If only for a day, the promise of a clean slate

City Diary: JENNIFER GROW

February 16, 2000|By JENNIFER GROW

FOR A SHORT WHILE, my fondness of city life was rejuvenated by the last big snowfall. I took a long walk in the midst of the storm and felt a euphoric love of mankind as I saw children and adults throwing snowballs and rushing to Patterson Park to slide down the hill. People were smiling and there was a sense of goodwill. Nearly everyone was playing hooky.

I walked down the hill to Fells Point and bumped into some friends at The Daily Grind, sat with my neighbors. We drank coffee and split a torte, laughed a lot. I met more neighbors on my walk home. This is great! a woman, a stranger, smiled and said to me as I trudged up the long hill that is Washington Street. At the top of the hill, where Washington and Pratt streets meet, a boy named Bill worked with a shovel to free a city bus spinning in the snow. The advertisement on the side of the bus read something like, Were going places. The bus was revving and spinning, revving and spinning, getting nowhere. After little success with the bus, Bill and another boy named Jeremy pushed a few cars up the hill as they got stuck at the traffic light.

This big snow seemed to bring the community together like nothing else. It was as if the storm front was a unifying force of cooperation and excitement. I felt a great sense of safety and peace, and I thought, I wouldnt want to live anywhere else but here. But this giddiness lasted only as long as the snow was still falling.

The beauty and wonder of snow comes down to this: Snow buries everything. It hides the trash on the street, blankets the things we dont want to see, covers all the loose ends. A neighbors junky back yard was transformed into white sloping mounds, a minor mountain range of buried lawn furniture and lumber and leftovers. Snow is like magic in that it makes things disappear. Or, so I thought. Id hoped that this big snowfall would be an eraser, that it would offer us a clean slate from which to begin again. Of course, it was only the suggestion of a clean slate until the first footprints appeared.

I remembered how much I hate to shovel. Three scoops into it, mystarry-eyed euphoric glow faded. The universal love I felt the day before was replaced in the neighborhood with cussing and spinning wheels. Men and boys wandered through offering to shovel for a price. To my great relief, someone had already dug a narrow path in front of my house. Bless that person. The good deed did not go unnoticed.

But as physical law dictates, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In my neighborhood, the balance of entropy and order means that while one person is generous with his time and shovel, another has maliciously smashed some car windows. While I was out struggling with the snow, I heard my neighbors talking about at least two cars on our block that had their windows shattered during the snowstorm. Nothing was stolen, just broken glass.

Why would someone smash car windows for no reason on a snowy night? My question is obvious and pointless. Instead, I should ask myself why I am surprised. What makes this nuisance crime different from any other? It was the foot and a half of snow that made the vandalism stand out as odd and unjust, when the snow was the more temporary condition.

My own car was broken into last year. I blamed myself for the crime since Id forgotten to remove a bag of carry-out from inside. The garbage mustve looked like something else more tantalizing or saleable to the person(s) who smashed my window. They stole my bag of soggy french fries and a box of clothes destined for Goodwill that was locked in my trunk. In some ways, these criminals did me a favor by stealing my trash, except for the hundred bucks I had to pay to get my window fixed. Mostly, it was a nuisance and an aggravation, my slight dues for living in the city, I reasoned.

Five years earlier, I paid my city dues when I was mugged a few blocks away, in what I thought was a better neighborhood. A guy jumped out of a passing car and pointed his gun at me and a friend. It cost us fifty bucks. Even still, I consider myself one of the lucky ones, a blip on the statistics scale. I am no different than anyone else I know, in that regard.

What is perhaps more alarming is that Ive become accustomed to living like this. Trash and crime is such a regular part of city life that I forget to notice it, until, on rare occasions, it is buried by snow and made temporarily invisible. I forget that things could be different, better. Yet, I am unsure of my right to complain since, when I moved into this neighborhood several years ago, there were two homeless men living on my front steps, a crack house across the street, and prostitution everywhere. The dedication of some neighbors has improved this block. They have turned the neighborhood into a place where it is more of a nuisance to live than a danger. I suppose, then, broken glass is a sign of progress.

As for the snow, I guess I was hoping for a reprieve, a day when all unjust and unsightly things would disappear. That didnt happen. A few weeks later, when the snow finally started to melt, it turned as dirty as ever.

Today's writer

Jennifer Grow is a writer who lives in Butchers Hill.

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