On the west side, flying bullets keep residents on run

August 10, 2004

As visitors descend on Baltimore during the summer tourism season, staff writer Larry Bingham offers an occasional look at how the city has been portrayed by writers over the years. Today, an excerpt from David Simon and Edward Burns' 1997 nonfiction book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood.

All across the west side, the distinct reports of individual shots now blend into cacophony. Down Fayette Street toward the harbor, and up Fulton toward the expressway, the bright orange-yellow of muzzle flashes speckles from the front steps, windows and rooftops.

They look like fireflies amid the crescendo, beautiful in their way. A window is shattered on Monroe Street. Another on Lexington. And a block north on Penrose, some fool without sense enough to come in from the rain suddenly winces, grabs his forearm, and races for the nearest doorway to examine his wound.

The hour approaches, and the great, layered dissonance grows even louder, the flashes of light racing up and down the streets as visible proof of this explosive percussion. It is a sound both strange and familiar: the signature sound of our time, the prideful, swelling cannonade of this failed century. Shanghai. Warsaw. Beirut. Sarajevo. And now, in this particular moment of celebration, West Baltimore.

On Fulton Avenue, two teenaged girls stand in the vestibule of their rowhouse, ready to run to a girlfriend's apartment on Lexington. They start down the steps, giggling, edging into the maelstrom, but they don't even make the curb when the next- door neighbor appears in his doorway, grinning drunkenly, gripping a .38 long barrel with both hands in a crude military stance, aiming up into the ether.

Six flashes light the street; the girls dive back to their front steps. Still laughing, they peek across the marble steps as the reveler returns to his vestibule, reloads, then chimes out six more in perfect sequence. Like a statuette in some bastardized Swiss timepiece, the gunman drops his arm and slides backward through the door to reload again, and the girls, having timed the process, now risk the run up Fulton. They race up the block, consumed in adolescent laughter, holding their ears against the din.

The hour itself arrives with perfect vacancy - a rare midnight with no one soldiering on the Monroe Street corner or down Fayette. No touts, no slingers, no fiends on Mount Street. No crew manning the intersection of Baltimore and Gilmor. And certainly no stray citizens either - most taxpayers with sense fled this neighborhood years ago; the few that remain are now nestled inside hallways and interior rooms, as far from a stray bullet's reach as they can manage. Twenty blocks east, there are thousands milling around Inner Harbor promenades and downtown hotel lobbies, watching fireworks of a different kind in the night sky. But here, in West Baltimore, the celebration of sound and light requires an empty landscape.

Copyright 2004 by David Simon and Edward Burns, From the book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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