This time, let's be more gentle


I'm at a stop light at McCulloh and Lafayette streets when a little boy approaches my car.

McCulloh is a one-way street, a broad corridor. In fast-moving traffic, you can shoot from downtown to northwest Baltimore in a matter of minutes.

It is midafternoon and traffic is heavy.

The little boy has a small squeegee in his hand.

"Hey mister," he asks, "can I clean your windshield for you?"

He's a neatly dressed kid -- T-shirt and shorts -- and he's got a happy, cherubic face. He looks to be between 10 and 12 years old. There are three or four other kids working this intersection with him.

"Not today," I say.

Around me, cars begin to race their engines, preparing for the light to change.

"You and your buddies had better get out of the street," I tell the kid. "It's dangerous here."

"I'm OK," he says, reassuringly. Then he adds, "Do you have any spare change I can have?"

I hand him what I have -- about 50 cents.

"This is way too dangerous," I repeat.

"I'm careful," he assures me again. Then the light changes and he and his buddies dart through the traffic and back to the curb, barely dodging disaster.

And so, that's the news -- the squeegee kids appear to be back this summer in greater numbers than in the past six years.

They are back and my heart is heavy because once their presence brought out the worst of Baltimore.

I had been proud of the youngsters. To me, they had always seemed polite and energetic and eager to please. I admired their hustle and enterprise, and I thought other motorists felt the same.

But then, in January 1985, then-City Council President Clarence H. Du Burns introduced a bill, at the request of the police commissioner, that would outlaw squeegee kids. Police said the practice was unsafe and that many motorists had complained about them. The bill would give officers authority to arrest repeat offenders.

I tried to explain in a column back then that this was a very sad idea, that there were kinder, gentler ways of ensuring the kids' safety.

I pointed out, for instance, that each police district had a youth service officer and that the department could have asked the officers to take the squeegee kids in hand and show them safer outlets for their entrepreneurial spirit, chores for the elderly or something.

"We don't need to kick these kids around," I wrote. "It's too hurtful. It says, 'We don't like you. We don't want you here.' Inner-city kids hear that too much as it is."

I appealed to our common humanity, you see, because I thought people would listen.

But then the debate over the bill began and it was shockingly ugly.

People claimed that the kids were rude and obnoxious and potentially violent. They said motorists felt intimidated, afraid for their personal safety, reluctant to come downtown for fear of being set upon by rampaging squeegee kids.

In this paper's letters section, correspondents warned that unless they were outlawed, these little kids might someday commit violent assault, armed robbery, and even rape -- using their squeegees as a ruse to get closer to their victims.

"But these kids aren't killers or rapists or thugs," I protested. "They are only kids. Kids, for heaven's sake. Give them something better and safer and more constructive to do if you really care."

But the council chose to make them outlaws instead. True, the council members paid some lip service to providing safer, off-street places for them to work, but that was only a sham and the plan quickly and quietly collapsed under its own hypocrisy.

Not long afterward, a squeegee kid was struck by a car and killed, and everyone felt vindicated, although the hazard of the practice was never the point.

But I bet you the children got the point. Our lips may have said, "We care about your safety," but our deeds said, "You are everything we fear and dislike and we don't want you around."

Now the squeegee kids are back again.

This time, I won't bother to remind us of all the things we could and should be doing if we really cared about their safety. I certainly won't try to argue that most little boys, even those from the deepest, darkest recesses of the inner city, are not thieves and rapists and cold-blooded killers.

I'll simply note, quietly, before the hysterics begin, that the squeegee kids are back. Let's try really hard to be more gentle with them this time.

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