Crime, homeless put holiday cheer in short supply

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 26, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the week in which we give thanks for bountiful blessings, the shopkeeper says he has shot three people. The cab driver looks at lines of the hungry and talks of implicit blackmail. The man who once broke narcotics laws every day now talks of getting tough on criminals.

Baltimore's nerve endings are coming undone.

"They think I'm crazy," the shopkeeper says. He's got a place in the 1400 block of West Baltimore Street and points to men sitting in a vacant doorway a few yards away. The men are sharing a bottle of something hidden inside a paper bag. The man says his crazy reputation keeps a wall of safety between himself and the men in the doorway.

"You want them to think you're crazy?" he is asked.

"Definitely," he says. "You want them to know you have a gun. You want them to talk about the people you've shot, so they don't try anything with you. I've shot three people who tried to get my money, and I hope everybody out there knows it.

"Listen, I go to the bank every day. I always have money in my pockets. But I also have a gun in there, and I want them to think I'm crazy enough to use it without asking any questions.''

A few blocks up the street is a line for free food, and people huddle in the noontime chill. Soon it will be much colder. The city is alive with official compassion this week, as the Thanksgiving holiday is upon us, but questions of unofficial bitterness fill the air.

The Evening Sun reports the city's soup kitchens and other agencies serve handouts to more than 5,900 poor and homeless in a typical day. Officially, we embrace them. Unofficially, we blame them for forcing us to embrace them.

"Blackmail," a city cab driver calls it. He's sitting around the corner from the food line on West Baltimore Street. The cab driver is a sensitive man, but he wears a cynical edge. Yes, times are tough, he agrees. Yes, it is sad about the hungry and the homeless, he agrees.

But how much of the government's official compassion -- in the city, and all over the nation -- is based more on edginess than empathy: In other words, if we don't keep these people fed, do we run the risk of having them run amok? Are the food lines our implicit bargain with them: If we agree to feed you, will you agree to stand on line and not get into trouble for a few hours a day?

In the heart of Charles Village, a man who once put hundreds of dollars of heroin into his arms each week now echoes the sentiment. "It's out of hand," he says. This is a man who once broke criminal laws without a second thought to support his needle habit. Now approaching 50, his body long since having begun to balk from years of youthful abuse, he talks like some reactionary lifer calling for an end to civil liberties.

"Used to be," he said, "the police would jack you up on the street. It was just business, that's all. Today, they can't go into a place without a warrant, or they've got some junkie calling the civil liberties people.

"They ought to be breaking their heads against the apartment wall. Warrants! Man, you break the law, you haven't got the right to complain about police breaking laws."

Lost in the anger of the moment is any notion of that ancient American assumption: All are assumed innocent until proven guilty. In the new ethos, all are presumed guilty but still on the loose.

In Washington, much of this seems lost on the White House, whose operatives tell us the president is pondering moves to take the nation out of the recession -- while he's still denying the recession's very existence. Between now and Christmas, the president who once planned to trek around the globe now instead has plans for trips to half a dozen American cities. The idea is to show his concern for the folks at home, but the trips leave open a question: Are they mere public relations gestures with an election season looming, or do they indicate some policy change in the wind?

Around here, the people who run government agencies live in a state of constant cringe. The governor, ducking grenades lobbed all around him, looks for new ways to trim the state payroll. The mayor of Baltimore, who once turned to the governor for financial help even in the most antagonistic days of their relationship, now must trim his own payroll to levels once considered unthinkable. And the reverberations are felt on the street, where middle-class people feel increasingly anxious, and the poor increasingly bitter, and all are expressing themselves in ways not considered tra- ditional of the Thanksgiving season.

"I can't walk the streets of my neighborhood," says a man living on Auchentoroly Terrace. "My wife's afraid to take my kids across the street to Druid Hill Park. All summer long, people were getting mugged around here. My wife said, 'What should I do? I'm afraid to go outside.' I told her, 'Wait a while. Winter's coming.' That's the answer, see? When it gets cold, maybe the muggers will stay inside. And then we can take the kids to the park."

And after that?

"After that," he says, "summer will come back, and the muggers will be out again. So we'll have to take the kids out of the park again, until winter next year."

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