- Bret Holmes Baltimore Md

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I Kan't Spell

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Baltimore Walk

To live in Baltimore is one thing. To live in the cushiness of one of the boroughs, whether it be Mt Vernon, Federal Hill, Fells or the dreaded Canton is quite another. The people living there don't really live in Baltimore. They don't live in what America sees as "The Wire" Baltimore. They don't even smell that aspect of the city. They'll hop on 95 before taking route 40 and they think Broadway is a nice street because they've never been above Lombard.

Last night after helping Doug move some stuff I decided to walk home as opposed to taking a taxi. I could have walked to Lombard and made a left and gone over to Calvert St. and gone all the way up and had a very mild and safe trip home. It was a trip I would have walked a 100 times. But I always say "I'm from Baltimore." But what did I really know about the Baltimore that most people don't get to see? What did I know about the other 80% of our city? I felt like a fraud. I felt like a tourist for the first time in my life.

So I headed north. I was on Broadway, which isn't all that bad all the way up to about Fayette st. and the Hopkins campus. The one thing I noticed is that you have to walk through little Mexico/Honduras/Guatemala on your way there. In this section there are a ton of food shops, bars, and oddly porn areas. None of them are run to any sort of scale that would have willed me into a purchase but it was interesting to see the community bustling. People were coming in and out of stores and the barstools at the corner dive bars were all full.

Once you hit the Hopkins campus you notice something right away.

You notice that there are police "booths" on every corner. I waived at each officer in the booth but was returned a glance that either said "He must be buying drugs." or "He's already high and is being an asshole." One cop looked at me so nastily that I really thought he was going to come out of his little "booth" and shake me down. At which point I would have started to laugh and would have said something like "nice office douche bag".

So on I pushed. I reached the Johns Hopkins hospital, which oddly is not even close to as nice as the college campus, but it is still relatively clean and guarded. The construction in this area is amazing to see. In 5 years this will be a new revitalization and home to half million dollar condos and new breath. But as of now it is Baltimore like most borough dwellers don't like to see and it is Baltimore that I knew existed but had rarely ever slapped hands with.

Before we go on we need to be honest with each other so as to bring as much truth to this story as possible. Baltimore is a black city. The African American population here is almost 70% of the city and most of them live in centralized impoverished areas that are full of crime and poor living standards. Now, unlike what you see on old bad TV or even on The Wire, families live here, grandmothers, children run and play in the street with careless abandonment just like they do in your old neighborhood. The environment that surrounds them is only defined to us by the one's that are looking in from the outside. If you were to ever be in those neighborhoods you would find that the children often play the same as you do, the families celebrate the same as you do, and even more so than you are probably used to...they look after their own. So with that being said, I will say that I did not see a single White or Asian face until I reached back to my home base.

After I passed Hopkins I could tell that the atmosphere had changed. I was a little tenser in the shoulders as I walked on. Everyone was out on their stoops leaning into cars with music blasting. They were doing each other's hair into braids. They were gathered around a small grill cooking hotdogs. There were children playing barefoot in glass filled alleys with a whiffle ball. And every eye seemed a little harder than the last as I moved towards more and more boarded up rows of homes.

The amount of homes that were boarded up or had trash falling out of the front was disheartening, disgusting, and painful. I wasn't shocked to see this sort of blight, as I have driven past such things, but to walk past and see people sleeping in pizza boxes and to smell the stale urine that pours out onto the street where children play and families gossip, was an awakening. I pushed on and made eye contact with everyone I could. I wasn't scared but I wasn't at ease. I got some head nods from the younger men and my fair share of "sup's?" I high-fived a little boy that was running next to me as if I were a carnival attraction. I'd imagine not too many white males with all of their teeth stroll down this street too often, but I could be wrong. So seeing his startled amazement that made him want to run next to me down the street wasn't surprising. It seemed as though I was an anomaly but at the same time I never felt threatened or in danger. I actually felt pretty warmly received.

But the eyes always hold a little bit of ember in them. Even though a cat may seem docile in the house, somewhere in it's lineage it is tied to the tiger and lion and you can see it in their eyes. Even though their easy going style of life that consisted of stoop hair braiding and chatting through open car windows seemed harmless the actuality is that, much like a cat, they were tense and very alert.

I pushed on to Preston St, my street, and made a left. I had no idea I was still 18 blocks from home. And Preston St. didn't look nearly as friendly as the double wide lanes of Broadway. Preston St. looked like a bad day in Bosnia. The boarded up houses were now not just one or two per row, they were now one or two rows and some of the houses in the rows were hollowed out from fire. And you could tell that squatters were in the tenement by the flickering sheet coming out from the windows and since it was dark I could see hearths inside the hollowed out craters, burning their shadows onto the walls and alleys.

It was dark. The music and street chatter from Broadway had ceased. Broadway seemed like a distant memory of joy, as though it were almost a mardis gras eveing in comparison to the gloom of Preston. I was almost tempted to put my headphones on, my head down, and double time it home. "I can do 18 blocks in twenty minutes." I thought to myself. Then I remember why I came on this walk in the first place. I wanted to shed some tourist from me. I can handle myself like a man and if I act like a man, I'll be treated like one. I stuck my chin up and my chest out and I walked on. I was however, at this point, in the dark with the smell of beer and urine all around, and the occasional waft of weed, a little nervous.

I strolled on and saw what looked to be a block party but it was not. It was a semi-fight territorial rock throwing thing between women and children. I didn't think I would actually see any action, and I doubt this was high on the scale of action but this was definitely a confrontation of some sorts. On one side of the street in an alley a woman was yelling about being ripped off and she was being held back by what looked like her son and two other women. On the other side of the street there were 7 women playing cards on an outdoor patio table with open beers and children running around them picking up rocks and throwing them at the yelling woman. Their mother's insisted that they stop throwing rocks but the children paid very little attention. They were probably 10 or a little older, so they were about to hit puberty and likely very hard to control.

For some reason when I saw this I smiled. I smiled like someone seeing a humpback whale in nature. I felt as though I were watching an uncontrolled environment that could turn in any direction, even on me if I wasn't careful. I pretty much tip toed through the barrage of curse words and debris.

About 2 blocks later at Ensor street I spit on the ground. A mother had her child with her on the front step as I walked by and I spit. She yelled at me and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. "Don't spit in front of my child. This ain't your neighborhood, we don't spit around children." She obviously said this for her own reasons. I was proud that she was proud enough to tell me not to spit in front of her daughter but perplexed that I was such a threat while 20 yards away children were throwing rocks at adults across the street. I understood it, but I have to say that her efforts of pride could be better filtered. I said I was very sorry and moved on.

The rest of the journey involved nothing more than burnt out buildings and a bridge. I was nearly home. I crossed over Guilford and saw two hippies walking their dog. The girl was wearing very short, tight green pants with one ass cheek hanging out and the man was wearing a loose fitting white t-shirt, jeans and a watch. I thought about if they actually knew what was only a 1/2 mile from where we lay our heads, would they still be looking like that? But isn't that Baltimore? Isn't everything in Baltimore a 1/2 mile from something new, something dangerous, and something strange? Was I a tourist on this visit? Absolutely. Am I still a Baltimore tourist? I think I am and I don't think I'll every really sleep in the under belly of this city. But there is not doubt I'll take this journey again and again. I felt alive. I even felt slightly at home in my city.

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