23 May 2011

Christmas in Baltimore City, 2009

This is the first entry in City by City, an online project. Read the introduction.

The funeral came off without a hitch, in spite of the snow. It was as dignified as we could have hoped for and no one from the altar mentioned what had happened. I parked my rental car on Argyle Avenue, feeling a bit more alert than usual. In Atlanta, just after Thanksgiving, two gunmen robbed me of my station wagon and wallet; two days before Christmas I didn’t want to invite fate’s wrath a second time. I was back home in Baltimore.

In the 1980s civic boosters had tried to inflate the city’s image by giving it the name “Charm City.” Teenagers, the real victims of a putatively inexplicable forty-year cycle of surreal open-air shootings, stabbings, beatings, and narcotics use and sale, renamed the place “Harm City.” I footed through the slush toward the church marveling at the irony. My generation had heralded Atlanta as a great Promised Land, the zion of prosperity, the chance for a life nestled in the grassy suburbs away from the crumbling brick and mortar of our youth. Being robbed at gunpoint made me want to go home to Baltimore for Christmas to see my mother and reconnect with the familiarity of home, but it takes a rare breed to leave “Hotlanta” for the greater security of Harm City.

When my two little sons are able to play by themselves during my visit, I pass a few hours reading one of my college books, A Hazard of New Fortunes, a William Dean Howells novel about the seductive powers of Gilded Age society. At around the time he was finishing the book, Howells had written a letter to his friend Henry James, worrying that American society was “coming out all wrong in the end, unless it bases itself anew on a real equality.” Despite the impressive rise of President Obama and the “real equality” he registers, I fear an American society coming out all wrong too. And I feel compromised, just like Howells, whose next sentence in his letter to Henry James is, “Meantime, I wear a fur-lined overcoat, and live in all of the luxury money can buy.” Black Americans specifically, and Americans in general live in an era of unparalleled access to power and bling, but, like Howells, some of us “tingle with shame and horror for what we are doing.” 

The homegoing took place at a historic African Methodist Episcopal Zion church on Pennsylvania Avenue. In the 1930s, when my grandmother sparked her family’s exodus to Baltimore from a little tobacco town in southern Virginia, “The Avenue,” as it was then known, was home to scenes of great African American optimism and Jazz Age prosperity. The Avenue was the legendary destination for most of our ancestors who migrated from the rural South during the World War I era, a migration that sputtered to an end for that section of the city shortly after World War II. Concerned about their appeal to the younger crowd, by the 1970s the AME Zion’s rebuilt the church in an art deco style of sharp angles and rough edged cement. The optimism of the durable modernist structure remains, but the neighborhood surrounding it washed away. The most obvious culprit is heroin. There was also residential segregation, the collapse of the skilled labor market, and the destruction of public schools, but these do not have the same visibility as what bubbles on the street corner. 

Despite the years of architectural revision and neighborhood decay, the minister of the church produces a soloist who sings a manly, conservatory-trained tenor that crescendos “All is well!” and brings the crowd to its feet. A tall, powerful-looking man, the minister then tops this performance in elegance and carriage with a sermon that quotes Frederick Douglass and parses the distinctions among ethics, passion, and duty. He does all of this in immaculate English; he’s actually completed his training at Yale.

Heroin and the response to it have claimed several generations, and our task at the church was to try to get home to God one of our lost brethren. A bright childhood friend, a boy with a mocking adolescent wit, a student at one of the venerable Catholic high schools for boys, had lost his life. Our families live next door to one another on the same block. We had the same childhood and high school friends. We suffered many of the same enemies. A week before, Chris had battled police officers and been slain. Based on my own relationship with the local police dating back twenty-five years, I know immediately that he is the victim of trigger-happy whites with badges. 

I wasn’t shocked by what Chris had done, as I hadn’t been shocked when a small young man produced a pistol and started shouting “Give up the check!” to me in November. But both times I was deeply saddened.

My homeboy is interred at a cemetery with a swan lake where we used to take our girls at night because it was a park with a lake and it was just over the line and in the county. “The County” then meant safety and comfort to us, in the way that the neighborhood where the HBO show “The Wire” was filmed did not. Two days after the funeral, my closest friend David and his older brother—first cousins to the deceased—and I take our children sledding at the bucolic swan lake, in the park facing the cemetery. I had attended the funeral above all to support David, who is like a brother, and his uncle and aunt, Chris’s father and stepmother, who still live next-door to my mother. David and I ran after girls together, faced some terrifying bullies and some more terrifying gunmen, and waded through the rivers of alcohol and drugs. We have been shot at together. We arrived at plateaus of stability in our own lives for reasons we can’t be completely certain about. It had something to do, though, we are both sure, with the murder of our comrade Donald Bentley in 1989. My own pursuit of moderation, or balance perhaps, also had something to do with the loss of my father six months later.

