Early Memories of Violence

When I was 3 years old (c. 1970), I lived just over the Baltimore City Line in Baltimore County, Maryland. The Lochearn neighborhood to be exact. (Next door to pioneering stripper Blaze Starr). The house we lived in is no longer there, having been destroyed by flooding in 1972 from Hurricane Agnes shortly after we emigrated to Columbia.

I attended nursery school in what we called the Pimlico neighborhood of northwest Baltimore. I wasn’t really aware of maps then, but my mom says it was the site that was  Beth Jacob Synagogue, which is across from what is now Pimlico Middle School, next to Chedar Chabad.

In fact the site still looks very much like the parking lot I remember.

Parking lot Beth Jacob Synagogue. Via Google Streetview.
Parking lot Beth Jacob Synagogue. Via Google Streetview.

Memories of nursery school tend to focus on traumatic or unusual events. Getting a black eye from three slightly older Jewish thugs all named Michael. (I assume because I was smarter but not stronger than them, but not smart enough to avoid getting slugged). Seeing a bookcase fall on top of my non-Jewish friend Paul who was in my school temporarily because his mom was separating from an abusive husband and father. Staying all day instead of just a half-day because my parents had to deal with a basement flooded by the Gwynn’s Falls. Celebration of Sukkot under a Sukkah. (Things you know when you are 3 but forget decades later).

When I was older (say 4) I normally rode a schoolbus home. I remember the kid who sat behind me on the bus pulled out my hair and I got grilled by parents about my missing hair. Before then, I remember being picked up by mom from nursery school.

One day, as we walked to the car in the back parking lot shown in the picture, I was grabbed, had a gun held to me, while money was demanded from my mom. She pulled out her wallet, the gunman took it and dropped me. We went home. My mom called the police and reported it. My dad came home from work at Social Security in Woodlawn and called the credit card companies to cancel the cards. The police came over and interviewed my mom. As a precocious three-year old, I questioned the unfairness of it all. If my mom had been 1 minute later, the next family leaving school would have faced the robber.

We found out later the robber tried to use my mom’s credit card and drivers license (this is in the era before drivers licenses had photos) to buy tires at Sears. Apparently the clerks at Sears were suspicious about a young black man  being named “Roslyn,”  even in these early carefree days of credit cards, and when the credit card was declined they called the police and waited in the back. The criminal (and his friends), sensing something was awry because of the amount of time it took, ran like thieves.  Police used helicopters to try to track him down, but he vanished.

The Sears card and my mom’s drivers license were returned by the store clerk.

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I don’t normally think about this, although violence is one of those things that just erodes trust in strangers. I am reminded of this because of the killing of a 2 year old in North Minneapolis. And I am not entirely sure what the point of this is, but violence is not a new phenomenon, and according to actual statistics, it used to be much worse.  I suspect some of the reduction in homicides is due to better treatment of gunshot and knifing victims as much as a reduction in violence and increase in civilization, just as the reduction in road fatalities is in large part due to better medical care and faster response times and better vehicles — not better and safer drivers.

What is newer is the constant bombardment of information, and newer still is  sousveillance, everyone watching and recording everyone else. Stores did not generally have cameras then, much less ubiquitous smartphones of today allowing us to livestream our lives. So we are aware of violence that used to be distant. I remember my grandmother in Florida being visibly upset about the disappearance of Adam Walsh from a nearby mall, though she had never met him or his family. I couldn’t understand why she would identify with him (or identify him with me). For me, the TV was about distant people, but she grew up before TV (and was a teen before radio was widespread), so maybe treated it differently.

Strangely, people still think they can do things in secret. People still think they have privacy. Technology changes how we interact with the world. I hope this new set of ubiquitous filming will actually reduce violence, and will make at least some people think twice.