Crises speed up clock, as cities fight to survive


January 01, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Did somebody say Happy New Year?

Then what am I doing two days ago, on the final Sunday of 1990, standing in a Smith Avenue drug store and staring at a brand new display of Valentine's Day candies?

Is the world in such a scramble to get out of last year that we're skipping the first six weeks of the new year, or is something else going on here?

The city winds up the year with more than 300 homicides, and the state winds up the year by cutting $423 million out of the budget to balance the books.

The city used to turn to the state for financial help. The state used to turn to Washington.

Anybody turning to Washington for money today? In the amount of time it takes to read this sentence, the national debt increased $33,000. At last count, it was costing the country $32 million a day to maintain U.S. troops in the Middle East and $148 million a day to bail out the savings and loans.

The world keeps moving a little too quickly.

New Year's Day today, Valentine's Day tomorrow. Our senses are so flooded that we've lost our collective memories.

George Bush sends troops to the Middle East, and everybody forgets Neil Bush and the savings and loan crisis. Dan Quayle goes to the Middle East, and everybody forgets to call this an obscenity because everybody's forgotten Vietnam.

For about a heartbeat in 1990, we seemed to be in pretty good shape. The Berlin Wall came down, communism waved the white flag, and people started talking about a peace dividend.

Let's take some of that money we used to blow on $1,800 toilet seats for military cargo planes and start cleaning up cities, some said. Is it possible we were talking that way only months ago?

Now it's the cities that feel like throwing in the towel. A 54-page report put together by a committee of attorneys says Baltimore is losing the war against narcotics. This isn't news, not after 20 years of warnings, but it's a pretty loud shriek in the dark.

About 90 percent of all felony prosecutions are drug-related in Baltimore. So are more than half of all the murders.

And yet, in the face of this, money is so tight that the state's attorney is talking worriedly of two dozen layoffs and at City Jail they're talking of 50 more.

And even as troops gather on the sands of the Middle East, the arms race on city streets continues to proliferate.

The fallout is all around us: not just the highest homicide count in 20 years, but a sense of jangled nerves. An innocent man begs for his life on Calvert Street: "Don't kill me, don't kill me, I've got kids, don't kill me," he cries.

Two teen-agers, 15 and 16, are accused of shooting him dead and then shooting him again.

"The second one was for fun," says a veteran city cop.

There's a sense of the community struggling breathlessly to get through each day, of some people working overtime to keep things together while others casually tear things apart.

On Druid Hill Avenue the day after Christmas, there was this enormous pile of trash scattered all around a municipal waste basket. A bunch of kids stood a few feet from the basket, and one of them unwrapped a stick of gum and arched it like a basketball. He missed.

Now the kid tiptoed through the wads of trash all around the basket, picked up his little gum wrapper, and flipped it into the basket. Everybody hooted: not only at the mock gesture of civility but, implicitly, at the very ugliness all around them. The city itself, their own streets, had become a big, dumb, defenseless object of ridicule instead of something they saw as their home.

Maybe the kids just feel like a lot of adults: Forces are beyond our control. The other night, a few of us found ourselves driving past Memorial Stadium, looking alone and forlorn in winter's chill.

"It looks like an old person who's been abandoned," somebody said.

"It feels like a big party was held here, and we arrived a little too late for it," somebody else said.

Actually, the party's over next fall. We don't know much about the coming months, but we do know this: 1991 brings the final season of Orioles' baseball on 33rd Street. The government's broke, the streets are ragged, the cops and the teachers are overmatched and underpaid, but somehow we found $200 million to buy land and build a new stadium we didn't need in the first place.

"It's not just the money," somebody said as we drove past the old stadium. "Baseball used to be sentimental. This stadium is where we keep our memories from the last 36 years."

But that's the problem: We don't have memories anymore. Our systems are too flooded; everything moves too quickly. Never mind baseball at Memorial Stadium. We've been hearing the same cries of outrage over drugs for 20 years, and nobody remembers that. We've been hearing the same desperate cries for help in the cities for 25 years, and nobody in power pays attention to that.

No wonder they've got Valentine's Day candies in December: nTC anything to get past that festering sore of 1990, and hope that '91 will be better.

But that's where absence of memory comes in. We've already forgotten: At the end of '89, we were saying the same wishful thing.

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