Small-time crime erodes foundation of urban life

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 08, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Don Hetz saw the brick in the street near his truck, parked last Saturday at Broadway and Pratt Street in Fells Point, and felt a distinctly misplaced sense of relief.

"Look," he told a friend. "Somebody tried to break in."

This was futile, he told himself. A veteran of various break-in attempts, he had extra security on his truck, strong locks plus wire cages on the windows and doors of the van. The thing was unbreakable.

He thought.

He looked up to find he had lied to himself. One of the van windows was broken, and the wiring over the glass sliced by some sort of metal cutter. Inside, his tools were taken. Hetz makes his living as owner of Hetz's Refrigeration, doing pipe fitting, air conditioning, heating and refrigeration. Now he had no way to do his work.

In the annals of crime in Baltimore, this is no big thing. No headlines are written, no stories composed. Nobody bleeds over the theft of tools. It is merely this: With each crime, each violation of trust, suitcases are mentally packed. Thoughts of Realtors are entertained. The flight to suburbia is lengthened.

Hetz, 42, moved here from Hagerstown three years ago, grabbed this condemned house at Broadway and Pratt on the cheap, made it livable. Got his business going. Got involved in the neighborhood, liked the sense of community, the sense of Fells Point's free spirits ad-libbing their way through life.

But in three years his home has been burglarized five times. The vacant lot next door has become a dumping ground for garbage. And Saturday, when his truck was hit and he called the police to complain, the officer who arrived at his house looked at him as though he should have his head examined.

"I got the impression from him," Hetz said yesterday, "that I was stupid for living here. I understand what he's saying. I feel like we're under siege here. It'll take most of my savings to get my tools back. They don't understand, a man's livelihood is at stake. telling you, we're under siege."

On Monday, he tried getting secondhand replacement tools at Black & Decker. He told the man on the phone his stuff had been stolen.

"Oh, yes," the man on the phone said in an even voice. "It's Monday. We always get a lot of these calls on Mondays. People get their stuff stolen on weekends, and then they need replacement stuff on Mondays. We had one company call this morning that had three trucks hit over the weekend."

Black & Decker didn't have everything Hetz needed, so he went to a pawnshop in West Baltimore and looked for a vacuum pump, used for refrigeration work. As he stood there, somebody carried in a fax machine. It was wrapped inside a trash bag.

"I need a vacuum pump," Hetz said.

"I have one here," said the pawnshop man. "It's a $350 machine. You can have it for $160."

Hetz paused for a moment to look it over.

"Or," said the man, "I have three more of them in the basement."

Yesterday, Hetz wondered aloud about fax machines carried around in trash bags, and four different vacuum pumps in one pawnshop. People who bring items to pawnshops are supposed to have proof of ownership. Without it, the pawnshops simply become middlemen in a community's stolen-goods traffic.

"I'd have to question any person bringing in a vacuum pump," he said.

He is asking other questions as well: Is there any way to stop the violations, large and small, not only of cars and homes, but of the human condition?

The city counts its losses in homicides, now running at about one per day, and in the great sweep of violent crimes. All who read the accounts shudder, and then attempt to reassure themselves that they've been lucky enough to dodge the bullet once more.

But the smaller violations catch up with too many people: the stuff that never makes headlines, that merely makes everyone wonder about the balance sheet, about the price that is paid for the gifts of city living.

On Saturday, after he saw his car had been hit, Don Hetz made two telephone calls. One went to the police. The other went to a friend. The friend lives outside the city.

"You got any jobs?" Hetz said.

For the moment, he feels ready to leave.

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