shower of fear
a brief look at the news shows that they just solved a murder in austin, caught a 17-year-old kid, and even identified him, in the murder of a student. here, in baltimore, though, they probably have a steady run of such things, or at least so it would appear from out my hotel window. i’m kind of glad to be getting back to lubbock; more so because my own little routine is limited, than that Lubbock is itself perfectly safe. i feel like, out here in the world, i’m getting a shower of fear.
part of it is that i didn’t really know the terrain. i walked ten blocks up this one street in baltimore with a friend, a canadian woman, who i was walking home. she was not particularly afraid of anything, but admitted that the street was “a bit dodgy.” darn right, i thought, since there were a number of people around who really weren’t doing much except hanging around. you always assume this is happening because of some bus stop. But i think buses came and went, and they didn’t get on them. i think they were close to downtown, looking for some opportunity, as the vast expanse of the city went the other direction, and there certainly wasn’t much in the way of opportunity out that way. occasionally, as i walked through the city, i’d have some guy ask me for money or try to sell something, or in some cases, just mumble hoping perhaps that i would stop and see what i could get. these people were engaged in legitimate business, you could say, since begging, for example, is at least being straightforward about why you are there. and i’m sure it was a police cat-and-mouse game: the police would run them out; they’d move; a bit later, they’d be back. they weren’t about to go back to their neighborhoods empty-handed.
the vast majority of these young guys were black, although one white guy hit us up at the train station, who claimed he’d lost his wallet at the oriole game, and was from the eastern shore. we gave him train fare, but the thing was, that would put him at the airport, and wouldn’t really solve his problem. we suspected him but gave him the one-seventy, but he didn’t hang around to spend it, and there was no telling what he really wanted. the other guys, around every corner, on every street, seemed to make up a shadow army, a group of guys who were always trying to get something out of a situation where at least people from all over had brought all kinds of money and goods.
the fear, among the tourist community, is directly related to going just about anywhere in the downtown area. you don’t want to do it alone, or after dark.
austin is a town where the flight attendants seem to be overjoyed at the possibility of landing there. if you are into the music and nightlife it’s got to be a great place, and most people don’t have to worry about paying high rents as they’re just visiting.
as a texan though i’ve already got mixed feelings about the place. it’s doubled in size several times in the last few years. traffic has become unbearable. musicians complain that they can’t afford to live there, and actually organize politically so the city will make it possible. it’s considered a blue island in a red sea, speaking of politics, but i’m sure that’s got a price: in the airport, i heard a woman complain about how the wealthy money interests in the state control the leg (pronounced 'ledge'), so the city of austin will never even get its share of anything. the reds share with the reds, apparently, and the blues are just out of luck.
baltimore is part of the other world, controlled by the blues. in the north, lots of people have stopped looking for work altogether, let alone complain about whether a certain income makes it possible for a person to survive in a certain economy. the metro in baltimore went through neighborhoods where there were giant holes in the back of some apartments; who knows how many of them were vacant? we could tell that these neighborhoods kept up appearances on their front end; but, with certain apartments literally crumbling, they couldn’t do it forever. maybe the guys in the shadow army were going back to places like this, smoking crack or even taking their meager earnings and sharing with wife & kids, or just kids. some of these guys were my age, sixty, fifty, forty, no insurance, probably way behind on all kinds of bills & healthcare, but what else could they do? i think, if you were to talk to them about getting some kind of job, they’d think you were in another world. and, let’s face it, you are.
when they mumble, i always assume they’re selling drugs. i have no idea, of course, since i’m getting old, and don’t hear mumbling as well as I used to. besides, nothing ever comes of stopping and engaging with them, unless one is truly into drugs, in which case, i suppose that was the guy you were looking for. but these days i just walk by them, and don’t even listen too carefully to what they’re saying, and just not even look at them if i can help it. the heck of it is, let’s say they’re selling drugs, but it doesn’t matter, even if you want something else, they’d easily stop whatever they’re doing, and take you way across town, for any other kind of deal, as long as there is some kind of hope that they will get a cut in that deal. and they will act like they are doing it because they are your friend, your personal service provider, but in fact if the possibility of them getting a few bucks were removed, they’d be gone in a minute. and, you think they have the time to stand around talking to you about the weather, or the orioles, or what they thought of the riots last year? don’t insult them. they’re working men, and their time isn’t worthless.
