Man trying to do his part symbolizes city's troubles

January 04, 2000|By Michael Olesker

On the first Sunday evening of the new year, with God in his heaven and Mayor Martin O'Malley promising a new, safer city, Gary Nelson took his 12-year-old son Biko to Denison Street and Clifton Avenue in West Baltimore, not far from Walbrook Junction, and ordered a take-home pizza.

Nelson, 46, a veteran emergency vehicle driver for Baltimore City Fire Department, likes the pizza and holds the neighborhood dear. This is based largely on nostalgia for a vanished past. He grew up nearby, and wishes to remember days before the narcotics traffickers began taking things apart.

"It's home," Nelson was saying yesterday, "although it's sad to see the demise of a neighborhood I love and people I care deeply about."

At the pizza place, known as Pizza Calzones, Nelson placed his order and asked about soda. They had no large bottles but suggested he buy one at Garrison Lounge around the corner. Outside, says Nelson, he noticed a wire trash can knocked over, and its considerable contents spilled all over the street.

"I take being a citizen seriously," he said, "and I try to pass this on to my children." He has four kids, ranging from 12 to 19 years old. "So I put the soda in my car, and set the trash bin back up, and started to put the trash back in."

Then he heard a voice, and looked up to see four young men hovering nearby. It was about 6:30 at night, dark, and Nelson felt a little shiver of nervousness.

"You the police?" one of them said.

"No," Nelson muttered softly, while continuing to put the spilled trash back into the can.

"Hey, man, answer the question," said another of the young men.

Nelson says he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, but he thought, "I'm nobody's punk."

"What are you, the Gestapo?" he replied. "I don't have to answer you."

In an instant, he says, one of the young men approached him and kicked away the can, spilling its contents again.

"I got very concerned for my safety," Nelson said yesterday. "And I looked over to my left and saw my son standing by the pizza parlor."

Two of the young men moved to his left, the four of them ringing him in a little circle. Nelson glanced again toward his son. Then he put his hand into his pants pocket.

"As though I had a weapon," he says. "Because I was afraid they might have a weapon. I figured I'd fool them and keep them at a distance while I went to the pizza parlor and called the police."

"Your pocket's too small to have a gun in there," one of the young men said to him.

"Just please keep your distance," Nelson replied, keeping his hand where it was. He could feel his heart beating, and made his way to the pizza parlor, where he asked a man behind the counter to call the police.

"Assault in progress," Nelson said, and gave the address.

One of the young men edged closer to him. Nelson is 6 feet 1, 240 pounds. The young man was about 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds. But he had his friends nearby.

"I ain't afraid to go to jail," the young man said.

"This used to be a good neighborhood," Nelson said.

"This neighborhood ain't been good since the '70s," the young man said.

"You were just born then," Nelson said. "I know your mother taught you to respect your elders."

"You must go outside," said the man behind the pizza counter.

Police arrived in about five minutes.

"So here we all were," Nelson was saying yesterday. "Four young black men. Three young black police officers. And me, a black man with my son. And then there are 15 or 20 people coming to see what's going on, and the one aggressive guy is getting very loud and profane, and the situation's getting incendiary. What are we doing to ourselves?"

Nelson said the police handled the situation well.

"I could feel their concern," he said. "They were professional and precise. They didn't want to arrest anyone and make the situation worse. And it was headed toward worse. But how much worse does it have to get, when you have guys hanging on the corner in the dark, and there's trash all over the street.

"And a block away, there's four women out there hustling, and people don't want to come out of their homes because they have to navigate past all this, and past all the drug dealing."

The new mayor of Baltimore, O'Malley, said in his inauguration address that the toughest neighborhoods in Baltimore will be protected as thoroughly as the richest. What happened Sunday to Gary Nelson was nothing -- except that it became a heart-stopping moment for him and his son, and anyone else who might have wandered through -- and it's a reflection of ordinary life in the neighborhood.

In one of his first acts as mayor, O'Malley ordered many of the city's streets cleaned. Gary Nelson was trying to do his little part with the trash can.

In this first week of the new year, we will see how clean the streets will be, and how carefully the city's meanest streets will be watched, along with its loveliest.

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