Good Morning Baltimore: Please Don't Hurt Me

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 | 0 Comment(s)

Me and seven other bartenders from Massachusetts drove down to Louisville, KY this past weekend, to learn up, purchase, and taste a bunch of Kentucky's Finest Bourbon.  It was a whirlwind trip.  We left Sunday midday for Baltimore, where we planned to visit a "sister" bar for the night before waking up the next morning for a straight shot through West Virginia to bluegrass country.

After the 8 or 9 hour drive into Baltimore, we quickly dumped our gear at the hotel, and walked the two blocks up the street to Alewife: The Bar.  Here is a quick bartender tip.  After being trapped in a dude flavored van for any lengthy period of time, beer tastes amazing.  I would go so far as to say transcendent. Something about the beer not tasting like a combination of Doritos and boy-fart really wets the palate.   Down four beers and you can drown that palate into a submissive ecstasy.  Still fresh at the beginning of our journey, all of us walked toward that light of ecstasy. 

Things got jovial.  We ended up partying with a few bar owners, the staff, and a hammered beer importer. There were smiles flashing across the bar room and a cavalcade of delicious alcoholic beverages being passed around for tasting.  But, as the hours passed into the AM, the reality of the next morning's drive began to settle in. In order to be some form of human being in the van the next day, my friend Tom and I decided to walk home from the bar together about 45 minutes before the rest of our party.

Now here is where I tell you that I don't know Baltimore worth a damn.  I haven't even seen The Wire.  But from its reputation alone, I have heard many a tale of tough-streets, high crime, and if I were pressed to define the denizens of Baltimore into one stereotypical adjective, I would go with 'gritty'.  

As a rule, I generally believe all of these reputation-based judgements about a city to be completely full of donkey poop.  You can't reliably summarize an entire race, religion, or ethnicity, so it follows that you can't capture the essence of a cosmopolitan community with a compilation of news reports.  So, while I left the bar that night with a friend, I was not initiating any volitional buddy system.  But as we exited the bar and our feet hit the pavement, I was grateful Tom was there.  We were greeted by a flurry of blue and white lights stationed between us and our beds for the night.

I won't say the smattering of police cars and various other emergency vehicles sobered me up . . . but they certainly drew my focus back toward that line.  Tom and I took our first steps toward the hotel as we grappled to make sense of the conflagration in front of us.  There was a stretcher in the street.  That much was obvious.  Whoever was on that stretcher was not in good shape.  We scanned the area around the stretcher and blood spatterings were apparent all over the pavement around the medics.

As we inched closer, a young black couple came out of the building to our left.  While they aren't in a moving vehicle, they were most certainly and unabashedly rubber-necking.  "We heard gun shots!," the young lady proclaims.  They remark that despite Baltimore's tough reputation, this kinda thing doesn't happen that often.

That's what they all say.

Our lighthearted banter regarding the tragedy unfolding around us was interrupted by the yelling of young black man admonishing the police to do their jobs.  He screams, "That guy is shot, man.  Do your jobs.  Do your fucking jobs."  The man was so upset that he threw his cell phone to the pavement with full baseball-like force.  It shattered.  He screamed one last time as the white police men told him "I don't care about that.  I don't care about that."  The screaming man picked up the main piece of his cell phone and spiked it a second time on the pavement.

I definitely can't figure out exactly what's what and whose to blame.  I'm getting fragments of a conversation in the aftermath of a situation I wasn't present for.  While their words could be taken straight out of a bad cops TV show dealing with race relations, I'm far too removed, and terrified, to attempt to place blame in the moment.  

The problem we're having is that this crime scene is so expansive, that there really isn't any way for us to go around it.  I gather up all of my sense of white entitlement and walk toward the cops who are both in the middle of the street, and simultaneous a distance away from both the red pavement and the police interactions with the none to pleased public they are serving.  In what amounts to a 13-year-old Japanese girl version of my own English voice I ask the cop, "Excuse me officer, but which is the best way for my friend and I to proceed across the street."

I'm not sure the cop even looked at me.  That's not true.  The cop didn't look at me.  To him I was a piece of the backdrop, like any other building, parked car, or empty bag of potato chips on the sidewalk; Except I could talk.  "Over there," he quipped out the side of his mouth, pointing to the nearest opposite corner.  In honesty, I knew that was where we were headed, but I wanted to be damn sure I got the verbal go ahead before any sudden movements.

Mentally scarred, Tom and I arrived back at the hotel.  I sent a quick text off to the rest of our party to alert them to the fracas outside the bar.  Forty-five minutes later, the rest of our party comes walking down from a parallel street, which is crime scene adjacent.  We all meet in front of the hotel lobby and begin to exchange the details of what we just saw.   As we are convening, a woman from down by the street calls up to us to get our attention.  When we turn she yells, "Did you see that! Did you see that! That was my cousin.  My cousin.  He got shot 7 times! 7 times!"  She doesn't say by who and she doesn't even wait for a formal response.  She just keeps cruising down the street, obviously distressed.

The eight of us all looked at each other, those who were smoking dutifully extinguished their cigarettes, and we all quietly walked inside to the relative safety of our hotel.  And, after just 12 hours in the city, if pressed I'd still have to say that Baltimore was . . . gritty.  
Here is the extremely vague news report about the shooting. They say that one bullet grazed the back of a guy's head.  They don't, however,  mention where the other bullets ended up.

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