State college price leaves many folks in the hole

January 10, 2002|By Michael Olesker

ON HILLY Malden Avenue by Druid Hill Park, Tyrone Wilson, 42 years old, stuck his head out of a hole in the street Monday morning and discovered rain had stopped falling. This was considered good. But the rain had turned to snow, coming down now like nature's own dandruff, and the temperature still hovered around 30. This was not so good.

"Warmer down there," said Cedric Heigh, 20, pointing to the ragged opening they had rendered in the road.

"Better off down there," said Ed Sherrill, 39, standing next to Heigh.

Wilson did not need a weather report to know which way the day was going. He went back down in the ground, to the place where a sewer line had cracked and awaited repair. It was nestled somewhere in the dark below Malden Avenue amid gas lines and electric lines, telephone lines and water lines, storm drains and much mud and muck.

"What do you have to do down there?" the three men were asked the next day, Tuesday, when the snow had stopped but the wind was huffing and puffing. They work for Baltimore's Department of Public Works. One block above them, in the 3700 block of Malden, another crew performed a similar function: digging another hole to fix another busted sewer line to help another family.

In a time when we've all learned new respect for the police and firefighters, these folks need a second look, too. If you think not, try sending one of our alleged "heroes" -- a movie star, maybe, or a center fielder -- into the ground when the water's stopped flowing or a whole neighborhood's missing a "convenience."

"Down there?" Wilson said now. "Cracked pipe."

He mentioned something about greasing some section of pipe, and draining some other piece. Then Heigh described taking the old pipe out and installing a new pipe. And Sherrill mentioned blueprints that show specific locations of the various underground pipes, and engineers who read the blueprints and pass the locations to work crews who go into the earth.

This ensures not only quality work, but the likelihood that no one commits an error below ground to blow apart entire blocks of the complex underworld.

The three men wore layers of clothing: shirts, undershirts, hooded sweatshirts, woolen caps, overcoats. Their breath looked like cloud puffs in the cold. Now, rolling down Malden Avenue, came a backhoe, one of those big vehicles that looks like an urban tractor. Ronald McNair, 30, drove the thing.

"The cold?" he said. "You get used to it."

The others nodded assent. "It's a living," said Wilson. "You go to work so you can put food on the table for your family." He graduated from Dunbar High, went into the Job Corps, has three children. So does Sherrill, who got his high school equivalency diploma, and so does McNair, who graduated from Mervo, served in the military, then found work with the city. Heigh, two years out of Parkville High, starts plumbing school next week.

"Did you ever think about college?" they were asked now.

The question hung in the air for a moment. You start asking about college, you get into all sorts of sensitive things: high school grades, general aptitude -- and money.

"College isn't for everybody," said McNair, looking down from his backhoe.

He's right, of course. And there's clearly as much honor fixing pipes to a home as there is sitting in a classroom conjugating irregular French verbs. But there was something else in the air.

"Family background," said McNair. "A whole lot of people just can't afford college."

"Your own paper had the story today," said Wilson.

Bingo.

"High college costs noted," said the headline atop Tuesday's Maryland section. "National study ranks state schools among least affordable. ... Price called too high for students from low-income families."

The cost of a college education has exploded over the last 20 years and is now prohibitive to many not wishing to go deep in debt. But it falls heaviest, as always, on those with low incomes.

According to a new study of schools across the nation, nine of Maryland's 13 four-year public colleges and universities are unaffordable, even with loans, for students from low-income (below $28,380) families.

"Public" schools, indeed.

The study found that only seven other states have such a low proportion of affordable public four-year institutions. How many people with good minds this touches, how many people whose fullest options are diminished we can only imagine.

Some of them wind up in holes in the ground. It is honorable work. Sometimes, down there in the dark, it is heroic work. And some of those folks, moving among the water pipes and the gas lines, translating the language of blueprints to the stuff of honest physical labor, find real fulfillment.

But it's not easy. Down in the dark, the work can get rough. And, just for a finishing touch, as the public works guys labored around their holes in the ground yesterday, they contended with the morning freeze, and cars sliding nervously all around them.

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