What About the `Squeegee Kids?’

Race and Politics

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By Sean Yoes, AFRO Baltimore Editor, syoes@54.204.251.142

On Dec. 28, I made my way down the West Baltimore gauntlet of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., on the rainy last Friday of 2018 and witnessed a familiar scene; men and women in rain soaked clothes armed only with soggy cardboard signs, begging for money.

It seems the ranks of those struggling on the far fringes of our community grows every day. And unfortunately for many of us not experiencing the same level of personal peril, patience for their plight probably dwindles.

Let’s be real about it; nobody looks forward to the prospect of being guilted seemingly at every corner and intersection to give a couple of dollars to the panhandler lurking near your car. But, if their presence gets on your nerves (I know they get on mine sometimes), or even feels intrusive, imagine how they feel being out there begging for scraps? I remind myself of the reality of their brutal transient existence every time I find myself feeling annoyed.

Sean Yoes (Courtesy Photo)

The irksome energy aimed at those experiencing homelessness was only exasperated in the wake of the murder of Jacquelyn Smith, the Harford County woman stabbed to death in Baltimore in December, after she allegedly gave money to a panhandler. I know I didn’t even think about cracking my window for a few weeks after that heinous episode.

However, my anxiety has melted away enough for me to give a few dollars when I can. But, I would be disingenuous not to admit I’m more leery now, checking my sideview mirrors much more frequently.

I find myself compelled to give disproportionately to the young men known as “squeegee kids.”

I’ve never seen a White so-called squeegee kid in Baltimore; not quite sure what that means and at the same time I’m quite sure exactly what it means (if that makes any sense). All the cats I’ve encountered have been Black boys and young Black men (with a sprinkling of young Black women), and unlike the vast majority of those they compete with at corners and intersections, most of those young men do not appear to be homeless.

Call me naive, but when I see those young men scrambling at intersections, wielding squeegees cleaning windows for a few dollars, I see guys who have not made the choice to scramble on drug corners and hustle. I also see young men who feel like they are running out of choices in a city where the majority of their peers have not fared well.

Three-hundred ten people were murdered in Baltimore in 2018; 167 of those people were between the ages of 13 and 30 and the vast majority of them were Black males (although a growing number of young Black women were homicide victims this year).

The plight of Black boys in the Baltimore City Public School (BCPS) system has been well documented; they are almost always at or near the bottom in categories of merit and almost always at or near the top in categories of ignominy.

I’ll let others carry on the inane and archaic debate about the intelligence of our Black boys. But, if you think that the young Black men you see on the streets of our city every day are inherently stupid, I’ve got some news for you; you’re the stupid one.

I’m not arguing every Black kid skipping school, cutting up in class or getting high on BCPS grounds is a rough-hewn brown Einstein. But, I strongly believe almost all of these young dudes out here possess genius level ability in some area. Take the time to engage in conversation with some of these young cats you fear on the corner for a couple of minutes. I dare you. What you will find is most of them are really sharp.

The vast majority of these young guys don’t do well in school not because they are dumb; they don’t do well in school because they are bored AF. We can set aside the racial (and racist), cultural, sociological and economic obstacles young Black males have to navigate daily, and just focus on their classroom experience. What are they teaching our Black boys in the schools across the city? Do Black boys (and girls) see themselves in the lessons they learn day in and day out?

One day recently a group of four young men I regularly see near the corner of MLK and Mulberry moved through stopped traffic, squeegees in hand. I almost always hand out a few dollars whether they clean my windows or not. But, on this day I waved the dudes off. However, one decided to clean a clump of bird crap off my windshield anyway. After he was done, I rolled down the window and handed him a dollar, he thanked me gave me a pound and went on his way.

I thought about it for a minute; this kid just made a dollar for 10 seconds of work, that’s six dollars a minute, $360 in an hour. The reality is, there are young men in their late teens or early 20’s who have an expectancy of making that kind of money right now in America. Most of the them live in the tech hubs scattered throughout the nation.

How do we bring those opportunities to our young Black men in Baltimore?

Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Baltimore editor and author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.