Nothing like fire or crash to rouse neighborhood

October 18, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Want a way to quiet neighbors who are drinking too much and making a lot of noise?

Pray for a neighborhood accident or minor disaster.

Let the fire trucks arrive and the ambulances wail. The whole world will emerge from behind locked doors.

You'll see people you thought had died. If it's an election year, savvy politicians will appear.

There's nothing like a neighborhood car crash, fire or blackout to bring a sleepy place to life. It may sound ghoulish, but it works. There is nothing so effective as a multi-alarm fire to make people shake hands and say hello.

Nearly two months ago, a column of smoke appeared one afternoon outside my window. Fire engine sirens kept up for half an hour. Then a squad car blocked off the street. Doors opened. Curious neighbors left their homes to search for the source of the fire.

It turned out to be a building in the former city Department of Education headquarters complex on 25th Street near Charles Street. The structure had been vacant for years. I'm sure a few people had some sympathy for the firemen who battled the smoky blaze on a humid August afternoon, but the crowd was anything but down. It was urban-disaster theater at its best.

On every corner there were rubberneckers. People watched the progress of the flames but they also greeted long-lost friends. One young woman and young man exchanged glances, struck up a conversation and were soon writing down each other's telephone numbers.

Several weeks later I asked the fellow about the outcome of that afternoon. He said he should have stuck to watching the fire.

Power failures also draw crowds. A major blackout at night will cause a general outpouring on the streets -- especially if there are several Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. trucks with flashing lights nearby. Blinking lights are very effective beacons. They draw more of a crowd than any carnival barker could.

Nocturnal power failures accompanied by pulsating emergency lights also bring a certain relaxation of the normal city dress code.

For some reason, it is permitted to -- out to the pavement in the most abbreviated wearing apparel should the lights go out.

Baltimore is normally a fairly sedate city regarding the rules of immodest dress. But let the kilowatts plummet and the hemlines react accordingly.

Even in the most proper circles a blackout will produce a chorus line of bathrobes on the streets. Hot or freezing, it's the right time of the year for a terry cloth robe when the electricity fails. And why is it that everyone says, "Oh, I was in the bathtub when the lights went out."?

Pity the poor suburban houseowner or rural resident for whom these moments of great drama are rare.

Should Great Aunt Flossie suffer heart trouble at home and need the help of the 911 crew, the whole neighborhood knows of her failing condition. Everyone is out on the sidewalk. Her medical problems are shared with the entire census tract. It is not even considered impolite to stick a head into the ambulance doors to inquire about the dear woman's health.

A neighborhood emergency has the power to break up a wedding reception or drinking party faster than a nasty argument among testy relatives. I've seen bibulous guests drop their glasses and chase a fire engine if the scent of burning wood and tar paper hangs heavily in the air.

Even people who profess to have polished manners will abandon a formal dinner table. With damask dinner napkins tucked in their belts, the guests will take to the streets should the word go out the police are dragging away one of the neighbors on some charge. It's all fair game for public observation if the police or fire department are on the scene.

This brings up a point. What would arbiters of the social graces such as Emily Post or Miss Manners decree when flames, smoke, flying bullets or mangled steel intrude on a wedding rehearsal dinner or funeral wake? What happens when urban curiosity and the theater of the streets are just too strong to resist?

L My answer is this: When in Baltimore, do as Baltimoreans do.

Go out immediately and gape at the spectacle. If you don't, people will wonder where you are and really start talking.

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