in 1993, i met dan, and in 1994, i went to live with him in his house on carey street in southwest baltimore. after he died in 1996, his sister asked if i wanted to continue living in the house, and i said yes and have been here ever since.
i love this house; it’s beautiful (well, the part that was fully renovated, anyway 😉 and comfortable and, well, home. i love the brick walls and the woodwork around the doors and windows and fireplaces. i love the wood floors that can be cleaned with a quick sweep of a broom. i love the big windows that let the light pour in. i love all the space that gives my cat room to run around like mad the way cats do sometimes. i love the window sills where she can lay and watch the birds in the trees.
i love being in the city. i love going for a walk and seeing the squares with the cherry trees in bloom. i love the activity of the city, the fact that there’s always something new happening every day. i love having the resources of a city in the palm of my hand, being able to hop in the car and, in five minutes, be at a good restaurant or library or concert hall.
and i love this street. people who don’t live in the city and only come into it during the day don’t know how peaceful it can be. you wake up in the morning with the windows open, and the birds are chirping in the trees out back, and there’s no way to tell that you’re not a thousand miles from civilization. you can have the peace of that solitude and the support of the city all at once.
if you know where i live, by now you’re poking and prodding me to get on to the other side of it. yes, it’s a poor community. it’s almost entirely made up of black residents. there are three kinds of buildings in the neighborhood: houses, churches, and liquor stores. it’s been torn apart by the drug trade. if you head north a few blocks, violence and vandalism are everywhere. a few blocks west is the intersection of fayette and munroe, about which david simon and ed burns wrote the corner.
every alley and every lot is covered in garbage. drunks smash their bottles in playgrounds and pass out on park benches. addicts break into abandoned houses, use them as shooting galleries, and set them on fire.
as i drove to the y yesterday, i stopped at a light and saw a funeral letting out across the street. it was obviously a funeral for a dealer; half the crowd was in its sunday best, and half were members of his crew, in tshirts and jeans with their boxer shorts pushed way out of their pants, gang style. most of them had matching white shirts with some image or pattern which i couldn’t make out but which obviously related to the dead member of the gang in some way. one had a plain white shirt on which he’d painted “r.i.p.” and the name and birth and death dates of his friend. they were all standing around in their sunglasses, striking stereotypical yo-boy poses and trying to look cool.
this is the second lost generation, the children of the first generation lost to crack and the war on drugs. this is the crowd that grew up with dad in jail and mom locked in her bedroom with the crack pipe. there were no adults around, no rules and no guidance. it was lord of the flies on an urban island, and they had to invent their own way of life. the one they created is simple: you deal drugs. someone shoots you or stabs you or you overdose, and you die in a gutter or an alley somewhere. someone spray paints your name on a wall. fade to black.
it’s so damned stupid. i wanted to get out of the car and grab them and shake them and make them look at what they’re doing to themselves. even here, the resources they need are all around in the churches and community centers, the schools and libraries just waiting for someone to ask. they could wake up tomorrow and put a stop to it and make life into whatever they wanted it to be, if they just had the imagination to think that they don’t have to kill one another.
of course, grabbing people and shaking them doesn’t seem like such a good idea when you stop and reflect that they’re all carrying guns and razor blades.
so why am i here, five years after dan and my ostensible reason for being here have gone? well, there’s always the practical reason that i have a beautiful rent-free house. there’s the fact that this was our home, and, for a long time, it kept me close to the memories. there’s the simple inertia of being so long in one place and settling into it.
and as i said, i love the house and i love the location, and my block has been a good place to live until very recently. the west side of the street is all rental properties, but my side has been made up of homeowners since before i lived here, and they take pride in their homes and look out for one another. linda and gloria and ruth and sam — i’ve never had a complaint about any of them.