The children enjoy themselves with abandon, and my 4-year-old son fits in easily and accepts the avuncular guidance from the two other men that I have known my entire life. My boy even surprises me by thoroughly embracing a makeshift sled, a plastic box top. It’s curious because although we certainly had carts of plastic store-bought toys in the 1970s, it was still an era when boys coveted makeshift toys, especially go-carts and stickball bats. I have been worried about my son Nathaniel fitting in with other black children because so much of the environment I provide for him in Atlanta is lily white, even though he lives in a city with a large and flamboyant black middle class.

My old homeboys from the neighborhood honor our man down, the source of a week’s worth of news coverage praising the use of lethal police force. Chris was armed when he died, and the police claim he shot at them. There are, to me, different tiers of men at the homegoing. About a dozen of his mates from Hagerstown, where there is a state penitentiary, make their way to the left side of the church, away from his parents. The majority of the people are relatives and friends from the neighborhood. There were about eight or nine of us born in 1968, one or two from 1969, and then eight or nine from 1970, his year. Chris’s brother’s group from the middle 1960s was there too. The 1970 guys who had been in his class were the most deeply emotional. A couple of them had reason to be; they had been running the streets together when he died. Despite some solid elements of his upbringing, Chris had spent virtually all of his adult life behind bars, and had said he was not going back to prison.

In the church, after I take a last glance at Chris, I pass CB, an impressively sized man with a lion’s mane of hair. I ask about his older brother, my classmate, who had a child with a girl I knew from church. Surprised to see me, CB smiles through his tears and shakes my hand. “Sean locked up but he be home soon,” he says. I remember when David would give me the same update about Chris, or when Jason, further down our block, would say that his uncle, who had murdered his girlfriend, was due home any day. But CB’s brother was, just like Chris, an intelligent, winning, attractive, sensitive, and slender young man. I loved visiting with the group of outgoing, clever, oddly amusing guys and several redbone-fine sisters along their street, sheltered by a canopy of marvelous oak and maple trees. Like myself, they all grew up firmly middle class.

Linda Brent once wrote that beauty was a slave girl’s curse, and to paraphrase a famous Louis Farrakhan speech from 1990, intelligence for a black boy is its own kind of curse too. My favorite running buddy Courtney from P.S. #66, my old elementary school, where I was the pet, and who wouldn’t always let me run with him, apparently was unable to do much with his great gift. I heard once that he was in Sing Sing, in New York, which maybe for a Baltimore guy is a certain kind of achievement.

When I walk into the church, I greet another classmate of mine from #66, who lived on my same block, and who had conquered his checkered past. Rock gives me intimate details about what led up to Chris’s shooting, the kinds of things people who served prison terms would know. I never tell Rock that, shortly before he lost ten years of his life, he shamed me away from drugs.

During the funeral I sit next to another old friend from my old block. In high school we had an exclusive club that used to throw parties at nightclubs downtown. Now an Iraq veteran with a bad back—he slipped a disc lifting the dead—he works as a correctional officer at a state facility in Anne Arundel County. I ask him if he selected a prison in the southern part of the state near Annapolis to deliberately avoid having to deal with an inmate population from our old neighborhood, which is typically housed in Jessup, Hagerstown, or at the Eastern Shore. Throughout the viewing of the body, he banters and giggles and talks about people from where we grew up. His mood is light, but he sees it as a duty to be here, as do a few other of Chris’s friends who became police officers. He checks his watch since he is on his way to a food shelter to spend a few hours preparing Christmas meals for the needy. Chris was a loose affiliate of our group, which later lent itself, after college didn’t work out for much of our crew, to a kind of loose knit brotherhood in nod. My buddy moved away from partying after a car accident nearly took his life and left him in an intensive care ward. I got away to college.

The twenty-five car funeral procession to the cemetery is joined along McCullough Street and Liberty Heights Avenues by gutsy African American drivers gaining advantage in the rough jousting of cars through the city streets. It strikes me as willful heedlessness, as if the land holds nothing sacred. The cortege leads us inadvertently through the old neighborhood. We drive down Liberty Heights and I recognize the old Our Lady of Lords yard where we played football, and the barbershop at Edgewood where Mr. Barnes and Mr. Ratliff expertly tapered our fades, the “bars”—cut-rate carry outs—where we first copped malt liquor and fortified wine, and the stoops and alleyways and corners where we tried ourselves. Further down Liberty Heights we pass more of the churches. The last time I stood in All Saints it was for Donald’s nighttime funeral. He was born the same year as Chris. I notice the fast food restaurant that people said Chris robbed back-in-the-day, which became a Johns Hopkins healthcare community outlet, which has now been bought by Leroy Dyett, the neighborhood undertaker.

