When rush-hour traffic backs up along the downtown streets here, the "squeegee kids" are in business. The stoplight turns red and the kids go to work, darting between the lanes of traffic to wash windshields for tips, until the light changes again. By their bookkeeping, they earn as much as $30 each on a good afternoon.
The squeegee kids, however, are an endangered species in Baltimore, where the City Council has given tentative approval to a bill that would prohibit the street corner enterprise.
"I think it's wrong," said 14-year-old Jermaine Bishop, one of an estimated 100 to 200 squeegee kids working Baltimore's downtown intersections and commuter routes. "We aren't out here stealing or nothing. It's the only way you can make money."
Squeegee kids are common on the streets of New York and other big cities, but in Baltimore, the pros and cons of the trade are being argued with fervor in city hall corridors and newspaper columns and on radio talk shows. The controversy has taken on racial tones and expanded, with the introduction of a recent amendment, to affect other roadway soliciting, from newspaper hawking to campaign stumping.
Proponents of the ban argue that the windshield washing is unsafe and that the squeegee kids sometimes are abusive to drivers who wave them away. Opponents maintain that a ban would deny these kids -- most of whom are black -- an opportunity to earn money.
"As it turned out, the issue had little to do with window washing or traffic safety," said one columnist for the Baltimore Sun. "It had a lot to do with racial fear."
The bill awaits final action by the council, scheduled for Monday, and the signature of Mayor William Donald Schaefer. But the mayor has asked that the vote be delayed, and council members are weighing a variety of compromise proposals.
When the bill passed on a tentative vote of 11 to 7 last week, the council divided strictly along racial lines, with white members approving the ban and black members in opposition. While several members maintain that this is not a question of racism, both sides say it is the first time in memory an issue has split the council purely by race.
"There was no racial element in my mind until two black council members raised it," said Frank X. Gallagher, who introduced the amendment that would broaden the ban to cover other street activity. "As many blacks complained as whites about the squeegee kids."
Gallagher and others point out that the ban was introduced at the suggestion of Police Commissioner Bishop L. Robinson, who is black.
But Kweisi Mfume, a black City Council member, said while the bill "was well-intentioned for the safety of children . . . the overtones are racial."
He has emphasized, however, that he is not suggesting that proponents of the bill are racist.
In the meantime, the squeegee kids generally are unaware that their after-school business is threatened. And their customers, like the council, are divided on the issue.
Rush-hour driver John Newman said he supports the ban. "When I was a kid, I carried grocery bags," he said Friday as the squeegee kids worked the lanes of rush-hour traffic around him at the busy intersection of West Franklin Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
But another afternoon commuter disagreed. "I think it's great entrepreneurship," she said.
The drivers usually fork out 50 cents for a squeegee, but on rare occasions the kids walk away with as much as a $10 bill.
The ban was proposed in January at the urging of police officials, who expressed concern for the safety of the children. Although no squeegee kids have been seriously injured, said Baltimore police spokesman Dennis S. Hill, "you send an 11- or 12-year-old child out into one of the busiest intersections in town, it's only a matter of time until one of them gets run over."
Council member Gallagher agrees. "The intent is not to lock up kids, but to eliminate the hazard. It was a traffic safety problem, that was it, pure and simple," until the black members raised the racial aspect, he said.
Council member Dominic (Mimi) DiPietro has raised the additional complaint that a squeegee kid scorned can be abusive. "I'm not saying they're all bad. But what will they do when they don't tip 'em enough?"
DiPietro also has argued that criminals could use the squeegee kids to lure potential victims. Such criminals, he said, could commandeer the car and its occupants. "They can either shoot you . . . or rape your wife," he said.
As Monday's scheduled vote on the issue nears, the players are busy offering alternatives in an effort to defuse the controversy.
The mayor has proposed a task force to study ways to protect the kids without banning their business. Council member Mfume suggested that the kids be required to register with the police department, wear badges and work only specified hours.
Police Commissioner Robinson may propose that the kids work where cars can pull off the road, according to a spokesman.
Council President Clarence H. (Du) Burns said many of the council members are amenable to compromise.
"We started out to do something about the kids, then we had to encompass other people . . . it got bogged down," he said. "It has been blown out of proportion . . . . Cooler heads have got to prevail. We have to sit down and see what we can work out."