Aclock ticks in Baltimore, and I don't mean the one in Oriole Park. It's the homicide clock. It's not something you can look up and see, but something you feel and hear - part of Baltimore's biorhythm - and every year at this time, the ticks get louder, the pulse grows stronger, and anyone who still cares about this stupid waste of life gets a headache.
Even if you'd rather not think about it, you can't help but sense the body count building. It's as if you can feel the weight of it.
It's not as heavy as it was 10 years ago. But it's still heavy.
In the years before Martin O'Malley became mayor, the annual homicide count went over 300. It dropped for a time. But we are marching toward 300 again, instead of 200 or below, where O'Malley had pledged to take us by now.
"One citizen to another," O'Malley said yesterday, "this is the challenge that we volunteered to take on in 1999, and it's no small challenge, and it did not arise overnight."
There's some good news, O'Malley said: Juvenile killings are down, and so are nonfatal shootings.
But overall, 2005 is looking like something close to 2004, with a total of 276 killings, the worst count since 1999, the year O'Malley took office.
Until the last month or so, things looked promising. By Thanksgiving, there were 242 homicides, 17 below the count at the same time in 2004.
But we've had a hellacious December, and now the 2005 body count is catching up to last year's level.
This week, police say, a 26-year-old drug dealer killed the 79-year-old father of the 25-year-old drug dealer he had tried to shoot the day before. Then the second drug dealer apparently tried to avenge the shooting of his father by killing a 15-year-old boy who supposedly worked for the first drug dealer.
It's insane stuff.
I detest the young men who, seeing drug-driven death around them, continue to put themselves and their families at risk by refusing to get off the streets. They could pick up the phone and ask for help - as I've seen dozens do this past year - or they could take a long walk away from trouble and find something better. The opportunities are there for the taking. Instead, they chose this stupid, grunt-headed, gun-macho life.
But that's life in long stretches of Baltimore, on the east side and the west side, where young guys serve a heroin-cocaine customer base that extends from Mosher Street to Bel Air, from Lakewood Avenue to Westminster, from Broadway to Columbia.
Homicide and the drug addiction are part of life here, and I don't care where you live, you are in some way diminished by it.
I know: You don't buy that John Donne stuff. No man is an island, but in the year 2005-almost-2006, you can live and work without ever being touched by Baltimore's heroin-and-homicide cancer. You don't have to be involved in this particular aspect of mankind. You can bypass the whole thing. For thousands of Marylanders, the violent crime in Baltimore has become background noise. It's something we've just decided we have to live with, like the summer humidity.
But I still have a scream or two left in me.
Call me crazy, but I still think Baltimore has a chance to crawl out of this mess.
Look, you don't even have to care about this on humanitarian terms. Just take the market argument.
If your property values are soaring now, while Baltimore maintains a national rep for heroin and homicides, wouldn't they be even higher if drug addiction and its commensurate violence dropped by, say, 50 percent over the next decade? What could a homeowner add to the appraised value of a house in, say, Lutherville or Pasadena if Baltimore became known for beating its heroin-and-homicide cancer? Do you think more businesses would relocate here?
Look at our national standing.
In 2004, there was one killing for about every 6,500 residents of Chicago, and one for about every 14,550 in New York City. In Baltimore, there was one killing for about every 2,350 of us.
Maryland is the third-wealthiest state in the country, but Baltimore remains one of the poorest and most violent cities.
How long do we abide this?
"We are a strong state, with one major city, we ought to be able to lick this problem," O'Malley said yesterday. "With the wealth of a great economy we ought to be able to do this."
This is my last column of 2005.
I don't apologize for presenting this dreary subject just when we're all revving up for New Year's Eve.
Next month, I hit my 27th year as a newspaper columnist in Baltimore, my 30th as a citizen in Maryland. I'm sick of the waste, year after year, and I'd like to see us defeat this cancer - the drug addiction that drives the violence - before it scrapes away another generation of young people.
Some day I'd like to see Baltimore in full recovery, the worst neighborhoods of the city transformed and made new, with working-class families and renovated rowhouses, and Baltimore's population at a million again, and great crowds forming as the clock ticks peacefully, happily toward the new year.