Miss Margaret meets the city

Dan Rodricks

November 14, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

City living -- man, it's hard.

Consider what's happening to Miss Margaret from Cleveland Street. It's a city thing.

It's the kind of thing that happens when people live too close to each other and inflict annoyances upon one another. It's the kind of thing that could happen -- and does happen -- in any city. But, the thing is, you're more likely to hear about it in Baltimore. In New York, you'd never hear about Miss Margaret's dilemma; she'd be buried in the news heap of gangland slayings and celebrity sleaze. Nor would you hear about Miss Margaret in Washington, a city where no one makes news who doesn't wear a suit.

So we come to Miss Margaret and we listen to her complaint because, well, because this is Baltimore -- intimate, obstinate city of neighborhoods. We're all in this together. We share the triumphs and troubles of life with each other. This is where people call the mayor on a 50,000-watt radio station with complaints about trash and noise. Somewhere along the line -- I'm pretty sure it was during the Schaefer administration, though they tell me Old Tommy D'Alesandro did his share of pothole patching -- people got the idea they could call not just City Hall, not just their City Council rep, but Hizzoner Hisself! And get ACTION!

That translates into a bunch of Baltimoreans constantly picking up phones to grouse about city services, about their neighborhoods, about dogs and cats and rats and pigeons.

Same thing happens here at the big metropolitan newspaper. We get all kinds of consumer complaints and horror stories. We used to get a lot more. Years ago, The Evening Sun had Direct Line and the News American had Action Line, both of which were set up to rattle bureaucrats into helping people. The phone rang and rang. There were a lot of people out there with legitimate complaints. There were also a lot of grumps.

Let me get back to Miss Margaret. I don't think she's a grump. She's just a woman caught in the middle of one of those city things.

Back in the spring, a time when windows of Baltimore rowhouses are opening, Miss Margaret smelled something bad. She didn't know what it was at first, but suspected that something was terribly wrong with a nearby sewer system.

Then, one day she spotted her neighbor with a big bucket in his hands. It was one of those five-gallon plastic jobs, the kind that joint compound comes in, the kind I wish I had about 10 of, as they come in very handy for a variety of household projects.

In this case, Miss Margaret's neighbor was using the plastic bucket to dispose of waste -- human waste. Or, as Miss Margaret calls it, "his toilet water."

Miss Margaret did not need to collect a sample for lab analysis to realize what she was dealing with. She was dealing with one of those pesky city things -- a dopey neighbor doing something really stupid and foul and unsanitary and annoying.

So she did what people in Baltimore do.

She called The City! And she called numerous times.

And she finally talked to a Guy Who Works For The City. And his name was a perfect name for a Guy Who Works For The City.

His name was Sal.

Sal listened to Miss Margaret's complaint about her neighbor with the bucket.

Sal said he needed proof of a violation.

"He told me to take a picture of it!" Miss Margaret said yesterday.

"A picture of what?" I asked.

"A picture of it!"

"Oh. Right. It!"

Sal sent an inspector out to Cleveland Street. But no violation was observed, no citation issued. Miss Margaret was disappointed. And she didn't appreciate the way Sal and the other Guy Who Works For The City spoke to her.

"They pulled an attitude on me!" she said.

That wasn't the end of it, either. A short time later, someone in the neighborhood phoned in a complaint about Miss Margaret. It was reported that an iron gate attached to her home was welded in place and blocking an alley. An inspector went out to Cleveland Street again.

"And they flagged me!" Miss Margaret said, which was a colorful way of saying she was cited with a city housing violation.

Now Miss Margaret is plenty angry. "You bet I'm angry!" she says. "My deed shows that gate belongs to me!" Besides, that iron gate has been over that alley entrance for 35 years and, up till now, "nobody never complained about it."

Poor Miss Margaret. She's caught in the middle of a city thing!

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