come a street

hustler's vision of gentility.

"Damned junkie," Harry mutters, turning away disgustedly.

"Junkie?" says Maria. "Who are you talking to?"

"Who do you think I'm talking to?" Harry says.

"You get high?" somebody asks.

"I don't get high," Maria says. "I get well."

The words mark the dividing line between one still using needles for pleasure, and one using them to survive. In Maria's face is the vaguest hint of someone who once might have been lovely. But she's pushing 40 now, and her skin has gone pale and puffy and her eyes lifeless, and those who know her say she's been mainlining for a couple of decades now.

"Zip up your fly," Fat Harry says again, glancing at their taxicab still parked nearby. He's waiting for a little foot traffic to move his way. In broad daylight on Fayette Street, between the central post office and the city police headquarters, a piece of the nation's underground economy is coming to life, and on a weekday afternoon around here, there's usually a certain amount of pedestrian activity.

Fat Harry and Maria have shoes to sell. The shoes were liberated earlier this day from a store several blocks west, in bags sitting here now, which read: "Have A Nice Day."

"Have a nice day?" somebody says.

"It's an advertising slogan," Fat Harry explains.

"My fly?" Maria says.

In her slow-turning mind, Harry's words have finally penetrated. Maria makes a slow turn and walks away a few steps. Fat Harry says he has shoes in three different sizes, which an interested buyer can have for a song.

For the shoe store owner who will discover these missing from his inventory, theft has become part of the cost of doing business, to be passed on to customers. For the city of Baltimore, it's part of the cost of keeping downtown alive. The store owner beefs up security. The cops beef up patrols. The store owner gets alarm systems. The cops get headaches.

All of them are competing with desperation, and thus lose. On Fayette Street, Maria's desperation comes to about $300 a day. She is wiping her nose with a nervous regularity. To raise $300 a day, she must steal about $1,500 worth of merchandise and sell it at a fraction of its value. The cops estimate there are maybe 20,000 junkies in the city, most of them stealing to support their habits. Multiply junkies times the amount they steal, and the figures make entire communities break apart in the heart.

Last week, the nation lost drug czar Bill Bennett, who looked at the narcotics wars and threw up a flag of personal surrender. For the last few years, the mayor of Baltimore has suggested fighting narcotics more as a health problem than a crime problem, and everybody sneers but nobody comes up with a better plan.

And on Fayette Street, Fat Harry and Maria are asked how they make a living stealing from stores protected by squadrons of security guards and cameras and such.

"The city ought to be thanking us," Harry says.

"Thanking you?"

"Of course," he says. "The tougher they make it in the stores, what do you think happens?"

"You get caught?"

"Not likely," says Harry. "Not if you know what you're doing."

He glances east again, toward the yellow taxicab that brought Maria and him here. The cab has not moved. He glances at Maria. She is dabbing at her nose again.

"So what happens?" he's asked.

"What happens," he says, "is that we stop stealing from stores. And we start breaking into houses. And you start breaking into houses, somebody might be home. We don't want anybody to be home, but you can'talways be sure if somebody's home. And if somebody's home, somebody could get hurt."

The point is a little fuzzy here, and Harry lets it hang in the air for a minute. He seems to be calling shoplifting a sort of public service, an avoidance of violent confrontations.

"You mean . . ." he is asked.

But Harry is shifting about edgily. The foot traffic is not developing as anticipated. Maria is getting a little frenzied about her needs. She is dabbing at her nose, perspiring freely in a chill wind.

Other arrangements will have to be made. They will have to find streets where the traffic is heavier.

"What about . . .?"

"Later," says Fat Harry, as he and Maria climb back into the cab. "My meter's running."

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