BASICALLY, you want to live. You want to live as long as possible, in as much good health as possible. You want to enjoy all the benefits of a free society, including microwaveable popcorn. You do not want to go to jail.
Generally speaking, you want to live life as most of us know it -- working, playing and loving through four seasons of the year, out here in the open (if not pollution-free) air, pursuing some dream of financial stability, if not affluence, a relatively happy family life and maybe even a sense of accomplishment.
You do not want to be responsible for the illness or death of others.
You do not want to contribute to the ruin of your community.
You want people to respect you, not fear you.
I think we hold these truths to be self-evident.
Do we also agree that, while Baltimore remains infested with heroin and cocaine dealers and thousands of users who keep them in business, the vast majority of us avoid that racket because we know right from wrong and because involvement in drugs threatens us with loss of all that we value -- life, liberty and the pursuit of microwaveable popcorn?
Are we still in agreement?
You there -- the bank teller reading this while grabbing a bagel on the way to work this morning: Cashing checks at the drive-in window might not be as lucrative or as exciting as selling heroin in East Baltimore, but you get by, don't you? Your job comes with some safety risks, but you don't live with the constant fear that someone in a hoodie is going to walk up with a .357 Magnum and blow your brains out, right?
And no one is going to arrest a bank teller for doing her job.
Am I right again?
I'm doing so because of a surprising letter that arrived here in reaction to Sunday's column on "Little Dirt," the 8-year-old boy who was arrested for selling cocaine 17 years ago. LD's life turned out pretty well, considering its bad start, and now he's a working, taxpaying, $50,000-a-year, 25-year-old customer-service man with his own car and a house in Northeast Baltimore.
Removed from his drug-addicted mother's home shortly after his arrest in 1988 and placed in foster care, LD managed to get off the track upon which he had started at an early age -- the one that led thousands of young Baltimore drug dealers to either jail or death in the time since LD was a child.
Many letters from readers arrived praising LD and the foster care system that saved him. I passed some of them along. Guys like LD, who figure it out, deserve praise for getting as far as they have, against huge odds.
But in the midst of the glad tidings came these cynical comments from a reader who left his e-mail unsigned:
"I wonder if a customer service manager's job is really something to be thrilled about. ... With all of the risks of drug dealing, I still wouldn't say a middle-class job is a success story."
And in part correct, if you look at things strictly in terms of income. Various surveys indicate that, even in this age of super-affluence, young Americans today do not expect to live as well as their parents have, though they might live longer.
Still, with all that, most young Americans are not selling dope.
Those who remain in the drug trade either found nothing better to do in life or made the decision to live fast and live high and live with the risks.
"[LD] is struggling to pay a mortgage on [$50,000 a year income]," the e-mail continues. "A lot of drug dealers can afford two or three homes.
"[LD] is probably a salaried employee as well. You didn't mention how he could be fired or laid off at any time, or how he probably works 50-plus hours a week.
"You didn't mention about all of the abuse he has to take from the customers and constantly apologizing for the company's mistakes. He's forced to wear a uniform. He has to give up part of his identity. ...
"As a drug dealer, he had freedom of how to dress, how to talk, and things he could do. This guy will probably spend the rest of his life hoping to get a district manager or vice president job at the company. He'll always be kissing up to somebody else.
"I'd hardly call [LD] a success story.
"I know a drug dealer who was driving luxury cars in high school. By the time he was 21, he was a millionaire with two houses and an apartment and multiple cars. He was arrested and did a couple of years in prison. But when he came out he took some of the money he made from illegal dealing and bought a business. He's basically set for the rest of his life."
Right, and he can probably treat 10 ladies to a $300 bottle of Moet at a late-night club. What's the point, sucka?
"My point is: you're basically giving the message that, `OK, ghetto kids, get a good education, stay out of trouble, work hard and one day you too can live from month to month.'
"It sounds like your message is we all should be content to conform to the system and keep our dreams to being middle-class."
Not at all.
But as hard as it is today to make your dream happen -- even with all the changes in the American workplace, the impact of globalization, the creation of the super-affluent class and the shrinking of the middle -- even with all that, going straight still beats jail, and a long life, last I checked, still beats the morgue.