Moving away from city, but to what?

March 05, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

People I know in the city of Baltimore are incessantly on the point of moving away. Exactly where, they're not sure, but it's apparently in to an America where crime does not exist, and no one's afraid to walk the streets. It's an America we think we remember from our youth, or the movies, which are seen in our heads through missing and mist.

In the city, everybody thinks this fairyland exists in suburbia. In suburbia, they know otherwise. Did I say "they?" I live in the city but sometimes shop in suburbia. I went to a suburban shopping center Friday afternoon. I went to a bank and walked in on the closing moments of a holdup.

Then I walked a few doors down to another bank and heard about their holdups. Then, two days later, I went to a food store, and they told me they had just been held up.

All of this is in the same suburban shopping center, northwest Baltimore County, where everyone wishes to move because such things are not supposed to happen out there. Such as Friday, when two guys in their 20s, maybe 5 feet 7, walk past me as I'm approaching a bank to cash my paycheck.

But I can't get into the bank. A teller is pulling the door shut and locking it, and there's a look of horror on her innocent young face.

"They've been hit," a woman behind me on the sidewalk says.

"It's those two guys," says another woman.

She means the two young guys who just walked past me. They're the ones who hit the bank. But there's a moment of unreality: If they're the guys, why is no one chasing them? Why is this woman locking the door to the bank, and why are these two guys walking instead of running like mad?

(And, not to be minimized, where am I going to cash my paycheck if the bank is closing for business for the day?)

The two bank robbers have maybe a 50-yard head start on me as I turn to pursue them. What I'll do if I catch them, I have no idea. A fight? Don't be ridiculous. The last fight I had, a classmate and I argued, punches were exchanged, and she beat the hell out of me. Believe me, this thought is running through my head as I'm chasing these two guys. But they must be headed to a car, so maybe I can get a license number.

I can't. I can describe the car a little, and the direction it goes, but it pulls away before I can get a tag number. I go back to the bank. Through the locked door, I tell an employee what I've seen. The cops will be here in a few minutes, she says, so don't go away.

Meanwhile, I still need my paycheck cashed, and the bank is closed for all business. Where to go? (The only ones with money right now are the bank robbers, and they ain't exactly sticking around to cash checks.) So I head down the shopping strip to another bank. It turns out, they've already heard the news.

"This bank," says my teller, "wasn't held up for 18 years. In the 18 months since I've been here, it's been held up twice. Every time I turn my back from the door, I wonder if somebody's coming through it with a gun. Once you've been through a robbery, it never leaves you."

I head back to the first bank to give them a statement. Now the county police have arrived, and one of them pulls me into the bank. Some of the tellers are pretty shaken. There's an ambulance crew with a stretcher, because a man's having chest pains. Maybe a dozen depositors are still here, and the police are asking them to fill out statements.

Two guys. Ski masks. No visible guns. Just voices: "Everybody hit the floor," something like that. And everybody knowing immediately what to do, and nobody wishing to challenge the order because today, in America, we know better. We know they could be carrying guns. We know there's a desperation in the air. We know it happens everywhere now, and not just inside the city with its reputation for such things.

On Sunday, I went food shopping. Same shopping center, northwest Baltimore County. And the cashier at the food store looks familiar.

"Yeah," she says, "from the bank on Friday." She's the one from the second bank, who cashed my check after the first bank closed. She's the one who's never forgotten the two previous times she was there when the bank was held up. She works part time at the bank and part time at this food store.

"You should have been here yesterday," she says. "We got robbed."

"You mean, at the bank?" I say.

"No," she says. "Here at the food store."

Here in safe suburbia. Here, where the American economy works so well that this woman -- she's certainly not alone -- works two jobs to make ends meet so she doesn't have to rob banks for a living. She wasn't working when the food store got hit, though other checkers tellers confirm the incident. She managed to dodge the drama this time.

It's how we all go through the days now: wondering what little moment might erupt in our own lives, what little piece of tomorrow's newspaper story. Those living in the city of Baltimore are always talking about such things, and planning to avoid them by moving somewhere. Somewhere in the American suburbia. Somewhere we tell ourselves it'll be fine, it'll be safe.

Pub Date: 3/05/96

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