Coming off the Jones Falls Expressway Thursday morning, and stopping at a red light along President Street, I’m confronted by a handful of the city of Baltimore’s famous squeegee kids, one of whom proceeds to clean my windshield against my will.
This kid’s got a water-spray gun in one hand and a window wiper in the other. He’s fully outfitted. As everybody knows, these kids can seem like movable toll booths for those maneuvering their cars through certain sections of the city
As he approaches my car, I shake my head no. It’s not that my windows don’t need cleaning — they do. As it happens, my car hasn’t been fully cleaned since the last time we had a fully clean administration at City Hall. And we all know how long that’s been.
But he cleans my windshield, and I drive away, and life goes on.
From here I go to Fells Point, to a little gift shop I frequent. I like the woman who owns the place, and my wife likes the gifts I get her here. But I don’t like what the woman says to me.
“How’s business?” I ask.
She holds up a cluster of receipts. “What I’m doing this week – the week of Mother’s Day – I used to do four times as much,” she says.
“Why?” I ask. “Fells Point, it’s such a great neighborhood.”
“Yes,” she agrees, “but it’s the city. We get tourists here, and they come into the shop and they say, ‘Is it safe to go across the street? We’ve heard all these stories about Baltimore.’ ”
“But it’s Fells Point,” I say. “It’s safe.”
“Yes,” she says, “but even the few people from the suburbs who come down – it’s ‘the city, the city.’ That’s all they think.”
This woman lives in Pigtown, over in Southwest Baltimore. She says the new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack Young, and the new police commissioner, Michael Harrison, did a walking tour of her neighborhood the other night.
“It was really nice,” she says. “They were showing they care. But we had kids coming up to them, saying, ‘Let me show you the bullet holes in the side of my house.’ That’s Southwest Baltimore versus southeast. And that’s the distinction people don’t make.”
“I was thinking about this on the way down here,” I said. “I was stopped on President Street, and …”
“Squeegee kids,” she says.
Here’s what happened with the squeegee kid and me. As he approached, I shook my head no — because I had no cash in my possession. But the kid just kept coming. He sprayed my windshield, he went zip, zip, zip, and my windshield was clean. I sat there motionless.
And the kid moved on. No dirty looks, no sullen attitude, no intimidating gestures. And never mind that he got no money.
I drove off with mixed feelings.
I know there are people intimidated by these kids. Some of this is based on race. Most of these kids are African-American. Some of the anxiety is based on sporadic reports of trouble — but the reports are pretty rare. In general, most of these kids are too busy hustling from one car to another to cause actual trouble.
My own outlook is to give them the best of it. This is no walk in the park. They’re out there in the heat and the cold, inhaling car exhaust, trying to make a little money. The kids come from backgrounds where money’s tight, and they’re showing some initiative. Does anybody have a problem with such an instinct?
In my old neighborhood, there were some kids who did a lot worse than this to make a little fast money. They weren’t called squeegee kids. They were called middle-class kids.
But inevitably, some people are intimidated by the squeegees. And they enter the city with their anxieties already in place, and the first thing they see are these street kids advancing on them. First impressions are a bitch. They brace for the worst, and this sets them up for anticipating trouble ahead — because they’ve entered the city of Baltimore.
By the way, when I left Fells Point I went out to Owings Mills, out in Baltimore County. There were people poised at three straight traffic lights along Reisterstown Road with their hands out. These happened to be white people. They wanted money.
And they weren’t even offering to clean anybody’s windshield.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.