Killings nearby seem unreal

June 24, 2008|By Jean Marbella

I live in one of those good neighborhoods, where what obviously was the sound of gunshots - sharp, rapid-fire bursts - woke me around 2:40 Sunday morning, and yet still I thought: firecrackers.

It's not so much denial as a lulling and not-unreasonable sense of security, born of the fact that I basically live more in Anne Tyler's Baltimore than David Simon's. When we grumble among ourselves in Federal Hill about crime, it's largely about break-ins and vandalism and the occasional, if still alarming, iPod grab or street mugging. It's danger lite compared with what other Baltimoreans live with, and I'm hardly such a tough urban warrior for living in the big bad city rather than fleeing to the suburbs.

So I got almost five more hours of sleep that morning before the phone rang, and it was a friend in the neighborhood calling to tell me there had been another murder, and the body was still out on the sidewalk. The word murder is rarely heard in connection with Federal Hill, let alone paired with another, and even now, even after seeing one of the victims myself, it seems unreal that one man was killed in the neighborhood Friday night and another just around the corner less than 18 hours later.

I worked as a reporter in Florida during the cocaine-cowboy era of the 1980s that inspired the TV show Miami Vice - the one with the moody soundtrack, the cool detective whose pastel T-shirts matched the art deco backdrop of South Beach and the violent, neon-lit depictions of drug deals gone bad. Art imitated life which eventually came to imitate art - to the point that the newspaper's editors ultimately had to issue an unofficial ban on quoting witnesses at crime scenes who said, "It was like something out of Miami Vice."

Here our reference point is The Wire, and yet that obviously didn't fit this out-of-context scene. On Sunday morning, yellow crime tape blocked off half of a street as we clustered, coffee mugs in hand, watching a CSI-like scene unfold over the course of several hours as the sun rose higher and hotter in the sky. Uniformed officers and detectives photographed the victim, bagged evidence and dusted a nearby car for fingerprints; a couple of people from the medical examiner's office picked up the body and shared a bottle of hand sanitizer with police before driving away; firefighters arrived to hose down the sidewalk.

It was hard to figure out what to think, the two homicides that of course happened in Federal Hill, but weren't exactly of it - it wasn't like someone was killed in a botched robbery inside a house, or that roving bands of criminals were suddenly targeting us.

And yet, here were two dead men, whose last moments of life were spent and extinguished on one of our sidewalks and one of our streets. They didn't live among us, but they most certainly died among us.

It's heartbreaking to think that someday, someone might drive by with a kid, say, and point out: That's where your daddy was killed.

I suppose it's true for any rowhouse neighborhood, but in Federal Hill, you can't help but be aware of how thin, even porous, the membrane is between inside and outside. You step from one to the other with barely a transition - there's no driveway that takes you to a garage that only then conveys you inside. Not so in Federal Hill, where you're living right there, a mere wall away from the street.

I remember one night during ragweed season some years back, I was lying in bed watching TV and had a sneezing fit that prompted a "Bless you" from someone walking by outside; he barely broke stride as I called down a "Thank you," and he sent up a "You're welcome."

What makes Federal Hill unique is the constant traffic through what for those who live there can otherwise seem like a small village, surrounded as it is by the Inner Harbor and the stadiums, the bars and the restaurants and, of course, the hill itself. It's where we go, if we have dogs that need walking or husbands who need more exercise, and it's where everyone else comes - for the view, for the snuggling on the benches, for the playground, for the rare expansiveness you feel in an otherwise congested urban landscape.

We walked up there Sunday night, my husband and two visiting friends, and even then, it still seemed magical to me. The after-dinner strollers still made their slow circuits around the park and the lights of the city twinkled as ever, despite the presence of two new ghosts down below.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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