We live in a city where everyone knows everyone

March 08, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

One hard lesson I learned in third grade was that Baltimore is the smallest town in America.

No matter that in 1958 the city's population was over 900,000. In Baltimore, the most private of matters are always wide open to unflattering public discussion.

I was having a rough time with adding columns of numbers that fall of 1958. Sister Marie Therese, my teacher, insisted on giving a daily math test of 10 problems. The one she devised on Friday was the most difficult of the week and it was the one that ultimately counted toward your grade.

My daily grades were marginal and one particularly bad day I got only four answers correct, giving me a 40. My paper was nothing but red Xs. At the age of eight, I was humiliated but decided this failure need not be reported to the authorities at home. I folded it up and stuck it in my book bag.

Herein is where I learned an unbreakable canon about life in Baltimore. The wires of the Associated Press could not have carried the report of my failed math test more rapidly and distinctly than the social and parental networks of Baltimore.

By the time I'd gotten ready for bed that night, my mother had a full and accurate report of my failing the test from the mother of a blabber-mouthed fellow student. As she was putting down the phone receiver, my father walked in the kitchen from the neighborhood drug store, always a great source of information. He had heard the news about the rotten grade from the uncle of the blabber-mouthed student. I was outflanked and out-maneuvered.

On the spot, I discovered it would have been far better to pre-empt the news from the telephone and the drug store's soda fountain by putting the failed test right out in the open.

Another topic worth discussing is that Baltimoreans don't like to move to another city. We just do not do it. After all, why would you want to live any other place?

Baltimoreans' dislike of moving may make us a national anomaly, but I'm not so worried about that. I am worried about the effects of all this staying put. Do not fear media reports in this town. You do not have to have your name printed in a newspaper or flashed across a television screen as one of the accused to be in trouble in Baltimore.

What counts is preserving your good name in the aisles of the local supermarket or at the church or synagogue social hall. In Baltimore, your reputation can be ruined by two talkative parties who meet by the Post Toasties shelf as surely as it can be damned by the actions of the grand jury.

There are sides to public recognition in Baltimore that can work in your favor. Just stand on a corner and wait for a bus or a cab. Chances are someone will come along in a car and give you a lift. That's one of the good things in a city where the same people always seem to be around.

Enter a darkened movie theater. When the show ends and the lights come up, you can rest assured your kindergarten teacher will be three rows back or your best friend from the junior year of high school will have been sitting directly behind you.

The fact Baltimoreans do not move away very much makes for an interesting ethical situation. Once your reputation is established here among family, friends and even strangers who nevertheless know your business, that community standing is difficult to change.

Often these reputations take root in school. By the time Mayor Kurt Schmoke was thinking about running for political office, I felt like I'd known him all along. It had nothing to do with politics. It had everything to do with football and City College, where he first gained citywide recognition.

At the same time, there are people you knew well in school (grade school or high school, never college) who are today successful stock brokers, lawyers, physicians or dentists. But sometimes you knew them too well, like the successful doctor who flunked many a biology test. No way you'll be his or her patient. That's the way it works here.

Another Baltimore connection is through birth or marriage. It seems as if whole neighborhoods are inter-related by blood or matrimony. It's frightening how many Baltimore cousins you have, even if you do not speak to them.

In closing, let me say woe to those skittish people who desire absolute privacy in Baltimore. This group is in deep trouble. Absolute privacy does not exist. You cannot be anonymous in this town.

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