Opportunity City


Times are tough in the city and, too often, we find ways to escape the evidence.

The city has so many spectacular diversions. We have the exhibition of Master Impressionist Alfred Sisley at the Walters. And we have the most splendid, the most unlikely urban golf.

From the elevated first green of the majestic Clifton Park course, a less-than-fully absorbed hacker may turn to the south for a view unparalleled in the game: a sharply etched downtown skyline fully displayed against the horizon.

Further along the course, images of urban life are even more striking. On the third green, one is greeted by an enterprising moppet who asks if the player has a few golf balls he's not using.

"What will you do with them?" the youngster is asked.

"Sell 'em like I always do," says the kid, who appears to be no more than 7. He completes his canvass of the foursome, fattening his inventory by four or five.

From the next tee, players may spy in the distance the angular old brewery on Gay Street. City folk happily describe it to visitors from Montgomery County as cars and trucks roar down Belair Road.

On the next tee, a young man of no more than 30 seems to materialize.

"You fellows need a couple of golf balls?" he asks cheerfully, showing his wares in the bottom of a paper bag.

No, no, no he's not in league with the kid. He's not trying to sell you back what you gave the kid. But he is working the same turf.

Without really hearing or seeing, I respond to his question: Did I need . . .

"No," I said, "not right now."

But it was his need that I should have seen and addressed. Here was someone trying to cope without asking for "spare change," whatever that is, or haunting the street corners with a "Will work for . . . " sign. This was a nice-looking guy, someone who probably wanted a job and needed one.

I thought of him again this week when, driving up to my house, I found four or five police cruisers a few doors away. A break-in, no doubt. And they had nailed the . . . .

"All right!" cheered another neighbor who has been ripped off a few times, just as we all have.

The thief -- no more than 30 years old, I guessed -- had not actually broken into a house. He had been arrested on a front porch, surrounded by the goods.

And what were they? We could see them, laid out as evidence, I suppose, on the trunk of one cruiser: three or four house plants. House plants.

"It happens this time of year," said one of the policemen. "They get four or five dollars each."

And in fact my neighbor, whose flower boxes had been yanked off her porch last year, had been approached by tell-tale plant salesmen. Whatever happened to hot wrist watches or flatware or TVs or what have you? What is the meaning of hot house plants?

What is happening with all this golf-ball selling and plant stealing? I was not discovering poverty, but these turns on the selling of apples or pencils were agonizing.

I found myself thinking more highly of the plant bandit than of the people with the homeless signs. Didn't the one act of economic desperation, however illegal, show a certain raging against humiliation?

Such ruminations are hopeless and circular and depressing. But one thing is clear: Times are tough and sometimes we forget. The thrumming of the evidence, even the harshest variety, becomes background noise. We do not imagine we are immune. But do we wish to think about the people who were ordered to lie on the floor recently during a robbery not far from our house?

We heard gunfire in the night recently coming from a few blocks east. A regular fusillade. It wasn't the Fourth of July or the Chinese New Year. Had to be gunshots. Proof, if we insisted on proof, came with the sirens. And then the police helicopter.

Surely we were safely removed from the battle. In the sweet midnight air of early spring, anxiety faded and the stillness returned.

But the helicopter was back a few days after the first outburst, banking hard and scooting low across the nearby play yard, giving us a little air show as we sat in the back yard with friends.

"I didn't make the connection at first," one of our guests said later. "But it was there because of the gunshots."

This time, I hadn't even noticed.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun.

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