I’m pretty sure there has never been a blog entry written about the town of Westminster, Maryland, so I decided to take care of this problem by writing one myself. You’re welcome.
Westminster is about a forty-five minute drive northwest of Baltimore, just south of the Pennsylvania state line. Unlike its namesake abbey in the UK, there’s not much that’s remarkable about this town, perhaps other than being the seat of Carroll County, if you want to call that remarkable. And the fact that guitar virtuoso Michael Angelo Batio played at a music store there last year. I thought to myself, if Michael Angelo Batio’s played there, it can’t be a bad place. Sure enough, the few pictures I was able to find on the internet showed quaint cafes and shops housed in Maryland-style red brick buildings, so I decided to drag my family out there for a weekend excursion. My wife did ask why we were going to this random town and what the hell we were going to do there all afternoon, but I guess she wanted out of the house badly enough that she didn’t put up much of a fight. Our one-year old (at the time) didn’t voice any objections either, so off we went.
We sensed something was wrong with the town as soon as we entered. People, mostly youth, were scattered about, sitting lazily on sidewalks and on the steps in front of the rowhouses. These were some rough, almost sickly-looking kids, many of whom were smoking cigarettes and who knows what else. Most of them had tattoos and piercings. Some were drinking from bottles wrapped in paper bags. You know there’s nothing good (legal) in that bottle if it has to be wrapped in paper. A minute later, we saw a large congregation of the same types gathered in front of some government building. It was as if a bum convention was being held in the city and the participants had begun to arrive. These people didn’t quite look homeless, at least not yet, but more like they were on a journey towards eventual homelessness through an apparent pursuit of a reckless lifestyle.
Despite the mild uneasiness we were feeling by this point, we decided to stick to plan and take a walk downtown anyway. It helped that the intersection we were now at seemed quieter and comfortably far away from the zombie apocalypse we had just witnessed a minute ago. We drove around the block and parked our car in the public outdoor lot.
That’s when it happened. The extremely pink-faced young man who had been leaning against the wall of the adjacent building started walking towards us. I instantly knew he was going to ask for something (well, money), or worse. He had made it to our car by the time I got my daughter’s stroller out of the trunk. He started speaking in an unexpectedly soft and sad tone to tell us that his girlfriend had thrown him out and he was now living on the streets, and therefore if we could help him out. I thought I even saw some tears. If my memory is correct, he asked for a specific amount of money, like seven dollars. I’ve noticed some beggars go for these supposedly calculated amounts to give the impression that they’ve run into an unfortunate one-off situation, as opposed to being habitual beggars, which most probably are. The hope is that the beggee (this should really be a word) would see the request as legitimate, maybe even empathize a bit, and with any luck, reach for their wallet. Being the half principled, half stingy person that I am, I declined and nervously awaited my fate. To my relief, the guy just walked away.
Despite the pleasantness of the red brick buildings, the experience had put a damper on our mood. We felt we’d already seen enough of the town and headed back to the car after finishing our compulsory 10-minute walk and taking a few pictures to document that we’d been there. As we stopped at a red light, another band of bummy-looking youth crossed the street. Among the crowd was none other than our beggar friend and a girl he had his arm wrapped around – presumably not the one who threw him out of the house. They were happily skipping along, sipping a mystery drink out of the bottle he held. It was such a relief to see that the rejection he got from us hadn’t dampened his spirits and that he had found the money he so desperately needed (to buy that drink, apparently), as well as another girlfriend, within just a few minutes. What a guy!
I obviously can’t back this with any evidence, but I have a feeling that what we saw in Westminster that day had something to do with the opioid epidemic that’s been wreaking havoc across the country. I don’t think the sickly look common to all those people was entirely the result of drinking and smoking (even if it’s all pot). Currently, heroin addiction is one of the most serious substance abuse-related problems in the country and Westminster has made its own headlines on the topic. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the kids we saw were in fact on heroin or some other hard drug.
All those historic brick rowhouses make for pretty pictures, but there is an eeriness to Westminster and too many uneasy encounters with the street wanderers. Take enough strolls on Main Street and you will run into trouble one day, at least that’s how it feels. I don’t normally end my posts on a depressing note, but that’ll just have to be the case here. It’s a shame because the town has so much promise. I really hope that whatever this epidemic is, it’s eradicated one day soon. In the meantime, I’ll have to ensure that our next family excursion will be to somewhere more cheerful.