"You know what?" said my buddy, Will B. Humble. "The day is fast coming when I'll be afraid to check a book out of the library."
"What in the world are you talking about, Humble?" I asked.
"Here," said Humble mournfully, handing me the afternoon paper. "Take a look at this."
The paper was full of the same old stories about the Great Depression of 1991-- all about how federal officials and state officials, city officials and captains of private industry, were all compelled by the economy to lay off employees and cut services.
In fact, as near as I could see, the only businesses not laying off employees and cutting services were the ones that were going bankrupt.
One of the services being cut, according to the paper, was libraries. City officials last week announced plans to shut down eight branches, trim operating hours and lay off 41 employees and furlough the rest.
Those actions might make it a tad harder to check out a book, but I didn't see anything that would inspire fear.
"I still don't get it," I said at last.
"Well the way I figure it," explained Humble, "when times get RTC tough, governments start looking for more ways to raise money. They raise taxes. They add new lottery games. And, sooner or later, they crack down on things like parking and speeding."
"Makes sense," I said.
"Well," Humble continued, "up to now, the city hasn't really looked at libraries for revenue. But if things keep going the way they are now, I can foresee a time when the city treats overdue library books the way it treats parking violations."
"Oh ho!" I cried, as understanding dawned. "Humble, I think you might have a point."
Humble and I have talked about the parking thing before.
Once upon a time, way back when, I suppose, city officials might have had a sincere desire to regulate parking downtown. They might not have wanted cars impeding the smooth flow of traffic. They might have wanted a steady turnover in spaces, so that no one hogged a spot for too long.
But that was long, long ago.
Today, parking is a source of revenue for the city, and as you know, when it comes to taking our money, governments lose all perspective.
And so, parking fines in Baltimore range from $17 to $102, and those fines are considered light compared with those in most urban areas.
If you don't pay right away, the city slaps on a usurious penalty of $8 a month-- a penalty that can accrue without limit, so that a tardy offender might well end up paying penalties totaling several times the face value of the ticket.
At the end of the year, the city flags your tag registration, in effect, suspending your right to drive, and tacks on an additional $25 fine for good measure. If you collect three or more tickets the city will boot your car, in effect seizing your property, and tack on yet another $24.
All of this, keep in mind, ostensibly for an offense as innocuous as parking at an expired meter.
In contrast, libraries have been paragons of moderation. Children and senior citizens are not fined in the city. Other adults pay 13 cents a day for late materials up to a maximum fine of $5. If you let a book get too overdue, the library might suspend your borrowing privileges until you bring it back.
The idea, you see, is simply to encourage borrowers to return books.
It is not to feed and feed upon a citizen's error.
"But I predict that's going to change," said Humble. "Can you imagine it? Can you see the city seizing your house because your son or daughter forgot to return a book? Or garnishing your paycheck?"
"It is a chilling thought," I agreed.
"Right now, only suckers drive downtown when they don't have to," said Humble. "It is too dangerous. A meter maid might get you. Can you imagine feeling that way about checking out a book? Instead of the City that Reads, Baltimore would become the City that Feeds -- on us."
"Well, Humble," I said sadly, "when you consider all of the ways the city has of digging into our pockets already, that slogan probably fits right now."
"And the tragic thing is," added my friend, "is that the city still doesn't have enough."