This cop on North Paca Street asks if I've heard about Rodney King. King was the man in Los Angeles beaten by Neanderthals in police uniforms while a video camera recorded everything. The cop on North Paca says King himself has now been arrested.
"King?" I ask. "Arrested?"
"Yeah," says the cop. "For impersonating a pinata."
I find myself caught between a comic grunt and revulsion. The Rodney King beating has become a metaphor not only for racial divisiveness, but for police-civilian tension, some of which is now playing itself out in Washington, D.C., while big cities around the country look on and hold their collective breath.
On Paca Street, the cop notices I am not laughing. The two of us shift our feet and look around uneasily.
"I guess that's kind of a police joke," he says.
I'd guess it's more specifically a white police joke.
The police are feeling a little defensive these days. Humor becomes an edgy defense mechanism, a conspiratorial wink as they circle the wagons against civilians who do not understand them.
Yes, yes, they will tell you, the Rodney King incident was terrible. Those Los Angeles police should be stripped of their uniforms and prosecuted like any other criminals.
But then, a moment later, they'll add: The King beating was a generalized frustration acting itself out. People don't understand what it's like, night after night on angry streets.
And then they'll point to Washington, where a policewoman shot a man coming at her with a knife and set off several nights of terrifying violence. The rioters say it's their own frustration acting itself out: lack of jobs, lack of housing, lack of hope. The politicians say nonsense, it's an excuse for lawlessness.
And the cops say: Look who's caught in the middle again.
On Calvert Street, outside the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse, here are two policemen in uniform. They've spent the morning testifying in a narcotics case that threatens to slip through their fingers.
One has a newspaper in his hand, and he's looking at a front-page story on the troubles in Washington, where some say the cops moved too cautiously and some of the cops say they should have been allowed to be more aggressive.
"What did those people expect?" the cop with the newspaper asks. "Man came at the officer with a knife. She shot him. What's she supposed to do when he's got a knife?"
"And yet the police get the blame," the other cop says.
Something is left unspoken here: Nobody wants an incident in Baltimore. Nobody with a police badge wants to set the spark with a bullet fired too quickly or a nightstick used too casually.
There's a generalized edginess. The mayor announces he'll have city employees check construction sites in search of illegal aliens.
The chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Hispanic Affairs calls this a slap in the face.
L He says the mayor should have first consulted his committee.
The mayor, a man inordinately sensitive to racial subtleties, missed a step in the modern political process. He was reacting to complaints from union leaders that contractors using illegal aliens are forcing legitimate contractors out of work.
And the shadow of Washington's troubles, growing out of its Hispanic community, suddenly hovers over Baltimore. The mayor doesn't want to look insensitive. The Hispanic community here isn't unaware of the troubles in Washington.
On Calvert Street, the cops say they can feel the fallout from the stories in Los Angeles and D.C. Criminal court juries, already sensitive to racial nuance, are reminded of ancient divisions.
The cops have long maintained that race plays a role inside the seclusion of jury rooms.
"Most of the jury in this case," one cop says now, "is black. The defendant's black. It'll make a difference."
"Even with you guys?" I ask. Both of the police are black.
"When we testify," one says, "they don't see black. They see blue. This uniform's the only color they see."
On the newsstands are magazines filled with stories of racial tension in America: Not only the news out of Washington, but Newsweek's cover story, "The New Politics of Race," and The Atlantic, whose cover reads, "When the official subject is presidential politics, taxes, welfare, crime, rights, or values . . . the real subject is race."
Do we need a reminder of how the City Council of Baltimore grappled with redistricting last month? The debate was held in an atmosphere of bared teeth. For more than two decades now, the city's official policy has been one of interracial civility. Those who lived through the troubles of the late '60s know how close we flirted with oblivion.
And yet, two decades later, the same problems are still here: Politicians so concerned for their own piece of turf that the community's concerns are an afterthought; the permanent underclass still mostly black and frustrated; race relations still fragile and edgy; and, when all else fails, everybody is ready to let it fall on the cops.