Disillusionment breeds illusions for troubled city

MICHAEL OLESKER

August 19, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On this brilliant summer morning on South Broadway, with God in his heaven and the sun shining gracefully onto the Apex Adult Cinema, this guy's trying to hustle stolen goods. I'm down here to talk to the neighborhood lady who had the gun pointed at her head the night before. The two of us, me and this thief, bump into each other at the parking meter whose top has been snapped back by someone with the strength of a gorilla.

"Hey, mister," he says.

"This parking meter," I reply dumbly, staring at its features bent all the way back.

"Yeah," he says, not terribly impressed because maybe he's seen worse. "You got an old lady?"

"Huh?"

"Your old lady ride the bus?"

He holds out the palm of one hand, which is filled with Mass Transit Administration bus passes. He is willing to part with them wholesale, he says. I do not ride the bus, I explain. Then forget the bus, he says, can he just have some cash until the next time we are fortunate enough to bump into each other?

"Actually, I. . . ."

"Hey, Mike."

It's the lady who had the gun at her head last night. She's standing in the doorway of the little store where she works, and I use her voice to slip away from the guy with the wholesale bus passes, murmuring something about my being a little short of cash this time of the decade.

The lady lives in an apartment upstairs from the store. The owner of the store is now talking of buying a bulletproof vest for his highly dangerous occupation of shopkeeper. The lady who works for him is now talking of nervous breakdowns. She was watching television the night before when this guy climbed in her window and put his gun to her head.

"I don't have no money," she cried.

She sits here now on South Broadway, and her voice breaks at the memory. The guy climbing in the window needed money for a needle in his arm. The lady needed her money to pay her rent. A miracle then commenced, she says. The man with the gun took her at her word, that she had no more money than he, and he went back out the window and then disappeared.

"So I called my son," she says, "and he came down. And I called the police and an officer came down, and I wouldn't let neither one of them leave me, 'cause I wrapped my arms around the policeman and begged him to stay."

I walked out of the store a few minutes later and looked past the busted parking meter and the guy with the bus passes to the Apex Adult Cinema across the street, where a couple of kids of indeterminate age were trying to look into the lobby. The triple-X feature was "Autobiography of A Flea," starring the late John Holmes.

Holmes had a much-publicized death from AIDS complications a few years back, relating either to his storied porno career or his reported history of drug abuse, or both, a distinction utterly lost on the kids peering into the theater lobby.

All of this begins to induce depression. A few blocks north, at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, there are corridors filled with those who will die from AIDS. More and more, they come from the ranks of junkies, who move through these East Baltimore streets in a daze, rousing themselves just long enough to break into houses and such. At police headquarters at this time, people stare at computer printouts carrying the amazing arithmetic of it all.

The city, everybody sneers. A few weeks ago, City Hall retired the police commissioner, Edward Woods, as though this will reduce all hopelessness. The city, the city, everybody says. It's beyond redemption.

So people pack their bags and move to suburbia, where everybody says it's safer. You can raise kids out there, they say. Crime isn't tolerated out there, they say.

They were no doubt saying this yesterday, while a jury in Baltimore County agonized over the life-or-death future of Rodney Solomon, guilty in the carjack murder of poor Pam Basu of Howard County.

Isn't it wonderful, the delusions we allow ourselves? We talk of death for Rodney Solomon, as though this will stop the others from putting needles into their arms and climbing into people's bedroom windows and holding guns at frightened faces.

We sneer at the city of Baltimore, as though Rodney Solomon is merely an aberrant suburban blip and all other nightmares will be detained at the county line.

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