Roughly Speaking podcast: Halloween special: Best of horror movie music (episode 168)

In wake of sniper, Baltimore provides a sense of security

ON GREENMOUNT Avenue, where the neighborhood starts to get a little rough, Dr. Pallavi Kumar pulls into a gas station. She looks around and sees several guys who are nobody's definition of choirboys. She gets out of her car. As she pumps gas into her tank, she feels an odd sense of security she no longer feels at home.

Home is the Washington-area suburbs, where somebody has been shooting people at random. Kumar lives in Bethesda, Montgomery County, where the sniper began his killings three weeks ago, shooting a man on a supermarket parking lot, and then killing five more people the next day as they went about such routine business as sitting on a bench, mowing grass -- or pumping gas.

That rampage has claimed 12 victims, nine of them dead. The latest was Saturday night in Ashland, Va., where a 37-year-old man was critically wounded outside a steakhouse for daring to try to lead a normal life.

Kumar, 31, knows about normal life turning to death. But not like this. She is a clinical associate in the Medical Oncology Clinical Research Unit at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda.

She is accustomed to a certain predictability about death. She sees nature become a bully in various prescribed ways. She knows how to deal with this. There are procedures. You find a symptom and approach it accordingly. Death can be pushed aside, at least for a while.

But this is different, this business with the sniper. Her approach to life has changed. Sometimes it's the psychology of facing mortality. Sometimes it's something as simple as pumping gas.

"When I'm home [in Montgomery County]," she says, "I get out of my car and literally run. I've heard people at work say they zig-zag when they walk, or they don't stand in front of a gas pump or an ATM machine. Who would think it would come to this?

"I have my own plan. I don't put anything in my trunk that I might have to get out of it. I'm out of my car, I'm moving quickly. I haven't gone food shopping since this started. I haven't gone to the pharmacy. I haven't run any errands.

"When I get to work at [the National Institutes of Health], that's when I feel safe. Because there's security there. Depending on the level the president's proclaimed [because of international terrorist threats], the security people check people's cars, look into trunks, check under hoods. They swab your steering wheel for prints. Sometimes they use metal detectors."

There was a time when Americans would find such measures insufferably intrusive. We're used to moving about freely. But the anxiety that started Sept. 11 a year ago has evolved, in the Washington suburbs, into an increasing desire for added security.

Kumar visits Baltimore frequently. Her fiance, Craig Bondroff, is a nurse at Union Memorial Hospital and lives nearby. This is a city with more than 200 homicides a year. But Kumar feels safer here than in Bethesda, where the incomes are high and the crime is not. Here, the shootings tend to have a grotesque predictability: one drug trafficker bumping off another. With the sniper -- who knows?

"I deal with cancer patients," she was saying over the weekend. "It's a terrible disease, and it kills. But it's something known. We diagnose, we try to help. But this, we have people dying at the hands of this person we have no control over. In my line of work, medicine, you know certain procedures. We try to make the quality of life better. We try to make the patients feel safe and their families comfortable.

"We try to get some sense of control. With cancer, we can't always control the outcome, but we can prepare for the end point. But how do you prepare anyone for this? For the first time in my 31 years, I'm not in control. We're all at the mercy of someone else's random decision."

When the shootings began three weeks ago, Kumar says, she imagined the killer would be caught. She and her friends tried "to live our lives and not be defeated. But when it continued so randomly, it became scary. Places where you never thought about your safety, they're now places where you worry."

Including gas stations. In Montgomery County, one man was killed while pumping gas and a woman was killed at a gas station while vacuuming her car. Two men in Virginia were shot at gas stations. Now Kumar comes to Baltimore, and makes certain she fills her gas tank before going home. She does this, even if it means going to a stretch of Greenmount Avenue where the surroundings were once considered scary.

As she looked around Greenmount Avenue the other day, Kumar said, she felt remarkably safe. She saw some tough-looking neighborhood guys standing nearby. She says they contributed to her sense of security.

"No sniper's going to come here," she thought. "Not with so many people here. They're all potential witnesses."

And -- who knows? -- some of them might have well-honed aggressive tendencies of their own if some stranger with a rifle showed up.

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