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Loiterers have no right to bench

August 14, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

The news just keeps getting better for downtown Hagerstown. Washington County's chief jurist has ordered benches removed from in front of the courthouse on Washington Street because they have become "public nuisances."

Well, not the benches, exactly, but their inhabitants. We've all heard the phrase "a man's bench is his castle," and apparently some gentlemen were treating them accordingly - sacking out on them day and night, and turning them into au fresco salons of public discourse focused mainly on female anatomical proportionalism and the proper way to remove a beer cap with one's teeth. Section 8? Try Section Bench.

"I felt there was a real need to throw the bathwater out with the baby, I suppose," said Judge Fred Wright.

I'm not entirely certain that's an apt quote, since juxtaposing these folks in a reference involving any form of the word "bath" sort of stretches plausibility.

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City officials sounded a little huffy about the decision, saying they weren't really aware of the problem, nor were they notified that something needed to be done.

But I have to side with, and heartily applaud, Judge Wright for two reasons. First is the very real possibility that at some point in my life I'll have to appear in front of him, and it never hurts to stay on the good side of the court.

Second is that I've seen the dudes and it's hard to disagree with Wright's analysis of the situation. I'm not saying these fellows were there all the time, but there was a good chance one or two of them could have popped up in The Herald-Mail Lifestyle department's next city-landmark contest.

Is tearing down the benches the only answer? Maybe not. Call me Thomas Edison if you must, but I have an invention that might solve the problem: A Bench Zapper, which would work very much like a bug zapper, in that it would instantly vaporize anyone who came too close.

Well? Something had to be done. Here is a story that I swear is absolutely true: Having lost a bet, I was walking downtown a couple of months ago and out in front of the courthouse was a bicycle laying on the ground and sprawled next to it was a man, who was clearly unconscious.

Standing around him were three guys engaged in casual conversation as if absolutely nothing out of the ordinary was transpiring.

Every so often a look of vague unease would shadow one of the guy's faces and he would reach out and poke the prone individual with a stick. Much like medics check for a pulse, I guess this guy was checking for a grunt. Whatever, he always seemed satisfied with the result and he'd rejoin the discussion of the International Monetary Fund, or something.

For a split second I thought of taking action, but the desire to become an "involved public citizen" has never coursed very strongly through my veins, so I just did what everyone else was doing, which was just to walk on past as if everything was normal.

Which, come to think of it, it was.

This, in a nutshell, is downtown Hagerstown's problem; The absurd is no longer considered absurd.

I shudder to think that Wright's action may rekindle the whole homeless debate - after all, it's bad enough for a man to be homeless and it's even worse for a man to be benchless. You've heard of a person's home being sold on the courthouse steps. But what if your home IS the courthouse steps?

Forget a new shelter, the advocacy group REACH is now going to have to draw up plans to develop a new bench.

That's all fine and good, but who in this city is going to be willing to stand up and fight for Normal People Who Like To Sit? Granted, when you put a bench in a public place, you can't always expect to attract the Turgots or Mme de Pompadour, but it doesn't seem too much to ask that a shopper or courthouse employee be able to enjoy a spring day or a harmless tobacco product without having to sit on the ground.

Perhaps meters are the answer. Put in a quarter and you can sit for 15 minutes before time expires and sharp metal spikes spring up from the bench. How this would deter the problem of unconscious bicycle riders I don't know, but hey, one step at a time.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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