Squeegee worker Tirell Johnson walked 20 minutes from East Baltimore to the corner of Mount Royal and North avenues in Bolton Hill with a bottle of Windex and a squeegee tool with a ripped sponge in hand. He planned to earn his Friday cash the way he always did — cleaning windshields.
Only today was different. Drivers seemed more hesitant to let him wash their windows. By noon, he had earned about $25, much less than the $70 he usually makes in the same time frame. Johnson, 19, said one driver threatened to pull out a gun after Johnson asked whether the driver could “support the hustle.” Johnson said he and his fellow squeegee workers backed up with caution.
The tensions followed a fatal encounter Thursday at the Inner Harbor, where Baltimore Police said a driver pulled out a metal bat and swung it toward squeegee workers. Police said a squeegee worker responded with gunfire, and the driver, Timothy Reynolds, was killed. Police were seeking Friday to identify and find the shooter.
Despite the atmosphere, Johnson said he had no choice but to return to the North Baltimore intersection. He had to work despite the possible dangers. He needed the cash to provide for his 8-month-old and the child’s mother. Johnson had tried a city job training program with the thought of leaving the streets, but the culinary arts program didn’t offer the immediate cash squeegeeing does.
“We can’t leave just because we feel in danger,” Johnson said. “It’s like a gamble.”
Later in the day, a driver gave Johnson a $50 bill.
Johnson works several corners, but Light Street, where the shooting happened, isn’t one of them.
Micheal Augins, a 17-year-old squeegee worker at Lombard and President streets downtown also didn’t want to be associated with the workers at the shooting scene, saying some of them were known for being aggressive. He had seen someone there pull windshield wipers off a vehicle.
Still, Micheal believes both the squeegee worker and the driver from Thursday’s altercation were in the wrong. He didn’t agree with how Reynolds came out of his car swinging a metal bat, as police described, nor with a squeegee worker firing in response.
“I feel as though he shouldn’t have had the gun … but the man shouldn’t have hopped out the car,” Micheal said.
Friday morning, Micheal kicked off his day of squeegeeing alone. Some of his fellow workers left the corner as he arrived around 10 am Around the corner, a cop car remained parked with its lights flashing. A driver rolled down his window and yelled, “In my opinion, nobody wants this squeegee stuff around,” before pulling off.
Micheal was used to people being rude to him. The other day, he said a white man called him a racial slur.
He said he didn’t carry anything for protection, such as a firearm. All he needed was his spray bottle, the squeegee and his backpack.
To remain cordial with drivers, he said he doesn’t touch people’s cars without their permission, though that is not the case for all squeegee workers. Some continue to do the cleaning after drivers turn them down, while others spray the windows and lets the suds streak down unwiped.
That’s not him, Micheal said. “I just keep making my money,” he said.
Ten minutes later, a black Mercedes-Benz came to a halt many feet before the intersection, leaving space between it and Micheal. The teenager walked away from the corner soon afterward.
Farther down President, where it intersects with Pratt Street, Randolph Washington, 15, was approached by a security guard from the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture across the street. She wanted to tell him about a job fair inside and the free haircuts on offer. As Randolph and his peers pondered entering the museum and scouting out work beyond the corner, they continued to clean windshields.
Inside, Michael Custis, a 22-year-old on-and-off squeegee worker, filled out a job application and underwent his first interview with Baltimore Department of Public Works. He was asked about his skills, to which he replied “good with math” and “patient.” He learned the first from counting money. He earned his patience working with his aunt at a day care center.
Custis filled out his first tax forms for a conditional job offer and walked away from the job fair table feeling hopeful. It’d be his first real job, one with a new environment and new people.
“Better off get a job, go home, than be out here [with] swinging beats,” Custis said.