I saw what looked like a drug transaction on a fairly busy corner of downtown Baltimore the other day. Six 20-something guys -- one white, the others black -- pulled together for a few minutes on Franklin Street and, while two of them took lookout positions, the others exchanged some items that appeared to be cash and small envelopes.
The whole transaction seemed friendly, even collegial. Everything must have gone according to plan. There was no gunfire.
A lot of the drug-related violence in Baltimore always has taken place on the outer limits, on the east side and the west side, along depressing blocks of abandoned rowhouses, and at hours when there are sure to be fewer witnesses.
Gail Gainer called me Sunday, for instance, to talk about a fatal shooting on the west side of town, not far from where she lives. This one took place after midnight, about 30 minutes into Sunday morning, on Springdale Avenue. Her son was on the street talking with some friends, she said, when two younger men pulled up in a car, drew guns and said, "Don't nobody move!"
It was supposed to be a stickup, but the men on the street -- all in their early 30s, according to Gainer -- didn't stick around. They started running. And that's when the shooting started, Gainer said her son told her. The police account of the shooting was about the same. One man, 35-year-old Dion Jones, was killed, and another was wounded.
"They had never seen these boys before," Gainer said. "They might have been from the east side and come over to the west side because no one knows them over here."
But, why the shooting?
If all you want to do is rob some guys on the street, why shoot them?
"Because they can," Gainer speculated. "Because they have guns and they said, 'Don't nobody move,' and the [victims] ran. What in the world are we going to do with these young black guys out here killing each other? What do we do about that mentality -- young men who kill each other in a heart beat?"
That has been the toughest question to answer in Baltimore during the last three decades. A lot of us have stopped trying to answer it.
The thousands of us who live here and abide by the laws and the thousands upon thousands who visit Baltimore or drive here from the suburbs are well aware of that other world where the shootings take place, and we've reached a level of tolerance for it. Or maybe we're worn out and ambivalent by now. We've developed a kind of jaded acceptance of it.
Of course, we note and applaud the progress made by the police and by the federal authorities working with them. Nonfatal shootings, for instance, are down significantly, and while the homicide rate is ahead of last year's pace, when Baltimore recorded a 20-year low, there are still far fewer killings than we saw all through the bloody 1990s. This is the result of creative police strategies and hard work, focusing on repeat offenders and following up on non-fatal shootings -- intervening in some way before the violence escalates and broadens.
Still, when you measure the violence based on its population, Baltimore is the second-deadliest city in the country. A citizen reads that sentence, or hears it stated, and all those feelings I've mentioned creep back.
So the day of celebrating the tipping point -- that day when we can speak without reservation or qualification about how great this city is -- remains a day uncertain.
In the meantime, the rest of us keep going. We do our work; we try to be productive and successful, with the hope that the fruits of this will be a stronger city -- a sound and progressive economy, decent schools and outstanding universities, a growing and diverse cultural life, a quirky and tradition-rich civic life, comfortable and enduring neighborhoods, a network of high-minded non-profits and faith-based organizations doing good work.
If all that keeps happening, and Baltimore keeps growing, some day the good trumps the bad, the city that affirms life crowds out, physically and psychically, the one where young men keep snuffing it out.
But that day still seems so far off.
Gail Gainer called me because she was frustrated and looking for answers. She is middle-aged and has lived close to the violence for a long time. She knew Dion Jones since he was a little boy. She called me a couple of months ago after another fatal shooting in her community. "It hurts me so bad, these young men killing each other," she said. "What in the world is wrong with these guys? Why do they want to keep killing each other?"
Baltimore's toughest and most enduring question.