When I moved to Brookfield Avenue, it was nothing like the worn sock weather of Chapel Hill. Nor was it anything as gorgeous as Cape Town– the wind alone did not howl as a chorus of mothers crying out in service to the Lord. But, in its own way Brookfield did sing, its beauty a resounding instrument in the city of charm.
Perhaps my fascination with Brookfield was because it was a street and it had been some time since I’d lived on a street. My past included a train station in Rosebank, Cape Town; then later, an apartment complex that stretched out like 50 horizontal arms, finger to finger, on a lawn in Chapel Hill.
And my most recent living arrangement was the community of older folks I had moved from in Catonsville with my mom which was, like most condo-villages, a box with one entrance and one exit. Noise came in only from other apartments or the drunken wanderings of patrons after Loafer’s Bar and Grill closed for the night.
But Brookfield was different–a proper street with a beginning, middle, and end. And in the beginning of living there, I believed my whole life had been waiting to unwind on that street. In the middle, I believed I could get away with murder. And in the end, I left–thinking if I left the pandemic home then maybe I could leave the pandemic.
I guess I’d be reducing the stage if I didn’t mention Whitelock Street. My 6-foot-long window faced that street. And from it I could see the signs “Brookfield Ave.” and “Whitelock St.” crossed like a holy thing on a metal pole. And across from it, the garden that filled every weekend with Black people growing food on Fridays, practicing yoga on Saturdays, and learning tai chi on Sundays. As if the holy cross on metal was a place to gather as a vaccine for the pandemic.
In my opinion, a proper street has two things: 1. its own thru road and 2. cars traveling from one end of the day to the next. Meeting both requirements, Brookfield Avenue had its own special addition–congruous with much of Baltimore city planning–it was a one-way street.
My reverence for one-way streets developed a decade earlier. When, before I could drive, my eldest brother was driving us back from a house show in Pigtown. We’d trekked out to the city from our mom’s place in Owings Mills to see a vocal group, a Christian couple, sing in a now-demolished row house to an audience of 20 friends and two strangers–us, the only Black people. It was late at night and Jordan, a mere year into his license with no city driving experience, hooked a right onto West Franklin. Now, if you know anything about that elbow patch between MLK and 40 West, there is no right on West Franklin. Suddenly, a rush of headlights screamed towards us. Beeeep! Beeeeep! Jordan, panicked but quick thinking, whipped the car onto a patch of grass on the side (a patch that no longer exists, but in its heyday saved our life). From then on it seemed to me, advisable to always note which streets had hovered above it like a black halo two crucial words: One-Way. I bowed down to the arrow, circled in red and stricken through.
So imagine my delight while apartment hunting in Reservoir Hill I saw Brookfield Avenue crowned with that same nod towards a unilateral direction. Ah, I thought–an electrical current running through me like a wire–look! it’s an intellectual thru line from one axis to another. An opportunity to head in one direction. A funnel that when poured into goes out the other end. Two weeks later, I moved in.
The day after moving, I drove to Arkansas to move my mother into her forever retirement community: Jordan’s house. A month later, when I came back to Brookfield, I dropped my bags into the foyer, looked at my roommate–the philodendron he hung from the hook, the kitchen and its overhanging pendant light, the TV mounted to the wall shining “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”–and felt that same electric current. “I feel like my whole life has been heading towards this one moment, in this apartment,” I said out loud. He looked at me, amused and puzzled, as if thinking, It’s just Reservoir Hill, Jalynn. Not the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art. But for some reason, I felt like dumbass Rocky at the bottom of the steps looking up. Raw egg floating in my belly; egging me up and up.
Other than the occasional hiccup of construction, Brookfield mostly operated as such–the beginning of my adult life; a street going in one direction.
In August, I entered the field. Which is to say about a week into living there I got a call about my application with the United States Census. Training started and I had a lot of paperwork to fill out. My first day out was mean. Humidity punched me from all sides. Upper 90s, clad head to toe in pandemic attire: a set of rubber gloves, a cotton mask (before we knew better), and a face shield with a blue strap. My thick soled hiking boots, ankle-length pants, quarter-sleeved t-shirt, and cross-bodied bag gathering, then sealing in heat. I looked like a walking street light, a trudging recycling bin upended from behind the Patient First.
I looked at my docket for the day. My first home was in my building. Despite my nerves, I asked all the questions. Who you got living in here? Are they your biological, adopted, or foster children? Is you a man or a woman? You owning or renting? The questions were ridiculous, but the pay was almost $30/ hour, so I was happy to sweat.
Three months of walking work taught me about every nook and granny (ha!) of Reservoir Hill. Something about the walking filled me with joy. Or maybe, it was the rehearsed script I repeated again and again. Or maybe it was the views because, not to brag, I’ve been in Res Hill’s Burj Khalifa more times than I can count. Lakeview Towers is 15 floors high, winged by two not-always working elevators, and every kind of person to ever “person” living within. When I first went to enumerate Lakeview Towers I was told I needed to show the director proof that I had business there. I looked at my hands sweating in rubber and my “2020 Census Bureau” bag digging a mean moat into my neck. I’ll come back tomorrow, I said.
The next day, I did. They let me in. I was given an elevator badge that unlocked all the floors. I knocked and I knocked. I left notes letting them know I’d be back. I knocked some more. A man came out and said, “Why would I participate? I can’t even vote.” I felt bad. He must’ve been incarcerated, I thought. I felt like a cop. I fingered my imaginary badge and decided to cop or cap; I lied. But if I count you, you’ll count. I smiled–my mask masking the sneer.
Another time a hard-of-hearing elderly man opened his door. “Are you Hispanic?” I asked. Huh, he squinted. “Are you Hispanic?” I repeated, enunciating my words. “HUHHHH,” he said. “ARE YOU HISPANIC?!!” I yelled. Suddenly his neighbor opened his door and yelled back, “No, he’s not Hispanic!” I marked him down.
By the end of my time with the census the most amazing thing happened. Well, two things. One, I had developed a white man’s propensity for getting anyone to talk to me. It was weird and I loved it. I could take a tense interaction and in less than three minutes not only smooth things over, but get the respondent to answer all of my questions.
The exception to this was the napping respondent. One day on Callow Avenue, I woke up a sleeping man. The bear emerged from his den, squinting, then growling, “Go away!” I proffered my rehearsed line, “Sorry to disturb you sir but I’m here to fill out your census.” “Not now!” The bear yelled, slamming the door in my face. I left him my sweetly threatening “I’ll be back” note.
A few days later, he was on my docket again. I knocked and knocked. I heard him rumbling towards me. I tensed knowing what was coming. He opened the door. “Hello, I’m Jalynn with the Census Bureau here to do your 2020 census.” He squinted at me, then his eyes widened. And the second thing happened. “Oh, it’s you,” he said. “I’m happy you came back. My wife said I didn’t need to be so mean. I’m sorry. I was just napping after work. How can I help?” I stumbled, flustered. A grown man had never apologized to me. I actually hadn’t ever heard of such a thing. I felt like I had pushed feminism ahead a whole decade. I smiled behind the cloth. “Thanks, sir. Now, this won’t take much time. I just have to ask you a few questions.”