Baltimore’s casualties mount up as Congress sits on the sideline: How many more?

We suffer an unbearable difference of sameness in the United States.  In what we believe are such opposing dialectics, we assume battles stances, symbols as warpaint and mottos to explain how very different we are.

In a supposed civil society, it feels more like a Cold War here at home.  Indeed, our nation has fostered such individualistic ideals that we all feel a certain omnipotence.  Shitou, a Chinese Zen poet addressed this state of mind in his ‘Cantongqi’, or ‘Sandokai’ in Japanese.

In the 8th century, via translation, Shitou wrote:

‘Light and darkness are a pair, like the foot before and the foot behind.’

I am no Buddhist.  Far from it.  Since moving to Baltimore in 2006, my Catholic morays have resurfaced in a baseline way I never thought possible, hitting me right between the eyes.  More than any other tenet of that faith, ‘do unto others as they would do unto you’ has taken on a primacy to reason how Baltimore and the nation can become a better place to live.

Isn't Congress tired of these headlines and breaking news?
Isn’t Congress tired of these headlines?

Early Friday evening, we lost a one-year -old Carter Scott in a shooting in South Baltimore.  Another casualty in a battle we have long known has no winners.  Another dead child who will not experience the joy or pain of choice.  Another kid who won’t be coming back home.

The blame game has begun on the streets, the radio and the written press.  Some blame families.  Others point to the streets, the guns and the lack of opportunity.  Many say ‘same old, same old Baltimore’ while allowing teenage drug dealers to peddle from their stoops.  Politicians will demand police on every corner of our underpopulated city.  Republicans will blame Democrats while churchy folk will claim the devil has again won the day in South Baltimore.

We should remember that, when it comes to the human race, it’s never one thing.  The now overused adage of the old black ladies of my youth still rings true here in Baltimore: ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’

I cannot think of a time when the work of 535 people in Congress negatively affected so many millions of Americans.  Sure, declarations of war and civil rights legislation have influenced us all.  Still, that Congress has made controlling debt a greater priority than getting money and jobs into the economy has left all but few municipalities and citizens far poorer than in 2007.

It feels as if the Congress believes the money in America belongs only in places like New York City, Bethesda and Greenwich, where many of the wealthiest Americans live.  By their actions, they may be right.

A Federal Reserve study released in 2012 shows how Americans retirement income dropped 7%, with median income decreasing 8 percent and families’ net worth dropping 39 percent since the economic collapse of 2008.  Meanwhile, a Pew study from this year shows the top 7 percent of Americans’ wealth increased 28 percent between 2009 and 2011.

To prove how unbearable our difference of sameness has become, I’d have Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell spend a month living on North Avenue, here in Baltimore.  I know we’ve seen this in previous film and fiction.  Still, it would be a clear update for the current leaders of the U.S. Senate to spend some quality time among the fine Americans they purport to represent.

Call it ‘Survivor: U.S. Senate in Baltimore’.

To show how quickly Republicans become Democrats and vice versa, I’d even fund the trial with taxpayer dollars.  I’m sure it’s cheaper than paying for a month of junkets, lunches and dinners with business executives.

Where's the people bail out?
Where’s the people bail out?

Give each senator a rowhouse along North Avenue, once a great shopping corridor for the City of Baltimore.  Each would still be paid a Senators wage for the month and both would have to attend their duties in D.C.  Still, it would be up to them to get themselves to and from work via public transportation, to feed themselves and be home each night to sleep.

Senator Reid would live on the east side, at North and Gay Street, next to the methadone clinic located there.  Senator McConnell would be planted at North and Fulton Avenues, once a beautiful west side street with a tree lined median for the merchant families of Baltimore.  Fulton Avenue was also one of the many housing boundary lines which long divided black from white in this city.  Neither Senator would have a security detail or burglar alarm system to deter invaders from their homes.

They would be allotted four volumes each:  the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ and Ellison’s ‘The Invisible Man’.  Beyond these works, personal stimulation would, of course, be left to the individual.  While choosing the Bible and the Constitution may be obvious when conducting a study with U.S. officials, works of fiction may not.  I chose Melville and Ellison’s greatest works as my personal choices should I be left in the remote Marquesas archipelago of the South Pacific.

Lastly, the Senators would be allowed to convene and discuss once a week, at City Arts Café on Charles Street, just below North Avenue.  Otherwise, when in Baltimore, they’d be on their own.   Now, can anyone imagine what experiences might befall representatives from Congress over a month in two of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation?  Let’s try.

Homicide Life on the Street: Baltimore doesn't need a TV show to tell us about life. We watch it everyday from our windows.
Homicide Life on the Street: Baltimore doesn’t need a TV show to tell us about life on the street. We watch it everyday from our windows.

The first night brings the noise and the silence.  The shrill cries of barking dogs and feral cats breaks the hush.   Police and ambulance sirens fill their ears till the Senators’ only option is to turn up the volume on the television.  Gunshots and the eventual wop wop of a police helicopter overhead will pierce the artificial mellow created by television.

Soon, the Senators will exit their houses, like their neighbors wondering when the noise from the chopper will abate.  When it does, they will hear a silence they never expected.  It will be the silence of abandonment and jobs long gone to Mexico then China.  The work din one usually associates with city will be absent, replaced by an economy that soul breaking, illegal and deadly.

The next morning, Senator Reid will wake at 7 a.m., wondering why there is so much yelling in front of the federally funded methadone clinic.  In his search for quiet, he’ll peer out his rear window to find a middle aged man getting oral sex from a teenaged girl in return for his daily treatment of methadone.  While his morning coffee brews, he has so many questions for himself, the young girl, her parents and his Lord.

Meanwhile, on the west side Senator McConnell wakes to find city police in the alley behind his house.  He sees that a live electrical wire has fallen off a crumbling rowhouse three doors down, striking and killing a stray pitbull with several hundred volts.  Sparks are still flying as police cordon off a large area of alley and rear yards centered around the dead dog while they await the arrival of linemen.

McConnell, now dressed and waiting for the Fulton Avenue bus connection to Penn Station, watches as a women his age exits her home.  She walks toward him wearing a pale green London Fog raincoat, short heels and an umbrella for inclement weather.  He can see her house is as well kept and elegant as she is when he says good morning.  Asking where she is employed, the senator finds she is about to retire after 34 years with the Postal Service.

This is Day One for the Senators.  By week’s end, they meet at City Art’s over coffee and bagels.  Each has one word to describe their first week in Baltimore.  Harry Reid shakes his head and says ‘choice’ in his understated manner.  McConnell, his voice raspy from evenings spent conversing with the teenage BGF corner boys, says ‘consequences’ to his adversary in Congress.

”Mitch, we’ll need to watch ‘The Wire’”, says Reid.  “They say it really tells the story.”

An old homeless man sitting next to them interrupts the Senators.

“Gentlemen”, the old man begins, “if you must learn by television, may I suggest you begin with ‘Homicide: Life on the Street’?  This way, you’ll understand how many have been lost in twenty years?”