Baltimore, the city that cares

Dan Rodricks

December 21, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

We were standing on St. Paul Street the other night, and Brendan Walsh said something beautiful about Baltimore, how it still manages to be a city where the word "community" is not some vague concept but a very real means of survival. Things would be a lot worse, he said, if Baltimore didn't have neighborhoods and people who still come together to help the neediest.

Walsh and his wife, Willa Bickham, work with some of the most bitterly poor people in this city. A lot of them are young women with children. They keep showing up at Viva House, the Catholic Worker rowhouse on South Mount Street, looking for food. They come every night, all year long. Things would be a lot worse, to be sure, if Viva House didn't exist. Things would be a lot worse all over -- a lot more homeless people, a lot more hungry people -- if, in every Baltimore neighborhood, there weren't good people who come out from behind the locked doors to offer their hands in help. Where government has failed or turned its back, where the moneyed classes complain about "compassion fatigue," where the stressed financial district yuppies complain about panhandlers, others try to make the difference.

And they don't look for testimonials or citations from the governor. They just do it.

They know they can't save the world in big ways, but they can help patch it together in small ways.

Not just at Christmas, but all year.

There are people who visit old and sick neighbors. I've seen women with covered dishes knocking on doors on West Lombard Street. I've seen young women taking long walks with old, hunched women in Little Italy. I know a Gilman grad who showed up in a high-rise public housing project with video games for a fatherless boy he'd met during his travels. I see the old ladies check on each other in the rowhouses of Milton Avenue. None of those images are from Christmas. I remember them in little glimpses, little scenes from the streets of Baltimore during the spring and summer.

I think back five or six years to the day the American Legion guys on Fort Avenue presented an electric wheelchair to a boy whose single mother couldn't afford to buy one herself. The fund-raising drive had started on little more than a rumor about some lad in Catonsville who needed a new set of wheels. The guys at the American Legion hall raised thousands of dollars; they met the boy and his mother the day they presented the wheelchair. Brooks Robinson was there that day, making it, in my mind forever, a classic Baltimore moment.

I received a letter the other day from a woman in Ruxton. Back in September, she heard, as just about everyone did, about Reggie McIver, the East Baltimore boy who was shot in the head trying to defend his mother from a gunman. Reggie has been out of the hospital for a while now. He stays with his grandmother. The woman in Ruxton says her family is going to be sharing Christmas with Reggie this year. "We were so impressed with what he did," she said, "that I wrote him a letter and we have gotten him some games, clothes and things to make this a Christmas he'll remember." This Saturday is delivery day.

It's a long sociological reach from Ruxton to Reggie, but it's going to happen because someone didn't forget. The woman from Ruxton said she grew up poor. She didn't forget. She never left the old neighborhood, it's still part of her. She's figured out that keeping the old neighborhood in your heart keeps you honest.

Two days ago, a column in this space presented the story of Linda from Essex. Single mother, divorcee. Two kids. She drives a truck for $6 an hour. In early November, she lost a job that paid a little better, and now the difference is killing her. She's worried about paying the rent, about making payments on the furniture and her car. She wrote me a letter that pretty much exposed all the demons of her life, starting years ago with her father's alcoholism and concluding this month with the impossibility of giving her kids a Christmas. Linda hasn't indulged in a lot of complaining and whining, but now, with things unraveling, she was getting desperate. She wasn't looking for a handout. She just wanted to cry a little.

I received 18 phone calls about Linda. Everyone wanted to help. They called from Edgemere and Towson. I heard from two lawyers, one who wanted to give money, one who offered free legal services.

A State Police corporal called, and a couple of women from an office at Social Security, a secretary at a contractor's office, a guy at a trash removal company. That's community. That's Baltimore.

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