Diet of violence becomes harder for city to digest

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 24, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the morning, a time when I am not at my best, I am standin on North Avenue with Officer Thomas Martini of the Baltimore Police Department, who is doing something revolting.

"For breakfast?" I inquire, fighting back a shudder.

"Mmmf," Martini asserts formally, shoving back a mouthful.

He is eating something resembling a hot dog with a variety of zesty coverings, bought from a street vendor outside Eastern District Court. For normal digestive systems, the zesty coverings at this hour would induce the trots. But for Martini, coming off the night shift, we are now entering the onset of evening.

In fact, for the Police Department of this city, in this time of the guns, we have now entered the darkness of night. As Martini unwinds after eight hours on the street, they're starting funeral services on the other side of town for the slain policeman Ira Weiner. As he stands by the courthouse steps, the three young men charged with shooting Officer Jimmy Young are about to be marched to a courtroom inside for a bail hearing.

And now Tom Martini finishes the last of this thing that once resembled a hot dog, and he wipes his mouth, and he says this business on the streets of Baltimore is getting very tough to stomach.

He was driving south on Wolfe, just past midnight, when he heard the words crackle over his radio: "I regret to inform you that Officer Ira Weiner passed away at 0017 hours. Our prayers are with our fellow officer."

The radio went very quiet then and, alone in his car, Martini's mind went into overdrive, shifting from the bitterness over Weiner and Young to memories of his own flirtation with death by shooting.

"I relive it," he says now, "every time a police gets hit."

It was five years ago, and the circumstances resembled both Weiner's and Young's: Weiner's, in that he was responding to a report of a dangerous, crazed man, out of control, and the man fired at him in his madness; Young's, in that it happened in a housing project like Flag House.

"It was Webb Court," Martini says. "You know it?"

Actually, very well. It's in the Latrobe Housing Project, where I lived for four years when I was growing up.

"Webb Court is one court below mine," I say. "I lived at 1103 Abbott Court."

"This was 1126 Webb," Martini says, nodding his head. "The guy who shot me was a 35-year-old mental patient. He was a Vietnam veteran who had a mental history, and he was on medication, but he'd stopped taking it. So he flipped out. I got called to the house, he fired at the first thing he saw, and it was me."

The bullet entered Martini's left shoulder, cracked a rib, punctured a lung, missed his spine by an inch. He shrugs at the memory. There was much official wringing of hands for a little while when it happened, and then the world went about its business.

"That's what bothers me now," he says. "When the radio said Weiner died, I got that same old tired feeling. Another dead police, another funeral. Everybody calls for tougher laws, and then it blows over, and everybody forgets."

There is no forgetting this time. Numbness is the bigger threat. The shooting is too routine now, too much a part of our daily headlines to forget.

In the housing projects, in the places where poor and angry people live, the violence is too immediate.

I go back to Abbott Court now and then to try to figure out how all this happened. There was no money in my parents' home, but there was always hope. We came here after the war so my father could finish school here, and we lived on $120 a month from the GI Bill.

That's a figure with which modern dwellers of housing projects ++ can identify, but the comparisons then begin to pale. Skating right past all financial realities, there were certain assumptions my parents handed me, right from the start: You will go to college; you will make something of yourself.

Those are not standard assumptions in the places like Abbott Court or the Flag House projects, all these years later.

In my time, my parents never feared to send me out to play, or to walk to School No. 20 a mile away. There was no talk of drugs, or of guns, or of race, either.

The neighborhood streets were racially mixed, and kids played together, and my best recollection now is that nobody my age thought much about it.

Today, there is no parent in a housing project who dares send a child out to play, or to walk to school, without a sense of rolling the dice with the child's life. Not only criminals have taken over, so has hopelessness.

"It's like an assembly line," Tom Martini said now, outside the courthouse.

He meant the endless procession of lawbreakers coming out of the places like the city's housing projects.

"I don't know where it went so bad," I said.

"Me neither," he said. "But I keep this mourning band hanging in my locker. I know I'll eventually have to wear it again."

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