Angels in Baltimore

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I was having a fine, if ordinary, summer day until two things happened, both right outside my front door. The first time I left the house, I discovered a hit-and-run driver had lopped off my rearview mirror. That afternoon, I briefly left my iPhone in the car, and by the time I went out to get it, it was gone. That iPhone was one of the only working parts of my brain, and it was not even halfway paid for.

I picture them like evil dots on a GPS map, miscreants on the move, turning on my street, stopping at my house, dropping off a random to-go order of misery. Small and medium for me this time. But just as I was ruminating on the terrible power of bad people, the universe gave me an opportunity to notice just the opposite, a couple helpings of positive vibes I had done nothing to deserve. 

The first was when I took my de-mirrored car in to Ed’s Body & Paint, right up the road in Hampden. “Good morning, Miss Marion,” Jess said sweetly as I shuffled through the door. “What happened this time? Here, have a piece of candy.”

I sank into the pleather couch under the display of vintage model cars, across from the antique jukebox and the aquarium. It is true that I spend more time at the body shop than most folks do, but it’s partly because these people are so darn nice to me. I met the owners, Rich and his father Ed, after I moved to Baltimore ten years ago, when they gave the lowest estimate of three for an insurance repair. Rich, a big guy with blue eyes, massive shoulders and a flat top, seemed so genuinely concerned, so serious about giving me a good deal, it was almost confusing. Was I somehow related to them and didn’t know it?

Several years and fender benders later, my impression of our relationship was put to the test. One Saturday night at 10 p.m., a friend I’d been drinking with drove her car into a bus. I dialed Rich’s number. He not only answered the phone, he got a tow truck there in a few minutes.

I don’t know why they treat me like this–it certainly isn’t the endless stream of low-dollar repair jobs. Mr. Ed has actually told me that he does not want to fix my front bumper ever again. Unfortunately the thing is hanging off as we speak. It’s the Prius, I tell you, the car is way too low to the ground.

As usual, on the summer day in question, I arrived at the shop in a state of woe and stress, got my dose of human kindness, and left feeling better. Jess was going to find me a rearview mirror at a decent price. Good, another reason to come in and plop down on the couch. But before that, I had a second encounter with the magic of feeling favored for no good reason. 

I had dinner plans with my friend Peggy Maher. As had become our habit, before going to a restaurant, we met up at Symphony Manor, where her boyfriend of many years, retired psychiatrist and music lover Bob Ward, known to all as Dr. Bob, had been living for several months. When his barrel-chested, opera-singer body began to fail him, his feet and legs went first. He’d gone from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair, and that is where we found him–in the lobby, in his wheelchair, draped in a blanket, but smiling at our approach, his eyes crinkling up behind gold-rimmed glasses. Of all the people I’ve ever visited in a nursing home, he’s the only one who found a way to be relatively happy there. As I leaned over to kiss his cheek, I felt the familiar glow of affection and approval Dr. Bob has bestowed upon me since the day we met. I pulled up a chair, certain that he would be happy to hear all the details of my unlucky day.

Ever since I moved to Baltimore, Dr. Bob and Peggy had been taking me and my various children out to dinner and including us in family events. I have no older relatives left, and my kids have mostly missed the experience of being taken to a nice restaurant by your doting grandparents who just want to hear all about your part in the school play and who always remember your birthday. Dr. Bob and Peggy (she is the mother of my real estate agent friend, Ken Maher) came out of nowhere to pick up the slack. Every year, Bob invited me to visit them while they were wintering in his condo on the west coast of Florida. One year I did. Good thing, because he was right about how crazy I would be about Ted Peters’ Famous Smoked Fish.

It’s not like this man didn’t have a full set of kids, stepkids and grandkids to be nice to, not to mention paying therapy patients. I never knew how or why I got added to the list, but now I will join them all in missing him sorely. Dr. Bob died last week in his sleep. In his obituary in The Baltimore Sun and at his funeral service at St. David’s, much was said about his kindness and his prodigious powers of listening. The priest who went weekly to hold Sunday services at Symphony Manor talked about Bob’s beautiful baritone voice belting out hymns he knew by heart. 

Like Rich at the body shop, Dr. Bob was a big teddy bear of a guy. Also like Rich, whose customers think they’re his family (I checked on Yelp and Facebook; it’s not just me), Dr. Bob had clients who were so attached to him, they were still calling for help long after his retirement, right into his last months on earth. He always took their calls. While one guy repairs cars and the other worked on minds and hearts, both help balance out the arbitrary losses and debits in the big ledger of life just by being so very much nicer than necessary. 

You never know what kind of day you’re going to have. You never know what’s coming around the corner, what random delivery of bad luck is on its way. Against that, there are people like Rich and Bob, who don’t look much like angels.

Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik writes Bohemian Rhapsody on the first Wednesday of the month. She is the author of "The Baltimore Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her monthly email at marionwinik.com.
Marion Winik


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11 COMMENTS

  1. Maybe one of my favorite reads of yours ever. Sorry I missed you when you were in Austin. Always look forward to your latest. Peace, Tamra

  2. God I love this. Of course. I love everything you do. So happy you dedicated our Austin reading to Dr. Bob.

    Thank you, Marion! xo

  3. Love this. I have a friendship with a family who has a locksmith shop where I’ve gone for 30 years during real estate. We’ve shared joys, sorrows, and laughs. And I brought one of them a souvenir from a country he had always wanted to visit. Since retiring the last year, I’ve thought I need to visit them. After reading this, I’m reminded to do it. I missed you in Austin last time. Will get to the next one.

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