To be a middle-aged Black woman, mostly in a place like Baltimore, is to make early peace with being called “ma’am.” A lot of my female friends elsewhere, especially the white ones, had mini existential crises the first time someone treated them more like respected elders than hot women.

But since my early 30s, I’ve kinda dug it, because “Excuse me, ma’am” is a lot better than “Hey girl, come over here, never mind, you ain’t that cute anyway.” I also have always reserved the cosmic right to those honorifics in memory of my grandparents’ generation of Black people who were sometimes denied them and the dignity that comes with them.

That’s certainly informed my relationship with the young people, almost always young Black men with squeegees, who I usually encounter on President Street coming off Interstate 83. To them, I’m usually “Miss” or “Ma’am” or “Auntie” or occasionally “Ma,” either in genuine respect or as part of a business-based charm offensive. If I remember, I like to have a couple bucks for them, because I appreciate their hustle and want to reward it, and because I don’t usually want my windshield washed, but want them out of the road. I worry about them. I’m Auntie, after all.

But I’m not an idiot. I know that in any group there are hard-working kids, dudes smiling just enough to get a buck, and ones who might pose real menace. I’ve been thinking about that since Thursday, when I saw a photo of the bloodstained intersection of Light and Conway streets. Not only because I drive by there about once a week, but because I was just there last weekend, in broad daylight, crossing that street on the way to dinner with my 8-year-old as part of an impromptu staycation on a long weekend.

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I don’t know what led a motorist to have an altercation with a squeegee worker, park, get out with a bat and come back swinging until he was shot to death. And neither do you. But I’m convinced that how people view this terrible thing, and what they’ve decided may have happened, is influenced by what one thinks about the squeegee workers in general.

I assume they’re kids just trying to make some money. Others assume that they’re all criminals and thugs waiting to accost people. And the truth, case by case, may vary. But I’m positive that those assumptions color how people approach their interaction with the squeegee workers. And that may have affected why that motorist jumped out of their car and started swinging on people. I wasn’t there. I don’t know.

But I do know that perception, even unconsciously, affects behavior. I’m going to be honest — there has never been a moment when I thought: “I really wish some kid would show up at my window and start spraying water on my windshield.” I’m a single woman and a Baltimore native, so I always approach encounters with strangers, whoever they are, with a modicum of caution. Also, I see them as human, so I’m usually more worried about them lurching in front of a moving car than I am about my own safety. They have always been at least polite, and at most magnanimous to me, especially when I give them a preemptive couple bucks and they make a soapy foam heart on the windshield and move on.

Is it soapy extortion, a price I have to pay just to get home? Sure. But it’s cheaper than, like, Girl Scout Cookies and World’s Finest Chocolate bars, things I used to shake down friends, church members and strangers for. To me, in normal circumstances, it’s the price of driving and living in the city, like outrageous parking fees, predatory ticket writers and shockingly short lights. Don’t love it. But it’s part of the game.

To me, the difference, again, is how you see these kids in the first place. Someone on Twitter pointed out that if any other young person had been charged by a middle-aged adult with a bat, an adult who could have just driven away and not parked, grabbed a weapon, and come back swinging, people would be outraged. I can’t say that the resistance is all white people who live in the county who don’t like being confronted with Black kids, or those living in the city who feel the same, because again, I admit to some apprehension at stopping at the light and knowing I’m likely to be bombarded with soap and squeegees.

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But I can’t help but think that my view is different because I view these kids — and they are mostly kids — as humans. As someone’s kids. I know they pose a safety and traffic problem, and that it would be great to not worry about hitting them accidentally. I know there has been harassment, fraud and worse. But that’s not the majority of these kids. This isn’t the first time that a squeegee kid has been charged with a bat. And I can’t help but believe that we assume what happened based on what we see first.

The squeegee or the kid.


Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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