This piece is the first installment in a new Baltimore Fishbowl column series, “On a Marble Stair” by Baltimore poet, essayist and educator Jalynn Harris. Drawing from the lyrics of Nina Simone’s song “Baltimore” (Beat-up little seagull/On a marble stair/Tryin’ to find the ocean/Lookin’ everywhere), Harris will chronicle their adventures and experiences in the places in and around Baltimore that they have called home. In this week’s column, Harris pays tribute to their Uncle Junie–a rescuer of bikes, a fish YouTuber, and a loving stay-at-home-dad–after his passing.
The last time I saw Uncle Junie upright and moving like himself was on a Thursday. I know this because when I pulled onto South Loudon Avenue and he came out to greet me with that smile that swallowed his whole face, as if the sight of me was the morning of his midday, he told me to move my car because the street cleaners were coming. I looked up and read the “No Parking from 8am-11am Thursdays” sign and moved my car.
“How is your car by the way?” he asked, as he always did. Much better than that piece of crap you had me buy, I thought, but didn’t say. Instead, “Fine. Runs well, gets me where I need to go.”
On his porch, we sat staring at the street like a movie screen. The large monstrous truck with equally monstrous brushes rolled down the street like thunder. The valor of the truck, the volume of the water, and the vigor of the brush seemed like an imagined thing, kind of like if a car wash turned itself inside out like a rubber glove.
I had never seen a street cleaning before. The truck, a monster with a big fist body and a very wide, bristly skirt. And, between the smoke of the blunt we shared, I couldn’t help but wonder what, who, and when made this invention the mode through which to clean a street? How did they measure the monster to fit this tiny one-way? How did it carry that much water and that much force? And what in the world was–metaphorically and physically–a clean street anyway?
On that day, that Thursday, Uncle Junie was himself–dark-skinned and bald with eyes that crinkled like newspaper. Slightly hunched over and looking out towards the street as if he’d seen the street cleaning a hundred times before. He moved slowly and deliberately as if he could spill over and out all he was holding if he wasn’t careful. As the second youngest of my grandmother’s children, and her only son, it was not his age, but his kids–then, 9, 7, and 1–and his stay-at-home-dad role, a role he wore like a badge, that made him so tired.
The rumbling gobbled the block and any conversation we could have had. The sound reminded me of the earthquake we had survived in our old apartment in Owings Mills 7 years prior.
On Enchanted Hills Way, we had lived–all 5 of us–in a second-floor, two-bedroom apartment. It was my senior year of high school, and I wanted nothing more than to leave this man–who was never working–his two babies, and my mom–who was always working–far behind. All of the universities I had applied to were at least 5 hours away by train, plane, or automobile. I thought if I was far enough away, I could start over in my own space. And make for myself the one thing I’d always wanted but never had, and what Ernest Hemingway had clearly articulated for my 9th grade attention: a clean well-lighted place.
The day of the earthquake must have been a Saturday, late in the afternoon because my mom was uncharacteristically home from work as we all stood in the living room chatting easily. Suddenly rumbling gobbled our conversation like a street monster with a fist for a body.
“What was that? Was that an earthquake?” Mom said.
“I didn’t feel anything,” Uncle Junie said.
“Neither did I,” I said as I ran to the sliding doors to look over the balcony. I saw nothing. No slanted earth, no falling rocks, and no bike.
“My bike! It’s gone.”
And Uncle Junie was off. I had never seen him run before but suddenly he was flying out the door–no shoes, no jacket–just himself, and my mom and I following his lead.
He was so far ahead of us, we missed all the action. Missed both the man he tracked down and how he got the bike back. But when he rounded the corner, he had himself, that grin, and my red, white, and blue mountain bike.
I was impressed. One, at how someone could have stolen a heavy mountain bike off a second floor balcony, and two, at how quickly Uncle Junie had gone into action. Action was not a word I would have used to describe him. Perhaps the closest word I would have given him was animated. And, more accurately, after nearly a year of sharing a wall with him–hearing him cry every night while sleeping in my mother’s bedroom with his two kids while my mother slept on the couch in her own house–“emotionally animated” was the nicest summary of my understanding of his character.
“How did you do it?” I asked as I felt my mother’s laughter rippling towards me.
“You don’t even have any shoes on!” she said pointing to his toes; her laughter taking her and us with it.
Eventually, the street cleaning subsided and the blunt, halfway to finished, became less of the thing to pass as conversation. For the past two years, since coming home from my faraway, far-off university adventures–in which no, I did not have a clean-well lighted place–I had been sporadically popping by his house in Edmondson Village–or “Emmison” as my Baltimore tongue knew to say–on the way to or from the University of Baltimore, where I was in grad school.
It was on that same porch, shortly after we had ventured out of the cautionary niece-uncle divide and began across the boundary of sharing blunts, where I had blurted out for the first time to anyone in my family (who was not my mother), that I was loving women. His expectedly homophobic response–strangely Christian for a man who was not a believer of anything more than good smoke and good family–was topped off with a sprinkle of “I’ll love you no matter who you are.” Enough for me to continue coming back and sharing what I could.
And it was that same porch, the very week I had moved back to Baltimore after undergrad, where I had dropped him off after he helped me find and buy my first car–a 2006 Chrysler Sebring–which to my surprise was a lemon, and to him, a likely result of him not knowing what the hell he was talking about, but wanting to be supportive either way.
On that Thursday, I asked him about his fish. He had a thriving aquarium in his basement which is known to his still-growing Facebook followers, as “Charm City Amps.” He showed me videos on his Youtube channel, while complaining about how no one in our family followed his account; how he didn’t understand, in a family as big as ours, why supporting someone seemed so difficult. And, additionally, how if he didn’t add the punch emoji and the 100 emoji next to your post, he really didn’t “f*** with you.” Emotionally animated, I thought, as we watched Oscar cichlids swim across his screen.
“That makes sense,” I said, and made a promise to myself to never try and understand his fish obsession, but to support him in the ways I could and fail him in the ways I would.
Two months later, my uncle, at 55, had a massive stroke in the middle of showering, and never walked or talked like himself ever again. The last year of his life he sat in hospice during the height of the pandemic, alone, and for a large part, unable to have visitors. And at 56, his kids–10, 8, and 2–who he was with everyday–cleaning their rooms, making their meals, playing with them–were left without a father.
A few months before he passed, he called me and I updated him on my life–“I’m a teacher now!” “I finished grad school!”–and he warbled through ahhhs and oohs and questions that sounded like tires rolling over gravel. At some point our conversation ended because I grew too frustrated with trying to understand him. How silly of me? Frustrated by a man who had lost almost everything except his life, who was, in his final days, simply reaching out to hear my voice. A man, who so unlike my own father, demanded nothing of me in order to love me; who, even in his heyday, could offer nearly nothing other than his protection when he could, and failure in the ways that he would.
I have so many regrets. The biggest of which is not not telling him–who believed in me, who listened to my dreams, and who accepted me in the ways that I am–how much I loved him.
And now, in the year I’ve lived without him, I’m in that part of my grief where I can only hear his laughter in my dreams. But through the tears, I am happy; happy to have a clean, well lighted place to meet him.