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When poet/memoirist Rosanne Singer relocates to her native Baltimore from California, her relationship to the city and the people she meets surprises her; her connection to a man who calls himself “Nephew” hits harder.

He introduced himself this way:

I was locked up 34 years for murder. I just got out in February. They call me Nephew.

This was the summer of 2019, shortly after I’d moved with our dog to Charles Village in Baltimore. My husband stayed in California to work, I returned east and now lived in a one-bedroom apartment across the street from my middle sister and her family. She had lobbied for me to live close by and had long forgiven my childhood bullying.

My terrier-mix Jack doesn’t walk. He meanders, lingers, sniffs, scarfs up a cold French fry. Which is why he quickly adopted St. Paul Street as his go-to route, especially at 6:30 in the morning when the garbage cans overflow and the faint cheeseburger aroma from the grill at the corner of 31st hangs in the air. Most of the other Charles Village streets are residential, featuring two- and three-story attached brownstones and summer smells of dirt, grass and flowers. Not enough there for a terrier.

Nephew would watch me slow walk Jack down St. Paul, not only first thing in the morning but late morning, mid-afternoon, sometimes evening. Early on he said hello. After that he kept talking.

Nephew had also adopted St. Paul Street. There is a Subway on the corner with 33rd Street and a stained cement alcove outside that absorbs the savory smells and warmth from the restaurant vent as well as the unsavory smells of human and dog pee. Nephew stored his belongings there in one tidy pile during the day. A couple blocks south in front of Eddie’s grocery, he took up residence on a metal bench or hovered outside the neighboring dry cleaner’s, slightly hunched but moving his feet, his eyes darting around.

During the day Eddie’s would open the wrought iron gate to its adjacent patio. On mild afternoons Johns Hopkins students and locals would carry their deli sandwiches to café tables to eat and talk. Sometimes Nephew would stand near the gate and try to drum up a conversation, but the students usually ignored him.

So it was our first summer, both of us new. Nephew told me he was 58, and under the navy knit cap he rarely took off, his tight dark curls were flecked with gray. He must have been 24 when he went to prison. A young, handsome man. He still had large brown eyes with long lashes but one hand that was disfigured, as if it had swelled and never healed. I thought about where I was 34 years ago–sitting in a poetry workshop in New York City writing sonnets about my serial broken hearts. One boyfriend called me Red then, but now a dullness had seeped into my hair and the rest of me.

By early September Nephew talked about the cooler weather ahead.

Does your brother-in-law have a hoodie?

He already knew I had family around. Two days later I brought him a navy University of Michigan sweatshirt that he wore from then on. My sister was ready to donate it to Goodwill. I mentioned Nephew to her, but she was single-minded about her brisk walks and bypassed the clog of people, cars, stores, restaurants and litter that populate St. Paul.

Nephew was not the only homeless person who had staked out territory on St. Paul, but he was the most watchful. He knew the backstories of Frank who slept outside the 24-hour mini-mart and Stephanie who strung together beaded bracelets to sell, and several other folks. Nephew had authority. He didn’t hold up a cardboard sign or wait for people to give him things. He asked. Persuasively and with sharp eye contact. By October I had started giving him the occasional Subway gift card and a little cash. He always thanked me. He always asked how I was doing. If I was down he saw it.

 Do you have a husband?

I said yes. Nephew never asked where he was. Nephew never asked my name. When I started to introduce myself one time, he stopped me and changed the subject. I never asked why. If he wanted my attention and I was halfway down the street or across the street he would call out,

Hey! Hello! Hello!

Frank looked about Nephew’s age and talked in a loud garbled way, only the occasional word understandable. He laughed at Jack’s constant pursuit of food on the sidewalk and would address him in a rattly voice:

Hey dog.

He also noticed that Nephew and I talked and that I gave him things. One day Frank reached out to ask me for money. Nephew flew down the sidewalk, arms flapping, shoulders up and shouted,

Stay away from her!

He ended up chasing Frank across St. Paul Street, nearly into traffic.

An early morning as I walked Jack north on St. Paul from the 2900 block, Nephew rushed up to me.

Don’t look. She’s messed up again.

I didn’t know what I would see but imagined someone bloody on the sidewalk. Instead it was Stephanie, the wan blonde in her 30s, sitting on a box at the corner of St. Paul and 31st Street, unseeing, head lowered, her arms slow motion waving as if she were dream dancing.

 I didn’t want you to see that.

