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Getting Away from the City


It's a town of 22,000 just off the Albemarle Sound, not that far from the North Carolina coast. Almost everyone knows everyone in this town, where on the one-block commercial district you can still buy an ice cream cone at the corner drug store, and where you can still make a call on a rotary dial pay phone.

For the first 13 years of her life -- and for the past 13 years, having returned to Hertford after spending 48 years in New York -- this is the place that Miss Sarah has called home.

"I love this place; this is where I was born," says the 74-year-old woman, who passes her time in the evenings clutching her Bible and swinging on the bench on her screened front porch, where she catches a nice summer breeze and offers a pleasant greeting to everyone that walks by. "This is the kind of place where you learn values, values that you just don't learn up in the North."

As I listened to her her, I agreed. Having lived most of my life in major metropolitan areas, being greeted politely by complete strangers as I sat on her front porch was a nice surprise.

This is not the type of place where I would expect someone to live in constant fear. But the more I spoke to Miss Sarah, the more I realized how the Hertfords in this country are becoming more and more like the Baltimores and the Washingtons and the New Yorks.

Miss Sarah is the aunt of a good friend of mine. My friend was somewhat distraught when she called me recently. She told me her aunt, who lived alone, had been robbed and beaten by a man who had broken into her home. My friend asked if I'd ride down to check on her aunt.

We were greeted warmly by Miss Sarah, a short, gray-haired woman, who was on the porch with her Bible when we arrived. But minutes later, as she described what happened to her in the living room of her aging one bedroom home, her fear was obvious.

"I heard a knock on the screen, and a guy asked were my lights out," Miss Sarah said, recalling the recent ordeal. "I went in the back to check, and before I knew it he was inside. He grabbed me. He asked me where the money was at, and he knocked me down.

"He dragged me, and he must have hit my head on the table when he did it," she added, wincing from the pain of the bruises that she's still recovering from. "Then he pinned me on the couch. He said he was going to set fire to my place, because I had seen him. But first he said he was going to rape me."

Quietly, she began to sob. Fortunately, she wasn't raped. The man was later arrested. But the scars from the brutal attack on a helpless, elderly woman are probably permanent. And the former nurses' aide has discovered that the life she thought she had escaped from in New York has snaked down the side and back roads that lead to her home town.

"It's that crack," she says in a whisper, in an attempt to make sure nobody hears her mention the growing problem that everyone here knows about. "It started down here three or four years ago. Now it's all over around here. All this crime is dope crime."

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. All Miss Sarah knows is that over the past few years in this place where the availability of jobs is low, and the desire for a hit of a five-dollar piece of crack cocaine is high, more and more people are being robbed. And most of the victims are the elderly, many who can remember the segregated days "when [blacks] didn't have no problems as long as we stayed" on their own part of town.

"Mary across the street, somebody broke into her house from the back door," Miss Sarah says of an elderly woman. "It's happening all over. And being a woman by myself, it worries me."

As she continued to describe her neighborhood, I took a closer look at it as I glanced out the windows. I noticed the heavy traffic down the small side street, the constant goings and comings in a nearby house.

I had noticed some of the same signs not to long ago on a street I recently moved from in East Baltimore. By the time I moved away earlier this year, that street had become a 24-hour drug market. I hope the changes on Miss Sarah's block won't be as drastic as the changes that occurred where I used to live.

As we drove off, Miss Sarah said she was happy that we had taken the time to drive the long distance to check on her, and sorry that we had to leave. By the time I got back home in Baltimore it was 1 a.m., about the time Miss Sarah told me she goes to bed.

As I adjusted my air conditioner that night, I couldn't help but think of her nightly routine of clasping the windows shut in her sweltering home. Gone are the days where relief on a hot summer night in Hertford were in the forms of cool breezes blowing through an open window. For Miss Sarah, the remedy is a three-speed fan that's probably about four or five speeds shy of an real comfort.

It's the price of feeling safe in Hertford -- and many, many other small towns -- in 1993. "I'm still afraid that people might try to get me, but I'm not leaving," she says. "I'd rather be down here by myself, than in New York by myself."

And more and more, it's not much of an option being in either place. 6Jerry Bembry is a sportswriter for The Baltimore Sun.

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