Electronic eyes scan for bad guys, then capture you

MICHAEL OLESKER

July 08, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I go to a favorite delicatessen yesterday for a bite of old-fashioned corned beef on rye and instead get a taste of our modern pickle.

I am startled to find, directly behind the restaurant's front door, a prominently displayed closed-circuit television screen, which shows me opening the restaurant door and looking startled at seeing me opening the restaurant door and looking startled at seeing me.

Get the picture? Everybody will who enters the restaurant. We're now watching ourselves watch ourselves and hoping it makes us feel safer.

The television screen is perched directly above the cashier where boxes of candy used to sit. A miniature video camera hangs, snake-like, to the left. A hand-written sign urges everyone to smile, but what in the world is so funny?

The TV screen, installed three weeks ago, flashes everyone entering and exiting the restaurant into a room in the back, where an unsmiling manager observes the traffic and looks for suspicious faces, and the camera tapes everything for any necessary future reference.

In fact, though, the future has already arrived. This restaurant, located in a shopping center in a green and comfortable section of Baltimore County, has been held up several times in the past year -- "four or five times," the manager says, momentarily losing precise count -- and safety measures must be taken.

"There was talk," the manager says, "that we could put the cashier behind a mesh screen, but we decided against that." Too close to the look of some inner-city liquor store. Too downscale for a restaurant so historically upscale, upbeat, upper middle class.

So a balancing act has begun: Protect your poor, vulnerable cashier, but risk intimidating your already-edgy customers. Calm your employees, but send a message to your clientele: This has now become a place of potential trouble. We are doing our best, but we live in difficult times. If you have not come to cause trouble, you have nothing to fear. So relax, have a bite to eat, and we'll deal with that strange man on the television screen who's got a guy in a car waiting for him just outside.

The deli is not alone. The drug store next door has its own security cameras, and some other stores up and down the shopping strip have their own. There's a private security officer, hired in the past year, who's on guard throughout working hours, but it's a pretty long run of stores for one fellow.

For a restaurant, the problem's a little more psychologically delicate. Eating is so intimate. Sitting and waiting makes us vulnerable. Young couples come here with their children, and so do lots of old people in their retirement years. People come here not only to nibble, but to gossip idly. Does a closed-circuit TV setup encourage that kind of atmosphere?

"Actually," the manager says yesterday, "the reaction's beegood. People look into the TV screen and see themselves, and they go, 'Oh, I always wondered what I'd look like on television.' It's fun for them."

No, it isn't. The manager, young and hopeful but dealing with a difficult situation, surely must understand the truth. For people in the surrounding neighborhood, already concerned about safety when they leave their homes, it raises a troubling question: Is this the beginning of the end? Will we have to move to another, safer neighborhood even farther from the city we fled once before? Will we have to look for a place where the robbers and the surveillance equipment are still a few years off?

There was a time, though, when no one imagined such trouble here. Baltimore County was supposed to be the great refuge from the grim troubles of the city. That's the whole idea behind suburbia ignoring urban America, isn't it? You move far enough away, you turn your back and hope they won't discover how to navigate the beltway. Let it be somebody else's problem.

"The crime," the restaurant manager says now, "is everywhere out here. Look at the cars being stolen at Towson Town Center. You can go to Owings Mills and feel edgy."

More and more, the cities' problems become the counties'. For a dozen years, Washington tried to obscure this fact, but it won't stick. Ignore urban problems, they arrive at your doorstep anyway.

How appropriate, in our modern age, to see the vision arrive on a television screen. How appropriate to see a mirror image of ourselves, looking startled, wishing to turn away.

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