A New Jerusalem? Living in an Almost-War-Zone

September 20, 1992|By ROBERT RUBY | ROBERT RUBY,Robert Ruby has been a Sun correspondent in Europe and the Middle East since 1983.

In the Baltimore Museum of Art a young father holding the hand of his daughter, who looked to be about 6, stopped in front of two large color photographs hanging side-by-side. The photographs belong to a witty, unsettling exhibit about modern domestic life in the United States.

"Investment Banker at Home, Malibu, California," depicts a busy man. He sits on an exercycle, the handset of a telephone at his ear. His body betrays the softness of middle age; the body of the telephone rests on a glass table. Various documents are within reach. He twists, unsmiling, to face the camera, another task to perform. Everything about him says "weight," as in "power."

In the companion photo, "Attorney at Home, Malibu, California," a handsome woman leans over another part of the same glass table, where plates and bowls have been arranged for a tempting lunch. She wears a cat suit patterned mostly in orange and blue. Nothing about her suggests the conventions of "attorney," "office," or "work." Behind her is a wall of windows and the surf of the Pacific Ocean.

"This is weird," the father says to his daughter. "These pictures are California."

This is weird, I think, because this is the United States, and after being mostly away from it for nine years, I can not confidently "read" the photographs, do not know for sure what in the photos is a symbol of independence, beauty or success and what pokes fun at conformity or wealth. I greatly admire the photographs. I admire the country. In these first weeks, though, they are nearly unfathomable. Nine years spent in Europe and the Middle East is long enough for the foreign to become familiar. Being here is, temporarily, the true exotica.

For a long time I rarely encountered things American -- slang, food, books, fashions in dress and politics -- except from a distorting distance.

American characters in American movies spoke dubbed German French.

In conservative Muslim countries, disciplined armies of censors inked over any printed displays of flesh, and tore out magazines advertisements for booze. In Israel one did not hear heated words, pro or con, about forestry practices in the Pacific Northwest.

Some otherwise intelligent Americans assume every French citizen is an expert on wine and impeccably dressed except when performing astounding feats of athletic sex. Some Egyptians, no less intelligent, wistfully mistake Madonna for a typical American.

Americans, of course, had elections, and Americans worried about crime, and both phenomena seemed unremarkable. In some other countries leaders never scheduled elections, or elections were fixed or canceled, or people overthrew the leaders, on rare occasions shot them. No one talked much about street crime because people were busy preparing for a war, or already fighting one, were haunted by the last one, or mourning a father or a son or the loss of a house, and wondering why the United States did not intervene to solve the problems, or why the United States had intervened and ruined everything.

On my first full day back in Baltimore, a policeman on a scooter parked a few feet from where I was standing. Officer Charles Steele politely asked what I was doing. I was peering through the windows of a house. I own it (that is, I pay the mortgage) and was waiting for a real estate agent to arrive with the key. Officer Steele kept staring. He knew me, he said.

He remembered a robbery: Two young men, one putting a gun to my stomach, the other standing close at my back. They left with my $30. Officer Steele had come to the house. Maybe he !B remembered my terror. Much later, an envelope was forwarded to me in France with a summons to appear in District Court in the City of Baltimore to testify at the trial of a man charged with armed robbery. The assigned date had come and gone a month before the envelope arrived.

"About 10 years ago, wasn't it?" said Officer Steele.

So we talked about changes in the neighborhood. A fine block, he said. Lovely trees. He pointed north and described an intersection within walking distance where the only thriving businesses are those connected with drugs. He pointed east in the direction of another open-air drug market. He offered a reminder about the early-morning drunks on a street to the west.

Later that day I bought a car. Once the sales contract was signed, the salesperson gave way to the head of customer relations. Fine, because this is the land of consumerism. She offers an extended warranty. She said the attorney general of Maryland has asked her to explain the terms, as if he were a friend. She offers rust-proofing, highly recommended if the car is be used under any of the conditions listed on a chart which appears on a computer screen. One condition is "children." Another is "traveling." I pass up the opportunity to spend another $1,000. Says the head of customer relations, "Your car will rot."

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