Some of the stories will really get to you.
They’ll get to you through your television if the stories are interesting, or surprising in some way, and especially if the murder victims are wealthy or white. If there is someone there to notice, to mourn, to tell the TV people the stories of how the dead lived or died, in a way that will sound interesting to cable customers in the enormous and mostly-suburban Baltimore County, which manages to fully encircle Baltimore City without ever fully embracing it. In those cases, their stories will be told and if you’re anything like me—mostly ignoring the always-awful news, just trying to keep your head low and take in a Modern Family on a Wednesday night—it’s only then, when the stories get to you, that you’ll pay attention.
I am not proud of this. I am just telling you the truth about it.
I didn’t know Sebastian Dvorak (#157) but when I saw his picture on TV in June, I felt like I could have: he looked like my son and every other bearded, good-looking, grown-up-I-still-call-a-kid their age. I learned from TV that he was a popular bartender at a restaurant I like—well, I mean, I go to the one out in the County—when he was gunned down execution-style on his way home, late at night, in a popular neighborhood where his friends and my son’s friends must pass each other every day on the way to work.
I remember, too, in July when Dion Smith (#173) was killed; his brother T.J. Smith is the police spokesperson. I don’t know them either, but T.J., who shares my oldest son’s initial-name, always does such a good job at the press conferences that we sort of feel like we do. We like it when T.J. is on TV, his a constant, compassionate, plain-speaking presence in a revolving door of police chiefs, commissioners, and politicians. It was heartbreaking to hear that his own brother had been targeted, gunned down in his living room by an intruder who’d come to do him harm. When T.J. spoke lovingly of his brother, you could see that it was hard to be in his personal and professional lives at the same time.
And then there was a guy killed at a Royal Farms Store this week, and while I didn’t know Alex Wroblewski (#307) either, I know the charming neighborhood and that store; I used to drive right by for meetings I had near Fort McHenry for work. And even though I didn’t know Alex, I know and love another 40-something bartender with casts of adoring friends and a hankering for sweets. So it was painful to hear how the gunmen had held the door for him, watched him pay for after-work milk and cookies with his tips, and, when he wouldn’t give up the cash, shot him, letting him bleed to death right there in front of the RoFo chicken. T.J. came on TV and called it “sickening”.
But what really got to me was the press conference that came on Wednesday night, at the exact time when Modern Family was supposed to be starting, to announce that the guy who who’d most recently been shot was a Baltimore police detective working an old murder on the city’s west side, not far from where my daughter teaches third grade. They said that he was in the intensive care unit, and the phrase the trauma surgeon added right after all the halting, clinical details hit home. “He’s really, really, really sick,” he said, a phrase often spoken matter-of-factly among the treatment team to let everyone know that the patient needs a lot, that his nurse will be very busy. And also delivered to the family with as much gentleness as possible and as much clarity as necessary, to underscore the gravity of the situation, to begin to gently reinforce that it doesn’t look good, to prepare them to steel themselves for the range of outcomes ahead.
As I heard the words, I knew from both my personal and professional life that somewhere nearby, in a quiet conference room with a door that closes to keep out the alarms and beeps and pages and shouts to grab the crash cart, and with boxes of scratchy tissues on the tables and vaguely calming artwork on the walls, a soft-spoken chaplain was probably sitting with the detective’s family, who wondered if they would always feel physically jarred each time they heard the words now being spoken into the microphones: “shot in the head”, “injury to the brain”, “grave condition”. I knew this because I’d been a part of that family once, and like T.J., I found it hard to do my personal and professional lives at the same time, too. Decades later, hearing the press conference, the familiar words jarred me again, tearing through my body with more force and velocity than I expected. I didn’t know the detective, but I knew what his family faced, in the worst case scenario and the now-try-to-imagine-worse-than-you-can-imagine-scenario. I knew what was really being said, which was that none of the possible outcomes were good. The next day, the detective, Sean Suiter, became #309.
And because each of these stories had something I could relate to, they stayed with me. But I started to wonder, for the first time in a while, about the others, all 305 of them. They all were names, not just numbers in a math problem of daily violence. They were people with stories; I just didn’t get to hear them. Or if I did, I didn’t listen closely enough to really hear them, find something in them to relate to. Maybe this was why they never got to me.
Don’t tell me that most of the violence is among “gang-bangers”, that such fates are simply occupational hazards of the drug trade, that somehow it matters less. I don’t want to hear it. With regard to the violence and the dead, I am not interested in their illicit occupations or their worst acts. I am interested in talking about the woundedness, the hopelessness, the shame and desperation that is so pervasive in our city that addiction and gang life and violence look like reasonably attractive options. I am concerned about the loss of life that often occurs long before death, the loss of life in the way that life is meant to be lived.
All of the dead have or had mothers, whose existence is somehow or would have been changed by their passing, and I can relate to that; I can start there. Maybe some of them had protective and somewhat anxious older sisters who sometimes woke up startled in the night, so convinced by a bad dream that something had happened they would call and wake their confused and annoyed brothers from their slumber just to be assured that they were OK. Some undoubtedly had nephews that loved to be in their presence, and begged them to throw the football and talk sports at Thanksgiving. Some had sons and daughters like mine, whose brand-new tiny ears and toes on arrival were so plainly a miracle, and for whom they hoped to be better than they were sometimes able. They had nurtured once—perhaps not in a while, but once—an earnest hope, a dream for themselves, one they actually and perhaps privately believed for a time, before someone told them or they figured out on their own how ridiculous it was, how unattainable, how far beyond the probable. Before they failed again. Before they lost options, and the audacity to dream. Before they lost hope.
The hopelessness in Baltimore is like a cancer, which is to say that it grows and spreads by finding ways to thrive even in new and formerly-benign environments. Environments like the County, where more and more of us pay less and less attention except to throw up our hands behind our expensive glasses of wine and firmly declare that “there is nothing you can do to fix Baltimore City”. The hopelessness that tries to outsmart us in the same way that cancer does: sneakily, steadily, twisting our very make-up while to things spin out of control, destroying vital organs and life-sustaining systems along the way. Taking our ease and our education, our vocabulary and our vocations, and using them to create distance in space and spirit. I wrote this about breast cancer in 2013 and I think it is true of the cancer of hopelessness in Baltimore today: if we do not embrace our connectedness with compassion and courage, we are less, and the cancer is more, and we just cannot have that.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how to fix the big problems. I don’t even have words at my disposal which are wise enough to explain the two things that I know for sure about them; I have to crib from other people. The first thing that comes to mind is Edward Everett Hale’s I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And the second thing is from Mother Teresa: Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things, with great love.
Let’s go do something small today. I’ll see you out there.