On the Street Where You Live

December 10, 1990|By Donald R. Morris

HOUSTON — Houston. ONE DIFFICULTY with a nice, stable democracy is that 49 percent of the electorate can be outraged by, or adamantly opposed to, anything their government is up to. Whatever happens, moreover, is government's fault; in the eyes of the electorate (and most of the media), it is responsible for everything that eventuates.

Government has its own problems; it not only gets blamed for everything, it is in receipt of an endless stream of mixed signals. The electorate wants all its problems solved (by tomorrow morning, please) and it doesn't want to spend one red cent more than it is already paying. It wants a free lunch; it makes its wants known loud and clear -- then votes against every conceivable form of financing them. It is addicted to Nimby -- Not in my back yard -- which, even before the cost is considered, scotches programs in the planning stage.

The public is all for new taxes -- as long as they are levied on someone else. It is for nuclear-waste sites -- as long as they aren't located in their state. It is for half-way houses, shelters for the homeless, the mentally handicapped and parolees -- as long as they aren't located in their neighborhood. It wants criminals disarmed -- as long as their right to own guns isn't infringed.

It wants everybody connected with the drug trade locked up for life -- but won't pay for expanded penal systems. (When, as a result, convicted offenders are released en masse almost immediately after incarceration, the public is outraged -- and blames government. What happened to the last proposal to build new prisons is never mentioned.)

In election after election -- national, state or local -- the candidate who brashly insists he can expand services without raising taxes (by trimming waste or fat in the current, cratering budget) usually wins; any hint he might raise taxes just to meet the deficit (let alone expand services), is a mortal blow to his campaign.

As a result, no national problem ever has a prayer of being solved. It isn't Congress, it's us. Some 435 representatives -- each with a constituency of approximately equal size -- are on the shortest leash in politics; the mortal lot of them must answer to their electorates every 24 months. They reflect with uncanny precision exactly what those constituencies want, and whatever percent of the nation wants, the nation gets. Never mind Gallup or Harris -- when Congress has voted, you've got the answer.

The public is convinced the drug problem would be solved if every last pusher were arrested, sent to prison and kept there. They might read William Finnegan's two-part article ''Out There'' (in the September 10 and 17 The New Yorker issues). Mr. Finnegan has a remarkable knack of being accepted in, and writing about, circles everyone has heard of -- and knows nothing about.

Previous projects included spending a year teaching in a ''Coloured'' school in Cape Town, spending several months with the black reporters covering events in Soweto, and immersing himself in the Mozambique countryside to find out what the guerrilla group Renamo was all about. This time he picked a black family in New Haven.

New Haven means Yale, which to most means cloistered, LTC ivy-covered walls. Yale is indeed cloistered; women students and faculty members can't get to their cars in off-campus parking lots without an escort. The middle-class fled years ago, leaving the inner city to blacks, for whom little or no employment is available.

Mr. Finnegan's subject is a young black named Terry, who dropped out of school at 15, forged work papers and found a job at $50 a week folding pizza boxes. Far too smart to abuse drugs himself, he soon quit to become a ''work boy,'' stationed on a second-floor hallway, in a low-cost housing complex, from noon to midnight, seven days a week, with a few cocaine bags. (New Haven doesn't favor crack.) Terry was unarmed; the older ''piss boy,'' on the street with more bags, was armed; he sent the customers to Terry, whose salary for this work was $1,000 a week -- $50,000 a year of totally disposable income; no tax, insurance or pension deductions.

Within months Terry was part of another operation, selling drugs in a deserted, wooded area almost impossible for the police to raid. The hours were shorter; the pay $500 a day -- a potential $180,000 a year. Such money went to customized sports cars, clothing, gold jewelry for family and girl friends.

The Terrys of this nation aren't to be reached by better schooling, or mismananged job training and placement programs. Collectively, $140 billion a year pass through the hands of the nation's ''work boys.'' Aside from the fact that the $140 billion is paid by Americans, in American dollars, on American street corners, solving the drug problem means finding alternative work for the Terrys.

Does anyone have any bright ideas? Want Terry in your backyard? No? We always were good at sending mixed signals.

Mr. Morris is a retired naval officer who syndicates a column.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.