"You just trying to pay bills, forreal," says Blue, a squeegee kid in Baltimore. A look at the business of being a squeegee kid. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun video)

As the debate rages about how to handle Baltimore’s ubiquitous “squeegee kids,” I was assigned to spend a couple of afternoons with them as a Baltimore Sun reporter. I was covering a city plan meant to help the kids by treating the underlying poverty that officials say is driving them to clean windshields for dollars. I interviewed bureaucrats, nonprofit leaders, police and motorists. The final step was to ask the boys what they thought.

I had already heard what the community thought about them. Depending upon whom you ask, they’re lost boys, businesspeople, a public menace.

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I found my front-row seat — a caved-in, plastic milk crate — along the traffic median of an I-83 exit ramp. A group of teenage boys, squeegee blades in hand, wove between vehicles near a traffic light, where the ramp meets North Avenue. This was their regular spot, marked by discarded snack wrappers, frayed backpacks and empty glass-cleaner bottles with faded car wash labels.

It took me some time to find this group. Two other batches of squeegee workers declined to speak with me earlier. But when this crew spotted photographer Ken Lam, who was working with me, pointing his camera lens at them, they marched toward us — shouting profanity.

For a moment, I worried we were provoking a confrontation. I’ve interviewed motorists who described aggressive, sometimes violent, interactions with the squeegee workers. Some say the youths damaged their cars and shook their confidence; they fear driving downtown.

I quickly put on a big smile and explained we were there to watch them work and ask a few questions for an article I was writing for the newspaper. The teens softened and returned to their squeegee work, while I walked over to the median.

I spent just two short afternoons with the boys, catching only a brief glimpse of the way the drivers and “squeegee kids” interacted.

Plenty of motorists waved dollar bills at the teens, and others inched their cars forward when they saw the squeegee workers coming — a small gesture that seemed to say they weren’t interested. No one showed outward signs of aggression.

Instead of money, one woman in a car offered the youth a business card and a promise to make them matching T-shirts. Her card said she worked at an organization that offers volunteer mentoring for college success.

Mayor Young and Tisha Edwards,head of Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success, discuss "Squeegee Alternative Plan" and deployment of bike patrol officers.

Many stared at me as they waited for the traffic light to turn green. One woman rolled down her window — presumably when she spotted Ken’s camera and my notebook — and asked “What outlet?”

I have to wonder if people altered their behavior toward the kids those days, because they knew I was watching. I have the same question about the squeegee workers, who generally tolerated me and my questions.

I heard the boys refer to themselves as “entrepreneurs” and to the drivers as “clients.” They said they have “regulars” who offer money daily at that intersection, which they share with others. A man dressed in a full suit sold bean pies to motorists from a nearby traffic median (the boys said his pies were “the best”). And a panhandler passing by warmly greeted one of the teens by name before continuing down the street.

Part of the appeal of squeegeeing, the teens said, was that they don’t have to rely on anyone besides themselves for money. On a good day, the boys say they can make around $100. On a bad day, they might look out for each other. I watched one teen share a portion of his earnings with a friend, who had made a paltry $14 that afternoon.

Some of the youths reported saving their money — even the coins, which some others tossed away, insulted — for a rainy day or an emergency. Others said they use the cash to pay for necessities: food, clothes and hygiene products. Several of the teens wore the same clothes two days in a row.

It’s not easy work. Some described how their feet were run over by cars and their fingers pinched by windshield wipers turned on without warning.

My work is often done from the comfort of a desk, where deadline pressure makes it tempting to stay — leaning on social media comments and viral videos to color my coverage.

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But to really get a sense of an issue, or a group of people, you have to get out in the world.

The milk crate is optional.

Lillian Reed is a reporter covering breaking news in Baltimore.

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