There are ways to ease squeegee stress

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

Afew months ago, some­one passed along an emailed let­ter from a re­tired po­lice of­fi­cer who de­scribed his en­counter, at Conway and Charles streets in down­town Bal­ti­more, with “10 to 12 young blacks” who had spray bot­tles and squeegees in their hands. The man had driven into the city with his wife for a Sun­day din­ner at a restau­rant. He was not in­ter­ested in hav­ing his wind­shield washed. But “one of the lit­tle dar­lings” sprayed “mud/dirty wa­ter” on his car any­way.

The let­ter then de­scribed the squeegee kid’s pro­fane re­sponse to the driver and the driver’s de­sire to per­son­ally dis­ci­pline the young­ster. From there, the writer leaped into a rant about “lib­eral Black Lives Mat­ter pro­gres­sive BS.” He de­scribed the squeegee kid as a “thug” and pre­dicted that, with­out cor­rec­tive dis­ci­pline, the boy would be dead by 25.

The let­ter, shared with me as a warn­ing about a civic prob­lem — ag­gres­sive squeegee kids are of­fend­ing sub­ur­ban vis­i­tors, whose pa­tron­age of res­tau­rants and other ameni­ties is vi­tal to Bal­ti­more’s sur­vival — as­cribed the kid’s bad be­hav­ior to a bit­ter salad of ini­tia­tives, go­ing back to the New Deal, to ad­dress gen­er­a­tional poverty, il­lit­er­acy and ig­no­rance, dis­crim­i­na­tion in hous­ing, in­ad­e­quate health care, racial and in­come in­equal­ity, and, more re­cently, ex­ces­sive force by po­lice. In red-blooded re­ac­tionary fash­ion, the re­tired cop blamed so­cial prob­lems on the pro­grams cre­ated to ad­dress them rather than on the con­di­tions that fos­tered them in the first place. But let’s get back to the squeegee kids. The es­ti­mated 100 chil­dren and young adults who take part in this en­ter­prise ac­count for a huge por­tion of Bal­ti­more’s so­cial me­dia chat­ter; the sub­ject some­times dom­i­nates civic con­ver­sa­tion. I get all kinds of re­ac­tions when I ask about it. Here’s a sam­ple col­lected from friends and news con­tacts:

“I don't care if they squeegee my wind­shield. I give them a dol­lar, some change, one time a mint. Peo­ple in this city need to look out for one an­other. And giv­ing a kid some money for do­ing a mi­nor job, is that re­ally so bad?”

“I don't par­tic­u­larly like them, and some are way too ag­gres­sive.”

“In­stead of wav­ing them off, act­ing like they aren't there, or as if they are a nui­sance, try rolling down the win­dow, say­ing hello and giv­ing them a tiny bit of money. It cre­ates way less ten­sion.”

“I ab­so­lutely used to re­coil when they came to my car be­cause I didn’t want them touch­ing it and I never have change. Over time, I stopped be­ing so un­com­fort­able with it. I pay them when I can. I ap­pre­ci­ate that they’re out there try­ing to make a buck.”

“Some of our cus­tomers have said that they feel like they must pass through a toll area in or­der to get to our restau­rant. It is def­i­nitely an ir­ri­ta­tion.”

“I worry con­stantly that one of the kids is go­ing to be hit or killed run­ning through the traf­fic or that a driver will swerve to avoid hit­ting the kid and hit an­other ve­hi­cle.”

“I had a young man clean my wind­shield be­fore I could say no. He did a great job, was clean and po­lite. We only had $1.80 to give him and he was glad to get it. He was about 18. Some of th­ese older guys need job train­ing. We need to pro­vide some way for low-skilled, low-ed­uca- tion peo­ple to sur­vive.”

Last spring, a mid­town res­i­dent named Peter Sul­tan, not­ing com­plaints about squeegee kids, wrote me to say he had lit­tle con­fi­dence in the city’s po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship to re­solve what he called “this rel­a­tively mi­nor qual­ity-of-life is­sue.”

Sul­tan cor­rectly de­scribes what this is. But it’s not like the com­plaints about the kids have been ig­nored. The mayor ex­per­i­mented with a Squeegee Corps to get them work­ing in “pop-up” car washes. She says she wants a jobs pro­gram just for squeegee kids. Po­lice of­fi­cers in the Cen­tral District have been sent out to en­gage the kids and talk to them about other op­por­tu­ni­ties. Now the Down­town Part­ner­ship plans to spend about $3,000 a week to sta­tion un­armed se­cu­rity guards at busy in­ter­sec­tions to calm in­ter­ac­tions be­tween the kids and driv­ers.

Those are moves in the right di­rec­tion. But the Down­town Part­ner­ship “guards” might serve this en­deavor bet­ter if they present them­selves as men­tors, or bud­dies, be­cause, beyond keep­ing an eye out for bad be­hav­ior, they need to cre­ate re­la­tion­ships with the squeegee kids. They need to get them — es­pe­cially the older ones — think­ing about mov­ing to safer, steady work else­where.

In the im­me­di­ate, it would serve every­one if the squeegee kids got a les­son in sales­man­ship: Smile at your prospec­tive cus­tomers; of­fer your ser­vices but be cool when re­jected (take no for an an­swer); wait un­til ve­hi­cles stop mov­ing to re­duce con­cerns about safety; make sure you say thanks. The right per­son, with the right ap­proach, can make this work. In all of Bal­ti­more, there must be a squeegee guru.

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