there’s crime and dirt to deal with, but they’ve never really gotten me down. my car was broken into twice, but that happens anywhere in a big city. there was a fellow who did some odd jobs for me, then kicked in my back door while i was out and stole some odds and ends (then came back a week later and asked for a handout, if you can imagine). that seemed like a big deal when i came home that night, but was nothing much by the light of the morning. i knew why he’d done it, and that heroin is a harsh mistress. he’d actually been quite considerate, not causing any damage, and even carefully picking up a videotape and setting it to the side before he took the vcr. he gave me the chance to stop and think about space and the extent to which it makes sense to call it “mine”. it was dan’s space before it was mine, and someone else’s before that. some day, it will be used by someone else. for maybe a quarter of an hour that night, it was his. that vcr was dan’s, then mine, then his, now someone else’s. someday, it will rust and fall apart and sink back into the earth. this house will fall down, and the space that was marked off by the walls will be part of the open air again. in the end, it’s just a space and just a vcr, and the label “mine” that i stick on them is as temporary as i am, and you can’t let your ideas about possession become more rigid than the facts about how things come and go.
i don’t mind him taking some junk that was cluttering the place in exchange for helping me clear my thoughts about that. 🙂
there are signs of hope in the neighborhood, too. not everyone ended up on the street; some of the people who were here before the 80s are still here. some younger working people with families have moved in. there are lots of churches and community groups that try to improve life around here. i don’t mind lending a hand where i can; if you’re not willing to do what work you can to help the community, you have no business being there.
but there is something i do mind, and it’s driving me out after none of the other problems could.
as i’ve said, this was a quiet, peaceful street. aside from the occasional siren or the rumble of a truck going by that are part of life in any city, i could enjoy a relaxed evening at home at almost any time of the year. winter was the best, when the cold had driven everyone inside, but even in the summer, there was rarely more noise than the sound of kids playing on the sidewalk.
sometime during the past year, this changed, like a switch had been thrown and everyone had new orders. it’s a mystery to me how it could happen overnight, but when i look back, there was nothing gradual about it. it wasn’t there, and then it was. what is “it”? well, let me describe a typical evening at home now:
i was at barnes & noble, and i splurged a bit in their music section. one of the gems i brought home was a complete set of the scores to the brahms symphonies. my work’s done for the day, and i get out the book. the windows are open, and one of the first warm breezes of spring is blowing softly through the house. across the stree
t, the trees are swaying gently. the setting sun is throwing rich shafts of light over the rooftops and making my living room glow with a lazy, comfortable warmth. i put on the mpegs of the second symphony, carefully adjusting the volume so i don’t disturb the neighbors, and sit on the couch by the window, my legs propped up and the score in my lap.
after a couple of minutes, i hear this from the street:
LOVE MY NIGGAS, BUT WHERE’S MY BITCHES?
LOVE MY NIGGAS, BUT WHERE’S MY BITCHES?
LOVE MY NIGGAS, BUT WHERE’S MY BITCHES?
LOVE MY NIGGAS, BUT WHERE’S MY BITCHES?
IT’S ALL GOOD!
FUCK ALL DAY!
FUCK ALL NIGHT!
well, what to do? the obvious solution is to go down and ask them to please turn it down. that’s fine, and when it’s been neighbors causing the noise and i’ve asked them to turn it down, they’ve always apologized for the trouble and done so.
the problem is that “it” is somehow related to overnight advances in car radio technology. 98% of the time, the noise is coming not from someone on the street, but from someone sitting in his car, waiting for the traffic light to change. by the time you pull on your shoes and walk downstairs, he’s already gone. what can you do about that?
some of them have speakers that take up the whole widths of the trunks of their cars. when they come by, i can hear my windows rattling from the barrage and feel the floorboards shaking under my feet.
i’ve run into this wherever i’ve gone in the city, whether in so-called “good” neighborhoods or in so-called “bad” ones. there’s no escaping it, and it’s making this whole great city that i love unlivable for me.
i’m willing to put up with quite a lot, but i just can’t live this way. i think it’s good for practicing living under circumstances you wouldn’t choose, a skill that’s necessary for a life that’s frequently out of our control, but i can’t work in it. i can’t sit and write or edit someone else’s writing for very long when i’m constantly being bombarded by the sound of drum machines and the latest ballad about the glories of “slinging coke” and “slapping hos”.
