A Fragile Liberty

GLENN McNATT

August 07, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

My friends delight in asking why I seem to prefer the classics to pop music, but the truth is I can get down when the occasion demands. As a teen-ager I felt awkward on the dance floor until a delightful summer camp sweetheart showed me there was really nothing to it. After that I became a regular whiz.

Thus today there probably are several hundred Baltimoreans who, without knowing it, have actually seen a Sun editorial writer cutting the rug in our local night clubs.

I could dress this up by explaining that I'm really engaged in research for a piece on social mores among the party people, or conducting an ethnomusicological survey of vestigial West African influences on urban dance movement. But that wouldn't fool you, would it?

The fact is, I like to dance. I will square dance, troika, cha-cha and wail all night to Havah Nigeleh. I don't particularly like listening to rap, but I can dance to it for hours. Same with salsa, samba and soul. My rule is simple: The hotter the beat, the better I like it.

Still, I am an editorial writer, which means two things. The first I learned from a seasoned editor, who once told me that editorial writers were the people who, after the big battle was over, came down out of the hills to shoot the wounded -- a macabre image, perhaps, but actually not too far off the mark.

The other is that I am afflicted with a nerdy urge to talk to people even when the music is blasting away at 110 decibels and the floor is throbbing from the bass pounded out by the house JBLs. It is this latter habit that, unfortunately, occasionally gets me into trouble.

For example, once I found myself standing next to a stunningly handsome woman who, it turned out, had only recently been released from prison after serving 10 years on a murder charge. It seemed that she had shot an abusive spouse.

You meet all sorts of people in clubs, of course, but I had never encountered a murderess before. So naturally I struck up a conversation. Then I asked her to dance.

She politely declined, however, explaining that she was still adjusting to her new liberty and merely wished to watch the other revelers until she felt more comfortable in her surroundings. So I bought her a drink and made small talk, hoping that eventually a song would come along to set her feet tapping.

We had been standing there only a few minutes when an extremely rugged looking fellow emerged from the crowd and approached the spot where we had perched. Without a word, he grasped my companion's hand and, over her ineffectual protests, half-coaxed, half-dragged her onto the dance floor.

I watched impassively as this little scene unfolded. It is my custom when visiting our local clubs not to inject myself impulsively into situations where gunplay is a possible hazard, and, judging from the man's forbidding expression, that could well have been his response to a lecture on the decline of civility.

In any case, she returned after the song ended, and we sipped our drinks in silence for a moment. Then, as graciously as I could, I ventured to ask why she had allowed herself to be coerced in such a crude manner. She turned and gave me a look that mingled vulnerability, outrage and a strange world-weariness.

''You saw how he was acting,'' she exclaimed. ''What did you expect me to do?''

Alas, it was the wrong question to ask an editorial writer. For no sooner were the words out of her mouth than the macabre joke had formed in my brain. I didn't have to say it. It was in my eyes -- in the, yes, diabolical grin that even as she spoke was curling the corners of my lips in anticipation of the monstrous, unspeakable punch line:

''Kill him!''

Ah, but she saw it anyway, saw before I could avert my eyes and twist down the corners my mouth into a semblance of sober commiseration. She saw it and knew what I was thinking. And then she let loose all the inchoate, accumulated fury of all those wasted years behind bars when she had endured the indignity and humiliation of being penned like a beast in a cage.

All the rage and disgust at men and the miseries they had inflicted poured out of her as she sobbed and cursed and flailed about in the crush of people until her girlfriend materialized in front of us and took her arm and gently led her away.

Afterward I just sat there, nursing my drink. And then I left, too, because somehow I didn't feel like dancing any more that night.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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