Here's a short story about fear and crime in Baltimore written for Humanity in Action last year. It's the story of a single crime told from a number of perspectives.
by Raffi Wartanian
I had joined a spinning class to train for a triathlon in July that was a fundraiser for cancer research. The weather was just about to warm, but not warm enough for me to do training rides outside.
My housemates Dani and Yanji had left earlier that day to visit Los Angeles. Yanji was a chemical engineer looking for work out west in alternative fuel research. He spent most research hours toying with algae and observing ways to maximize their potential energy. Dani was headed to medical school in the fall which I never understood because all the guy could think about was theoretical physics. He had a severely disturbing attachment complex to Yanji that nobody else seemed to notice except for me, which made me wonder if I sometimes looked to deep into things or if others didn’t look deep enough. They were like a married couple, my housemates, and they had left earlier that day to spend a week in sunny California.
I walked up the steps of to our row house, good old 324 on east 33rd, sandwiched between Guilford and Abell. I unlocked the front door and caught a whiff of the eggshell white I had painted onto the walls last weekend. The original vomit brown color had taken a psychological toll on me and I knew I wouldn’t make it to the end of our lease period in May with that color sucking me of my life force every time I sat in that room. Yanji fussed over the change because he’s the kind of scientist who doesn’t readily accept deviations from the status quo, even on the walls of our living room.
The alarm went off when I walked in. It always did. Alarm might be a misnomer. We had a security systems sticker on the front door, and a small sensor in the hallway would beep three times whenever the door opened, but there was never an actual alarm that could be set to signal an intrusion. I walked in and parked my bike by the record player. It was hardly an alarm. More of a sensor synchronized to the opening of a door to feign the warning sounds of a security system. I locked the door and raised my neck to unclip the helmet’s fasteners. The straps had been pressing up against my neck a little too tight, but I expected as much since my hair had ballooned after eight months of growth. That was a good helmet. Lasted some 15,000 miles of riding. Tossed my earmuffs and gloves in there. I snooped around the fridge for a bit to consider what I’d throw together for dinner after a hot shower.
I took the steps two at a time as usual. I undressed and put on my green, hooded bathrobe that always reminded me of home when I heard a shattering sound in Dani’s room. I had told him not to balance so many shot glasses on his windowsill, but, as mentioned, if you weren’t a chemical engineer or a theoretical physicist, the chances of him listening to you were slim.
Dani? I called for him. No answer.
Then I heard a thud.
I grabbed one of the empty wine bottles in the corner of my room I would fill up with different amounts of water to blow into with friends to create harmonies and walked over to his room. I quickly turned the knob and pushed it open.
I walked through the threshold and saw the shot glasses shattered on the ground. I turned back to get the broom.
There was a man standing at the threshold with a gun pointed at my face.
“What do you want?”
“On the ground.”
I obeyed. He fixed the gun on the back of my head.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you,” he said.
“I’ve done nothing to hurt you.”
“You already have. You just don't know it.”
“You’ll shatter the lives of the people who love me.”
“I won't see their faces.”
People been fuckin’ wit me all my life. Ain’t got no respect. Call me pigeon legs. Push me around and shit. Pull my hair when I’m not lookin’, spit at my feet, call me a pussy.
My papa been dead since I was born. Mama’s out on the street most of the day. She run a corner.
I didn’t think I’d have to pull the trigger on my first robbery. The guy was askin’ for it. Rolled up in the room wielding a wine bottle and shit. Gonna crack that over my head? Fuck no.
The pawnshop on Lombard been buyin’ lately. They lookin’ for merchandise. Figure I find me a computer, camera, Nintendo – something nice. Sell it off, make some cash. The university’s up a few blocks. Papa fillin’daddy’s little angel’s pockets with greens and goods. How ‘bout he fill my pockets instead? Shit - ain’t nobody helpin’ me. Everyone hollerin’ in the streets when Barack became president cuz they think things gonna be different. Ain’t nothin’ changed. Just the same old shit.
I need money too. I wanna to go to college. I wanna buy paint and be the next Van Gogh. Ain’t nobody givin’it to me cuz I ain’t worth shit to them, so I gotta go out and get it. They don’t know what I’m worth.
Gettin’ up to that window was a bitch. Climbed this rackety ass ladder, paint peelin’, rat’s brains all over the gutter. Wise ass left his window unlocked. Small glasses on the windowsill. Didn’t see ‘em when I swung my legs in. Looked around and didn’t see nothin’ worth nothin’, just a bunch of books on a shelf, a bed on a carpet. Smelled strange in there. Like inside of dread locks. Like a smoking tree or something. Like church a little bit.
