Some woes don't stop at city line

September 12, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On York Road in the heart of marvelous Towson -- in fact, just outside the Borders bookstore that I love, around the corner from the very soul of Baltimore County government that we all naturally treasure -- a wonderful thing happens to me, which I cannot wait to report, first to my wife who is the primary receiver of all good news, and then to the rest of the immediate world.

"You the guy in the newspaper?" this stranger asks, stopping me in the street.

I figure I'll play it coy.

"One of them," I say.

"With the picture," he says. "Olesker, right? I like your stuff."

"Thanks," I say, shrugging modestly, flattered to be recognized from my little newspaper photograph which, even though it does not reflect the 10 or 12 pounds I have lost recently, does mark me as a person of distinction in the community, a man of a certain stature who's been spotted by this fellow with a clearly sophisticated literary sensibility who ...

"Give me a dollar."

"Huh?"

"Come on," says the guy. "A dollar for cab fare."

"You're hustling me?"

I rush home to relate this glad news to my wife, because such conversation is known in the trade as ammunition.

We live in the city of Baltimore. On this simple but sensitive fact, we have conducted a series of meaningful dialogues in which neither of us even vaguely declares what we really mean, consisting generally of the following:

Wife (ominously): "Another For Sale sign went up in the neighborhood today."

Me: "Why isn't anybody mentioning Rafael Palmeiro for Most Valuable Player?"

By "For Sale sign," naturally, my wife is not commenting merely tTC on real estate. This is code. It is code for the continuing exodus of humanity from all points in this city to the various suburbs, and do we want to be left behind? It is code for: "Remember the time your car was stolen right in front of the house? Remember the morning both our cars were broken into? Remember the two bicycles stolen from our garage, and the way we panicked when the burglar alarm went off one night even though it was just the wind, and did you notice the latest homicide count this morning in your own newspaper?"

"You hear about this Gonzalez from Texas," I say, "and the kid from Seattle. But nobody mentions Palmeiro. The guy's got, what, 130 RBIs and nobody says he's MVP?"

So goes the dance of our time, which is performed in households in all city neighborhoods. My wife mentions For Sale signs, and when I'm not changing the subject to baseball and the beloved Palmeiro, I bring up this hustler with his hand out in Towson who is my ammunition for the day. As if to say: You see that? These people you see in the city with their annoying hard luck stories, they're out there in the counties, too.

Which I will add to my ammunition list. The list of friends of ours who live in lovely suburban Stevenson who twice had cars stolen right out of their driveways, and the friends in Annapolis who say things are getting rough in a couple of neighborhoods the tourists never see, and the pal in Timonium who was robbed, not to mention all the edginess about low cost housing faced by all of the counties.

Such things are important to point out. Many of us, including my wife, treasure the city, and have deep roots here, and want to see it survive. But living in the city becomes an act of faith. People leave because they forget the things they love, while focusing entirely on that which they fear.

The other day, The Sun's Jim Bock reported the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures on the continuing exodus from Baltimore. From 1990 to 1994, about 37,000 white people fled the city, as did about 14,000 black people. And, while the number of white people in Baltimore County has stayed about the same (since whites leaving the city now tend to hopscotch to Howard and Harford and Anne Arundel and Carroll), the black population of Baltimore County rose by nearly 15,000 in this period.

It's important to break this down racially to point out the wonderful moment we've reached in our history where all men, black men and white men, Jew and Gentile, (not to mention, women) now have equal opportunity (and desire) to get the hell out of this city.

Where they think they're going, I have no idea. To paradise? They can forget it. Whatever troubles the cities have, the counties have their own. Try asking a few Baltimore County police about the rise in juvenile crime.

Meanwhile, if you walk around the city, the rehabbing of homes in South Baltimore's Federal Hill is phenomenal, and West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester still is pleasing the ghost of Jim Rouse. In East Baltimore's Canton, it feels like a yuppie land rush, and Fells Point is getting ready for its annual festival, and the city's markets are still a joy and ...

Is the city in pain? Absolutely. But, in a state of rebuilding, too, which also is a constant.

So, in Towson, I hand this guy a dollar. For cab fare, he says. I know he's lying, and I know I'm only encouraging annoying behavior. But, as a resident of the city, finding a guy with his hand out on suburban York Road is a tiny reminder of a simple fact to all fleeing to the counties: Our troubles do not stop at the city line.

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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