Human parasites stain the charm of Federal Hill


July 02, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

With a great sweep of his hands, the man in the liquor store tugs at his buttons and rips off his shirt. He wants to fight with the man behind the counter, who wishes he would go away.

"Why don't we step into the alley?" the first man says, flinging his shirt to the floor and holding up one meaty fist as he leans his face threateningly across the counter.

"Why don't you shut up?" says the second, brushing him off and not moving from behind his cash register.

The two of them should not be doing this. They are sober, decent, honest, hard-working men facing the half-century mark of their lives, and they are ready to rip each other apart over conditions mostly out of their control.

"I used to love you," says the first man, who is a barber in this Federal Hill neighborhood, South Charles Street not far from the Cross Street Market.

"Yeah, yeah," says the second, who owns this liquor store.

They have known each other about five years. They've watched this neighborhood, a bastion of working-class people, as it became the darling of latter-day yuppies and those trekking between the Inner Harbor and the new baseball park, and they've taken pleasure in its triumphs.

But there's a disheartening underlay here, too, that cuts into the charm of the neighborhood, and now it's got these two men at each other's throats: those who panhandle in the street and use the money for revolving-door trips to some of the neighborhood liquor stores.

And this is why, Tuesday afternoon, these two men are facing each other across this liquor store counter with bared fangs.

"Why are you catering to these people?" the barber cries. Every vein in his neck is protruding from the force of his words.

"Don't put the problem on me," says the liquor store owner. "Are you gonna make the judgment on who can buy and who can't? If they're not intoxicated, I can sell. I turn down people. Anybody that has to struggle through that door, I don't sell."

The volume of their language is rising with each syllable. People enter the store and stand in the doorway, as if afraid to enter a battle zone.

Outside, on South Charles Street, there are men sitting in doorways here and there with bottles wrapped in brown paper bags.

Liquor stores punctuate street after street. In alleys, there are empty bottles and paper cups littering the ground.

At the Cross Street Market, a merchant shakes his head sadly and says, "We got more panhandlers out there than we know what to do with. And they all say the same thing: 'You got money so I can buy some food?' "

That hits a nerve. In a time of homelessness and hunger, no one wants to turn away from the genuinely needy. In a time of high crime, many are afraid to say no to aggressive panhandling. Fear becomes the motivator, and not humanity.

In either case, some on South Charles Street say the panhandling changes the climate of the neighborhood.

"You see 'em outside the restaurant over there," says one merchant. "They say they want food, but then they go right off to get liquor, and they get tanked up, and then they go beg for more money.

"Some of these business people, they get to their store in the morning and there's people sleeping there or they've used it for a bathroom. They've gotta use Lysol to get rid of the smell. I found a woman in a doorway last winter who was blue from the cold. I dragged her into the 7-Eleven and poured tea into her. But there's gotta be a better way."

Inside this South Charles Street package goods store now, the ** two men are still going at each other. It's an angry fight, and yet there's a comfortable familiarity. They can compare names of panhandlers, and descriptions.

"The twins," says the barber, referring to two veteran hustlers.

"The white twins or the black twins?" says the liquor store owner.

.` "Well, yeah," says the barber.

"They're all bad."

He wants them cut off: not only the twins, but all of those who buy the booze and drink it in the street and badger people for money to buy more, and repeat the process again and again.

"You're selling to these people," the barber says, thrusting an accusing finger toward the liquor store owner.

"I don't want 'em around any more than you," comes the response. "When they panhandle outside my store, I run 'em. When they have too much to drink, I throw 'em out of here. I have a license. I abide by the rules."

"That's bull, and you know it," says the barber, his voice reverberating off the store's walls. "You sell 'em that cheap wine. Take a look in the alleys out here, you'll see the bottles."

"What do you want me to do?" the liquor store owner says. "You want me to stop selling the inexpensive stuff? That's discriminating against poor people. A guy has a job, he makes a few bucks, he's entitled to whatever little enjoyment he can afford."

The argument goes on for long minutes, and the air is charged with energy. It shouldn't be like this. Whatever health the community enjoys is passed on to both their businesses.

But the impact of those in the street has nerve endings a little raw. No one wants to turn away the needy, but no one wants to contribute to a culture of parasites, either.

And in this little liquor store on South Charles Street, you see two honest people turning on each other, who have more in common than they remember.

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