Balancing our daily intake of the big and small pictures

This Just In...

March 16, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

A FRIEND advises that these days he worries less about the big picture and finds that things go better when his thoughts dwell on the small. "I ask myself: `How is my family doing? OK?' Then it's OK," he says. "I watch the birds and say, `Isn't that bird lovely?' Or, I say, `What a gorgeous tree in a gorgeous park.' The attempt to situate myself in awe-producing places as a tool of spiritual development has paid substantial dividends. In reality, we have little control over much of what goes on around us. Our greatest source of personal power is our choice of perspective."

I understand my friend and I love him for his wisdom. But some days, you can't get there from here, when here is Baltimore.

When you visit the block of Harford Road where Michael Cowdery, the young police agent, was shot and killed.

Or when you take the No. 8 bus down Greenmount Avenue, and the only birds you see are crows and seagulls fighting over bones from gaping trash bags in alleys. It's the Baltimore of abandoned rowhouses, seven or eight in a row, of broken concrete, of crumbling brick walls, of shredded plastic bags ensconced in trees, and of trash-strewn gutters. It's the poor, broken Baltimore thousands of people avoid, or see only in crime-scene video clips on the 11 o'clock news. It's the part of Baltimore where there seems to be no gorgeous tree, and environment produces not awe but foreboding.

My friend is correct about the big-picture stuff. It will crush you, if you're not careful. Another large chunk of it fell from the sky yesterday, via ABCNews.com: "Baltimore is the heroin capital of the United States. Government agencies estimate that as many as one in 10 of the city's residents are addicted to the drug."

This newspaper has reported as much before, but when the headline, `Heroin City,' flashes across a major news organization's Web page - and, presumably, across the wired world - it packs an even meaner punch. Especially if you're a Baltimorean or someone who still cares about what happens here. In other words, if you take all this personally. My friend is correct: Perspective is a great source of personal power. How you see things and where you fix your gaze affects everything. It can determine whether you become endowed with that sixth sense vital to human existence - the sense of hope.

Opportunities for hope are elusive; they come and go around here, and more go than come. We've never really been afforded a steady stream of hope. As long as I've lived in Baltimore, it's always been one step forward, two steps back for the city. No wonder judges, police and prosecutors have taken to group prayer meetings.

Baltimore claims a world championship in professional football, but it's also "the most heroin-plagued area" in the nation, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2000, the number of homicides in the city dropped below 300 annually for the first time in a decade, but here in the third month of 2001, killings are up again, surpassing last year's rate, and one of those killings was that of the young police agent, Cowdery. In 1999, the city elected a new, energetic mayor to replace the old, burned-out one. A year ago, Martin O'Malley went into St. Patrick's Day all green and ready to make music; this time, he'll attend a police funeral - the fifth burial of a Baltimore police officer in O'Malley's short tenure.

Cowdery's death was different from the others. He was the first of the five to be shot, the first taking part directly in an operation designed to do what O'Malley promised - to reduce violent crime in the those vast, gaping spaces in that poor, broken Baltimore.

Cowdery was on the east side, in the 2300 block of Harford Road. That's just a few blocks south of the street corner where O'Malley stood with his wife June 22, 1999, to announce his candidacy. "The opposing forces of hope and despair cannot exist on the same corner," O'Malley said that day. And Baltimoreans made him mayor.

Cowdery, on the side of hope, went into East Baltimore the other night in plainclothes. He and other officers, also in plainclothes, stopped to question some people on a sidewalk. A man with a gun ran up behind Cowdery and shot him in the head, possibly not realizing that he and the others were police officers. This is the way many street killings are done in Baltimore - dealers killing customers who do not pay, dealers killing competing dealers, gang members shooting to protect their pals from stick-up artists. Monday night the city lost a young police officer the way hundreds of families have lost young men in Baltimore over all these years of the heroin epidemic.

Here's where you sigh.

Or scream, if you have any screams left.

We need a hospital for all the sick, addicted people in the gaping, broken Baltimore. We need an army of doctors and social workers, on duty 24-7-365, to treat them. Nothing changes, otherwise. Baltimore remains Charm City, sick at its core. No matter how many hotels are built, no matter how digitized the harbor becomes, the other Baltimore will continue to crumble and die, taking the good people with it.

I know: It would be better to dwell on the good, small things. Don't contemplate the big picture. You can't control what happens in the big picture. That's my friend's advice, and it's good advice, and I go with it. I was happy to see the crocuses on my neighbor's lawn. I was awed by Wednesday morning's sunrise. And yesterday I even managed to see the beauty of scruffy starlings building a nest on the crown of an old, run-down rowhouse in East Baltimore.

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