HURLOCK is a community on Maryland's Eastern Shore, two counties and 30 miles north of Easton. I have only been there once, late at night, so I haven't seen much of the place. But what little I saw during that one trip was beautiful: a town of dignified houses set on quiet streets, surrounded by farms and groves of trees that rustled quietly in a soft breeze at full moon.
My trip to Hurlock was a welcome change from the usual taxicab ride in Baltimore. It was a chance to spend a few hours out of the city, away from its crime and drug problems.
My passenger sat in the front seat, and we chatted pleasantly during the three-hour ride. He was 19 and had been visiting an uncle in New York City. He also had relatives in Baltimore and had lived with some of them for a short time. Now he was going home to what he hoped was a calmer, less hazardous environment.
"Drug dealing is just too damn dangerous in the cities," he said. "Everybody's willing to kill over some corner where you can hardly move a buck [$100] a day. That's why I'm going back home to do it. Less competition."
I had picked this young man up at Penn Station. He was wearing a red sweatsuit, a black "L.A. Raiders" jacket, white high-top sneakers and a black cap with a large white "X" across the front. When he told me where he was going, I told him I wanted to collect the fare before we left. He had no objection. "It's usually $140," he said. I called my dispatcher to confirm the distance to Hurlock: 127 miles. $140 was an acceptable fare for the ride. He paid, and we rolled out. He had a small gym bag he held on his lap throughout the trip. It was his only luggage.
At first, we talked of the weather, of the brightness of the moon, of politics and traffic. It was normal highway small talk, the kind almost everyone makes with cabbies on long trips. It was not until we had sat next to each other for over an hour, and I told him I had used marijuana and LSD years ago, that he started talking about his business, which he did in the same dispassionate tone a stockbroker uses when discussing changing fortunes in the biotech industry.
"It used to be the cities were where you made all the money," he said. "Now they're gone. Everybody wants some of that coke money, but there isn't all that much of it. Today the money is out here, where I live. People use just as much of the s---, but they do it at home and don't make no fuss when they do, so the cops don't do anything about it. They don't care. Hell, I bet some of them, or people in their families, like to get high, too. Why not? They aren't hurting anyone."
The crack he was carrying had been supplied by his uncle in New York. He was taking it to another relative who, he said, would either sell it himself or have various acquaintances peddle it in the parking lots of local bars or out of the back doors of selected houses.
"It's not a corner thing out here," he said. "You pretty much don't sell to anyone you don't know, so you don't have to worry about getting popped [arrested] or burned [unable to collect on a sale]. If someone needs a little something and they don't have the money, and you know they have a job or a check coming in, you let them have it and collect from them when you know they have some money. Everybody pays up. If they didn't, we wouldn't sell to them any more and they'd have to drive to Easton or Annapolis, and they don't want to go that far."
Another advantage of dealing in a small town is that you can charge more. He told me the average vial of prepared crack cocaine was retailing "for maybe six or seven dollars" in Hurlock or Easton, while in Baltimore the low-grade crack can be had for as little as $3 per vial.
But the main thing that makes small-town dealing attractive is the lack of risk. "My uncle's always scared in New York," he said. "My cousin in Baltimore has to carry a tool [gun] everywhere to protect himself. It's hard on them. If we can get enough business going out here, they're going to move out with us and just go into the cities to make their [wholesale] buys."
I don't know if this young man and his relatives are part of a new trend in the drug business, but I certainly hope so. I live in a Baltimore neighborhood that is being killed by drug-related crime. Taxpayers in places like Hurlock seem perfectly willing to view hard drugs, and the violence that goes with them, as urban problems their tax money shouldn't be used to address.
They and the legislators they elect seem to be adamant in their belief that drugs exist only in big cities, and that city residents are a degenerate breed which is bringing on its own problems.
But the drugs are in Hurlock and other small towns, too. They are sold quietly, and the crimes that finance their purchase are committed with less fanfare than they are in large cities. And if the drug markets in the cities continue to be as saturated as they are today, farsighted businessmen like my young cab passenger will soon make sure cocaine, heroin and other brain poisons are readily available in every little town and complacent suburb in the state, not just near housing projects in Baltimore.
And someday, if we city residents are lucky, the people in places like Hurlock and Towson and Hancock and Ellicott City will come to us for advice on how to survive amid the drug war. And they will not like it when we laugh at them and tell them to solve their own problems, any more than we like the way they sneer at us today and tell us to solve Baltimore's drug problems without their help.
Robin Miller writes from Baltimore.