The old woman stands in the shadowy doorway of her row house and does not venture into the Technicolor sunlight on Ellwood Avenue. The two kids across the street are snatched off the front steps and removed to the safety of a living room. The old man on the sidewalk says he'd like to smack somebody, except for the lawsuits.
It is five minutes before the final bell will sound on the first day of class at Hampstead Hill Middle School last Tuesday, and a neighborhood with memories of outrages is bracing itself. A plainclothes cop rides past on a bicycle. A TV photographer steadies a camera on a tripod. Now a horn honks from the middle of the street.
"What's happening?" says Clarence "Du" Burns, the mayoral contender, from his car.
"This is Hampstead Hill," a man says, pointing to the school and feeling immediately idiotic. Burns already knows this is Hampstead Hill, it's his home turf. More than most, he knows the historic tension here between unruly school kids and residents unhappy about their neighborhood being trashed for years while City Hall seemed oblivious.
And now, just days until this city's primary elections, no one has to tell a veteran campaigner how to run with a volatile issue. He cannot be here by coincidence. At least two political polls show Burns, the former mayor, trailing Kurt Schmoke, the current mayor. Reports at election headquarters also show Burns trailing desperately in available money. In five minutes on Ellwood Avenue, an issue is waiting to be exploited with an outburst of self-righteousness for the evening news.
"I'm afraid of these children," the old woman in the doorway says. She leans on a metal walker and speaks with her screen door open only slightly. She says her daughter ordered her not to leave the house today.
"I'm 87," the old lady says. "I sit by the window, and I see them come out of school and they're punching one another. They're wild. I wouldn't have come to the door, except I heard the police siren."
The siren was up the street. A policeman wanted a man who'd double-parked his car outside the school to move it along. The streets must be kept clear. A uniformed cop in a van says there are so many high-profile police cars here now that he couldn't find a place to park.
"Hampstead Hill," Du Burns says now, glancing at the building. "Yeah, I know."
"School's out in five minutes," he is told.
"Yeah," he says. "That's right."
Directly across from the school, there were two toddlers sitting on the front steps of a row house, but they were pulled inside by an adult. A few doors down, a 74-year-old man stands on the sidewalk but does not venture far from his front door.
"In my time," he says, "you got into trouble at school, you got into trouble at home. You got hit twice. Mom kept you in, and then Dad smacked you. Today, the kids take you to court if you hit 'em."
The man edges closer to his front door. There are TV crews setting up on nearby corners. One photographer points a camera at a plainclothes cop who bellows across Ellwood Avenue:
"Not me, man. Hey! Uh-uh. Don't put me on camera."
The camera does not turn away. The plainclothes cop begins to advance on the photographer.
"I don't want to be on no TV, man," he calls in a foghorn voice. "I'm serious."
The camera is turned away. The TV people will need someone else for the evening news. In his car, Du Burns says he is late.
"No, I gotta be across town," he says.
"But Hampstead Hill's letting out," he is told again.
"Yeah," he says. "I know."
And he is gone. In East Baltimore, a political wound is waiting to be ripped open, and Burns does not rip. Nor, at City Hall, has Kurt Schmoke chosen to make election news by striding through this neighborhood in his shirt sleeves and escalating the sensitivities.
Nor, for that matter, has that other mayoral challenger, Bill Swisher. For him, the issue represented banner headlines, for it is tinged with the trickiest issue of all in this nation, that of race relations.
But no one in this election season has exploited Hampstead Hill.
On this opening day of school one week ago, Du Burns speeds off to his appointment and Schmoke and Swisher are elsewhere. The school empties out peacefully, and Ellwood Avenue returns to normal, and now we are two days from the end of a mayoral campaign everyone agrees is the dullest in memory.
Is this bad? In some places, the sensitivity of Hampstead Hill wouldhave been exploited. In New York City, for example, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who must be in the employ of white racists everywhere for all the damage he does to his own race, would have had blacks and whites at each other's throats.
In Baltimore, we are having a dull election campaign, and we are also attempting to work out problems such as Hampstead Hill in a reasonable way. It's an election, not an exploitation.
It's a dull campaign, but maybe that says something for all who are involved: Integrity counts for something. It is not worth winning an election but losing a city in the process.