On Baltimore's South Broadway last week, stickup guys hit four stores and a tavern in a two-block stretch. In one afternoon. A few streets away, a bar on Gough Street got knocked over by somebody with a gun. On two straight days. At Aliceanna Street two days ago, the line for food came out of the front door of the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen called Beans and Bread, and it twisted around the corner to South Bethel, where it kept on going.
"It's the season of desperation," said the owner of a shop on Broadway above Eastern.
"The holiday season," a woman behind a cash register explained.
"Whatever you want to call it," the owner said, "I'm scared every time the front door opens."
In a nation where the cleavage between rich and poor has grown steadily over the past decade, the holiday season marks our differences with exclamation points. The TV networks and the daily papers advertise the bounties to be bought by those with money, while the poor stand like urchins outside a bakery window. The stickup guys get a little more brazen, and the ones in soup lines feel a little lonelier, and some who look on feel their patience getting shorter.
"Look at 'em," says a 75-year-old man inside his car at Aliceanna and Bethel. He points to the line of men outside Beans and Bread and speaks in a voice laced with contempt. He is a survivor of the Great Depression of the '30s. He remembers his mother putting water and fresh cut grass into a pot and boiling it with a few spices. She called it soup.
"Why ain't they working?" he says. "Almost every one of them, they're young, ain't they? They look strong enough, don't they? Go and ask 'em why they ain't working."
Most of them are men in their 30s. They're white, and they're black, and dozens of them stand there waiting for free lunch five days out of seven. The cold went through everybody's bones Tuesday morning, and every now and then a sheet of rain came down and the men stood there and got wet and it was no picnic.
"Yeah," said a fellow with his head tucked down into a wool scarf, "I spent Thanksgiving dinner down here. That's pretty bad, Thanksgiving dinner at a soup kitchen. But there was 19 of us at a time, so you didn't feel all alone."
"That's right," said the man behind him. "Nineteen seats. And most days down here, you can get seconds."
"Are you working?" somebody asked.
"I was working," the first guy said. "Plumbers and gas fitters union. But I haven't worked since August."
"July," said the man behind him. "July was the last time I had a job."
"We all got jobs on and off," said a third man. "But it's just enough to get by for a while."
The man in the car shakes his head at all this talk. Why aren't they working, he asks again. In his day, people didn't look for jobs, they looked for work. There's a verbal distinction he wishes to make, a line between economic discomfort and real desperation. That's the difference between looking for a job and looking for any kind of work.
In the line, they talk of Wednesdays and Sundays with no lunch at Beans and Bread. But there's a church over on Broadway serving lunch on Wednesdays, and another church on Eastern Avenue where you can get Sunday meals, so nobody has to starve if they know the unwritten schedule for subsistence living.
"And where do you sleep?" somebody asks.
"I had a room," says a man stamping his feet in the morning chill. "But I had to share it with two other fellows. It was three of us in that one room."
"Plus there's a bus," says a man with teeth missing like a busted comb. "It comes down here 7:30 in the evening and takes you to missions."
Thus does poverty take on a kind of lock-step quality. You can let the government support you, or the charitable foundations, but it takes an effort tantamount to working for a living to squeeze through the days.
"It's not just jobs," says a man with a gray sweat-shirt hood pulled over his head. His every word is punctuated by steam puffing out of his mouth. "It's a mental thing for a lot of us, and we have to pull ourselves out of it.
"We ain't stupid, man," he says. "Nobody cuts himself off from his family to stand out in the cold. But it's a head game for a lot of us. And we gotta work our way out of it."
The man in the car thinks back to tough times in his own youth. When the Great Depression came, he was a teen-ager working in the mines of Pennsylvania. He remembers barely surviving a cave-in. But you took work, he says, wherever you could find it.
In America today, you take chances where you find them. The guns are everywhere now, and the drugs put a craziness in people's heads, and the holidays bring about a special desperation.
"They know they have to buy gifts," says a shopkeeper just north of the Broadway Market, "but they haven't got money to buy gifts. So they steal. You ask any store owner in town. Before Christmas, it always gets real bad."
"Everybody talks about the drugs," says a bar owner off BTC Broadway, "but that's not the only trouble this time of year. Right now you got people never took a drug in their lives who are running out of stores with a pair of sneakers in their hands. Their kid wants those sneakers, see?"
Sometimes we see it, and sometimes we don't. The rich buy presents, and the poor look for a way to cope. And now there are 19 days until Christmas, and it does not figure to get any better.