It was Monday, Jan. 10, 1994, at 11 p.m. when I got The Call.
I had been wondering since Sept. 10, 1975, when and if I would ever get The Call. That is the day my son Ray, the second of my two children, was born. I had told my wife I didn't want a boy. "I don't like boys," I had told her. But I knew that the reason was that I didn't want to have to deal with The Call -- the one telling me that my son was either in jail, dead or badly hurt.
The Call, mind you, is not necessarily inevitable. Just pretty damned likely in the West Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up and where your manhood is tested practically from the time you emerge from the womb.
My father had gotten The Call from me some 25 years ago, when I was a mere youth of 17. And now the cycle had repeated itself.
"You have to go the Northwestern District and get Ray," his friend Dante said from the other end of the line. "He's been locked up."
"What for?" I asked.
"I don't know," replied Dante.
So there it was at last: The Call. I hung up the phone and heaved a sigh of exasperation, then told my wife that I was going up to Northwestern District to fetch our son. I urged her to stay at home, but would have had better luck holding back a tidal wave.
Dante's mother and stepfather gave us a lift to the station. The sergeant at the desk confirmed that they did, indeed, have a Ray Chapman there for a handgun violation. (My son has the last name of my biological father. My last name is that of my stepfather -- Maurice Kane.)
We stayed at the station at least four hours -- mistakenly believing that a court commissioner would be in soon to set Ray's bail. We talked about what in the hell our son was doing carrying a gun on city streets.
I got my answer later that morning, when I was finally allowed to see Ray. He had been robbed of his pager about two months earlier. He had seen the guy a short time later. (Yes, there are all sorts of miscreants who roam the streets of Baltimore on a daily basis.) The thug had recognized Ray.
"He told me the next time he saw me he was going to take my life," Ray said.
"I felt like I had to do something about it," he elaborated later, explaining why he had decided to get the gun from one of his homeys. "If I had killed him it wouldn't have got me anywhere. But obviously telling the cops wasn't going to do any good either."
Like too many young black men, Ray has an almost innate distrust of cops. It's probably a natural reaction if you get stopped and frisked enough, as Ray had been at least twice before he was arrested. You develop a psychology that the cops are not in your neighborhood to protect you, but to arrest you.
"When I was robbed of my pager, I went to a cop and he was, like, 'Yeah, OK,' " said Ray, still bitter about what he saw as an apathetic attitude on the part of the officer.
"He didn't even fill out the report," my son fumed.
Compounding the problem was Ray's own experience as a victim of violent crime. He had been robbed of another pager (It's not just drug dealers carrying them now; some teens are wearing them -- as Ray did -- to make a fashion statement) sometime earlier, had been assaulted at a bus stop when he was a student at Falstaff Middle School, and on his 17th birthday had been assaulted and robbed outside Harbor City High School on just his second day there.
He'd also known some guys who had been shot. My job as a cop reporter for The Sun has left me in the awkward position of writing about the homicides of people my son knows personally. I'd written about one, Jacquin Van Landingham, in January.
"I knew that guy," he said to me after reading the article.
"How did you know him?" I asked.
"From the 'Staff," Ray replied, referring to Falstaff Middle School.
Another homicide victim was slain in the 1800 block of N. Fulton Ave. Ray knew about him before the police even identified him. Sometimes the word on the street is just as reliable as that of a good journalist.
So for Ray, death on the streets of Baltimore was no idle threat. It was not theory. It was a cold, palpable, cruel fact. Some people asked me if I was angry with him for carrying the gun. The answer is no, I wasn't. I was terrified. I still am. I've got the nightmares and bouts of insomnia to prove it. I was terrified for my son and other young men like him who leave their homes each day not knowing whether it's their time to take a bullet.
At 3:30 p.m. on April 14, Ray and I were in Circuit Court before Judge Mabel Hubbard. Ray's lawyer, David Solomon (Ray will be paying me back for lawyer's fees the rest of this year), was going to argue that the search conducted by Officer Anthony McGlinn of the Northwestern District was not legal. He would move that the gun should be suppressed as evidence.
Officer McGlinn testified that he observed Ray at Edgemere and Manchester avenues about 4:45 p.m. on Jan. 10. Ray was acting suspiciously, holding something inside his coat and looking back nervously at Officer McGlinn, he testified. Ray quickened his pace almost to a run. Officer McGlinn stopped him in front of our house and conducted the search that led to the arrest.
Mr. Solomon, citing no fewer than three precedents, argued that the search was illegal and that Officer McGlinn did not have probable cause to arrest Ray.
"Damn, this guy is good," I said to myself about Mr. Solomon's defense.
Judge Hubbard granted Mr. Solomon's motion and gave Ray a stern lecture on the perils of carrying handguns. She expressed regret that yet another young black man was in her court for a handgun violation.
Saying the case was a close call, she also praised Officer McGlinn for what some would say was a superb piece of police work.
"I may have saved a life that night," Officer McGlinn said as the trial ended.
Indeed he did. The life he saved may have been my son's. Ray is no killer and would have stood no chance in a gunfight with someone who was.
I was left to ponder the absurdity that Ray had nearly been declared a criminal by the same system that had failed to protect him, and that he had escaped prosecution (the state decided to drop the case) on a civil liberties technicality that I'm not sure I believe in.
Meanwhile, I'm left to cope with the nightmares and insomnia that I'm sure will not leave me until Ray is well into his 30s.
Gregory Kane is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.