A few months ago, someone passed along an emailed letter from a retired police officer who described his encounter, at Conway and Charles streets in downtown Baltimore, with “10 to 12 young blacks” who had spray bottles and squeegees in their hands. The man had driven into the city with his wife for a Sunday dinner at a restaurant. He was not interested in having his windshield washed. But “one of the little darlings” sprayed “mud/dirty water” on his car anyway.
The letter then described the squeegee kid’s profane response to the driver and the driver’s desire to personally discipline the youngster. From there, the writer leaped into a rant about “liberal Black Lives Matter progressive BS.” He described the squeegee kid as a “thug” and predicted that, without corrective discipline, the boy would be dead by 25.
The letter, shared with me as a warning about a civic problem — aggressive squeegee kids are offending suburban visitors, whose patronage of restaurants and other amenities is vital to Baltimore’s survival — ascribed the kid’s bad behavior to a bitter salad of initiatives, going back to the New Deal, to address generational poverty, illiteracy and ignorance, discrimination in housing, inadequate health care, racial and income inequality, and, more recently, excessive force by police. In red-blooded reactionary fashion, the retired cop blamed social problems on the programs created to address them rather than on the conditions that fostered them in the first place.
But let’s get back to the squeegee kids.
The estimated 100 children and young adults who take part in this enterprise account for a huge portion of Baltimore’s social media chatter; the subject sometimes dominates civic conversation. I get all kinds of reactions when I ask about it. Here’s a sample collected from friends and news contacts:
“I don't care if they squeegee my windshield. I give them a dollar, some change, one time a mint. People in this city need to look out for one another. And giving a kid some money for doing a minor job, is that really so bad?”
“I don't particularly like them, and some are way too aggressive.”
“Instead of waving them off, acting like they aren't there, or as if they are a nuisance, try rolling down the window, saying hello and giving them a tiny bit of money. It creates way less tension.”
“I absolutely used to recoil when they came to my car because I didn’t want them touching it and I never have change. Over time, I stopped being so uncomfortable with it. I pay them when I can. I appreciate that they’re out there trying to make a buck.”
“Some of our customers have said that they feel like they must pass through a toll area in order to get to our restaurant. It is definitely an irritation.”
“I worry constantly that one of the kids is going to be hit or killed running through the traffic or that a driver will swerve to avoid hitting the kid and hit another vehicle.”
“I had a young man clean my windshield before I could say no. He did a great job, was clean and polite. We only had $1.80 to give him and he was glad to get it. He was about 18. Some of these older guys need job training. We need to provide some way for low-skilled, low-education people to survive.”
Last spring, a midtown resident named Peter Sultan, noting complaints about squeegee kids, wrote me to say he had little confidence in the city’s political leadership to resolve what he called “this relatively minor quality-of-life issue.”
Sultan correctly describes what this is. But it’s not like the complaints about the kids have been ignored. The mayor experimented with a Squeegee Corps to get them working in “pop-up” car washes. She says she wants a jobs program just for squeegee kids. Police officers in the Central District have been sent out to engage the kids and talk to them about other opportunities. Now the Downtown Partnership plans to spend about $3,000 a week to station unarmed security guards at busy intersections to calm interactions between the kids and drivers.
Those are moves in the right direction. But the Downtown Partnership “guards” might serve this endeavor better if they present themselves as mentors, or buddies, because, beyond keeping an eye out for bad behavior, they need to create relationships with the squeegee kids. They need to get them — especially the older ones — thinking about moving to safer, steady work elsewhere.
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In the immediate, it would serve everyone if the squeegee kids got a lesson in salesmanship: Smile at your prospective customers; offer your services but be cool when rejected (take no for an answer); wait until vehicles stop moving to reduce concerns about safety; make sure you say thanks. The right person, with the right approach, can make this work. In all of Baltimore, there must be a squeegee guru.