Expedito "Pedro" Lugo, sliding his wheelchair along a silent hospital corridor, spreads his mouth into a smile that could light up all of East Baltimore.
"I feel good now," he says.
On this blistering summer afternoon, he is quietly defying the odds. Some imagined he'd be dead by now. Many said he'd never talk again, never think clearly, never remember anything.
Instead, on this hot afternoon several weeks back, he is scooting around in a wheelchair and remembering Patterson Park and the baseball bat that crashed and crashed again into his skull last spring.
"You remember the attack?" a visitor asks.
A priest, the Rev. Sam Lupico, translates the question into Spanish to make it a little easier for Lugo, who speaks bits and pieces of English.
"I remember," he says, nodding his head slowly. He holds his right hand up to his temple.
"Take your time," says Father Lupico.
Lugo's hand touches a spot where the baseball bat pounded his skull. It was May 17 at Patterson Park, in a beating that not only horrified the city but set loose an outpouring of pent-up bitterness in East Baltimore over troubles at nearby Hampstead Hill Middle School.
In this dimly lighted room, Lugo's left hand trembles a little. He says he remembers several teen-agers surrounding him in the park.
"Six," he says.
"Maybe five," he says. "I remember more than one, but I'm not sure how many."
"What happens," says Father Lupico, "is that he remembers more each time, as he's reconstructing it."
"Did you know these attackers?" he is asked.
"I didn't know them at all," Lugo says. "I never saw them at all before this. They wanted my bat. One of them said, 'I want your baseball bat.' This is all."
He struggles for more thoughts and tries to match them to words. The process is still labored. He smiles gently, looks around the room, runs a hand along the edge of his close-cut hair.
"It's hard," he says.
"Take your time," Father Lupico says.
"One of them said, 'I want your baseball bat,' " Lugo sighs. "Another took it from me. I said, 'Hey, that's my bat.' "
He was beaten into unconsciousness, his skull split open, half his body paralyzed. Life-support systems at Johns Hopkins Hospital kept him going for weeks.
Meanwhile, East Baltimore was unburdening itself of years of anger. It wasn't just the kids who beat Pedro Lugo, residents said, it's those kids over at Hampstead Hill Middle School, too. Every day after school, they said, the kids trashed the neighborhood. An entire community was held hostage until the kids had gone home.
Meetings were held that filled a church. The mayor showed up one night and assured everyone that changes would be made. A new school principal was hired: Margaret Wicks, formerly head of prisoner education programs at the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County.
Meeting with Hampstead Hill parents a few weeks ago, Wicks told them, "I've got the tenacity of a pit bull and the patience of a nun."
"It sounds nice," one neighborhood resident said afterward. "But she doesn't realize she won't have guards backing her up in there."
And now, with Hampstead Hill and schools across town opening their doors today, the words hang in the air. Pedro Lugo's slow recovery warms hearts all through East Baltimore, but it leaves untouched the tension at Hampstead Hill.
Through much of the spring and summer, neighborhood people worked with city officials to make changes at the school. Two weeks ago, half a dozen residents met with Mayor Kurt Schmoke on a Sunday morning at City Hall.
"The mayor was extremely interested and cooperative," one resident said. "We were very impressed with him. But he's obviously got a lot more things on his mind than Hampstead Hill."
There are still too many kids there, in too little space. This despite City Hall's assurances that they want to lower the population. There are still too many kids there who take buses in from other neighborhoods. This despite City Hall's assurances that they want to rezone the school or find some other way to send kids to schools nearer their homes. There are still known troublemakers in the school, parents say. This despite City Hall assurances that these kids would be weeded out.
In his room at Montebello Rehabilitation Hospital, Pedro Lugo is unaware of the tidal wave of emotions set forth by his beating last spring. All of his limited energy is geared now to getting his mind and body back into working order.
"I feel good," he said several weeks ago.
That's only part of the healing process. The rest of the neighborhood still feels anxiety. The new school year opens with old problems still unresolved. Last spring, after Lugo's beating, there were extra police patrolling the streets outside Hampstead Hill. There were plans for more cops today.
But it's no way to run a school and no way for a community to have to exist. Pedro Lugo is now three months into his recovery. At Hampstead Hill, the process begins today.