University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik observes heartache and healing in a city with the exact same name as her own.
Along with my E-Z Pass, a parking card for work, and a pair of sunglasses so ugly I cannot lose them no matter how hard I try, I tote a few less predictable items around in my car. Among them are a corkscrew, a trove of cinnamon and butterscotch candies, and some dog food coupons. In the hatchback, there is a yoga mat. In the molded pocket in the door, I keep a traveling oral hygiene system — a bottle of mouthwash and a bag of plastic flossers. I am ready for almost anything.
But we have a problem in our neighborhood, a three-block corner of Roland Park called Evergreen. In the very early morning or late night, when all the Whos in Whoville are slumbering in their beds, any unlocked car on our cozy streets is rifled. The riflers are quite focused in their pursuit of loose change and know the secret nooks in every brand of auto where it might be hidden. You know they’ve been through because drawers are agog, compartments unlatched, cup holders de-cupped, and a general sense of sweeping and swiping lingers. If they find no change and no iPod, for they also love iPods, they move on. The Hope diamond could be in the backseat and they wouldn’t bother with it.
For this reason, they seem to be youths of some sort, delinquent youths, addicted youths, perhaps hungry or thirsty youths. Not professionals, though they are skilled at what they do.
It has all become so routine that I was momentarily stupefied when I recently realized the bandits had stolen something else: my brand-new bottle of Listerine Arctic Mint. Junkies stole my mouthwash? But left the flossers? Yet had never gone for the already-opened bottle of mouthwash that had been there for months? To be honest, not only was it open, it was not Listerine, rather a cheaper grocery store brand. These were picky junkies indeed.
Over coffee in my kitchen the next day I was telling this pitiful story to my neighbor Pam Stein. She was intrigued to hear of the escapades of our local thieves, but had just returned from a neighborhood with a bigger problem.
Pam had been out to Cherry Hill, a small, close-knit area in southernmost Baltimore best known as the home of DeBaufre bakeries, the maker of Berger cookies. Now it was in the news for something else: the shooting of a 16-month-old baby in his car seat right in front of the community center playground, a spot previously believed to be the only safe place in the neighborhood. The dying baby was pulled from the car where a large group of children, maybe 25 kids, Pam said, watched him take his last breath before their eyes. His 22-year-old father, who had been lured to the site of the shooting by his “friends” as revenge for God knows what, was also shot, but lived.
Pam and her friend Lauren Siegel have a non-profit arts organization called Mosaic Makers. The two of them, both social workers as well as artists, go to neighborhoods where tragedies and violence like this have occurred, and they engage the survivors in a group project, making a memorial object or mural of broken tiles. Anyone can help, and many do, because it is a soothing and undemanding and gently social activity and as soon as it begins people realize something unusual and beautiful is going on.
The children of Cherry Hill made a large pair of angel wings tiled with shiny broken pieces of mirror and white and blue pottery plates. After it was done, Pam invited them to say something about what had happened. They told her they were afraid to go back to the playground. They told her Baby Carter had smiled right before he died. This is weighing so heavy on my mind, said a willowy boy with the eyes of a sad old man though he was no more than 12 or 13. I’m just so angry at the drug dealers, added one of his friends. A little girl in a sweet summer outfit, maybe eight or nine, said I wake up at night now, scared.
When visitors come to stay with me in Baltimore, they inevitably bring up “The Wire.” They want to know if it is very frightening and dangerous to live here; they wonder if they will be safe. I explain that the Baltimore they are visiting is a narrow oblong of relative privilege and safety. During their visit we will travel up and down it, from Roland Park to Hampden to Mount Vernon; from the Inner Harbor we will stray no farther than Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton. We may see a few unpleasant blocks, some shady characters, some questionable operations, but we won’t venture into the wide, stubbled flanks of the city where the danger lives. I advise my guests to lock their cars to protect their iPods and their mouthwash and very likely all will be well.
Sometimes they are disappointed, and ask if we can take a “Wire” driving tour. I tell them we cannot.
One week after Baby Carter’s death, in a lovely green field next to Stony Run, the children of Evergreen helped raise money for Mosaic Makers. They sold lemonade and popcorn, painted hearts and rainbows on each other’s faces, posed for group portraits donated by a local photographer. They made mosaics of their own on squares of wood, and often their parents couldn’t hold back from helping them. Who doesn’t like fitting broken things together?
Leaning against one of the big old trees near the creek were the angel wings made by the children of Cherry Hill. When I explained to my daughter and a few others what had happened in that neighborhood, they could hardly believe it. They are too young to have watched “The Wire.”
When it was over, they all went home and had their dinners and went to bed. We told the big ones not to worry about their math finals and assured the little ones there was no monster in the closet, and we kissed them all good night. Then the careful among us went out on our porches with our electronic key-fobs to make sure our cars were locked.
A few miles away, children were afraid to sleep and I don’t know what their parents could possibly say. They kissed them good night, and they prayed not to lose them. I wish there were another ending to this story, but it seems there is no end in sight.
To read more about Mosaic Makers, visit their website; to make a donation, write to: Mosaic Makers, 2833 Smith Ave., PO Box # 251, Baltimore, MD 21209.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.