Why I must leave Baltimore

July 23, 1996|By Lalita Noronha-Blob

THE PLANE LEAVES for Phoenix in an hour. I am dressed in comfortable pants and a long, loose blouse, eager to attend my first national biology teacher's conference. My husband will drop me off at the airport on his way to work. I hear evidence of the morning's activities -- the shower, a hair dryer, the soft thud of the refrigerator door closing. The aroma of a pop tart wafts upstairs.

''Where's the jeep?'' my husband asks, standing at the south window facing our driveway.

''The jeep?''

I open the east window overlooking our front yard.

''Matt must have moved it.''

My voice is barely audible. My husband takes the stairs, two at a time. I follow, barefoot, past our sprawling 100-pound German Shepherd. Out into a crisp morning. The spanking-new green jeep we bought last week for our 16-year-old son, Matt, has vanished.

Quickly, we make a few phone calls -- to the police and to my brother, who will drive me to the airport while my husband attends to protocol. We rush about searching for the elusive car-insurance papers. My son comes downstairs from his room in the attic.

''Matt, take my car to school.''

He looks up.

''Why?''

My heart stands still. ''You don't know? Your jeep is gone.''

''How do you mean gone?''

''Someone stole it.''

The color drains from his face. He sits on the bottom step staring at a stain on the carpet.

The silence is interminable.

''I'm going to kill someone,'' he whispers, his eyes glistening. His face is angry, yet vulnerable. His wet hair curls up on the nape of his neck. Vaguely, I'm aware he still hasn't cut his hair, as he promised.

''What 's the license plate number?'' my husband calls from the kitchen.

The jeep is too new for us to have memorized the number.

''Don't know.''

I hear him sigh loudly into the phone.

My brother pulls up just as the police arrive. The jeep had an elaborate alarm system, ''the best I could find,'' my husband tells the officer, ''and a club.''

''It don't matter,'' the police officer replies. ''Kids know how to bypass alarms and clubs.''

''Then how do I protect my family and my property?''

The man in blue shrugs and hands him a white lined form.

''You can disconnect the wires at night,'' he offers as an afterthought. ''If they can't get it going in five minutes, they quit.''

***

By the time I reach Phoenix, half my curiosity about teacher conferences has evaporated into the dry desert air. Sitting in a little Mexican restaurant, I wonder about crime statistics. I sip a margarita, my eyes stinging with worry and the morning's disappointment. Maybe it's time for us to leave Baltimore, move to the suburbs. Find a place where we are entitled to own a new car, walk through the neighborhood, not feel compelled to house a 100-pound German Shepherd indoors all day.

Two days later the jeep is found. The windows are smashed, the ignition ruined, the inside stripped. There's a bullet hole in the rear and three more on the driver's side. I feel a chill. ''Was it a drug-related chase?'' I ask my husband over the phone.

''I don't know.'' His voice is edgy. ''Let me pick it up first, OK?''

A previous new car

He hangs up. I feel powerless. I remember the incident with my Acura two years ago. We had driven it home from the dealership one Thursday evening and parked it in our driveway. Come Saturday, I would clean the garage, rearrange the wood pile, and stack the 40-pound bags of peat moss and lime to make space for my new car.

But Friday morning, shards of glass were strewn about and a piece of the lock mechanism lay by the azalea. A metal rod was left jammed in the ignition. The odometer read 2 miles. The police said attempted car thefts by juveniles were on the rise. I never leave my car in the driveway or in the front of the house anymore.

I pick up the phone and dial home again.

''Paul, we'll have to build a third garage for the jeep.''

''Where?'' he asks, irritably.

''We'll take down the trellis with the clematis and squeeze one alongside there.''

''It'll look ugly,'' he replies, ''and we'll need a building permit.''

''We have no choice. What's to keep the Jeep from being ruined again?''

''Nothing,'' my husband answers.

''Shouldn't we paint it another color?''

''Why?''

''Because if it was drug-related crime, someone might shoot at the children, possibly.''

''I doubt it.''

His voice is quieter as he hangs up.

Suddenly relevant

I spend the next day perusing exhibition halls, attending workshops on how to role-play, teach to different learning styles, make difficult concepts concrete. If the imagination of children can be fired up, can we prevent vandalism? It is all new and suddenly very relevant.

That night my husband's voice sounds tired and cynical.

''I had it towed. It's at the dealership, all right.''

''Any idea how long it'll take?''

''No, we have to wait in line. Jeep Cherokees are all the rage these days.''

''Rage?''

''Yup, he gets three, maybe four vehicles a week in the same shape as ours.''

''Meaning?''

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