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Baltimore tales: At a traffic light a stranger hands him a bullet

It was a brief encounter at a stoplight that ended with a stranger handing him an unused bullet along with a cryptic parting remark.

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There's a bullet in my car. It's in the compartment beside me where I put parking meter change. I hear it knocking around among the coins, a clunky bass amid a sprinkle of tinkling triangles.

I got it while stopped at a red light near Baltimore's downtown stadiums. A young man in a wheelchair rolled up and put his hand out. In these situations sometimes I give, sometimes not. I don't know why I give, or decline to, though it has little to do with how the beggar looks: sad, smiling, pathetic, rubbed raw and dirtied by life on the streets. The impulse for generosity is fickle and mysterious.

A lot of people disapprove of beggars. They don't just disapprove of giving to them, but of their very existence. They are afraid, and cultivate dubious notions. Don't roll down your window, they may have knives. Don't give them money, they take in hundreds every day; they have mansions in Florida.

The guy in the wheelchair was in his 30s, thin and shaved. There was nothing pathetic about him, the wheelchair notwithstanding. Because of his nimble ability to move around on it, I assumed he'd been at it for some time. I couldn't imagine him in a mansion anywhere. I gave him a dollar and he thanked me. Then, in the instant before the light changed, he put the bullet in my hand.

"Where'd this come from?"

"Around here," he said. "I picked it up a week ago. It's for you."

As I was trying to understand what he meant by that remark, so suggestive of a destiny, or to ask him what he thought I should do with the bullet, the car behind me barked and I had to move on. I plopped the thing in among the coins and thought no more of it.


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