Sign of the times: Poverty is just old news

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 28, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Here is the way the process works:

Last Thursday, I see a man standing at the traffic light at President and Pratt streets, west of Little Italy and east of Harborplace, with a message he has printed on a big piece of cardboard:

4 ''Homeless. Will Do Any Type of Work for Food.''

I talk to the man, whose name is John Jordan.

''Go ahead and put my name in the paper,'' he says. ''I don't care.''

So, the way the process works, I write a newspaper column describing John Jordan's sad life, how he's an unemployed construction worker, how his father died three weeks ago and he had to move out of the old man's apartment.

With all of the muscle wielded by this column, and by this powerful newspaper, we immediately see the following occur: John Jordan goes on living his life in the traffic of this city, scrounging for work to feed himself and move indoors.

And, between Jordan and the column, we divide the readership in half:

a) Those who say, ''That poor man. There must be some way to help him'' -- and then, as people do, go about eating their breakfast.

b) Those who say, ''What is this, some kind of bleeding-heart column? Let the guy find a real job'' -- and then, as people do, go about eating their breakfast.

Here is the problem with the process, aside from all this eating of breakfast: We've all grown numb.

The homeless, the jobless, the hopeless -- they've become cliches of our time. They're no longer characters in the daily urban drama, just background scenery. A piece of us thinks, they've survived this long, they'll go on surviving. In the daily rush for something new, we grow bored with the things that we think are someone else's problems.

''Is it rough at night?'' I ask John Jordan.

''I get in my sleeping bag,'' he says, ''and I've got this spot in a stairwell over by the Convention Center where I sleep.''

In this business, such a story once carried pretty good weight as a human interest tale: Guy's sleeping in the cold while the city's tourists, flashing their wallets and their expense accounts, happily traipse all about him.

No more.

Heard it already.

''What happens when you get up?'' I ask.

''Not much,'' Jordan says. ''I go over to this Burger King and

wash up in their bathroom.''

Heard it.

At President and Pratt, cars move past and eyes are averted. The cardboard sign becomes a blur. Those stopped by a red light glance Jordan's way, then quickly look elsewhere.

''Has anybody offered you a job?'' I ask.

''A few,'' he says. ''I cleaned somebody's basement. I washed some cars. But, see, I got no phone and no address. They don't know how to reach me. Plus, you know, people don't think I can keep clean. But I can. There's a place over on Eager Street for bathing.''

We do not wish to connect our own lives with this kind of talk. To most of us reading this newspaper, to those of us driving past in our cars -- Jordan might be from some other planet.

The other day, I drive to Carroll County to speak to a group of people. I mention our man Jordan. I am received by an orchestration of stifled yawns. These are the people whose families lived in Baltimore across several generations. Then they moved outward, in ever-expanding concentric circles, until the city is no longer perceived as the emotional center of their lives.

They think, out here, that they can escape the city's problems. They've forgotten: If it hadn't been for the city's problems, they wouldn't have fled here in the first place.

When do we stop running and start facing the truth? We're all in this together.

A year ago, there were 304 people killed in Baltimore, of whom 29 were white.

In the first three months of this year, there were 75 killings. Five were white.

You walk into any criminal court in town and see a similar breakdown -- not only of murder, but of crime across the board.

Is it awful? Of course it is.

But we digest these statistics at the same time we slough off the stuff of last week's news: Economically, nothing changes. Black America continues to drag behind white America.

Nationally, median black income is about 60 percent of median white income. In Maryland, blacks are three times as likely as whites to be poor. In Baltimore, 27.9 percent of blacks are below the poverty line -- more than twice the white rate.

''I got some kid,'' says a west side narcotics cop, ''and he's got an offer to handle drugs for a neighborhood guy. The kid's 14. This dealer's gonna give him $175 a week. The kid's mother's a hospital aide who isn't making enough money to move off a bad street. What do I tell this kid?''

We've heard this story before, haven't we? It's yesterday's news -- the underage drug courier, the frustrated cop, the angry streets. We've heard it so much, we now turn a deaf ear and no longer wish to hear the connection among economics, and hopelessness, and crime.

I left John Jordan at President and Pratt streets about 1 in the afternoon. By chance, I drove past about 7:30 that evening. He was still there, still holding up his sign.

''Have you eaten?'' I asked.

''Oh, yeah,'' he said. ''Some people come out of restaurants, and they bring me food they haven't finished. But, see, I don't want no charity. I want a job.''

Sorry, John.

Already heard it.

And people don't want to pay much attention to it.

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