Nephew liked a particular breakfast sandwich and a particular lunch sandwich from Eddie’s deli. If I was doing a small grocery run, depending on the time of day, he would ask me to buy him one or the other—an egg and cheese on white buttered toast or a white meat turkey with lettuce and tomato and mayo on rye. Sometimes I just wanted to slip in unseen and quickly pick up a few things, but Nephew was always there. The bench was where he sat to eat or smoke a cigarette, but his usual position was standing at the ready.

There was a morning he asked me to walk with him the one block to Starbucks between 32nd and 33rd Street, told me to get him a small black coffee. He held Jack’s leash, both of them tentative about it, while I walked in. The guy behind the counter said,

He’s dangerous. We had to call the police on him one time. Be careful ma’am.

I paused, then he handed me Nephew’s coffee. He wouldn’t take any money.

That same October my sister from Michigan came to visit and stayed with me four days. An early riser, she joined Jack and me on our morning walks. She met Nephew and talked to him as she would a friend. When she got back home she sent a sealed letter for me to give Nephew. He kept it in the front pocket of his hoodie. When he started a part-time job cleaning at a nearby homeless center he asked the woman at the front desk to read it to him. 

Your sister wants the three of us to go out for breakfast the next time she’s in town.

For some weeks Michigan was magic. Nephew talked about catching a Greyhound to Grand Rapids, imagining a shelter less crowded, more welcoming, a full-time job, my sister’s friendliness. Meanwhile he wanted to find a room somewhere in Charles Village to keep his few things, to sleep the hours he wanted, to get out of the chill.

Nephew had two older sisters who lived in Baltimore and were both retired from city government jobs. They owned homes; they had adult children; they didn’t talk to him. Every once in a while someone in the neighborhood would rent him space in a garage or a basement for a few days, and it would look as though he might have some kind of home. A man on 33rd Street let him turn on the spigot in front of his house to brush his teeth in the morning. The offers never lasted. My Michigan sister and I helped with those attempts, and I would hand him a small envelope with money as I made my way down St. Paul.

Sometimes it was hard for Nephew to stay upbeat. On a gray November day he was close to tears. A young cousin had been shot and the funeral was later that week. Nephew had tried to talk to him, to use himself as an example, none of it any good. Another time his eyes looked hooded and deeply bloodshot.

I should just kill myself. I’m going die out here.

I stopped walking and accidentally yanked Jack’s leash as I stepped toward Nephew. Then I said something useless,

Please don’t.

Usually Nephew would bounce back. One mild early December evening, the Charles Village Pub manager invited him in for a beer and hamburger. I was coming home from a movie with a new friend as he was leaving the pub, animated.

You look real pretty, noticing my skirt, green sweater and dangly earrings, something other than the usual sweat pants and flannel shirt. I turned red and thought about it for a long time after.

As 2019 ended, I got preoccupied with an upcoming trip to Kansas for my daughter’s trumpet recital. My husband was going to fly from California and meet me there. I was running through plans in my head and not patient when Nephew wanted to talk. Once, seeing me across the street, he bounded over to tell me about a visit with his social worker and possible Section 8 housing. I made an excuse and said I was late for a doctor’s appointment.

In late January he needed to get some paperwork together for an application, including paying for an original birth certificate. We were crossing St. Paul diagonally, coming from opposite directions, when he explained. He wasn’t dressed for the cold and his voice was flat. No half grin. He said he needed $140 by the end of the week.

I can give you $100. That’s all I can do. I don’t have a lot of money.

I had the cash the next day and walked around with a small stuffed envelope with the name Nephew on it.

February 3rd, a few days before my flight to Kansas, I still had the envelope in my coat pocket. I walked past Eddie’s and saw that the wrought iron gate was half closed. On the side facing the street was a photo of Nephew looking straight at the camera, a white cat snuggled in his arms. Attached to the picture with blue masking tape was a handwritten note from someone named Yoshi.











Someone had fastened a handful of white roses to the gate and had placed beneath it on the sidewalk unlit votive candles and an unopened bottle of beer. I stood there and lost track of time. A neighbor saw me and said they found Anthony slumped over in the Eddie’s courtyard, maybe a drug overdose.

Oh. His name was Anthony.

an image from the memorial honoring Nephew/Anthony

Rosanne Singer is an MFA student in the University of Baltimore Creative Writing/Publishing Arts program. Although her focus is poetry, she has relished reading and writing memoir in classes and is facilitating a twice-monthly memoir workshop at Roland Park Place, a senior residence in the Hampden area. In conjunction with her MFA program she works with Passager Books, a Baltimore based non-profit publisher showcasing the writing of folks over 50. Rosanne grew up in Baltimore, moved away for decades but has returned in the last couple of years, something she didn’t expect to do.

“My Real Life Modern Family” features essays by local writers about their families, either chosen or biological.

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