A friend in Highlandtown invites me to a party that sounds like a community hug. Her son is coming home alive from the Persian Gulf. Invitations are extended merely to the immediate world.
It is happening across America now. All of us are hoping to make up for missed chances, for wars in Vietnam and Korea where the kids arrived home to shrugs of indifference. We want it to be different this time. The breathtaking homecomings are shown on television, and we tune in as extended electronic family, and then wish to re-create the scenes in our own homes.
On Boston Street in Canton, at the Bay Cafe, my friend tells a bunch of us about her son. A collective lump rises in our throats. The son's orders to report to the Middle East arrived on the afternoon of his 18th birthday. He left home not knowing if he would see a 19th.
Now he has landed at Norfolk, Va. My friend says he was the last one to emerge from his ship. She remembers throwing her arms around him, and choking back sobs, and people with television cameras swarming all over the place.
In Washington, those who run the country love this kind of story. The longer the TV screens are filled with kids arriving home safely, the longer we bathe in the warm afterglow of triumph in war. The longer we bathe, the drowsier we get, and the less we notice the water turning muddy.
The deficit continues to choke us, but the story gets pushed off the front page by the lingering business in the Persian Gulf. The banking and financial system flirts with calamity, but the story's not photogenic enough for TV, which turns instead to the emotional postscript of American disengagement from the war.
The other day the latest job figures came out, and they weren't pretty. More than 8 million Americans are out of work, which is about 2 million more than a year ago. In Maryland, people are holding their breath over the governor's talk of a possible 1,700 layoffs of state employees.
The fallout is all around us. On Lombard Street, you can walk into Room 919 at the federal courthouse and see people gather for bankruptcy proceedings. They're handled in 15-minute intervals that stretch through the day. Nobody looks embarrassed. Bankruptcy's too routine now for a sense of shame. It's just the way some are forced to conduct their lives in a difficult time.
In Annapolis the other night, the '91 legislative session ended with absolutely no one with a conscience taking any bows. The state budget deficit's about $500 million, the number of homeless and hungry grows, and the city of Baltimore looks in the mirror each day and shudders at what it sees: schools where kids continue to struggle, neighborhoods where people hide behind locked doors, streets that belong to the drug dealers and their weapons, and a criminal justice system choking on its own overflow.
Once, Washington looked at these problems and held out financial help and some sense of moral compass. Those days ended at least a decade ago. The last people in the White House looked at drugs and declared, "Just say no," and called it a policy. The current man in the White House announces war on narcotics and illiteracy and then seems to lose interest.
There was a time when the politicians in Annapolis might have offered help where Washington would not. Recent evidence to the contrary, these people aren't stupid, and several aren't even insensitive. But they ignored the Linowes tax plan that could have helped people in trouble and offered nothing by way of compromise or substitute. What's there to substitute? There's no money anywhere.
But we're not supposed to think about that these days. In Washington, they love those pictures on television: the kids coming home from the war, the flags flying everywhere. It's Washington's endless diversion of our attention.
Should we go back to the bad old days of turning away from the returning veterans? Of course not. But let's ask ourselves: Exactly what are they getting when they come home? Having won a war in the Persian Gulf, the country continues to lose wars at home. The ongoing White House focus on returning troops becomes not an endless tribute to their efforts but an act of political cynicism.
On Boston Street, at the Bay Cafe, my friend talked about the pride she felt in all those kids coming home in uniform. Some of us had been to the ballpark that afternoon, to watch the Orioles open their new season. On the field, there were veterans of the war. In the stands, people waved little American flags that the Orioles' management had handed out.
The country's feeling pretty good about itself when it thinks about the war effort. We're feeling relieved that sons and daughters came home alive.
"We're gonna throw a party . . ." my friend said. She paused for a moment. "Just put it this way. It's gonna be a real Highlandtown party."
I am honored to be invited. I only wish her son could return to an America fighting its problems at home as well as it fought them overseas.