Coming off the Jones Falls Expressway where it blends into President Street, there’s the usual greeting party: maybe half a dozen teenage boys with squeegee weaponry in hand, looking to clean my windshield, whether I need it or not.
They set off the usual mix of emotions. First — and I know a lot of people don’t want to hear this — genuine admiration for these kids.
The weather is frigid, all these cars are belching noxious chemicals into the air at close range, and this ain’t no walk in the park. As they make their way from one scowling driver to the next, nobody’s exactly praising these kids for their initiative.
They scare a lot of people. Never mind that these are poor kids trying to make a few bucks like the rest of us. Never mind that none of them quite had a daddy who left them a trust fund. And never mind that reports of criminal abuse by these kids are pretty rare.
In the general mythology, they’re kids from the city of Baltimore, our biggest producer of street crime, so they must be dangerous.
That’s the problem, isn’t it? No matter that a mere shake of the head generally sends them on their way. No matter that they’d have to be crazy to attempt any crime with so many other cars around.
It’s still an annoyance, like hitting an unwanted toll booth or getting a shakedown for protection money in order to enter the city of Baltimore.
Also, it feels like part of a dread scenario we’ve come to expect: it’s the city, so it must be dangerous, right?
So this being the closing days before the holidays, I’m heading downtown to look for gifts. And what do I hear from shopkeepers? Not enough business, business is awful, business isn’t half of what it should be.
Why? The answer’s always the same. People are afraid to come into the city. We’re still living in the shadow of the Freddie Gray riots. The homicide count’s over 300 again, and nobody seems to know how to control it.
And all those squeegee kids out there aren’t helping at all – they seem to validate all of our preconceptions of the city for the tens of thousands arriving each day. To slip past them offers a sense of escape. What else lurks in the shadows of downtown?
We’re a community living in fear of the people in our own mirrors. And, for first impressions as we come off the Jones Falls Expressway and enter the city, what better way to set off those fears than a bunch of street guys invading our emotional comfort zones?
But what are we talking about here? We’re talking about a bunch of poor kids – let’s not be coy about this, you’re not seeing any rich kids out there in the cold and the car fumes – who are scrounging for a few bucks, taking the kind of hard-core initiative we want from young people.
Is it possible there’s no way to find safe ground – emotionally, as well as physically – for everyone?
Could the city not designate certain corners – those with lots of traffic, where crime’s less likely in a crowd – open for squeegees, and make other areas against the law? Could the city not require licenses? Could the city not limit squeegee operations to certain hours?
(Which reminds me – these kids the other day were out there around 1 p.m. No school?)
The vast majority of these young people are out there looking for spending cash. Our hearts should go out to them – and a little cash should as well.
The problem – their problem, and ours – is that they seem to represent something more sinister. And in the city’s current high-crime context, we’re ascribing dark motive to them beyond what they’re asking.
We’ve got all these people lining up to be our next mayor, and not one of them has a solution to this?
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.