The cops are standing on Ellwood Avenue between the Bethel United Church of Christ and the Armada Tailoring Shop when this white kid comes racing toward them from the direction of Hampstead Hill Middle School.
''Black boys,'' he says breathlessly.
He's maybe 12 years old and blond, and he's in a frenzy. The neighborhood's a little nervous. The streets are filled with kids, // most of them black, who were let out of school a few minutes ago, and the cops have come here to keep the peace in a troubling time.
A man named Expedito ''Pedro'' Lugo has been beaten with a baseball bat and lies unconscious in a hospital bed. It's the final straw. White residents with long-smoldering anger are suddenly talking loudly about black kids who leave school each afternoon and wreak havoc on the neighborhood.
''Gang of black boys,'' the blond kid says. His arms are flapping around now, and the words are spilling out of him in little Western Union sentence fragments.
''Up at Patterson Park. Gang of them.''
L ''We've got police up there, son,'' a white cop says calmly.
''But it's a gang,'' the blond kid says.
''What are they doing?'' somebody asks.
The kid seems a little bit stunned by the question and doesn't respond for a moment.
''Doing?'' he says finally. ''Nothing. Just walking.''
Doesn't matter, not now. The kid's expressing a reflex nervous twitch you can feel any afternoon in any of the streets around Patterson Park when school lets out and neighbors brace themselves for the worst.
''Everyone hides,'' says a woman who lives on nearby Streeper Street. ''You take the kids in the house for an hour, until the Hampstead Hill kids are gone. It's been going on for years. It's just an hour of the day you take out of your life.''
Three nights ago, she was in the crowd at St. Elizabeth's Roman Catholic Church when neighbors gathered and Mayor Kurt Schmoke showed up to express his concern.
The mayor has quietly gone to Johns Hopkins Hospital three times to see Pedro Lugo and talk to his family. He's angry and frustrated about East Baltimore, angry about the assault on Lugo and angry about kids who commit casual vandalism but frustrated that so much of this is seen in racial terms and not in terms of isolated bad kids whose skin color is incidental.
At St. Elizabeth's Thursday night, a man in the mostly white crowd declared, ''Let's cut the crap, Mr. Mayor. It's a bunch of animals at that school, and you know what you're supposed to do with animals.''
The mayor braced himself and hoped not to hear anyone applaud. No one did. He breathed a sigh of relief. But when a white woman with a daughter scheduled to attend Hampstead Hill next year arose and wept, and the daughter wept with her, the mayor braced himself again.
''My daughter begs me every day,'' the woman said, 'Please don't make me go there.' '' The mayor listened and heard a community that sees itself under siege and unprotected by people with power.
What's happening in East Baltimore is a metaphor for the rest of the city: those of different races trying to get along and, when they don't, too often pointing to skin differences as the reason for their emotional differences.
''It's not just a metaphor for the city,'' the mayor was saying at week's end. ''East Baltimore's a metaphor for the whole country, which is in a state of racial transition. We try our best to ignore racial differences and tensions, but they do exist and it's better -- to be honest about it than sweep it under the rug.
''I'm outraged by kids who are doing bad things, and I want to find ways to discipline them. But I'm saddened by the fact that the rest of the student body is viewed by the community the
same way. Most of these kids are not looking for trouble. We have to make that distinction.''
Much of what the mayor heard at St. Elizabeth's pleased him. Residents talked of working closely with his office. They talked of wanting to continue living in the city, where their families have lived through the generations.
At week's end, Schmoke talked of several possibilities for Hampstead Hill School: temporarily closing it; identifying the troublemaking kids and removing them; rezoning the school so that fewer kids from other neighborhoods attend.
These were all heartening words to residents, but they're also stop-gap measures for a deeper problem: How long will it take for skin color to keep dividing us?
Highlandtown isn't alone. You can hear the same complaints in the city's Hamilton section, where residents talk of overenergized school kids committing wholesale vandalism. At week's end, a mayor's representative was meeting with Hamilton business people to look for solutions.
One suggestion for the city: It's a step in the right direction for Southeast Baltimore neighbors to meet at St. Elizabeth's. But it's time for a dialogue between black and white parents. Schmoke wanted that last week and wanted to notify parents through the Hampstead Hill PTA. But there is no PTA.
''We want to talk with the black parents,'' a white Highlandtown woman was saying at week's end. ''We're not racists. We understand that we all have to live in the same city. But I look at my parents hiding in their house every day. They worked so hard to have their little home. They can't afford to move.
HTC ''And it's not that these bad kids are black. It's that they're bad, and people shouldn't be calling us racist just because we're calling them bad. The mayor's right that it's not all the kids and it's just coincidental that they're black. But does somebody have to get hit with a baseball bat before everybody realizes how bad things have gotten?''