so i’m looking around at places to live, and it’s a little depressing. i remember reading some comments in a book once (i think it was in your money or your life, and i wish i could find the quote) about the american way of having a home. the gist of it was that we try to make our homes as private and self-sufficient as we can. we each get our own house with our own kitchen and our own washer and dryer and our own telephone and our own tv, until we never have to leave it or see anyone who lives around us. we sit by ourselves in our little space with our stuff year after year, and then we pay thousands of dollars to psychiatrists to try to figure out why we feel lonely. what we ought to wonder instead is why we don’t all just go home and blow our brains out more often than we do. most people know that solitary confinement is the most dreaded punishment in prisons, but we don’t stop to think that we willingly inflict the same conditions on ourselves.
everywhere i look, i’m seeing that the american home is a sad and lonely place. i saw that there were cheap townhomes for rent in essex. i hadn’t been in that area, but the location looked good on the map, so i drove out there yesterday to look at them, and i got to see why they’re so cheap. it’s a flat stretch of land with all the trees cut down, and row after row of identical houses with just a view of one another. the whole area around them is made up of nothing but gas stations and fast food restaurants. it’s horrible. it’s no wonder people hide inside watching tv to escape from it.
but how different is it in the most expensive apartment building? everyone goes in, says hello as they pass in the lobby, then each disappear into their own set of rooms and lock themselves in.
where do you find community in america?
we seem to have replaced community with family. each family has its own house and lives privately behind closed doors. the people who live in the next house have no reason to have any contact with us. we no longer have an agricultural society in which everyone goes to work in the fields together. we don’t have an industrial one in which people live together to be near the factory, and walk there together every morning. in the extreme case of someone like me who just needs a phone line to work, there’s no reason for me to be anywhere in particular, and therefore no common bond with the people who live around me.
i live in my own little family with only the most passing interaction with the people on either side. the trouble with relying on families is that they come and go. dan and i were a family here, and since he’s gone, it’s just me. maybe someone else will come along, but then he’ll be gone, too. in families that have children, the children grow up and move away. you can’t rely on family to take care of the need for community. you wouldn’t want to, even if you could. keeping your circle of relationships that small leads to stagnation and overburdens the people involved; couples that don’t have friends don’t make it.
my solution to the problem of finding community (a live one, not just online) has been to have friends that i see regularly. i have my privacy at home, then i go out and join friends for lunch or work at the agape house, get my fill of interacting with other people, and come back and enjoy my privacy again.
now i’m pondering the dilemma of where to live. on the one hand, i’m jonesing for peace and quiet. my picture of the ideal place is a townhouse with a patio on the back that connects to a lawn that connects to a forest. i walk out the back, onto a trail, and i’m in patapsco state park. the people around me work 9-5 jobs in offices, and i have the whole long, peaceful day to work and listen to the wind in the trees.
on the other hand, i’m picturing myself living there like a hermit, not really connecting to anyone around me, and not being in easy reach of friends and the city.
there should be a compromise between privacy and community; neither one is what you need all the time, and can be harmful in excess.
americans err on the side of privacy — i have my stuff in my place and you have your stuff in yours. never mind that it makes no sense to have my own washer and dryer in my apartment 24/7 when i only use them once a week and walking down to the community laundry center and chatting with you through the spin cycle might be just what i need to give my day a lift. on the other hand, excessive community is the way we start, as part of a family we didn’t choose but that we have to be with every day for the for the first decade of our lives. if enough allowances are made there for privacy and individual activity, that can be wonderful. otherwise, it can be hell.
there are a few times in my life that make me think i’m missing something now. there was high school, when we all got up together, prayed together, ate together, studied together, played together… an open barracks-like dormitory is a bit more community than i would want as an adult, but i look back on that experience and the friends i had there, and think that people who didn’t have that really missed something.
then there were a couple of houses i shared with classmates in college. there was my room and my stuff, but there was also the common area downstairs. it was like a family that you chose to be a part of; you could go down and sit and talk all you wanted, and you could go to your room when you wanted to be alone.
that strikes me as what people need — the availability of both and the ability to choose one or the other. both a room of one’s own and the company of people who have a reason to want to live together. maybe there’s a place that compromises between the monastery and the freestanding home at the end of the cul de sac, an update on the communal college house, someplac
e where i have my own kitchen for when i’m on my own schedule, but we can still all get together and talk over dinner whenever we like.
i should look into intentional communities. in the meantime, i’ll keep all this in the back of my mind and just try to find someplace quiet…