Once I am at home, I don’t look at the police reports or the newspaper stories of what happened. I am unable to spend much time with Chris’s family; it seems as if the words are a tepid remedy for sorrow. I remember the moments when our innocence began to fade. I am again walking from the #28 bus stop on Liberty Heights, past Chris’s mother’s house on a summer day in my young manhood. Chris, his brother, their cousin and some of the fellas from their block are around a picnic bench passing a quart of beer and a joint. This is the common man’s Arcadia, commemorated in lyric after lyric since before Geoffrey Chaucer’s time. The evening of drinking ended with our running a gee on an older woman, a quintet that she initiated. Chris was only 16 and he accepted the boon with a savoir faire that I could not muster. I don’t think I saw her face among the crowd at the funeral.

I was arrested and jailed once, for a short time, for a motor vehicle offense. If you are black and locked behind bars in America, you rapidly lose the distance between what you have done to land in the cell and what is happening to you and the way it is being done to you on account of your race, on account especially of who you have been, where you have lived, who your relatives and friends are, right down to exactly how common is your name. No one wants to accept this in a country based on individual mobility and the hope of individual distinction, but it is a fact: blackness still causes the distance to evaporate between who you are and what you have done and what the society has made you.

There’s a funny twist when I gas up at a filling station down the street from my mother’s house on the way out. Since the proprietors seem new to me (the cashier from the 1990s was a classmate of my sister’s come down in the world), I ask where they are from. For a time at least I thought they were Korean but now I am noticing that the man looks Indian. I can’t recall the ethnicity of the proprietors from twenty-five years ago when I started driving. I ask if he is Hindu, since the first time I went in it was the eve of the great Christian holy day. The cashier says no, he is a Buddhist, but since he looks like whatever I have in my mind for an Indian from south Asia, and since he is working at a gas station in what has been redefined as the inner city, I am filled with a bit of effrontery and continue my queries. Are you from Nepal? Tibet, he says, on the mountains near China.

I want the Tibetan Buddhist to know that our natural curiosity and our observation of the immigration patterns to these places we are locked into are not dead. The last time I get more gas and return to the Plexiglas turnstile to purchase Utz and Tastycake snacks, I let the Tibetan Buddhist know that I have had the opportunity to have contact with the Dalai Lama; in fact I have helped him to cross a street with several other monks. I want to see, I guess, if I can arouse his engagement with the complex humanity from the subway stop at Cold Spring Lane and Wabash Avenue, an intersection of laboring black American life where families’ dreams go up and come down. He opens his mouth to register something between surprise and amusement, and says there have been problems with the Dalai Lama. A man beside me is asking for Kool cigarettes and since I don’t want him to become impatient on account of what is really only my indulgent whimsy I leave the young Buddhist without learning more. Outside, a wan white teenager driving a luxury car is serially asking the African American patrons of the gas station for a dollar. In a gray hoodie and jeans, not weighing 120 pounds, the boy looks ever so much like a heroin addict from a good family not in the worst possible circumstance yet but approaching it quickly. I tell the gaunt white boy that I can’t help him.

On my way back to Atlanta I stop at Colonial Williamsburg with my children and my mother and sister. The preserved Virginia town bustling with the living story of our national origins is the kind of experience that I want my children to have chiseled into their earliest memories, right at the joint of their sense of what it means to be Americans. Of course the going-back-in-time-at-Colonial Williamsburg experience is highly bizarre for us because we descend from the enslaved, and if you do see an occasional black historical interpreter, slavery and Africans are definitely erased from Colonial Williamsburg. After all, 52 percent of the people in the town during the colonial era were enslaved Africans and first and second-generation creoles. By my count about nine of ten tourists here are white, and the Colonial Williamsburg trustees seem to have decided that whites aren’t interested in visiting a place that doesn’t exclusively represent them.

We pay an extra $10 apiece to visit the restored colonial governor’s mansion. My sister, a colonel in the United States Army, is disappointed when I ask the historical interpreter about Lord Dunmore’s relationship to his slaves. It occurs to me that he might have had some ties to them that influenced his famous proclamation of freedom that caused 5,000 blacks to flee the patriots for the British. She thinks it is a kind of impolite game that I am playing with white people and the situation; calling attention to slavery in an audience of whites makes her uncomfortable. The interpreter responds to me a bit defensively, as if her Klan past were being exposed, and correctively too, as if it were impossible for the owner of forty-seven human beings who worked in the colonial Virginia governor’s mansion to have been influenced or shaped by them. But she does later, in a kind of preemptive strike, insert the enslaved in her later narratives on bric-a-brac and chamber pots. In a way, my sister is further along than I am in her Americanness.

