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.

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.

Three days later, again while waiting for a light change, I took the slug out and held it in my hand. There are people in this world who believe that certain inanimate objects give off emanations, stones for instance. I wouldn't say what I felt was one of those, but I did detect a very faint sensation of comfort, though that might have been simple autosuggestion. I have memories of nervous young second lieutenants in the Army trying to draw confidence from their polished swagger sticks. And I'm sure the baton reinforces, to some degree, the symphony conductor's confidence in his authority.

As expected, the novelty of the bullet began to fade and it only reclaimed my attention when I came to a sudden stop: Then it unleashed an abrupt discordant rain of metallic noise, as if to complain for being awakened by my questionable driving skills.

I would never have thought this likely, but shortly after I came into possession of the bullet I learned there are people who collect them. These are not nearly so many as those who are attracted to rifles and handguns, but there are enough to form clubs and societies. And there are those who collect not only bullets, but the colorful metal boxes some of them come in. There are websites attesting to these particular interests, sites such as "The Civil War Bullet," which describes itself as a "discussion community for serious bullet and relic collectors." Then there's the International Ammunition Association, Inc., which has assembled a "Cartridge Collector's Glossary": It displays drawings of a great variety of missiles that are shot from guns. I scrolled through this long list until my eyes were arrested by the Straight Case, a "cartridge case having no taper along its end and no abrupt change in diameter." There's my bullet! Blunt, inelegant, clothed in dirty copper and brass.

Still, not entirely certain of what I had in hand, I dropped by the Cop Shop on East Baltimore Street, where the police buy the required tools of their trade. The man behind the counter, named Sam, seemed somewhat puzzled by what I showed him, but did determine that it wasn't an American cartridge; he said he could tell by its markings. He passed it to a customer, an off-duty officer, who immediately identified it as a German .45 caliber short round. It's only one inch and two sixteenths in length, seven sixteenths in diameter.

Eventually, I began to re-examine how I came by this stubby piece of ordnance. Did the peaceful passage of the bullet from one stranger to another have any significance? Was it symbolic or mere happenstance? I even revisited that most frustrating and meaningless argument of our time, as circular and permanent as the sun itself: Do guns kill people or do people kill people? Or do bullets kill people?

That was something to think about. Over the past decades there has been so much shot flying around Baltimore, more in some neighborhoods than others, that it occurred to me that removing just one of those projectiles from circulation might contribute to public safety, though admittedly insignificantly. This feeble notion was prompted by a flash of dialogue recalled from an old movie, the title of which is long gone from my mind. A dying thug, clutching a leaky hole in his chest, as his life drains out, gurgles: "Ya got me! But you'll get yours! There's a bullet out there waiting for every one of us."

Or words to that effect.

What a dark, sinister, and fanciful thought! Should that be so, would this mean that what I've been carrying around all these weeks has somebody's name on it? Maybe my wheel-chaired beggar believed that and cleverly recruited me to dispose of it. Well, if so, it's not exactly a mission impossible, nor something I take that seriously. One of these days, just to be sure, I intend to introduce Straight Case, or .45 short round, to the Patapsco River.

It's getting close to that time.

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