As the sleepy city began stirring yesterday, an anxious line stretched from the Abel Wolman municipal building's front door, wrapping along the government center's side and back like a living, breathing bow.
For inside was a present, of sorts, that nearly 200 people had planted themselves on the dirty downtown sidewalk for days just to get a shot at: Properties where the owners had defaulted on tax bills.
It's the city's annual tax lien sale, where investors with dollar signs in their eyes, hard-bitten attorneys and earnest folks with homeowner lust all gather, pushing and shoving and angling, just to claim a piece of the American dream that someone else is losing.
At stake this year were more than 9,000 properties, together worth millions of dollars. While most were sold at auction last week, people waited for a grab at leftovers yesterday, liens on about 3,000 properties.
Though people were buying liens, not actual homes, their clear hope was that the tardy taxpayers would remain negligent and eventually they could foreclose on the properties. Second best, they'd get the lien money back plus 18 percent interest.
As the line attested, the city sale has never drawn more interest. Driving the frenzy is the scorching real estate market, officials say, marveling that compared with last year, hundreds more people are competing for thousands fewer properties. Suddenly, people are camping out and throwing elbows for a chance at Baltimore's most hard-luck homes.
"It's unlike anything we've ever seen," said Stanley Milesky, the city's chief of the bureau of treasury management. "The appetite for people to purchase these homes is extreme."
Extreme enough to pitch tents outside the tax office a week early. Extreme enough to make "line placeholder" a hot employment opportunity for downtown's homeless. And extreme enough to incite near-violence.
"It's money, it's greed," said Darius Waters, speculating on the source of the crowd's stamina and its short fuse.
Along with his brother and a friend, Waters had waited six days in line. They'd parked a pickup in a metered spot in front of the building and took turns feeding the meter and sleeping in the truck's bed.
"We're reading, praying, videotaping - trying to keep our sanity," he said. "But the main thing we've done here is keeping the peace."
The hours and hours and hours of waiting left plenty of time for people to debate tax sale politics and stew about the line's fairness, or lack thereof. Unwritten and highly arbitrary, the law of the line made for many an issue.
"It's kind of an honor system," explained Brent Robinson of Washington, hanging out, seemingly honorably, since Sunday.
For the not-so-honorable, opportunities to move up a few spots abounded.
The "law," many line-dwellers assumed, was that when people arrived at the municipal building, they took a spot at the back of the line, propped up a chair to mark it, then waited for the sale.
But others saw it quite differently. There were entrepreneurs: Moneybags who paid people - often homeless people - to hold spots for them.
There were tent expanders: those who grabbed a spot, pitched a tent there, then later welcomed four or five people inside - people who, next thing 'ya know, claimed a right to be there, essentially cutting in line.
Old-school enthusiasts opted for the sneak attack: Trying to slide up a few spots when others were sleeping or preoccupied.
"Chairs don't mean anything. It's bodies that count," said an unshaven, haggard Herb Dyer of Overlea. "It used to be that waiting in line really meant waiting in line."
Not surprisingly, the line hanky-panky didn't sit well with the bored, sleep-deprived, tense, hungry, dirty and nervous mob.
Volatile is probably not too strong a word to describe the line mentality come yesterday morning.
"There were three white chairs here on Saturday," a man bellowed, facing off against a woman who defiantly yelled back, "No!" as a crowd began to gather around them.
A city police officer stepped in as the two continued to scream about chair meddling that might or might not have gone down.
"Folks, folks, don't make me ask you to leave 'cause I will," the officer threatened. "We will not have arguing in this process."
Though the ruckus immediately simmered down, the futility of the officer's command was obvious. No arguing? In this process?
Clearly he missed Monday. That's when a group of tenters began to bicker and, word in the line has it, things came to blows and someone threatened to "pop a cap" in someone's rear end.
"It's a real shame," said Bob Lambert of West Virginia, a tax sale veteran who usually claims a spot near the head of the line. "That kind of stuff just ruins it for the others. It makes us look bad."
But just as fists were formed, so were a few friendships - the kind that can come only from spending nights on end next to someone who hasn't showered either.