Then I hear a voice callin’.
I hide behind the door and wait. Lil’ bitch walks in holding a wine bottle. Pull the glock out the holster and wait for him to turn ‘round. He talks some shit and I shoot him. Go over to his room. Computer, cameras, DVD’s.
“Huh? Speak louder. I can’t hear you.”
“I said ‘Oh, dear’, Ted. Another murder. Said he raised thousands for cancer research.”
“Oh. Dear, could you pass the applesauce?”
“This is not how I imagined my future.”
“This applesauce is delicious.”
“People go to Florida when they retire, or California. They go somewhere pleasant where the weather is nice and the people are warm. They don’t go to Baltimore.”
“This is where I grew up. This is where my brother and sister live. They’re all I have left.”
“What about the money you worked your entire life to save? Couldn’t you have bought something nicer?”
“Dear, we got the thirty-two inch plasma screen. It doesn’t get much nicer than that.”
“I meant this house in this crumbling, crime-ridden city. I didn’t imagine my golden years would be spent looking over my shoulder, constantly checking to make sure the doors are locked and the window bars are still screwed to the frame. I bet the murderer on the news just unscrewed the window bars that were in his way.”
“I don’t think they had window bars.”
“You’re just saying that to make yourself feel safer.”
“I don’t think there’s a ‘why’ behind these things. They just happen.”
“Yes, Ted. This is a city that makes you shrug your shoulders and hope for the best.”
“Don’t let the fear get to your head, dear. There’s nothing wrong with Baltimore. Every city has news programs that obsess over tragic crimes. Fear sells. They do it to scare the people like us who are dumb enough to watch their programs.”
“It’s not like they’re pulling it out of thin air. This stuff is real. Baltimore is one of America’s most dangerous cities.”
“Baltimore is one of America’s most underrated cities. And the medical care we can get hear can’t be beat.”
“That doesn’t make it any better.”
“What do you want?”
“So throw away the television set. It’s driving you mad.”
“I meant that I want to move away.”
“This is the best we could afford.”
“I’d rather live in a bungalow at the lip of the Indian Ocean than a row house in Canton.”
“Dear, you need to stop watching the news.”
I was playing with my train set that mommy and daddy got me for Christmas when I heard the big sound. It sounded like a big bang, like an anvil fell out of the sky or an elephant falling over or a moose running into the wall or fireworks exploding or fifty rotten watermelons rolling down the stairs or a sack of potatoes thrown up against the wall or a giant hammer smashing a grand piano into a million pieces or two giant hammers banging into each other just once or a singing cave with a raspy voice or ninety-nine pigeons flying into the wall all at once. It was just a big bang.
Mommy ran to me and lowered herself and gave me a hug. She said don’t be scared but I wasn’t scared until she said don’t be scared. I was happy and having fun. She held me in her arms and cradled me like a little baby. I asked her if she wanted to play with me and she started to cry. Then we played with the train.
A young man was shot last night in East Baltimore and died a
short time later at Union Memorial Hospital, police said. Northeastern District police responding to a report of gun shots in the 300 block of East 33rd Street at 8:30pm found a man shot in the face. Police knew of no motives and no arrests have been made. Resulting from the investigation, trooper vehicles are present at the intersection of Abbel Avenue and 33rd. A source familiar with the investigation said the victim may have provoked the murderer with a baseball bat. “We are still unsure as to whether or not he knew the intruder,” said Mose Donnelson with the Baltimore City Police, “but we are not ruling that out as a possibility.”
The October 2009 murder of Hamo Sarkisian in Baltimore City was just one in a string of hundreds of murders that year reminding residents that their city boasted a murder rate seven times the national average. Crime in early twenty-first century Baltimore was fuelled by poverty, drug abuse, and relatively easy access to arms. Since the 1970’s, the city experienced a consistent population decline from nearly 1,000,000 residents in the mid-twentieth century to 600,000 by the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Once a hub for the steel industry, Baltimore enjoyed one of America’s strongest economies and standards of living. Over subsequent decades, as the city transitioned to a service-based economy, much of the city fell behind trends towards modernization. Concurrently, the expansion of hospital services immensely developed areas associated with medical care while unassociated sections of the city fell behind.
Despite focused efforts to reduce the murder rate, city officials failed to address the rampant poverty affecting mostly African Americans living in less commercialized sections of the city.