PAY ATTENTION long enough - say, two weeks - and you notice that a lot of people around here tend to look at almost everything in terms of the health of the city of Baltimore. Martin O'Malley gets elected mayor, and that's good for the city. The Ravens win the Super Bowl, and that's great for the city. A gunman kills the owner of a popular and thriving Mount Vernon cafe, and that's not only an unspeakable tragedy for a family and the man's friends, it's bad for Baltimore.
That's how we think around here. Call it acute civic self-consciousness. An event such as the death of City Cafe co-owner John Darda sets it off. I'm not knocking this kind of thinking. I'm acknowledging it. I understand it as something in our nature.
When I learned the details of Darda's death - and his life - my eyes stopped at the words, "43-year-old father of three," and I felt something that can only be described as sudden and utter emptiness. It's a familiar feeling. It's something I feel, as a 46-year-old father of two, whenever I come upon another man's tragedy.
But then, not far behind, comes that second feeling - that concern about how such a public tragedy hurts the spirit of the city. Could all those positive feelings that percolated toward the end of 2000, when we heard the homicide rate would fall below 300 for the first time in a decade, and all that euphoria over the Ravens' Super Bowl victory be dashed by a single act of violence? Is the city that fragile?
John Darda was, by all accounts, an enthusiastic guy who helped build a wonderful business and made many friends. Though he lived in Bel Air, he loved the city and, in that way, reflected the feelings of a lot of suburbanites. (I recently heard a woman from Bel Air call a radio talk show and say, "Our mayor, O'Malley, is doing a great job.") Darda invested in the city. And these days, that's something. That's why, on a purely symbolic level, his death screamed at those of us who didn't even know him.
Here was someone out there trying, building one of those great good places that satisfy the human urge to gather, to sip coffee, to talk, to feel part of a larger life.
And then three young men came along and, in an attempt to rob him of $3,000, ended his life.
That police believe it was an ambush arranged by one of Darda's employees makes it no less a tragedy for his family. In fact, it probably hurts more to know that someone Darda trusted and paid a salary might have set a trap.
But I wonder how many of us changed our view of this event as the details filtered through the police.
If Darda was ambushed by someone who knew him, that means his death was not one of those stranger-on-stranger street killings that can leave a permanent scar on a neighborhood's - indeed, an entire city's - psyche.
This suddenly was something that could have happened to any small-business owner on his way to make a bank deposit anywhere, right? This could have happened in Cockeysville or Columbia, right? It was an "inside job."
If you consoled yourself with such thoughts this week, don't feel bad. I think a lot of Baltimoreans did.
Even people who don't live in the city but still care about it probably sought similar consolation as police made arrests and gave us their version of Darda's death.
But, you know what?
There's no consolation in this story. John Darda is dead, the victim of the willingness of others to use violence to get what they want. That mentality - killing for money, for drugs, for a leather coat, for revenge - infests too many in our midst.
This twisted thinking and ignorance mixed with anger - whatever its particular chemistry that killed John Darda on Morton Street is a cousin to that which killed 26-year-old Kelvin Hendricks two hours later across the city. Two men walked up to him in the 4800 block of Reisterstown Road, and one pulled out a semi- automatic handgun and shot him several times.
Hendricks died less than 30 minutes later at Sinai Hospital. As of yesterday police had no suspects and only speculation about a motive.
What killed Hendricks is next of kin to what killed 29-year-old Mannuel Carter several hours later as he tried to sell someone a sweat shirt on a street in Southwest Baltimore.
Shot in the head and upper body, Carter died early Wednesday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
What killed Carter is what killed the elderly Rev. Junior Lee Gamble in a botched robbery two summers ago outside his house in Park Heights.
It's what killed James Smith, the 3-year-old boy shot in a Southwest Baltimore barbershop on that winter day in 1997.
You want to make distinctions? You want me to note which killings involved drugs and which came out of domestic disputes?
Does it make any of us feel better to know what percentage of Baltimore's killings - across all those 200-plus years - stemmed from the drug trade? Do the details make a difference?
We are living through an epoch of violence that diminishes us all, a staggering loss of human life - a waste - over many years.
It hurts to contemplate it.
But the most daunting challenge of all is having hope.
Hope was the thing John Darda's partners had when they opened City Cafe in 1994. It was an act of hope for Darda to join the business a year later.
By several measures, the city is safer than it was back then. There's more money going into drug treatment. There's more vigor coming from City Hall, new crime-fighting strategies coming from police headquarters.
There are good reasons to keep hope alive for a better Baltimore.
It just seems so hard to get there, such a long, long way to go.
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