i was wondering where they got a whole plane full of people who were going from baltimore to austin on a friday night. at one point, because they were overbooked, they called out for anyone who was going on through to oakland, to please report at the desk – but nobody did, or maybe just one or two. if they aren’t going through to oakland, i thought, then they’re like me – continuing on to some other town in the region – but i wasn’t aware that austin was a new hub, and in fact, if it is, it’s only a minor hub, a place they send you if they’re full up going through dallas or houston. no, i think most people on the plane are going to austin, and that’s because there’s a lot of commerce, and ideas, and business travel involving austin and the dc area, which is also served by the airport. these people mean business, even though it’s friday night.
but I can’t tell you exactly, because i don’t ask them, and besides being relaxed, having a drink or two in them, and heading back to texas, there’s nothing special about them in particular that makes them different from anyone else.
i don’t like living in fear; I was about to bring my fiddle to baltimore, and in the end i didn’t, partly because it’s so delicate (the case, that is, which is in fact broken), and it’s such a hassle on the plane, and the guy i was going to play music with backed out at the last minute, being crazy busy. but no, part of it was just fear. you walk down one of those barren lonely downtown streets carrying your life-soul partner in a delicate broken wood case, i would die if anything happened to it. fear was part of it. i used to be afraid of nothing: i would walk through any neighborhood, hitchhike through mexico and guatemala, set off on a small sailboat with a looney-tunes, jump on boxcars on wild trips across deserts and mountains – now, even the thought of going to baltimore, without the fiddle, makes me nervous, as i could lose my wallet, or a few teeth, or my pride, in any of the kind of encounters you sometimes hear of. sometimes i think these guys in the shadow army are looking me over – i know they’re looking me over, and they’re deciding i’m not worth it in terms of how much trouble they’d have to go through, to get how little. but also, sometimes they look me over and say to themselves, give me a break, we aren’t out to hurt you. it’s almost like they sense the fear, and i can’t hide it. the people who have lived on the east coast all these years – they’re used to this. but they’re also staying off the street whenever they can, making compromises based on fear.
so where should i go, where this isn’t an issue? i have to admit that even in parts of lubbock, it’s an issue. korea, it wasn’t an issue, especially. alaska, not an issue. real small towns, not an issue, in fact, your kids can walk right out the door in some of them. there are some places where people are so sparse that if anyone unruly comes through, everyone pretty much knows it. maybe i should, like my wife, and with my wife, try and find that place and move to it; we are kind of going in that direction. we gave up on the north; the cities, also, are “a bit dodgy.” but it’s important to me; i don’t like living in fear.
sometimes I look at these guys in the shadow army and see myself. true, for the most part, they’re black, and i’m white. they’re probably single, free agents, as we would say, with perhaps some kids out there but not always kids that are bound up in their family like i’m bound up in mine. no, it’s when they look at me, totally alienated, not much chance except using creative ways to separate guys like me from our money…and by the way, there are plenty of women like my friend out there, too. and i’m sure they don’t want to rob a woman, or go through the police system as having laid hands on one. they are full aware of the price. but they are still out there, as far as i can tell, preying on tourists. this becomes their reality, where they go, when it’s dinner time & they’re hungry. i can see hunger in their eyes, besides alienation – and fear – they don’t want me to call 911 either. and yet there’s something else. i have lots of things they don’t, besides a family – a job, the possibility of getting more money, if i lose what i’ve got on me, and a sense of humor. i have the ability to recover, if they take a little something and fly. i have a new day that doesn’t look anything like theirs.