Sounds of '92: breaking glass on Paca Street


March 05, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Spare me the testimonials to Paul Tsongas and Bill Clinton. Forget the bouquets to George Bush and Patrick Buchanan. Don't tell me about the joys of democracy and the spirit of national rebirth as Marylanders vote for somebody to run the damned country.

You want a picture of America in the heart of a great campaign? Here goes: Paca and Fayette on election night, standing outside the Paul Tsongas election headquarters with its bright lights and its television cameras and its banners, we are talking to the former mayor of Baltimore, Clarence H. "Du" Burns.

And the bottles begin to smash in the street.

Du Burns is explaining the machinations of presidential politics when the first crash comes. It's a bottle flung across a parking lot on the east side of Paca, and it crashes into something solid and then pieces of it skid onto the street where a taxicab rides over it and you hear the sprinkling sound of glass breaking into thousands of tiny pieces.

"What's that?" says Burns.

"Two kids," says The Sun's Sandy Banisky, pointing toward the parking lot. "I think they're trying to open a newspaper box."

"It's the city that reads," somebody else says.

This is sarcasm as defense mechanism, a quick attempt to grapple with this weird juxtaposition in the darkness.

Upstairs, people are hoisting drinks to the coming day of rejuvenation for America. Across the street, the two kids are pulling empty bottles out of this trash can, and now comes another bottle through the air, and then another, each accompanied by a crashing sound and the breaking of glass, all of it an unconsciously symbolic sneer at the notion on this very street corner of politics as salvation.

There are three of us talking to Burns, and another half dozen adults stand nearby, and nobody moves. Across the street, we see that one of the kids looks about 14, the other maybe 12.

"Somebody get a cop," says Duff Johnson, Paul Tsongas' volunteer coordinator for Maryland.

Nobody says: Let's go over there and grab the two kids. Nobody hollers across the street for them to stop. They're kids in the city of Baltimore. In a time when they're stuffing people into car trunks and shooting school police, who knows what these kids might be packing besides bottles?

And now there are more of them flying through the air, and the soundof them shattering divides the air at Paca and Fayette.

The two kids have spread out, and they're laughing. They see they're being watched. And they're flinging these empty bottles -- around parked cars, around a bus stop bench, around street lamps.

"Let me see if I can't find a cop here," says Du Burns. "This is a goddamned shame."

"This place ought to be crawling with police," says Duff Johnson.

The two of them head inside to the Tsongas victory party. There is laughter there, and the TV lights blot out the darkness. The two kids outside throw a few more bottles, and then one of them walks over to this bus stop bench on Fayette and leans over it.

He spits, and then he spits again, landing globs that will victimize the next person who rests on the bench while awaiting a bus.

"What do we do about kids like this?" Du Burns asks a few moments later. "Aw, don't ask me the hard ones."

He's upstairs at the Tsongas party now, with a drink in his hand and a TV set bringing in the early returns. Tsongas and George Bush will win here. Bill Clinton will win in Georgia and Jerry Brown in Colorado.

Tsongas talks of economics, and Clinton defends his character. Brown shouts his direct line for campaign finances into the ether, and George Bush defends himself against the repugnant Patrick Buchanan.

Nobody quite mentions the kids of Paca and Fayette, who are an afterthought in the politics of the '90s. Everybody talks money. The peace dividend seems to have vanished before it could be spent. The dying cities will have to find life on their own.

"This is the hardest thing, the family structure," Du Burns says now, amid the noise inside Tsongas headquarters. "We just don't have it. People are afraid of their own kids. When I was a kid, some adult would have jerked me up in a minute."

Outside, nobody has jerked up the two kids with the bottles. Nobody's found a cop, and nobody's gone across the street to talk to them the way adults are supposed to talk to kids.

The last bottle has been flung, and there's glass on Paca Street, and more glass on this parking lot, and all of the cars here will drive over it on their way home tonight.

At the stop on Fayette Street, the No. 2 bus to Catonsville pauses, heaves a sigh, opens its door for the two kids to get on. As it pulls away, you can spot them moving to the back, spreading their bodies across a couple of seats, laughing at what they've done.

A moment later, an old lady and her son sit down on the bench to wait for the next bus. You remember the kid who spit there, but you don't have the heart to tell them.

Maybe it's that way with these brilliant men running for president, too: They just don't have the heart to bring us the really bad news.

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