Baltimore, squeegee boys and a robbery — in perspective

I got robbed. I was driving home.

My route includes the corner of Bloomingdale Road and N. Hilton Street. Squeegee boys hang out there.

My windows were down. As I reached the stoplight, the boys approached, asking if I wanted a wash. One boy didn’t have a squeegee and was clearly upset about something. He kicked my bumper.

He was maybe 14, his shirt wrapped around his head. When I have money, I give it to them. It's the only time my windows get washed, especially since my washer fluid pump doesn’t work.

A short kid came up and apologized. "I'm sorry, sir. Here, let me get you." He started washing my windshield.

The kid with the shirt on his head poked his face in my passenger window and demanded the half-eaten fries beside me. I didn't want the fries, but I hesitated. His eyes danced wildly in a way I knew. Though poor white communities currently get the lion’s share of attention surrounding addiction, the drug epidemic in the black areas of Baltimore has raged for decades.

I told the short kid the washing wasn't necessary, but he insisted. While I was talking, the shirt-headed kid reached in, snatched my messenger bag from the seat and vanished.

Four or five kids were standing around, but they just watched. "Go get him!" I yelled. They shrugged.

I jammed the car into gear and whirled around, just in time to see the shirt-headed-kid disappear behind St. Cecilia Catholic Church.

I shifted into park.

I didn't know what to do.

I couldn't call the cops. I've seen what the Baltimore police and juvenile detention system can do to black boys.

It was late June, and I was returning from a protest. Minutes earlier, I’d been alongside others demanding justice for those who bore the wrath of our Baltimore police: Keith Davis Jr., who was shot in the face in 2015; Anthony Anderson, who died after being tackled in 2012, and Tyrone West, who was beaten to death by police after a traffic stop. Tyrone’s sister sent me off with a hug, telling me “be safe.”

The bag didn't have much in it, but it was special. It was made of thick brown leather and sealed with a brass clasp, and had been across several continents. A gift from my wife.

I felt numb. A couple boys asked questions they knew the answers to. I asked if they knew who he was; they looked down and walked away.

The short kid walked up. “Is there a reward?”

I laughed. “Do you see my damn car?” The car is multiple colors from having body panels replaced. No hubcaps, rusting rims. Dents cover every foot, and marks from bike racks are etched in.

There was no vendetta. The conditions that bring a young man to perpetual desperation stretched into the distance, mocking my ego as it attempted to make his actions personal.

The kid shrugged and went to wash more cars.

Nobody wants to be a squeegee kid. My friend D. Watkins, who washed windows when he was younger, told me how horrible it was. “Want to be called all the worst things you can be called as a black person in Baltimore? Try washing windows at a red light.”

Did it matter my stuff was taken? Not really. Everything was replaceable.

These kids were worth more.

Eventually, the kid who took my bag came back out, and began kicking my car. “Why don't you get the F*** out of here?” he screamed.

Nobody cared.

I eventually shifted into gear and rolled home.

Angry though I was, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I was driving to an air-conditioned house, at almost 10 p.m. Where was he going? Once he came down from his high, who would be with him? I’d rolled with crowds like that, out on the street at night. There was a cold sense that if something happened, you were on your own.

Before bed, I posted the story on social media. The next day I checked behind the church. I found the spot and got some stuff back, but the bag was gone.

Later that morning, the post had spread like wildfire, with hundreds of people messaging me. Some expressed disdain for the squeegee kids, but an overwhelming number were incredibly empathetic both to me and them.

Baltimore is amazing. From kids trying to survive, to people who look out for them, to the mayor trying to make programs where the kids can run real businesses washing windows. Baltimore has a heart of gold.

Through a series of reposts, someone tracked down my bag and got it back.

My friend Devin Allen says it best: “Stop looking at the ghetto as something you want to have tucked away in the corner. I feel it’s a beautiful place. I want to show people how to love it. Once you love it, people will treat it better.”

Benjamin Jancewicz is a Baltimore-based graphic artist. Twitter: @benjancewicz.

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