One ugly comment.
That's all it takes for Joe Collins to leave a neighborhood without delivering the mail.
"The first time I hear 'Where the [expletive] have you been all day?' I'm out of there," said Mr. Collins, a Southwest Baltimore letter carrier. "There are routes that I'm afraid to go on.
"It wasn't like that 10 years ago. These things used to be unheard-of."
The unheard-of has become common in certain parts of Baltimore, and few people deal with it as much as those who daily cover 18,738 miles of city sidewalk to deliver the mail.
How bad is it?
* To empty mailboxes, carriers unlock the front and reach in with both arms to gather up the mail -- a simple, everyday chore. Last week, David Carnes came up with a syringe. "Luckily the cap was on," he said.
* An East Baltimore vagrant told Christine Slade "he was going to blow my head off." She ignored what proved to be an idle threat -- but not the teen-age boy she had arrested for pinching her.
* And in the 11 years that Diana Freeland delivered mail to the Lexington Terrace housing projects before transferring to the Inner Harbor, she witnessed several shootings and two murders. "People don't respect the police," she says. "I know they don't respect us."
Last year, 432 letter carriers were assaulted in the United States, according to Postal Service officials.
In Baltimore this year, three of the city's 1,673 carriers have been assaulted.
Two were hurt in unexplained and unprecedented shootings -- one with a small-caliber handgun on Edsdale Road in Edmondson, the other by youngsters shooting a pellet gun on Dolfield Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. The third carrier was stabbed in the hand when his wallet was stolen on West Ostend Street in South Baltimore.
While none of the local assaults involved the mail itself, that's not the case elsewhere, particularly in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Nationwide, robberies of carriers have risen from 30 in 1990 to 103 last year.
"Usually they try to knock the carrier over and grab the satchel," said Paul Griffo, spokesman for the postal service inspectors. Attackers, he said, are looking for anything "negotiable," whatever can be turned into cash. If caught, they face up to 25 years in prison.
"We didn't start seeing this problem until a few years ago," he said. "It used to be understood that you don't mess with the mail."
"There's apprehension on the streets now . . . " said Joseph L. Portera, president of the local National Association of Letter Carriers union. "Where the drug dealers work, the carriers are more apprehensive. If they feel unsafe, they shouldn't hang around to find out what's going to happen."
Despite the legends of mail going through rain, and snow, and gloom of night -- beyond postal regulations instructing carriers to "secure the mail at all times" -- carriers are told to protect themselves if the choice is personal safety or delivering mail.
"If that means they can't deliver, then they don't deliver," said Nancy Tavlik, a Brooklyn manager who remembers three times in about two years when carriers brought mail back undelivered. "We send it out again the next day."
Carriers earn between $24,907 and $36,228 a year, with up to $12,000 a year in overtime available. While street people may beg carriers for change or ask crude, personal questions, it's the street-corner drug dealers and their patrons who makes postal work miserable.
"When I have to walk by them, I look out of the side of my eyes," said George E. Feeley, 35, a Brooklyn Park carrier who found a gun in a mailbox once, but still believes that dogs are the major threat in most neighborhoods. "I used to be able to do this job in my sleep, but now I'm always watching. I'm alert even in nice neighborhoods."
Bill Cherry, 57, delivers in Irvington and Yale Heights. Most of his regular route is uneventful, but that changes when he works relief routes or overtime in rougher neighborhoods off Edmondson Avenue.
"It seems like [dealers and customers] are on the corners constantly, even if it's 100 degrees outside," said Mr. Cherry, who has found drugs in mailboxes. "I just try to deliver the mail. If you bother them, it's a good way to get yourself shot."
Letter carriers haul up to 35 pounds of mail at a time in their sacks.
Should they carry guns as well?
They never have, not even in New York, but the idea has come up more than once.
"I'll be against that forever," said George N. Davis, director of safety and health for the National Association of Letter Carriers, "Once it appears you have a weapon, the person planning to rob you prepares himself to shoot.
"When you reach into your pocket -- whether it's for an alarm or a gun -- you jeopardize your life. People today are nuts, and they'll kill you. They're going to take the mail anyway."
Still, in the Perkins Homes housing projects between Little Italy and Broadway, where crack vials litter the ground, nobody bothers Columbus Brown. Having walked the route for 21 years, he has watched most of these people grow up and grow old and is considered a part of the family by many.
He has also broken up an armed robbery on Broadway, regularly sees people lined up around the block for their turn inside a crack house and walks by plenty of people drinking wine out of paper bags.
Earning the love of your customers through good service, says this man who has not missed a day of work in 19 years, is the best way to stay safe on the streets.
"The people down here know me," he says. "They will come to my rescue."
That's nice, says Mr. Collins, who likes to be friendly as much as the next guy and enjoys most of his customers.
"But do us a big favor," he says. "Tell everybody else to just leave us alone."