TWO WEEKS ago a photographer and I went to a drug-infected corner in north Philadelphia, and although it wasn't clear who was more of a threat to whose happiness and well-being, the dealers won a war of nerves with the visiting journalists.
They wanted to know what we thought we were doing on their turf, and made it clear that we were disrupting a brisk enterprise, although our presence hadn't exactly put them out of business.
After a while it got intimidating enough that we decided to find another corner, nearby, for the photographer to capture the essence of the neighborhood. But it took three or four stops to find a clean corner.
Yesterday morning I went back up to the first corner with a different photographer. We parked, got out, and a teen-age emissary greeted us.
He looked at the name printed on the car. "The Philadelphia Inquirer." And then he asked:
"What are you doing? Inquiring minds want to know."
Again, business slowed, but didn't stop. The kid, 16 or so, suggested we use a mural as a backdrop for a quick photo. He pointed to one he said was for a friend who was shot dead "right there," and he motioned toward a spot 20 feet away.
When I tell people these stories, they often ask the same question.
If I know where these corners are, then police must know. So how can drug dealers operate around the clock without getting hauled in? Especially if, as we know, drugs play so big a role in American crime.
The answer is simple. Maybe not simple enough for Congress to understand, but not quite rocket science, either.
There are more dealers than cops.
And guess what.
There always will be. Even if you spread 100,000 more officers around the country.
There also, unfortunately, are more drug dealers than jail cells.
And guess what.
There always will be, even if you build a brand new jail in every city.
And there is a reason for that. A reason having more to do with economics than with crime. Simply put, it's supply and demand.
When you stand on those drug corners in the American wasteland, you see endless streams of customers. Through broken-down streets and past shut-down factories they come. On foot, by car, by cab.
They aren't scared away by the threat of violence, or arrest, or even by the horrifying sight of annoying journalists standing around with notebooks and cameras.
And the more you watch it, the more ridiculous the crime bill looks, at least as it concerns cities. Or, as Robert Kahle of Wayne State University in Detroit put it:
"Hiring more cops to solve the crime problem is like hiring more ambulance drivers to cure cancer."
Actually, I don't go as far. I'm not going to tell you the police couldn't use some help, or that drug dealers shouldn't be dragged off the streets and locked up.
But you don't need to spend more than 10 minutes out there to see that the only chance -- as many police will tell you -- is trying to The way to start isn't to flex our muscles but to admit to the disease, which runs through every American street.
cut the demand for drugs at least as much as we flail away at the supply.
And you don't need to be a genius to see that in a place where all the legal jobs have dried up and half the kids don't see a reason to even bother with school, no amount of death-penalty clauses or jail cells is going to take junior off the corner and put him on the college track.
The problems are deeper, the solutions more complicated. The way to start isn't to flex our muscles but to admit to the disease, which runs through every American street.
Cigarette companies lie about addiction. Beer companies sell sex and glamour. Hollywood glorifies violence. Crumbling smokestacks have crushed neighborhoods and broken families.
With so much anger and fear out there, violence will rage until crime and addiction are no longer such natural responses.
We need a jobs bill, not a crime bill. Unfortunately, there are few people in Congress honest enough to tell you that what President Clinton signed on Tuesday is simply a political bill.
It's filled with things you want to hear, and might briefly give you a warm feeling. But you'll remember it, sooner or later, as the same sensation you often had when you were in training pants.
Steve Lopez is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.