Thoughts of Mace slither into suburban dream


December 29, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Christmas Eve, with the neighborhood bathed in lights and innocence, a couple of guys with a gun held up the delicatessen at the end of the shopping strip.

We heard about it when we tried to walk out of the movie theater and found the doors locked.

The movie manager said he was just being cautious. He said the strip's drug store and the card shop had already been struck in recent days and now, maybe 30 minutes ago, it was the deli.

Outside, there was a police car with blinking lights and a guy in a security uniform with a walkie-talkie in his hand.

"They have a security guard here?" a friend said.

"Sure," I said, as though I'd known for a while. In fact, I'd only discovered it the previous night, walking past the strip's bakery, when I heard the squawking of a walkie-talkie and heard something about a pregnant woman being chased across a parking lot.

"That does it," my friend said. "I'm getting Mace."

"Mace?" I said, muttering some lame joke about her joining the ranks of the domestic arms race.

"Mace, of course," said my daughter when she heard the news. "Of course you get Mace. I've been carrying Mace for months."

"You have?" I asked, and began to wonder why I was not.

Yesterday morning I drove past the shopping strip and wondered where it goes from here. The morning paper said the City of Baltimore recorded a record 330th homicide the previous night, but nobody seemed to think it was such a big deal.

These things happen in the city, everybody said -- which is why it is such a big deal.

The crime has now driven a couple of generations to suburbia. When the city set its previous record for murder, it was 1972, and the population was about 170,000 higher than it is now.

And this is why the holdup of the delicatessen on Christmas Eve, and the movie manager locking the doors, and the thoughts of Mace, struck such a chord: This shopping strip's in Baltimore County, out where people once ran for safety and are finding out now that the city's troubles are coming to visit them.

Baltimore County police say crime figures are up dramatically in the last five years in armed robbery, in aggravated assault, in car theft. Over 10 years, same thing. But numbers are just numbers.

When we left the movie theater on Christmas Eve, we had plans to walk to the deli for a quick bite. Half an hour earlier, and we'd have been there for the gunmen.

"I hate this," my friend said. She meant the thought of Mace, which offers self-defense but also the constant reminder that we aren't as safe as we want to tell ourselves we are.

My friend spends most of her time in suburbia. She has an office in Towson, where she walks through a big, mostly deserted parking garage in the evening and footsteps sound like little bombs dropping on her nerve-endings. She has another office in Lutherville, where she has to traverse a big empty parking lot, and she keeps reading in the papers about car thefts.

Ten years ago, there were 3,148 car thefts in the county. In the first nine months of '92, there were 4,103.

The predators wish to be motorized. If they haven't got a motor of their own, they want yours.

The day after the deli was held up, all of the stores were closed for Christmas Day. My friend went back and forth on the Mace.

To arm oneself is to protect oneself -- theoretically, at least -- but it is also to accept dread as a constant companion, to announce officially to oneself that, yes, you are vulnerable and cannot let your guard down.

"Get it," my daughter advised, with the wisdom of one who works in the city. "And get the mist, not the direct spray."

"No, no," said someone with her own expertise. "If the wind is blowing, it'll blow the mist right back at you. Get the direct spray."

"Whatever you get, get the pepper," said my daughter. "They say it burns more."

On the day after Christmas, my friend went to a suburban hardware store and asked for a key chain. But, while she was there, she asked about another item, and she carried it in her hand yesterday.

It was a Christmas present she bought for herself: her very first container of Mace.

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