Recently, I restarted my EZ-Pass account, but for the past 15 years or so, I have paid all of my tolls in cash. Anytime I have wanted to use the Fort McHenry or Harbor tunnels, or the Bay Bridge, I have had to make sure to have actual money on me. Although sometimes inconvenient, this was by no means what I’d call a hardship.
Today, I live in Baltimore County, so when I travel downtown, which happens fairly regularly, more often than not, I end up on I-83 South and then President Street. At the intersection of President and Lombard, adjacent to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, I am often approached by a young man or woman with a squeegee and a spray bottle of window cleaner. Sometimes, but not often, I will have some cash on me and pay to have my windshield cleaned. But several times in the past few weeks, I haven’t had any money, and when I have communicated this to the squeegee carriers, they have happily washed my windshield anyway.
Understandably, with no cash, I feel embarrassed and awkward and simply hope to avoid the situation altogether. In the past, my embarrassment typically led to some self-righteous grumbling on my part along the lines of, “Someone needs to put a stop to this.” But my recent experiences have me thinking differently. If I ask myself what I’m really embarrassed about, it’s my privilege.
I wish the squeegee boys and girls wouldn’t do what they do because they bring me face-to-face with a laundry list of issues: poverty, income inequality, red-lining segregation, crime and drugs — all issues that have existed in the city where I was born for as long as I can remember. But unlike the squeegee kids, my privilege allows me to avoid these issues and take advantage of the art, music, entertainment and culture offered in the city, while also affording me the opportunity to live in the relative safety of the suburbs. In short, I have gotten all of the best things Baltimore has to offer without having to deal with any of the bad. I’m 52 years old, and this has been the case for my entire life.
What I propose as a solution to this quandary, and what I will be putting into practice, is, for lack of a better name, a squeegee tax. This means that when I decide to drive downtown, I will make sure to be prepared with a dollar or two to offer the young people who may clean my windshield. Although this will not alleviate any of the previously mentioned issues, if nothing else, it will stem the resentment I feel at having to consider my privilege — admittedly, a completely self-centered goal. However, less resentment hopefully leads to more love and care for my fellow human beings, and that’s never a bad thing.
I understand there are problems with my proposed tax. I know there is a safety issue, that young people moving between stopped cars is not ideal. But I also understand that many of these young people face worse dangers in their neighborhoods on a daily basis. Some will say that paying the squeegee kids simply encourages them to continue. My response is that, on the whole, I have not paid them for years, and it has not seemed to discourage their endeavors. Someone may argue that perhaps my money (one dollar at a time) could be better spent by donating it to an organized non-profit with a mission to improve the lives of the children of our city, so I feel it’s important to note that the squeegee tax isn’t designed to supplant any other charitable giving. In my opinion, this would be the easiest toll in Maryland — no booths and no lines (except for regular city traffic).
And besides, we’re already paying too steep a tax in Baltimore when it comes to protecting and providing for the safety and happiness of our young people. What’s one more?
Larry Malkus is a teacher and playwright. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.