It’s now exactly three weeks since I tearfully drove away from Baltimore to my family’s upper middle class beach condo near the Delaware shore. Three weeks of leaving a previous life behind, venturing into all too comfortable a life of hermitage and solitude while I wait for people I love to start dying. When they would, I don’t know, whether they would, I pray not, but as I spent my first week of solitude in Baltimore, a vision of things to come became as solid as a diamond, and all I could do was leave and continually beg my family to follow me.
I don’t think it was cowardice particularly which brought me here. I certainly fear premature death as any young-to-middle-aged person does, but I don’t so value my life that I think momentous experiences would lay undiscovered from my premature exit. What rather went through my mind is ‘if things truly get as hairy as you fear they will, will your assistance or death be of benefit in a struggle to anyone at all?’ There is something deeply satisfying about knowing that you lived and died for a purpose, and I know all too many people in Baltimore for whom a purposeful death seems something for which they long. But try as I could to summon up morale and conscience to say yes, my assistance to revive Baltimore would have meaning in whatever follows coronavirus, I could not show an affirming flame.
Coronavirus is a deadly disease, but it is not an event of historical extinction. Go through your facebook list and it’s likely that one person on it will eventually die from this. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s you, maybe it’s somebody we both love. Whomever it is, it’s wrenchingly tragic, but no apocalypse, and certainly not reason enough to abandon a city in what may be its most desperate in half-a-century’s worth of needful hours. The true problem for us all is not coronavirus, the true problem is what comes after, because coronavirus is so clearly not an end but a beginning, a gateway to a future of such momentous uncertainty that it would be an act of foolhardy loyalty to remain present in a city where the act of living itself is always uncertain.
Like every American city, Baltimore is many places within a singular locale. But the Baltimore I live in is a city where people care so very, very much. So many citizens of Baltimore I know love this city with such all-consuming pride in its woes and struggles that it never pauses to consider how much further into woe a possessive lover can entangle their beloved. It is a city where lessons either go unlearned or over-learned, but never learned. It is a city within which a person is killed every single day, and yet what much more bothers people of conscience is police brutality. It is a city where poverty is a nightmare without escape within its city limits, and yet what much more bothers people of conscience is gentrification. It is a city forty miles north of every public policy expert in America, and sensible leaders could simply invite Washington’s most vibrant minds to use Baltimore as a laboratory to implement more livable circumstances not just for our city but for every city in America, yet Baltimore views all things hailing from the nation’s capital with a hatred nearly as smoldering as its self-love. It is a city with centuries of history, most of it deeply tragic, and while the salvation of the city may lie just within the next generation, its situation portends so much worse before it ever gets better.
Even before coronavirus made its full virulence known, the murder rate this year looked to rise as much as 45%. 45% from what was already the second-bloodiest major city in America. The Baltimore Sun recently stopped reporting murders, afraid that by doing what is perhaps the single most crucial part of their job, they would add to the unbearable sense of fear the Maryland suburbs and the rest of the country has of us, and jeopardize the city still further.
Coronavirus is putting America’s economy into a freeze deeper than the Great Depression. What can possibly follow that but 20-30% unemployment at best? Many more stimulus packages will be necessary before this crisis is over. Is there any real chance that the sheer amount of stimulus money won’t send the financial system careening into massive inflation, perhaps even hyperinflation? Is there any chance that it won’t generate trillions more of government debt that creditors can always recall if their nation of origin needs the money as badly as we do? And all this happens at the same time as the looming Baby Boomer social security crisis, as universal health care becomes the most dire of dire necessities, and as massive economic restructuring becomes necessary in the face of global warming. It may be a financial perfect storm, and possible to be only as good as that if Democrats beat Republicans in the 2020 election, which even now is hardly assured. The city of Baltimore before coronavirus is probably the future of America’s more prosperous cities, but the future of Baltimore may well be Tijuana or Caracas, and if rule of law truly fails, is it really so hard to imagine Baltimore turning into Damascus or Aleppo?
In this looming crisis whose inevitability lies so oppressively close, no one is coming to save us, and if I thought my contributions from inside the city would make any difference at all, I do believe I would gladly devote my life, give my life, even surrender my life, to assist a city for whose presence I have so much to be thankful. But speaking personally, if I ever try to be a hero, it had better be in the service of a cause that I know isn’t lost before the first battle, because I just don’t know that I care enough, if I’m brave enough, if I’m resourceful enough, reliable enough, generous enough, if I love Baltimore enough, to stick around through it all and risk my life for goals in which I’m not even sure I believe. But I have no doubt at all that so many hundreds of friends and acquaintances in Baltimore are brave enough, reliable enough, love Baltimore enough, that they would unhesitantly give their last full measure of devotion to save a city which until now had problems they might have solved had they loved the city a little less.
