Two blocks from Pimlico Race Course, with cars' horns beeping and radios blaring and hawkers hustling their wares, an amazing thing is happening on Preakness Day.
You can hear the click of a camera.
It clicks on Greenspring Avenue below Northern Parkway, with traffic stalled about a block from the track. It clicks as thousands lucky enough to find street parking are lugging their picnic stuff to the afternoon's events, many in metal shopping carts pushed by teen-age entrepreneurs offering their services for a few bucks.
It happens when the party atmosphere in the streets stops for an instant.
A frustrated driver brushes too close to a big kid with a shopping cart. The driver is white, the kid is black. The kid takes his shopping cart and rams it angrily into the car. Two other kids kick at the car. All within sight are reminded of those pictures out of Los Angeles, that truck driver being dragged from his seat.
On Greenspring Avenue, the driver jumps out of his car with something in his hand: a plain little camera.
The three kids throw their hands over their faces and run.
"Hey, no," one of them yells.
They disappear behind some bushes, the guy gets back in his car, and the party atmosphere returns to Greenspring Avenue and Northern Parkway.
The instant stands as our metaphor for the day. A piece of us applauds all these kids, dozens of them, who are out there every year with their shopping carts on Preakness Day.
We don't applaud the cloudy circumstances under which the kids acquire these carts, but for the moment let's acknowledge the broader effort: In a tough time, they're out there hustling for a few bucks.
It's a variation on the squeegee kids, standing at red lights to wash car windows. Let's acknowledge the mixed feelings once more: admiration for the kids' effort, but a little sense of intimidation sometimes, having heard stories of a few kids doing damage to people who did not wish their windows washed.
The same impulse is now seen on the grand scale. At the same time this city was awash in good feeling over Preakness Week, its mayor was in Washington, asking for help.
The help is based on need, but it doesn't seem to matter. There were thousands of city dwellers who went to Washington last weekend, asking for help from people who control the federal money. They discovered the president wasn't there, and neither were most members of Congress.
But cameras were, and they clicked away. The cities are reduced to scrounging, which should give them a sympathetic aura. But the scrounging has now gone on for a dozen fruitless years, and so something new has been added to the confrontation in the aftermath of Los Angeles: the hint of danger, the sense that the cities could blow.
The front pages of Sunday's newspapers show faces on the Save Our Cities March. Most are black. The television news brings us sounds from the street. All of the marchers are frustrated.
A long time ago, at the 1968 Democratic Convention, we watched Chicago police lose their cool and riot against demonstrators. While television cameras showed the police clubbing innocent people, much of the crowd took up a chant: "The whole world is watching."
They thought it would make a difference. It didn't. No names were taken, no indictments of police handed up. In Los Angeles, the whole world got to see the beating of Rodney King on videotape. Indictments followed, but no convictions. In Washington, the marchers stood in front of the cameras, but no one knows who was watching.
Already, there are reports that Saturday's march counted for little, and that the riots in Los Angeles have already been discounted by the White House. The New York Times reports President Bush planning no new initiatives to help the cities, merely middle-of-the-road oratory leaning toward law and order themes.
The paper says Bush feels no change of direction is needed, following his recent visits not only to Los Angeles, but to Philadelphia and Baltimore.
And Baltimore? In this city, the president saw only the vaguest outlines of reality from his well-protected motorcade. He stood at a podium at Dunbar High and, in a gesture of warmth, congratulated the school's basketball team but mispronounced the coach's name. Making a point about health care, he used an example of "some kid out on Orleans Street," as though he knew the blockwell.
Instead of showing intimacy, it helped indicate the emptiness of the president's trip. It was fill-in-the-blank speech-making, background noise for his brief appearance in front of the cameras. Having now visited three urban areas, he can tell America, "I've been to cities. Didn't you see me on the news? I know what's going on. I'm not making any changes."
The whole world is watching, but it doesn't respond. Those marchers in Washington brought a message the president doesn't want to hear: In his time, the cities have gotten very dangerous.
It isn't just the threat of riots, it's the daily, unreported little business, including the racial divisions that this administration seems not to notice. It's blacks who feel they've been cut off from the American dream, and whites who are struggling so badly themselves that they can't cope with somebody else's problems.
It's the squeegee kids we admire for hustling for money, but fear because they might kick our automobile. It's the kid with the shopping cart bashing the car on Greenspring Avenue, and everybody thinking of Los Angeles.
That kid ran away from the man with the camera, because he thought pictures counted for something. The kid hasn't figured out a little secret: The whole world may be watching, but it still doesn't care about the things that it sees.