I've decided to call this story "The Age of Reason."
The woman said her granddaughter has been sent to the Persian Gulf.
"Have you heard from her?" I asked.
"Just once," said the woman. "She wrote and told me to take care of myself, to take my pills, and not to worry.
"Isn't that something?" asked the woman. "She told me to take care of myself."
The woman's eyes looked sad.
For years now, the woman has been worried about her grandson. He is a teen-ager and he keeps getting into trouble with the police, keeps hanging out with the wrong people, keeps stealing things from his family.
"We've talked to him," said the woman, "but he just won't listen. Sometimes, we get to the point where we're about fed up, where we want to give up on him."
Now the woman has to worry about her granddaughter, who is serving in the Persian Gulf, who may face action any time.
"I know it's hard," I said.
"They just don't know," said the woman, shaking her head. "They just don't know . . ."
Today is the deadline. Today is Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's last chance to pull his troops out of Kuwait in time to avoid war with the United States and its allies.
Today also is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
"I feel as though they were disrespecting Martin," said a young woman at Harbor Place. She argued that President Bush should have chosen another day for his pull-out-or-else ultimatum.
"Martin was a man of peace," she said.
"I doubt they even thought about it one way or the other," I said.
"But they should have," insisted the woman.
Two men, a grinning middle-aged man and an earnest young one, were arguing about the Persian Gulf situation at a bar near Fells Point.
"The government lies," said the young man earnestly.
"So what?" said the older man, grinning. "All governments lie. Everybody lies." He looked down at the younger man challengingly.
"Even you lie," he said.
"How can you support a government that lies?" demanded the young man.
"I don't support the government," said the other, "I support our boys in the gulf. That's what I support."
Yesterday, a military analyst on the radio predicted that the war, if it comes, would begin with the "biggest, most violent assault since allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy" during World War II.
"Like at Normandy," continued the analyst, "the operation will feature a coordinated attack from air, land, and sea." A spokesman for the president advised the nation to pray for peace.
At Mondawmin Mall, a group of men seated near a carousel said the whole crisis was the result of a government conspiracy. But they couldn't agree on the nature of the plot, and each of their suggestions seemed more outlandish than the other.
One man said the whole crisis boiled down to a personal thing between President Bush and President Hussein.
"Nobody should never have called that man [President Bush] a wimp," he insisted, "cause he ain't been right in the head since.
"They both ain't right in the head, neither Bush nor Hussein," continued the man, "that's your problem right there."
And it so happens that I am reading an anti-war novel by Jean-Paul Sartre. Written in 1943, it is set in France in 1938 on the eve of World War II. I read the book before, many years ago.
The story is about a young man named Mathieu. Mathieu's girlfriend wants an abortion and he agrees, despite personal uneasiness over the idea, because she seems to want it.
So, Sartre interweaves these two crises: Mathieu's personal one with that of the upcoming war, and the whole story is told with a benumbed and melancholic air that seems quite appropriate to these days and times.
It is a famous book, a much-studied book, in which Sartre advances his philosophy of existentialism. But the thing about the book that struck me most when I read it last was the characters' disbelief that mankind would be so foolish, so blind, so powerless as to march into war again so soon after the horror of the last one.
When war at last seems inevitable, their strongest emotion is one of disappointment. They are disappointed in themselves, in their leaders. They are, in fact, bitterly disappointed in all of mankind.
Sartre called his story "The Age of Reason."