ESCAPE FROM BALTIMORE
The Story of an immigrant who set foot in the Charm City to start a new life but had to flee to stay alive.
The sound of terror
Growing up in France, I remember my parents sharing details of the Nazi occupation and war zones that clustered most of their youth. I used to listen in awe to my mother’s tales, an angelic 10-year-old girl frightened of a hiss traveling through the dark eerie night. That was the diabolical sound of premature death, reminding all to run and hide for their life – with only a few seconds to seek refuge after the whistle before the V2 bomb would explode. That little girl dragged the dark memories of that hiss at her side for the greater part of her life.
From thereon, I realized how lucky I was to have never experienced living in an occupied territory, or worse, a war zone.
Until I moved to Baltimore.
Between bullets and helicopters: the sounds of Baltimore
It would be unfair to claim the city is rotten and only rich in crimes. It is just filled with unhealthy apple trees that produce an abundance of spoiled fruits to drop them in scattered baskets. I remember when Chicago, Detroit, and New York shared the proud title of most dangerous cities never to visit. Today, Baltimore’s homicide rate has long paled Chicago’s medal, doubling its homicide rate to earn the laurels of America’s most dangerous city.
Trying to make a living working from home in a place where the singing and chirping of birds have long been replaced by the sound of hissing bullets, dirt bike racing, and permanent yells and screams from the street can be challenging to ignore. Eventually, we learned to ignore the rattle and blinding search light of the police helicopter passing over our happy-hour get together in the backyard.
I suppose these are the V2s of Baltimore.
But it is only human to convince oneself it could be worse and continue to brew the naive believe that bad things only happen in movies; or to others.
Until it happens to you.
Asking politely a loud talker to tune down a cell phone speaker at 2 am under your bedroom window should be a normal request among respectable people. But when the offered solution was to “shut the f**king window”, I realized how lucky I was my parents had taught me to respect others.
Then one day, I found the tree I had planted in the front yard, ripped, cut, and nailed on my front door. The next sign was finding a few bullet holes through our car door. The good news, I suppose, was that we were not in the car. At that point, we did pack our suitcases to escape the East zone and settled to the West side of the city in hope of finding that peaceful lifestyle we had come to seek; and maybe listen to birds sing instead of insults and shootings.
When drug gangs move in, people die
The next four years made our first experience look like a trip to Universal Studio.
For four years, our daily lives have reached a choppy rhythm filled with an array of other colorful catalog of street sounds. It appeared the routine sound of helicopters and gunshots had followed us; but had become louder, and more frequent, justifying the sound of ambulances storming by all night long - blowing a deafening 120-decibel horn.
Then drug gangs moved in and permanently occupied the streets, day and night, as the Germans did during WWII in Europe. At least the Germans did not sell crack cocaine or meth, nor organized dirt bike races at 3 am to taunt the police and show the populace who’s in charge. For a long time, I wondered why the people kept quiet. In June, I got the answer after a courageous black mother who dared to have filed a police report against street bullying and her daughter’s bicycle theft.
She was shot in the head on the street in front of her daughter.
When you live in a society that harbors gangs of people who reward themselves for shooting police officers in the back or terrorizing the population without fear of the authorities, we suddenly come close to a parody depicted by Kurt Russel in the 1983 film “Escape from New York” where the hero - Snake Plissken, Russell’s character is sent to save a captive President in a secluded zone ruled by gangs. A scary futuristic tale by John Carpenter detailing the aftermath of a nuclear war set in 1997 when gangs have taken control of New York City. Even under the spell of the exciting action scenes and suspenseful plot, we knew it was an implausible exaggeration of reality.
I’ve been watching the movie straight from my window…my “f***king window”.
Then the movie turned reality.
After five burglary attempts and a dead cat, get a shotgun or go
What was realistic for us is the break-in attempts in our house where people tried to rip off the door with a crowbar at three in the morning! Luckily, they didn’t succeed. But they came back. And again. Five times. The scary part was the fourth time when the overwhelmed police arrived…thirty minutes later. What if those people had come in? Some police officers suggested we get a gun and a security system. Most burglaries occur during the day to avoid contact with the victims; but because these attempts took place ONLY while we were asleep, we had reasons to believe their intention may have been to cause more damage than just rob.
Two white guys and an Asian woman living in an African-American gang-controlled neighborhood sorts of stand out, to say the least. Then the distant perception of a ‘hate crime’ begins to rise over the horizon of crimes. But that was ignored by the police, the Mayor and the Governor.
