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When I ignored the panhandler, I was rude, but I wasn’t racist | GUEST COMMENTARY

The 1300 block of Park Avenue in Baltimore's Bolton Hill neighborhood.
The 1300 block of Park Avenue in Baltimore's Bolton Hill neighborhood. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

I always get creeped out when walking home at night once I pass the Mt. Royal Tavern and hang a left onto Lanvale. The tavern is the last outpost of activity before everything gets too quiet and too dark in my too posh neighborhood of Bolton Hill. (Or “Boring Hill,” as I call it, for its staid, genteel vibe.)

Those damn, dim, golden-hued, Dickensian streetlamps hardly provide a sense of security as I walk the three long blocks to my tiny Bolton Street apartment, with its 5-by-6 kitchenette and a landlord averse to fixing broken windows and silverfish infestations. Yes, I found the cheapest pad in the toniest neighborhood. I don’t really belong in this neighborhood. I just lucked upon a rare bargain in the rental ads. My next cheapest option was in Dundalk.

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As I passed a darkened vestibule, a man standing there startled me. He may have thought that I owned a Mercedes or a BMW or one of those other snazzy rides that liberally dot the beautiful, hushed streets of Bolton Hill. I do not. And when I realized he was panhandling, I kept walking.

I had already given once that day to a jovial chap out front of a Mount Vernon sub shop. That dollar was more than I could afford to part with. But you give now and then — not so much out of charity, but because you are precariously perched only a rung or two above those whose circumstances have forced them to beg. You give because you hope that someone will likewise help you buy a sandwich should you one day descend to that humiliating level of need.

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But the constant barrage of requests for money can overwhelm. After still more encounters with panhandlers that day up on St. Paul Street in Charles Village, I had had enough. And so, I walked past the man who startled me from his clandestine perch in a darkened vestibule that night, barely bothering to look in his direction.

And he was right to say, as I so rudely ignored him and quickened my pace, that I should have at least acknowledged his existence. And he was right (and clever) to say his parents taught him to be polite to people and to wonder aloud if my parents had failed to teach me the same thing.

But when he called me a racist, he declared war.

And I was right to go berserk on him for it. I am white, and the man was Black, but you cannot call a stranger a racist because he refuses to give you money. How hypocritical of him to presume to know my circumstances and my biases simply because I am white.

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I let loose a torrent of pushback against his accusation. I ranted about how he knew nothing about me. And how he had no idea of the hundreds of people, Black and white, I had given what little I could to over the years. And how he was unaware that not too long ago, some thug stuck a gun to my arm as I was getting out of my car one rainy night and demanded the keys (he never got them, another car came along and the would-be carjacker fled). So, yes, damn it, I am wary of all strangers in Baltimore City who approach me.

I continued my rant about his misguided perceptions more ferociously and loquaciously than I should have. I was livid. But through the cacophony of my tirade, I heard him say that he was sorry for my experience and that he had been robbed, three times.

This was an unexpected plot twist in our little impromptu drama. He was not supposed to be kind.

Maybe I should have immediately acknowledged and honored the generosity of his revelation. I could have said, Man, so you too know what it’s like to be afraid that you might get gunned down for no good reason. I could have called a truce.

But I didn’t. Considering he had no business picking a fight with me in the first place, I was not feeling so magnanimous. Now I think I should have been. He extended an olive branch. I did not likewise reach out to accept it.

Instead, I just left, lamenting how we struggle here in this too-often tense, combative and dangerous city.

Louis Balsamo is a freelance writer; his email is louisbalsamo@gmail.com.

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