On city streets, economy is faces, not numbers

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 05, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

She said her name was Bonita, so I wrote it down. We were standing outside the Omni Hotel Tuesday night, where Democratic revelers were celebrating the new America. Bonita said she was 18, and I wrote that down, too. And she said she had a 3-year old daughter, and so I reached for my wallet.

Before the new America arrives, we will have to deal with the old one. The arithmetic says Bonita was 14 when she was pregnant, and the streets say she is not alone. She had a cadaverous chest and the dull, dim eyes of the lifeless.

Bill Clinton must understand this: He was elected president mostly because of economic troubles, but these are not mere numbers. In places like Baltimore, ignored for the past dozen years, connection must be made once again to human beings who are coming apart.

"You know what this means?" Mary Pat Clarke said. Inside the Omni now, the Baltimore City Council president stood on a table and tried to shout above the big crowd's noise.

"It means," she shouted, "hope. We don't expect money to come shooting down the Baltimore-Washington Expressway, because there are debts the country has to pay. But it's a hand reaching out, saying, 'We're partners again. You're back in the game.' "

Some game. Outside the Omni, Bonita stood a few yards from a stretch limousine hired for the evening by people with money. She was talking about her life, about her little room at the YWCA, and the words came out of her in a kind of practiced monotone. You suspected you were being hustled, but even the hustle stood for something.

"I'm not a bad person," she said, and added, oddly, "I just have bad teeth. I'm not a junkie or an alcoholic. I just want some money to buy some chicken for my baby and me."

The cities have gotten like this now. The various kinds of begging are routine aesthetics of the landscape, a reminder of a nation which chose up sides the last 12 years -- the haves vs. have-nots, the people who hire limousines vs. the people who hijack them -- and told them to fight it out.

The result is not only this Bonita child, but a nation where the gap between rich and poor has never been more obscene, and the poor have taken to various hustles, creative and pathetic and dangerous.

"People are getting killed out there, and George Bush never indicated he understood it," Mike Barnes was saying now. Barnes, the former congressman now vice chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, was standing in the crowded Omni ballroom, a few feet from state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

"My area [Prince George's County] is like Baltimore City," said Miller. "It was turned off by that us-vs.-them mentality at the Republican convention, as though the real America was in Houston, and everybody else was living in New York."

It was tough to hear him over the big crowd's noise. As the TV returns came in, the news was punctuated by the roar of people who hadn't seen this kind of presidential night since -- well, some of them hadn't seen it in their entire lives.

"I can't remember the last time I was really happy on a presidential election night," Attorney General Joe Curran said. "I guess Kennedy in '60. Even in '64 it wasn't really happy, because we were still suffering from . . ."

His voice trailed off, remembering the end of that brief era. History has a way of moving in cycles, and maybe Bush just got caught in the spin. The social idealism of the Kennedy era gave way to the cynicism of Nixon and the era of Reagan and Bush, in which greed was legitimized.

The long Cold War finally faded, and faded so suddenly that no one seemed to know exactly what to do with it. Use the defense money for cities, some said, but none has come. Get more cops on the street, others say. Then they remember the deficit. Help the poor, a few voices cry.

But then there are the poor ones like Bonita, standing outside the Omni on the night the Democrats finally returned to power and Clinton talked of change. She was talking about her child, about living in a little room, and she wanted money for food.

I gave her a few bucks and started to walk into the night. I got a few yards from her, when two guys came up, and they had a tale of woe, and they asked for money. I told them to talk to Bonita.

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