Implied intimidation is one more factor in the steady decline of life in the city

June 06, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON THE PARKING lot at the Northeast Market, behind Monument Street a few blocks east of Johns Hopkins Hospital, men wait to clean your car against your will. The unspoken intimidation is simple: OK the wiping, or say farewell to your car in its present undented, unsmashed, fully Dunlopped form.

"Wash your car?" this guy asks, striding toward me as I arrive at the market one sunny afternoon last week.

"No," I say, "I'm only gonna be a couple of minutes. But thanks for asking."

There's the way to handle it: Keep the politeness, keep the peace, and keep moving past this guy and the five or six other young men out here mopping off cars. I enter the market and glance through a window. The guy's not bashing anything, not scratching anything, not putting cinder blocks where my tires ought to be. He's just cleaning off my car against my expressed desires to the contrary.

Inside the market, I ask merchants about the parking-lot wipers. A problem, they say. These guys are out there every day, and they intimidate people who wish to shop at the market but fear damage to their cars or, worse, to themselves.

And the police? One merchant sweeps a hand grandly in front of him. Walk through the market, he says. Here are two uniformed police getting lunch, then three more, then two more. Outside, near the parking lot, are two more uniformed officers. But they're oblivious to the car washers. They're off ticketing autos whose owners chose to park at meters on the street rather than risk the intimidations of the parking lot.

I return to my car, and the fellow who wiped it hovers nearby, talking to a few of his buddies. He did a pretty decent job, so I give him a couple of bucks.

"Let me ask you something," I say. "If you can stand out here in this hot sun wiping off cars, why aren't you working somewhere for better money than this?"

"Can't find nobody to hire me," he says. "They look at my record."

Thus does a prison stretch become less a mark of personal shame than an excuse, a weapon to be turned around, to be pointed at those who run the community's places of employment and who will not forgive a man for past errors in judgment. Thus does the intimidator become victim, a charitable case wanting only a few bucks for the privilege of cleaning your car during a lean season, or else.

Thus, with admission of such a history, do we skip all pretense of social niceties.

"What'd you go in for?" I ask.

"Burglary."

"How long you been out?"

"Two years."

"How long since you had a job?"

"Ten months."

He looks about 30, healthy, and says he's adept at carpentry, roofing, a variety of honest skills. But his record trails him, he says, so he comes here to scrounge for whatever money he can get. Some days, he says, he can make up to $70.

This is fine for him, but not so fine for those handing over the pieces of that $70. This sliver of East Baltimore has an edgy street reputation, despite foot patrols from the Eastern District police, despite Hopkins security officers, despite uniformed market security officers, and despite considerable foot traffic from Monument Street stores and nearby schools.

But cities suffer from crime, and from not-quite-crime. They suffer from acts of routine unlivability that turn neighborhoods as gloomy as do overt misdemeanors.

The guys on the Northeast Market parking lot might not mug anybody, but they're not making anybody feel any lightness in the soul either, and such things contribute to the continuing exodus from the city.

The crowd competing to become the next mayor of Baltimore talks a good game on crime -- nobody runs for office declaring, "Let's go easy on our criminals; they've had a rough time of it" -- but what does their language mean?

Lawrence Bell, for example, seems enamored of the zero-tolerance approach that's been such an apparent success in New York.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has seemed caught between his history as a prosecutor and his insights into places ravaged by crime and all sorts of civil-liberties inhibitions.

The parking lot at the Northeast Market is a microcosm of that problem. It's about quality of life. Those fellows on the market parking lot -- or in Fells Point, or side streets near Oriole Park, or Harborplace, who "find" you a parking space as you drive past, or offer to "look out for your car" for a few dollars until you come back -- aren't breaking any laws, and they're certainly entitled to make a living as best they can.

But communities have to decide: Where does one person's right to make a living infringe on another person's right to feel safe? What are the laws on implied threat? It's easy for anyone running for political office to talk tough on crime -- but not so easy to inspire civility, and to find a comfortable environment between police grabbing even the puniest violators, and streets routinely given over to intimidators.

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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