My love for Baltimore is as deep as my hatred, and the two are inextricable. The city is so generously populated by people of good works and will for whose devotion to their higher callings I live in awed respect as deep as my despair at their naivety. I could never devote myself to the causes of our city the way they have. Had they fallen into religion rather than social justice and intersectionality they could be candidates for sainthood. The stories of selflessness I could tell would drop jaws to the floor for days. The Pikesville kids who left Baltimore left almost uniformly for their own self-advancement, but the adults who moved to Baltimore from elsewhere arrived to Baltimore because they believe so fervently in service over self. They believe in community, they believe in self-sacrifice, and they give of themselves unceasingly in the service of causes so noble that in the face of them, what does self-interest even mean? So many of them are militantly secular, but their spirit is Christian in the absolute best of senses, and were the rest of the world like them, heaven would exist upon earth. But the rest of the world does not live like these children of light, and they see no necessity of giving those whom they shelter protection against the children of darkness. So many of them grew up fundamentalist Christians, and whether it’s false prophet politicians like Bernie Sanders, Heather Mizeur, and Jill Carter, and or intellectual snake oil like Naomi Klein, Howard Zinn, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Rebecca Solnit, they clearly still believe in saviors who promise things upon earth so impossible that they willingly deliver all their causes to the most destructive fates of everything they hate.
I would imagine it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to keep morale to work every day for a greater good that never comes without willing oneself to believe all great things still possible in the face of all evidence to the contrary, but the end result is something cultish, where everyone believes one and all in the same impossible things; the art of the possible remaining a heresy one dare not speak unless one is content as I am to remain a gadfly of Woke Baltimore, viewed, whenever we think of each other at all, with a mixture of mutual affection, suspicion, and contempt.
Aside from my family, my musical partner, and my closest friends at shul, the people I speak to during all this are almost all friends from everywhere else in America, the vast majority from college. I certainly think about Baltimore friends, and these days think of them with nothing but deep and sad affection, but I think of them as a coagulous group, a lovable and dangerously misguided clique of beloved acquaintances with whom I have about as much in common as I do with Pentacostals. Hashem bless and keep them, one and all, I truly love them, I really do, and perhaps they’re much better people than I: braver, loyaler, more committed, but their worldview is not my worldview, their vision of Baltimore not my Baltimore, their America not my America.
We perfectly agree that the reality of Baltimore is a ruinously tragic place shot to hell by Conservative greed which redlined African-Americans out of prosperity while cutting education budgets to shreds, and meanwhile conservatives and moderates in Washington pretended they had no idea why crime rose so precipitously except to blame the problems on an African-American culture they cared to learn nothing of. The powerful then made a deal with the devil to make cities like ours barely livable through mass incarceration that broke African-American communities and lives still more irreparably. But whatever was left of the city was handed over, as so many hollowed-out American cities were, to false prophet after snake-oil salesman who exploited the trust of their voters and audiences, promised so many social programs they knew they could never deliver, and dug their nails into wounds of rage too deep to ever heal. The only way to close these wounds now is to amputate them. A great and terrible cleansing event is probably yet to come that will kill most everything Baltimore ever was. Would what comes be so unbearable that one even wants to live through it?
Should it come, I will be watching through tears as this city which broke my heart so many times already – as it does everyone who lives here – undergoes what is by far their worst trial yet. But in its wake, there is a kind of means toward salvation from the exact place which Baltimore’s non-profit industrial complex wants salvation least: and you know where I’m going to say it comes from before I even say it.
Whether the university or the hospital, Johns Hopkins is the city’s only possible salvation. Michael Bloomberg just funded the university in perpetuity and may yet give far more funding to Hopkins, and through it create an intellectual institution to potentially exceed Oxbridge or any Ivy. Even before the pandemic, we had the world’s most prestigious hospital, and global public health is clearly one of the 21st century’s great challenges. Every medical expert will flock here, along with intellectual giants in every scientific field. After all this horror and heartbreak, the Baltimore of 2050 or 2070 has the potential to be an intellectual Mecca, with more per capita cash flow than the city has seen since 1800, and I have little doubt that in their more advanced years, so many people I know would do whatever little they can to prevent it, should they even survive to an era of any coming prosperity.
But in whatever comes first, I have no doubt that until that glorious day of redemption, so many people I know and truly love will keep their feet firmly planted in our city, preserving it with their lives, and occasionally their deaths, and thereby save our city from problems of which they were in not small part the cause.