'Work for Food' gains meaning as layoffs mount


He was standing by the traffic light at President and Pratt streets, with a sign saying, "Will Work for Food," a line that once tore at all hearts but now brings confused emotions.

Pondering my own, I rolled down my car window and handed over a few coins.

The coins are an unspoken testament to brilliance. Once, when those wishing handouts on street corners passed beyond our sympathy and into a generalized sense of numbness or annoyance or threat, someone of great genius found this new way to tap into our collective guilt: Will Work for Food.

Yes, the sign said, I know I'm begging, but I would work if I could. I'm not a bum. And those who'd grown suspicious of the begging took a second look, passed out more money, and gave credit for good intentions. Those begging thus bought themselves a little time until even these signs became so abundant that they aroused new rounds of suspiciousness.

"Thank you, sir," the man with the sign muttered at President and Pratt, and now the midday traffic moved on. When we got to Lombard Street a block away and hit another red light, there was a second fellow there, carrying no sign declaring intention to work, approaching with his hand out and explanations no longer necessary.

"Sorry," I said, trying to get myself off the hook. "I just gave to the guy at the last light."

"Yeah?" this fellow said angrily. "That ain't gonna put food in my belly."

The two of us locked eyes for a moment, and then turned away. I'm sorry I can't help you, a piece of me wanted to say, but didn't. I'm tired of being approached by strangers who want money, another piece of me wanted to say, but didn't. Get a job, I might have said, but knew better.

A line grows thinner, separating haves and have-nots. The season grows a little meaner. We suspect all those standing on street corners not only because we don't want to give them money we've had to work for, but because suspecting them gives us emotional distance. They aren't like us, are they? Something like this couldn't happen to us, could it? And then we see the management types last week, laying off people at Martin Marietta and USAir.

"Will Work for Food," the signs tell us, and we want to keep a psychological wall in place. They don't really want to work, we assure ourselves, and turn on the car radio where most talk-show hosts in town verify this.

But around here, the week ended with the Martin Marietta Corp. announcing it will close its Glen Burnie plant, with 481 people losing their jobs. It's part of an overall company purge of 11,000 people across the country. And USAir announced 2,500 layoffs across the country, with the biggest cuts coming at places like Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The Martin Marietta cuts are a casualty of peace, the company notes. No need for so much submarine warfare when the Cold War is done and the Soviet Union is in shambles. Casualty of peace: Are you listening to this language, George Orwell?

A few years ago, when the Berlin Wall tumbled and the Soviets threw in the towel, we heard such a wonderful phrase: peace dividend. It referred to money spent the last four decades on defense industries and Star Wars mythologies, which would now go toward rebuilding America's cities.

But here's an interesting figure, from the new issue of Harper's Magazine: Yes, funding for the discredited Star Wars defense system has been cut by $670 million in the '94 budget. But funding for ground-based missile defense systems in the same budget is up $705 million.

This is peacetime spending? Well, yes. You keep spending this kind of money, we're told, or you wind up with the companies like Martin Marietta having to let people go. Thus, defense spending becomes a kind of welfare system for the educated.

So it becomes necessary to ask: Are our brilliant scientists, our magnificent engineers, only capable of wartime skills? Can't we turn their training into the making of, say, pollution-free engines, or low-cost computers for modern classrooms, or the design of efficient urban centers?

A long time ago, when he ran for president, Bill Clinton talked of rebuilding the nation's manufacturing base. This struck a chord around here for lots of people whose families found security at the places like Sparrows Point (and Martin Marietta) across the long generations.

A lot of those people have had to carve out new careers, or fall by the wayside. Some of them now ponder street corners. One day, those on the corner might be joined by the brilliant engineers whose skills somehow have no immediate place in a peacetime America.

And then, when we see them with signs reading "Will Work for Food," we'll find it tougher to look at them and say, "They aren't like me, are they? That couldn't happen to me, could it?"

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