I've been reading Facebook tributes to two young men — Audie "Party Audie" Mickens and James "Jimmy" Johnson, brothers slain within the last couple of months in West Baltimore — and I've found dozens of them laced with the "f word" and the "n word" and the "s word," many written in the crude shorthand of the poor and violent city within the city.
To an outsider, these postings seem ugly and obtuse, the common-speak of young adults who have been immersed in profane language throughout their lives and use it every day, even to speak fondly of the dead. And there's an odd jocularity and nostalgia in the postings, which I take as resignation — as if the death of 20-something homeboys is expected and accepted, so let's cherish the good times, even if the good times were just last week.
Read enough of that and you wonder if anyone who lives on the streets where Baltimore's violence regularly occurs feels shock and outrage anymore.
But they do. It's there.
"THIS S— — IS CRAZY," one post goes. "ITS LIKE DEJAVU I JUST SEEN JAMES LIKE 10 MINUTES BEFORE THAT S— — HAPPENED....SHORTY WAS A GOOD N— — HIM OR PARTY DIDNT DESERVE MY HEART GOES OUT . ."
Here's another: "I'm hurting because our young black men that are suppose to lead us is being taking from us by heartless people. ... my prayer everyday is that God save us."
For this story, I return to the west side and the long stretches of old city where so many young men have been murdered over the years, and they continue to be murdered, though I can barely stand to think about that anymore.
But, for the record, Audie Mickens was killed in September, shot to death on Fulton Avenue. He was 24 years old.
He had achieved some fame a few years ago in an HBO documentary, "Hard Times At Douglass High," with his defiant — and prophetic — words: "Don't nobody go to class around here, man. . . . We gonna leave that to them nerd— —. We gonna keep straight 'hood. We gonna keep it gutter."
He was shot on Sept. 20. The person who killed him has not been arrested.
On Nov. 24, Mickens' 22-year-old brother, Jimmy Johnson, was shot to death on Laurens Street in West Baltimore. Again, no arrest yet.
The mother of the two victims declined to be interviewed, but police confirmed that Mickens and Johnson were brothers and that the homicides are related.
In addition, police are investigating the possibility that a third homicide victim, whom they refused to identify, might have been connected to the brothers. The "Rest easy Party Audie" Facebook page contains several references to a young man named Marcus, apparently a relative, also deceased.
On Nov. 24, the creator of the page, now with more than 3,100 "likes," posted this update:
"Jimmy I told you what it was, but you already knew. These streets cruddy boy. When Audie died I held you in my arms and told you I can't lose you boy. Marcus, Audie, and now Jimmy is gone. Man I'm sick to my stomach, my head hurt from crying. I sit here and the tears continue to roll. ... I love Marcus, Audie, and Jimmy. My nephew and my sons all gone now."
It's hard to know what to say about the deaths of young men in poor and violent Baltimore. I asked Fred Bealefeld about it. He became a Baltimore police officer shortly after I started writing a column, more than 30 years ago. Bealefeld finished his career as the top cop, resigning as police commissioner in August after nearly five years. During his tenure, the annual homicide count fell below 200 for the first time since the 1970s. This year, the count is up again. Jimmy Johnson was the 200th victim, and there have been a few more killings since then.
It's all so exhaustingly senseless, and, short of some massive gentrification of the most distressed spaces — as happened, resulting in significant drops in violence, in New York and Washington, D.C. — there doesn't seem to be a remedy. So the work of the cop in all this must seem wholly futile.
"Our time at labor, in the grand scheme of things, is short compared to the scope of the task," Bealefeld said. "So we don't see the boulder moving. Yet it is. ...
"Decency, compassion, honor, rule of law — we are tireless in their pursuit and we desire to instill that in everyone. But that work is slow and difficult and we can't see it. And so there you are, laboring that people will stop the madness, find solutions to drug addiction and re-entry."
And unemployment, and illiteracy, and bad parenting, and failing schools, and all those things that set young men up for early death. That's the commissioner's coda, and the message to the officers he left behind, and the man who just took his place, and to the rest of us: Don't give up on this. Don't give up.