THIS PAST July 4, as friends and I watched the fireworks from a pier in Fells Point, I recounted an incident in my Waverly community that occurred just before the Independence Day festivities.
Turning to my out-of-town friends, I mentioned the tendency in some Baltimore communities for people, in brazen contempt of civility, to take to the streets and shoot their guns to the sky to celebrate the holiday. Welcome to Waverly, I told them, and then described a moment whose implications do not bode well for the improvement of America's marginal communities.
The kid could not have been more than 10 years old. I've seen him around all the time; he's one of the many children who play Waverly's streets.
Back yards in the neighborhood are often concrete slabs, more extensions of rat-infested, trash-strewn alleys than decent places where kids can play. Yet even yards with grass, like mine, are too small to accommodate the boundless energy of youth.
So there on the street corner, shirtless on this hot summer night, surrounded by friends, stood this kid. His arms were outstretched toward the night sky and his hands were clenched as though holding an imaginary gun.
"Pop, pop, pop!" he yelled, pausing before each cry of mock gunfire. Then, in rapid succession, "poppoppoppop!" No pause. This boy, in front of peers and kids of lesser age, had just demonstrated the audible distinction between semi -and automatic gunfire. I shudder at the thought that he's actually held a gun, that this morning a gun perhaps lay on the kitchen table as he ate breakfast.
From my porch steps, where I'd been sitting, the group was close enough that I decided to question the young shooter. I was curious.
"Who are you shooting at?" I asked, my voice rising above the clamor of eight or so children and the incessant melody of an ice cream truck. "Nobody," he responded, taken aback that I had questioned him. "July the Fourth coming up," he added.
The boy's peculiar behavior and bold tone, sadly, were not surprising. Living in Waverly, and having grown up here, too, I knew exactly what the kid was talking about.
Standing on the corner, I told my friends, this child was acting out an annual ritual in some Baltimore neighborhoods of marking celebrations with gunfire. In my neighborhood, the explosion of fireworks competes with the sanity-piercing pops of gunshots.
Actually, this phenomenon occurs twice yearly in Waverly, first on New Year's Eve at the stroke of midnight and then again on July 4. Given the boy's display, I imagine that future July Fourths will be no different. As friends and family convene in celebration and throngs congregate to watch dazzling fireworks displays, there will be those in Baltimore -- and maybe across the United States, for that matter -- who aim guns skyward and revel in their own celebratory ways.
But here was a child, on my street corner, playing out this scenario as if it were natural, as if families across the country celebrated as he. Each time I hear gunfire in my neighborhood, I think of some war-ravaged foreign land, where the citizens, often the children, walk the streets with weapons openly drawn. Fireworks interspersed with gunshots; to these kids in my community, it's just part of the fun
It's difficult for my friends to believe the sound of gunfire in my neighborhood does not prompt immediate concern.
"You are not supposed to hear things like that," I've been told, as though I were so completely oblivious to normality as to desperately need their brilliant social insight. You could say I am used to it all, perhaps complacent. I suppose I too am part of the problem.
On July 5, and also on the first day of the new year, however, I've picked up scattered bullet casings that, left in place, would unnecessarily fuel the imaginations of youths in the community. It's bad enough these kids must hear shots being fired. It's worse, however, that some will see empty shells lying in the streets and on the sidewalks, pretending to be as natural as pebbles.
Michael Scarella grew up in Waverly and still lives there. He will be a senior this fall at Johns Hopkins University, where he is studying political science and economics.
City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods.