Killer back in jail, but our cynicism is running free

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 21, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

We were talking about rich people's food when the news about Dontay Carter broke. Rich people's food and black-tie affairs and the sublime joys of city life.

Black ties.

Sublime joys.

City life.

The rich food and the black ties were connected with all the distinguished mayors on their way here Monday night, guests of Kurt L. Schmoke, and I'm lying if I do not mention we were being sarcastic about them all.

Bill Clinton's season of service had not yet been declared. It was still our season of cynicism.

Yesterday, Clinton talked of the coming of emotional spring, but on Monday we were stuck in winter.

Standing inside the Baltimore Convention Center where all the mayors would gather, we were bemoaning the show of dress-up opulence in the face of frigid reality when somebody walked into the place and told us the news about Dontay Carter's escape.

"Our luck," a television photographer said, "he'll run down here and try to grab one of these mayors."

"No problem," a uniformed city policeman said. "Somebody real smart will arrest him right away, for not wearing a black tie."

There it is: cynicism as an art form, as the first mechanism of self-defense.

Dontay Carter, the 19-year-old famous for killing, was on the loose and now a manhunt was gearing up.

The uniformed cop wondered who would join the manhunt, and soon he began reciting numbers indicating all who could not.

Everybody worries about crime, and the Baltimore City Police Department says: Why blame us? You want to fight crime, give us people.

The department is operating, at this moment, with 182 vacancies it cannot fill because there is no money. At any District Court in this city, there are dozens of cases every morning, the vast majority of them sloughed off because judges have no place to put lawbreakers.

In the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse on Monday, Dontay Carter made his break because he spotted an opening through numbed, overworked law-enforcement people operating for the moment on automatic pilot.

In his inauguration speech, Bill Clinton hinted once or twice at the troubles in the once-buoyant cities such as Baltimore, "where fear of crime robs law-abiding citizens of their freedoms and . . . millions of poor children cannot even imagine the lives we are calling them to lead."

After 12 years of Reagan and Bush, even the tiniest gesture brings hope: Someone still remembers us. And then Clinton called on our idealism, which he called a season of service, and declared a truth lost for so long now: "We need each other. And we must care for one another."

In the unlamented 1980s, such a line was considered hopelessly naive.

The last dozen years have been a monument to cashing in, to the amoral dividing of money, and communities, and whole races of people.

The result has been the abandonment of cities, and the rise of the Dontay Carters.

In their rush to the suburbs, middle-class people have taken not only their money, but their hearts.

The cities fade into distant memory, with a couple of generations now grown whose only personal ties to the city come from the memories of parents or grandparents.

They hear of Baltimore and think it a foreign land populated by tribes of Dontay Carters. For a long time, no one in power has stifled that kind of talk. It was easier to capitalize on it, to feed the growing sense of cynicism.

Yesterday, Bill Clinton said he was opening the doors to spring. Three nights ago, the mayors who gathered here held their breath over Clinton, hoping for words of renewal.

They could stroll a few yards outside the Convention Center and find homeless people, and none would have been surprised. Police -- those not assigned to the Dontay Carter manhunt -- dotted the area. If they drove a few blocks west, they might have seen neighborhoods ravaged by narcotics.

But they've already seen that stuff, in their own cities.

Yesterday, Bill Clinton talked of "deep divisions among our own people." Nobody needed an explanation. Dontay Carter was back in jail, but others wait in the shadows, and people flee to suburbia.

Bill Clinton's season of service, of generous idealism, sounds lovely. But it will have to chop its way through layers of icy cynicism to arrive in the national psyche.

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