The cops stop us at Greenmount and Chase 11:30 Tuesday night. Nobody's allowed through. A uniformed guy behind a barricade says there's a hostage situation a block away, at the Maryland Penitentiary, and lives are vulnerable. But in the humid darkness on the street there's an electric energy that seems to be kicking into gear.
Something is terribly wrong here. Driving down Greenmount all the way from 28th Street, children are everywhere. They're playing in front of the bail bond office next door to the liquor store just below North, and they're sitting by the fancy cognac billboard a few blocks below that, and dozens of them stroll about everywhere who are still in the first decade of their lives.
Has nobody told them the bad news? A 6-year-old named Tiffany Smith is in her grave tonight from being on the street at such a killing hour. They're taking hostages at the pen, but they're taking lives outside the pen. Where are the parents of these children on Greenmount Avenue?
"Getting high," a guy in a Nike T-shirt on Chase Street grunts.
He's in a patch of maybe a dozen people standing on this corner. A police cruiser is sending beams of blue light all over the place, and the sound of rap music spills from an open window.
"Getting high," somebody else echoes. "How can you tell the kids to go to sleep when the mom's out getting high?"
People are gathering on every corner now, and on row house steps. Inside the penitentiary, something has gone wrong and inmates in C Dormitory have taken a couple of correctional officers hostage. Outside, it's just another night in the neighborhood, with police rumbling through and helicopters overhead and music from passing cars blaring away.
"Yeah, yeah," says a woman named Roslyn Hill. "That girl Tiffany Smith. I felt sorry for that little girl's mother."
She can identify. The clock's drifting toward midnight at Greenmount and Chase, and Roslyn Hill has three kids of her own. There's a boy who's 7. A girl, 3. And an 8-month-old girl. And they're all with her now on the street.
"Aren't they up late?" somebody asks.
"It's hot inside my house," Roslyn Hill explains.
Hot inside the house, hot inside the penitentiary. The hostages are held through the night, and in the early-morning daylight yesterday at the pen there are uniformed people holding high-powered weapons. At Forrest and Madison, a couple of city medical units have arrived, waiting to be sent inside to tend the wounded if violence breaks out.
"This could be a good one," says a paramedic, biting into a meat loaf-and-onion breakfast sandwich.
"A good one?" somebody asks.
"Hell, yeah," says a second medic. "This beats going down to Aisquith Street at 3 in the morning and picking up a drunk because he's had hiccups for three straight days."
"Or some woman calling 'cause her kid's hurt himself at 4 in the morning," says the first guy. "Four in the morning, and they're out there wheeling strollers in the street. That's why these kids are getting shot; it's 'cause you got these parents letting their kids in the street all night long."
There's a crowd beginning to build as morning drifts toward noon outside the prison. At 11:29, inmatesagree to release one ++ hostage, correctional officer Gary Wooten, a 29-year-old in his first year on the job. A man outside the prison gates says he'll wait for some kind of conclusion before going home. He leans against a pair of crutches and glances down at a morning newspaper spread beneath his feet.
"Anything's liable to happen," he says. He's 22, and he's missing a leg beneath one knee. Lost it in a drug raid, he says. Put him in the hospital and then in prison. He says he knows a lot of the guys inside the pen.
He says he's been sitting out here all night long: nothing else to do, nowhere else worth going.
This bit of news is not exactly startling. The streets through here seem to move on some adrenalin high all through the night: with talk, with music, but also with the shadows of drug deals and the violence that accompanies them.
Tiffany Smith sleeps in the earth now because of an atmosphere like this. She stood in the way of a bullet on a nighttime street not so far from here, where the action does not stop.
But there are kids like Tiffany who are dying while nobody seems to notice. They're out in the streets with their parents looking the other way, and they're sitting in classrooms the next morning with their eyes at half-mast, and they're falling in with the rhythms of a life dominated by drugs and needles and money that has no conscience.
These streets become a kind of waiting room for the prisons, a kind of prep school for life behind bars. Sometimes you can stand in the street and hear the inmates inside. They'll call to strangers passing by. They'll look longingly from their cells toward Greenmount Avenue, where they think they see freedom.
It's not freedom. It's just the outside, waiting to change places with those inside.