Judging from reader reaction to my most recent column, few topics of local interest generate opinions at wild extremes like the “squeegee kids” of Baltimore. To some people, the squeegee kids are a menace to be feared, and their presence on the streets symbolic of a city in decline. To others, they are earnest entrepreneurs who should be rewarded, not scorned, for their efforts to earn a buck.
The squeegee crews are mostly boys and young men who, with long-handled squeegees and spray bottles, appear at busy intersections to wash the windshields of cars and trucks. Complaints about their behavior — harassing or abusing motorists who refuse their services — have prompted the Downtown Partnership to hire unarmed security guards to calm interactions between the kids and drivers.
My weekend column suggested that the city or Downtown Partnership employ a counselor, or “squeegee guru,” to check any bad behavior, train the crews in sales etiquette and steer the older guys to better, safer livelihoods.
Email from readers of the Baltimore Sun, and comments on my Facebook page, came from people who drive through the city and frequently encounter the squeegee kids. Many described unpleasant experiences — a Johns Hopkins medical student who said he had been sprayed in the face by one of the kids, a woman who said she changed her travel routes through the city to avoid “aggressive” kids who had harassed her several times at Light and Conway streets.
‘Harassed, spit at and my car pounded’
The harshest words came from people who refused to be identified for publication -- a man who described the Downtown Partnership’s approach as “liberals making room for dangerous behavior in what was once a dream city,” and a woman in Federal Hill who referred to squeegee boys as “little undisciplined thugs who are in training for more serious crime.” The woman cited the squeegee crews as a reason for her plans to move out of the city. “I’m tired of being harassed, spit at and my car pounded by squeegee kids,” she wrote in an email. She said my suggestion that a squeegee guru start working with the boys and young men constituted “coddling these poor misunderstood children.”
“Tolerance and understanding will not reverse the death spiral that envelops Baltimore,” she said. This woman had no suggestion, however, when I asked her for one that might make the whole squeegee thing less contentious.
“Recognizing a problem does not require recommending a solution,” she wrote in a second email. “That is the responsibility of political leaders relying upon advice from experts. So far they haven’t done very well.”
Other readers saw common sense in the suggestion of engaging the squeegee crews to advise them on how to behave, and a couple seemed to be ready to volunteer for that duty.
‘I need to make time for them’
“I always wanted to mentor them and teach them a little salesmanship, but never made the time,” Borden Chase wrote. “I think it is a good opportunity to learn. If one [motorist] says no, there will be another who will say yes. If these young men can apply what they learn in traffic, they can be very successful. They can learn to be respectful and resilient. ... I need to make time for them.”
Michael Haynie, president of the Maryland Center for Hospitality Training, said he was willing to get involved and already had reached out to Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership.
“My thoughts were to enroll these young people in a soft and social skills program,” Haynie wrote, “teach them the basics in people interactions, and arm them with a knowledge of the history, landscape and infrastructure of our city so they could serve as on-the-street ambassadors giving directions and historical information to visitors. Washing windows would be done secondarily and for free. I suggest these kids receive modest stipends. The kids would be outfitted in appropriate identifiable attire.”
But, for every reader who offered positive comments about the squeegee kids or the idea of having mentors for them, there was a reader who expressed fear or suspicion, or suggested they be banned from city streets.
Here is a sampling of comments received by email, published with the permission of their authors:
‘I had to change the way I get home’
From Beth Wexler, in Baltimore: “I commute from northern Baltimore City to Columbia every day. I go in and out of the city twice a day to get to Interstate 95. I sit in a long line of traffic at Conway and Light Streets. I was harassed by aggressive kids every day, every single time I came home from work. These kids were aggressive. They would clean your windshield and then would stand at the window demanding to be paid when you expressly said no. When I would turn on to Conway Street, I would actually start feeling dread that I had to encounter them. I would start thinking about how to avoid them. I don’t carry cash nor do I have change in my car. So I would sit there at the light — usually through two light changes — and try to keep [six to eight kids] from washing my windshield. I couldn’t take it anymore. After calling the police twice on my way home from work, complaining about the kids who were aggressive and touching my property without permission, I had to change the way I get home from work to avoid that intersection. So my commute home is longer because I can’t take the harassment. I get that these kids are just looking to make some cash, but allowing them to offend and upset people coming in and out of the city is not the way to do it. I am not racist or some conservative. I am just someone who wants to be able to drive to and from my home through the city that I love without being harassed.”
‘Never had an issue’
From Mark Jensen, in Baltimore: “I deal with squeegee kids all the time and treat them with respect. Sometimes I pay, sometimes I don’t. Never had an issue. I think lots of drivers bring bad interactions on themselves by being angry and resentful and scared and somewhere deep down inside (or not so deep down) being uncomfortable with black teenage boys in close proximity.”
‘Paid guards might send the wrong message’
From Roy Birk, in Glen Burnie: “A young man approached me with a smile at an intersection and I gave my automatic head shake. He then said, ‘Are you sure? You need it.’ He said this with the same warm smile, and I couldn't help looking and noticing that he was right [about the windshield]. I also couldn't help smiling in response to his friendliness. I was just about to change my mind when I realized I had no singles in my wallet, and then the light changed. That is a young man I really would have been happy to pay for a cleaning. It just wasn't a convenient time. . . . I wonder about that young man every time I'm approached by a squeegee kid now. I hope he's doing well and keeps his positive attitude. I fear that having paid guards watching over respectful young men might send the wrong message, that even when you do it right, you are still not trusted. And I'm sure the constant negativity and rejection these young men encounter must frustrate them. . . . . The city has a lot of things to figure out, and the core issue really is providing constructive, rewarding opportunities for the city's younger residents. The resultant drop in crime would allow Baltimore to flourish again.”
‘This would not be tolerated in other areas of the city’
From Myra Owens Queen, in Baltimore: “You think Mayor Catherine Pugh could find some money to hire someone to supervise the squeegee kids at Gwynns Falls Parkway and Hilton Street? At this intersection, a major thoroughfare in and out of the city, in an otherwise well maintained community, the grass has been worn down to dirt, and the area is littered with trash. Clearly the fence the city erected to keep [squeegee kids] off the median is not working, and it only makes the area look worse. Complaints seem to fall on deaf ears. This would not be tolerated in certain other areas of the city.”
From Bob West, in Howard County: “Fortunately, I don’t have to go downtown too often but, when I do, I avoid Conway Street altogether and just go up and turn right on Pratt. I’m very uncomfortable with these kids and I can’t imagine what women drivers experience. Unfortunately, the decline of the city continues unabated.”
From Jerry Cothran, in Baltimore: “I have been bothered in the past by the squeegee boys — not that they’ve ever done anything to me or my vehicle. I guess I just consider it as aggressive panhandling. Every vehicle these days has a built-in window washer, and yes, the squeegee boys squeegee fluid is not always clean. And, my mental math seemed to conclude that if they got a dollar for even half of their quick ‘squirt and wipe’ actions, they’d be making more money than many others in the working class. ... At least they are doing something positive, and perhaps learning a bit about how business and customer service can lead to positive outcomes. The alternative occupations for the squeegee boys could be bad, coming from where most of them live. There are many opportunities in those neighborhoods to take wrong paths that lead to bad outcomes.”