The last time I saw Chris alive I was walking into my mother’s house with my sons. It was May and we had just come from the airport for my mother’s retirement party. She had worked twenty-five years for the Baltimore County Division of Social Services, and in her last five years as an employment and training counselor, helping social assistance recipients prepare resumes. I thought then that Chris would put the touch on me; I wanted to give him something because I knew he was having a hard time finding work, but I could smell wine on his breath and I thought fresh dollars might have burned a whole in his pocket. I just dapped him and grinned and went into my mother’s house with the kids. 

A year before, when I had seen his older brother, I had given him something when I ran into him around the way, on a bus stop at Reisterstown and Belvedere, a kind of crossroads of the northwest Baltimore ghetto. Since the time I was in high school, Chris’s brother Tommy has always called me “The Genius” and in that same manner he greets me from his pew during the funeral. When I talked to him on the bus stop in 2008, I was making the rounds of the neighborhood in the car of a man I had known growing up, who was a convicted felon, who I knew had just picked up a package from another black man in an alley that he kept in the waistband of his shorts under his white T-shirt. It is easy to fall into old patterns, and all it takes is an afternoon.

At the gravesite the old crew walks the casket from the hearse to the bier under the direction of a man who is roughly the same age, complexion, and slender build as the man who lies under our hands. He gives us sincere directions to load and unload the dolly and to get the weight of our burden into the ground. I am standing at the front, closest to this man in a hooded sweatshirt, and he seems intoxicated to me—the word I would actually use is “nice.” It is a cold day, bitterly cold, and the man is insulated against this lonely world digging into the snowy hillside. It is obvious that the ditcher is only recently home from prison. I can hear it in his speech, his practiced country manner to ensure his sobriety for the purpose. I can see it in the sparkling quicksilver behind his muddy eyes that yearn for the numbing rest from all known pain in a bag of dope.

On the snowy hill, we learn that the funeral sermon of the profoundly dignified AME Zion minister was impromptu. He substituted for Chris’s real minister, who’d been stuck in traffic. His extemporaneous talent astounds me. At the gravesite, Chris’s real minster, a man who knew him well, arrives to offer a benediction. But the graveside prayer is not short; naturally it is the sermon that he missed. He warms a Bible under his arm and his full length camel hair coat swings open while he paces back and forth along a piece of pine board covered by a runner of green all-weather carpet. Turned backward on his head is a baseball cap with the logo “Jesus Saves,” and as he opens his mouth to address us, I get the impression that, like Chris, he was institutionalized at a time when he needed better dental care. He is not a Yale man. These two facts alone will disturb many of Chris’s family, elegantly dressed and shod, driving exclusive automobiles. But the trouble is more explicit. The earthy minister moves immediately to the heart of the matter, which has been avoided: Is our beloved burning in hell fire for having lived a life of the outlaw, the highwayman? Who is responsible for having made him into this man, or, rather, precisely how responsible is the assembly—his parents, his comrades, some of them felons, some still frosting with numbness?

There is a dynamic between the two ministers: one expertly shields us from the evil and the other calls it forth. The Ivy League man knows that the congregation does not prefer to have its wickedness exposed; the uneducated prophet throws out the heinousness of our beloved, assures us that his salvation is still reserved, and demands that our own transgressions too must be addressed.

I find that I am seared emotionally by the rough-and-tumble, spittle-spewing man, who swings about most unsteadily on the scaffolding between the earth and suspended coffin. At the peak of his ministerial fury, he shouts that God told him in the early morning that Chris had made it to paradise. He looks skyward and cries that Chris’s mother “Raised him right!” and never condoned his wrongdoing, that she put him out when she thought he was not looking hard enough for work or that he held weapons or kept up his ties to the hard lost men.

When it is over, my peers kiss the casket and lay flowers and linger in silence.

There is something larger here, I know. There is something larger about the presidency of a black American man who admitted that he had sniffed illegal street drugs and who demoted the “drug Czar” from a Cabinet level position to signal an end to the Twenty Years War. There is something more profound about a year where I found myself discovering the ground in Virginia where my last ancestor walked in chains, to the wrong side of the barrel of .25 automatic held by a black hand, not so far from where a Spelman co-ed and an Olympic gold medalist had been felled by gunmen, to the funeral of an old friend shot four times in the back of his head exiting an appointment with his probation officer in the city of our birth. But I am not sure what it is, or that it has not come out all wrong in the end.

Image: Cemetery snow, April 2011. From J. E. Miller.


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