Baltimore story doesn't begin or end with crime


August 12, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This morning's wisdom begins with The Great Crime Wave of Deer Isle, Maine, a small New England community we visited last week to withdraw from the relentless pressures of big-city existence.

We shall never in this lifetime make such a mistake again.

The Great Crime Wave of Deer Isle was frightening to behold, and reported in all its sordid detail on the front page of the local newspaper. Journalism isn't always pretty, so brace yourself: Someone stole 20 pounds of butter from the Deer Isle grocery store.

And that's it.

Naturally, there was gnashing of teeth in the homes of Deer Islanders, and much talk that no community in modern America was truly safe any more if they were now heisting butter at will from the grocery store.

Until, days later, there came a follow-up story: As it turned out, the butter wasn't actually stolen. Somebody at the store just miscounted it.

And that was the end of The Great Crime Wave of Deer Isle.

While this was going on, back in the city of Baltimore, eight people were killed and 16 hurt in a single weekend. In USA Today, where I learned of this, such news about Baltimore was considered so startling that the paper gave it exactly one sentence.

In Deer Isle, a town of about 2,500 people, here were the worst items in the Police Blotter of the local newspaper: Someone accidentally scraped the paint off a fellow's car. Empty beer cans were found in a wooded area. A teen-ager was caught driving his dad's car without a license.

And that's it.

In the city of Baltimore, everybody points to the murder rate, currently averaging nearly one a day, as a barometer of troubles. At noon yesterday, the body count for the year was 217. Here is a more telling statistic: Last year, city police averaged 2,304 calls for help.

Per day.

In Deer Isle, we stayed with old family friends who'd spent their lives in New York City before capitulating to its terrors. They moved a few years ago. One is 77 years old, the other approaching 70. They are entitled, in the early evening of their lives, to a sense of calm.

When they park their car now, it never occurs to them to lock the doors. When they go to sleep, they no longer lock the doors of their home, even if there are unfounded reports of butter thieves at large.

In the city of Baltimore the other morning, a block from my house, there were nine cars parked on the street. All had their doors locked, for that is a given. But seven of the nine also had The Club, a thief-proofing device, as added protection. As for homes, almost all have burglar alarms.

And yet we returned, after two weeks of safe little towns, delighted to see Baltimore again. A city is more than the sum of its crimes. Small towns are great places to live if you're a postcard.

In Maine, we ate lunch in a town 68 miles from the Canadian border. The waitress was newly graduated from high school. This was as good as it was going to get for her. She'd gone through 12 years of school, and played by all the rules, and here was the reward that her community had to offer.

In one town after another in Massachusetts, the homes were manicured and the streets immaculate. They might have been MGM sets from the 1930s. At any moment, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland could cry out, "Hey, kids, why don't we put on a show?"

But something was missing. In Deer Isle, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to drive 90 minutes to Bangor. The big cultural news in Deer Isle was the conversion of an old barn into a dance hall.

But it wasn't just the lack of theaters, or ballparks or museums, but a sense of energy. Everything in these charming towns was too much in sync, and everybody looked too much like everybody else.

/# Small towns are great for about


From 1B

two days, and then I start to twitch. All that charm clogs my pores. When I ask for something to do, I don't want a list of the local restaurants.

In this newspaper the day we returned, there were no stories of butter heists, only real crimes. But there are new people in my neighborhood worth meeting, and an exhibit worth seeing at the Museum of Art. The Orioles are in a pennant race, and maybe we can scarf up a few tickets, and soon The Mechanic and Center Stage will open new seasons.

L What a relief that a city is more than the sum of its crime.

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