Is Baltimore encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit among inner-city youngsters, or is it only teaching kids the finer points of extortion?
The answer may depend on how well the "Squeegee Station" compromise works out. The first day's results weren't exactly encouraging.
Baltimore's windshield-washing "squeegee kids" triggered a major controversy a while back when the city council split cleanly along racial lines over whether to outlaw or condone the practice.
Every black member of the council wanted to leave the youngsters (most of them black adolescents) free to make a few bucks in tips by cleaning the windows of cars stopped in city traffic. Every white member voted to outlaw the practice as either dangerous or coercive or both.
The compromise was a city-sponsored program to train the youngsters in safety and courtesy, give them official "Squeegee Kid" badges, and then set up curb- lane "squeegee stations" for motorists who wanted their windshields washed.
In the first morning rush-hour test of the compromise, few customers used the "squeegee stations." According to the Associated Press the six licensed windshield washers made about $7 apiece -- most of it by darting into traffic in search of customers -- far less than the $20 to $30 the youngsters say they used to haul in on a good day.
Sponsors blamed the slow pace of business on a lack of publicity and "Squeegee Station" signs that were insufficiently eye-catching. "They (motorists) weren't coming to them, so they were going to the motorists," Lucille Gorham, a volunteer with the sponsoring Middle East Community Association, explained. She said she expected business to pick up once motorists in the viciniy of the Johns Hopkins Hospital get the word.
Maybe it will. But the suspicion lingers that the major reason for the earlier success of the operation was sheer intimidation. In New York City, where the practice apparently began a few years ago, intimidation clearly has been part of it. Motorists prefer to "tip" a kid a dollar rather than risk a smashed window or a damaged fender while they wait, like sitting ducks, for the light to change. Some hapless New Yorkers tell of getting their windshields washed two or three times in as many blocks.
Baltimore has tried to deal with the extortion factor by licensing the "squeegee kids" (the pilot group of 10 were between 9 and 13 years old) and by training them in grooming, language and courtesy ("Always say 'Thank you' even when told no.")
Gorham said she would try to keep the youngsters within the program's guidelines, even though she disagreed with attempts at regulaton. "I think it's a bad idea to disrupt the free-enterprise system," she said. "The boys should be left on their own."
Still, you have to wonder whether most motorists, many driving cars with automatic windshield washers, would view the unsolicited attention they would get in an unregulated system as a service freely purchased, or whether they will voluntarily pull into a "Squeegee Station" to have the service continued.
If they do, then the youngsters may learn the entrepreneur's knack of pleasing customers in order to increase their income. But if they don't, and the kids, licensed or otherwise, resume their years-old practice of darting into stopped traffic for captive clients, they may learn to drop their courteous smiles for expressions that suggest "tip or else."
Anybody who has ever paid a kid to "watch" his car while at a ball game, or "lent" a kid a quarter while walking an unfamiliar street is likely to see Baltimore's noble attempt at compromise as little more than licensed extortion.