Life in the city brings heartache, renewed faith


September 09, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Murders make the 11 o'clock news but it's the small, mostly bloodless crimes that make or break neighborhoods -- the burglaries, stolen cars, street assaults, purse snatchings. That's what really drives people crazy -- or to the suburbs.

It doesn't take much to make people leave Baltimore.

"Hey, my kids had their bikes stolen three times," said a Johns Hopkins professor who used to live just a healthy stroll from his office at Homewood. He and his family now live north of Lutherville.

I shouldn't make too many generalities about all this. A lot of people manage, somehow, to take crime in stride. They love the city life. Or they're stuck; they can't afford to move.

I'm not talking about people who have no choice. I'm talking about the people who could move, but don't. And yet, it doesn't take much to get even those hearty urban souls thinking about it.

It was one of the first thoughts that raced through Mary Skeen's head Saturday, August 28, the day her purse was stolen.

A stolen purse doesn't sound like a big deal in a city that is looking at new records in homicides.

But it's the way it happened -- and what happened afterward -- that makes the story important.

"We were all home, painting the shutters and working around the house," says Skeen, who lives near Belvedere Square, a long block off York Road.

"I was upstairs with Stefan [her son]. Jimmy [her husband] and the dog were in the backyard when my neighbor called to tell me that a man had just entered my front door and was now rapidly leaving with something in his hands.

"This man had entered my home in broad daylight -- while we were obviously at home, and neighbors were apparent up and down the block -- and stolen my purse from the dining room table!"

It was not the first time the Skeens had been the victims of a crime. They had a lawn mower stolen once and some juveniles vandalized their cars a couple of times. But that's it.

Mary Skeen is a photographer and teacher; her husband is an attorney. They live in a grand old house on a pleasant street in one of those north Baltimore neighborhoods whose residents include middle-class professionals, yuppies, married couples with no kids, married couples with kids and retirees who have lived in the same houses for decades. Crime, while always a concern, is never all-consuming. Not like it is in neighborhoods only a few blocks away.

It was the brazenness of the act that stunned Skeen.

"I couldn't sleep," she says. "This was really a bold person, or else he was high, or else he had a gun. He could have encountered Jimmy in the house or, worse, Stefan. I got up to get some milk after midnight and the phone rang. A lady asked for me and told me her children found my purse in the trash can in her neighborhood."

The woman's neighborhood was only a mile away from Mary Skeen's, but very different from Mary Skeen's.

"She asked me not to get the police involved because she didn't want them questioning her children," Skeen says. "This lady lives in one of the worst areas of lower Govans, near Cold Spring, one of the most drug-ridden, crime-infested blocks, and her attitude toward police is different than ours.

"Jimmy, Stefan and I went, in the middle of the night, to get the purse because the woman and her family were leaving the next day for a fishing trip and she wanted me to have it. It was a little old shabby rowhouse. The woman was about 30, I guess, and she had daughters. One of them was asleep on the couch. She showed me pictures of the others -- their prom pictures. She'd called from next door because she didn't have a phone.

"I looked through the purse. Everything was there. I had no cash and that's obviously what they wanted.

"I thanked the woman -- Paulette was her name -- and I hugged her. She didn't have to do that. She didn't have to call me. She could have kept the purse or left it in the trash. I am just so thrilled about this nice woman. I want to send her some flowers. I want to give her kids a reward."

It doesn't take much to make people leave the city. Some days, it doesn't take much to restore their faith, either.

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