Milton Wilkins sat in a big chair by the large, covered windows in the front room of the East Baltimore rowhouse he's called home since 1925, and when I asked his age, he unfolded a plastic hospital bracelet that bore his date of birth: 1/21/95.
"I show you that so we don't make no mistakes," Mr. Wilkins said. "I don't want to get nothin' wrong."
I poked gently into Mr. Wilkins' memory yesterday morning, and it seemed that each time I mentioned something -- the First World War, his work, his neighborhood, crime -- Mr. Wilkins came alive with stories, each of them developing in fragments that became bright vignettes that formed a picture of the bygone Baltimore. It was a short, but amazing experience: A man of 96 years reaching back to the deepest corners of his memory.
"If I don't remember, I won't say," Mr. Wilkins said. "I ain't gonna tell you nothin' wrong."
I started with questions about the First World War. Mr. Wilkins had served with the infantry in France. At the time he was drafted, he'd been working for a man named Charles Neubert.
"He had oyster-packing houses all over the world," Mr. Wilkins said. "I drove for the man. I drove a 1904 Model T Ford. I was his chauffeur for five years. He kept a job for me after the war. He bought this house for me."
"He must have liked you," I said.
"He wanted to take care of me," Mr. Wilkins said. "There were two old maids who lived here from a wealthy family, a coal family. And [Neubert] had me drive by here and he asked me would I like to have a house of my own. He had to wait till the second sister died before he could buy it. . . . I paid him a little every month. You know how much this house cost? Nineteen hundred was what I paid. I lived here four years by myself before I got married."
"Was this neighborhood all white then?"
"Mostly white," Mr. Wilkins said. "When I moved here there was a bakery right next door, on the corner, and a milkman lived on the other side. He used to leave me a bottle of milk. There was only one other colored fella on the street. Nobody bothered me."
"Do you remember what Neubert paid you to drive for him?"
"First $20 a week. Before he died, he was paying me $30 a week."
"What year did he die?"
"Let me get my mind straight," Mr. Wilkins said. "I don't wanna get nothin' wrong."
"Well," I changed the subject, "where did you work after Neubert died?"
"Had three jobs," he said. "At one time. I worked for the railroad from 4 o'clock till 11 at night. Then from 11:30 till 7:30 in the morning I worked at the shipyard in Fairfield, then I came home and went to the post office and drove a mail truck till 3:30 in the afternoon. Didn't bother me."
"Incredible," I said.
"Nothin' at all," Mr. Wilkins said. "They were all short of help."
"What did you do for the railroad?"
"Everything. Baggageman at Penn Station, cleaned up, ran errands."
"All these years in this neighborhood -- did you ever have a crime problem?" I asked.
"Had my radio stolen once," Mr. Wilkins said. "I got a call at the post office to come home. I called the police before I went home. They didn't have radio cars in those days so they got here the same time I did."
Remarkably, instead of rattling off, as I had expected, a litany of crimes from recent years, Mr. Wilkins related only one incident -- from more than 60 years ago. (The first radio communication between Baltimore police patrols and a central dispatcher took place March 4, 1933.)
"I knew where the fella lived, so I went there with the police."
"You went with the police?"
"Sure. To the 1300 block Central Avenue. But the fella wasn't home. We never got him. . . . Then I got a call from the police two or three months later. They found my radio. The fella had pawned it. So I went to the pawn shop to buy it back, but the fella wanted too much money for it."
"Do you remember how much?"
Mr. Wilkins paused and struggled to find a number.
"To the best of your recollection," I said.
"It was either $19 or $20, but I can't say for sure which."
I told Mr. Wilkins not to worry. I wouldn't pin him down on an exact figure.