One day we found Leslie, the mother of all our little kittens, dead in the backyard with a cracked skull surely inflicted by a baseball bat; later our Sammy, a house cat who leaves the house a few minutes a day just to smell the air…suddenly disappeared.
We should have fled then.
Bullets n’ blood: Baltimore's daily cocktail
Then one evening like any other, coming home from work, we saw a teenager standing on his front steps facing two hooded men who casually unloaded eight bullets into his chest, like in a video game. They escaped in our direction and stopped abruptly as they realized we witnessed the scene…then pointed their guns at our heads in slow motion.
These were the famous few seconds where your life flashes in front of your eyes…
Miraculously, the boy survived, and so did we.
But we should have fled again.
Our usual family New Year’s Eve get-together celebration by the harbor took a more somber turn ending with the sight of a man lying motionless in a pool of blood, his throat slashed.
Why did we not flee then?
Even fishing can be a perilous matter
After such gruesome events, mentioning our car was stolen in front of our house, taken for a joy ride, then abandoned a month later is totally out of place, so I won’t. Or that my wife was arrested, handcuffed, transported in a van for hardcore criminals before thrown in jail for a night for the punishable crime of having fished a Rockfish below the State regulation size…one full inch too short. Yet, a teen with no license can ride an illegal dirt bike against traffic at night with no lights, worry-free.
Following the last break-in attempt in July, we knew then we were on our own, left with the unfriendly options to get a shotgun or leave, putting the house for sale at any price for an emergency departure. But after the toxic reality of such story, who would want that house…
So I had an idea.
Maryland spends billions on criminals. Why not spend a little on the good guys too?
The State of Maryland spent $40 million on a new football stadium, $60 million for a juvenile center, and $1.5 billion poured in a correctional system filled with bad apples. That same system which ironically provides food, shelter, cable TV, free healthcare and education for all criminals, including cop killers.
With that in mind, wrapped in my innate immigrant candor, I presumed the State would have some sort of emergency funds to protect the endangered species of tax-paying citizens in case of an urgent relocation to a safer zone. I know it sounds delusional, but think of it for a second.
When the bad guys are in trouble, they are sent to jail temporarily as a transition to a new life, possibly settling to prison, at a sweet cost of around $40,000 per inmate per year to the joy of taxpayers. Wow... that leaves lifers in prison a hefty tag to residents!
When the good and honest guys are thrown in life-threatening situations because of criminals, what does the State do for them?
Could there not be temporary housing provided as a transition to a safer life; or maybe a one-time financial State grant per family?
The response from the Mayor, city Council and Congressmen was rather well balanced. There was none. The Governor's office reached out to say they would look into it.
When you get a $50,000 water bill that's not yours, what do you do? Pay or survive.
Luckily, unlike other residents, our bill was only $14,000. When we explained that city workers had damaged a pipe in front of the house during repairs causing a severe rupture, the Water Department stated there were no records and asked we prove our allegations...meanwhile, we were offered a convenient payment plan, even though we could not have consumed a volume of water equivalent to 70 baths per day! After providing a video of the workers, we were told it should then be resolved...but days later, they cut off the water supply without precedent instead. For a month, we learned to survive filling up water bottles from the millions of water a broken water pipe may produce, among other sources.
Knowing that on average, a pipe bursts each day, we lasted a month, showering from portable showers; then like everyone else, we were forced to pay to get the water back.
But don't think of collecting free rain water in bins from your backyard...that is illegal.
Moral principles teach us to always see the positive in all occasions. Sadly, the past five years of our lives sampling such abusive episodes, have not been very kind to us to even recommend moving in this city.
Will Snake Plissken save Baltimore?
As we witness the end of the American Dream we had fantasized upon being extinguished like an old cigarette butt, it is futile to believe the authorities can protect people from such violence.
I prefer to remain in my noisy world of senseless utopia waiting by “the f***king window” for the day a long-coated shadow with hair flapping to the wind will emerge from the underworld, slashing through the rising steam in the early morning hours.
A shadow to unfold into a familiar silhouette,
Shielded behind a black eye patch and a cigarette,
Wearing a scar across an unshaven face,
Walking a brisk walk and packing a 12-gauge.
Will Snake Plissken save Baltimore from this urban terror?
Aside from this illusionary, but somewhat ravishing epilogue from the heavens, back here on earth, we contemplate the next chapter of our lives without a shotgun in hand and hopefully far away from this urban violence as soon as we can escape it. Wherever the bumpy and noisy road will lead us, we hope one day we can finally hear the chirping and singing of the birds instead of the V2s.
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