Two cities collide, and student's life is taken

April 20, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT THE Johns Hopkins University, students will gather today to say farewell to Christopher Elser, and to their innocence. Elser was the 20-year old junior stabbed to death in an off-campus apartment over the weekend. A collective innocence died at the point of his assailant's knife.

At a memorial service scheduled at the Homewood Campus this morning, school leaders will reach for words of comfort and explanation, and find there are none. At moments like this, all language dissolves into platitudes. Elser was a promising kid embracing the fullness of college life: studying hard, partying on the weekend with his friends and imagining a world of limitless tomorrows. Then an intruder arrived on St. Paul Street from some shadowy precinct of the human soul, and took everything away.

On St. Paul Street yesterday, a block from the murder scene, sat Laura Wexler. She is a senior editor at Style magazine and lives in this Charles Village neighborhood. She was sipping coffee at a little sidewalk table outside Eddie's Market and trying to absorb the stunning news about Elser.

"One of the privileges of being a student," she said, "is feeling you're immortal."

That's it, isn't it? The young live in a different place from the rest of us. They exist in a timeless zone. Life seems to stretch out forever, and death is a distant abstraction to be pondered in sleepy afternoon literature classes. It is not supposed to touch their lives. Not now, not yet.

But early Sunday evening, Elser died at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. At the end, he was surrounded by family and friends. The family arrived here from South Carolina after hearing he had been stabbed by an intruder in the dark morning hours. The friends, mostly classmates, never imagined such a thing happening in such a sweet neighborhood, such a short walk from campus.

In Baltimore, we live in two different cities that sometimes overlap. It's a city with a few hundred homicides a year - but the vast percentage of them happen in neighborhoods where poverty and narcotics traffic motivate everything. It's the hopeless, in their blind rage, killing off one another.

It's also a city forever trying to mend itself - and such mending depends on the promise of youths, who imagine themselves immune to the traumas of the murderous neighborhoods.

"A neighborhood like this, it's wonderful," Gil De Jesus was saying yesterday.

He stood there on St. Paul Street and glanced toward the big corner building where Elser's life was taken. De Jesus is an attorney, a former federal prosecutor in Washington who specialized in homicide cases. He moved to Baltimore because he fell in love with this neighborhood.

"The killing?" he said. "Probably a junkie, looking for something to steal." Elser was stabbed after a nightlong fraternity party. People come and go. Who thinks to lock a door? "A target of opportunity," De Jesus said. "But you don't expect it in a neighborhood like this.

"This is like Greenwich Village in New York. It's got everybody: hippies, intellectuals, working-class people. And they settle in. In Washington, everybody leaves. Here, people stay put. No one's going anywhere. This is a city of die-hards. I like it so much here, I've gotten friends from Washington to move here, and we take the train down to D.C. to go to work.

"It's a terrible thing that happened," De Jesus said, "but it could happen anywhere. For a while, it'll make people vigilant. But then we'll go back to normal. In this neighborhood, normal is usually good."

"Absolutely, a very nice neighborhood," agreed Jerry Gordon. For the past 23 years, he has owned Eddie's Market on St. Paul Street. "There are times when there's minor crime. A couple of kids might ride up on bicycles and mug somebody. Look, it's a nice neighborhood, with some areas on the periphery that aren't so nice. They figure there are well-to-do kids at Hopkins. Like every city, you have to be careful.

"But in the 23 years I've been here, I think we had one serious crime inside the store. An armed robbery. At least, he said he had a gun. I wasn't gonna ask him to show me. But this is a great neighborhood."

He looked through his store's big front windows, where young people chatted and walked to class and sat drinking coffee on a brilliant sunny morning.

"Before long," Gordon said, "people will leave their doors open again. The weather's warm, life goes on. The thing is, this was a kid. When you're a kid, you think you're immortal, you think that nothing can harm you."

At Hopkins, there was a whole campus full of kids who imagined immortality. Now they know better. They will gather today to remember Christopher Elser, who was 20 years old and had his life taken away. And took away everyone's sense of unlimited tomorrows.

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