Counting Baltimore's small blessings

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 29, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Here he is, standing on Charles Street outside of Louie's Book Store, looking the very picture of urban poignancy: haunted winter face, cadaverous body bent into the beginnings of a question mark, hand extended hopefully.

''A little money,'' he mutters.

Immediately, I wish to change the subject. In my pocket, I have a couple of bucks, but in my heart I am feeling a little tapped-out.

Already, on this day after Christmas, I have been stopped by people at three different locations, and this guy on Charles Street is a mirror of them all: faded overcoat with a hooded sweat shirt underneath, woolen knit cap on his head, plastic bag in his hand containing all of his possessions.

''You sleep on the street last night?''

''Fayette and Charles,'' he says, pointing south.

''The grate.''

He says a dozen people sleep on this grate every night. The grate is elevated maybe 3 inches off the ground, and the heat comes up and warms everybody through the night, and on Christmas Eve there were people in cars who stopped by with coffee and soup and sandwiches.

''Some of us sang carols,'' he says.

I feel ashamed of myself for wishing, a moment ago, that he would go away. The city has a lot of us feeling crummy these days. Each morning's news brings fresh evidence of a community at the end of its rope: all of the homeless with no place to go; the dope dealers with their guns in their hands and their morals all gone; and the politicians who find themselves utterly bereft of a single redeeming idea.

''The grate,'' the guy on Charles Street is saying now, ''is the safest place in town.''

He says this with a certain pride of ownership, a landlord giving his best pitch to a potential renter. The temperature was somewhere below freezing last night, but the heating on the grate is centralized and steady and, if you keep the area clean, the rats mostly look elsewhere.

Those who claim the city is dying have their point: parts of it are always dying, but parts are always being reborn. There are entire neighborhoods once kissed off which now blossom; likewise, the city's centerpiece, the Inner Harbor, was once an eyesore of rotting piers and tubercular winos.

And here on Charles Street, where our man is looking for a little handout, there are people behind the door of Louie's Book Store who are having a fine time leafing through the latest books and magazines and then tootling off to the rear of the place for some lunch.

But the balance of pleasure and woe tips dangerously these days in Baltimore. You wish to remind yourself of the town's small pleasures -- kids hoisting kites at a windy Patterson Park, the crowd at the Cross Street Market looking like extras from a Frank Capra movie, Bolton Hill on a snowy evening when it feels like the inside of an old Aubrey Bodine photo -- but the big troubles keep getting in the way.

About half of all Marylanders below the poverty level live in the city. About 40,000 families live in public housing here, and another 34,000 are on the waiting list. About 80,000 people a year wind up in city courts as criminal defendants.

And on Charles Street, we have this man with his hand out, who exists in spite of the conditions of his own life.

''How long have you been on the street?''

''Two months,'' he says. ''I do a little day work here and there. Can't get no Social Services, because they won't help single men who are healthy.''

He says his troubles started with a woman. She was addicted to crack cocaine, and she took everything from him. He turned to drink, and the drinking took on a life of its own. There is no family, since his mother died earlier this year.

''Most of us on the grate,'' he says, ''have a drinking problem.''

''Most?''

''Or else drugs,'' he says.

Behind him now, exiting from Louie's, come four young people, fashionably dressed, feeling all the traditional pleasures of the holiday season.

''I love it,'' one of them, a young woman, shouts into the afternoon air.

''Love what?'' another voice asks.

''This city,'' the young woman cries.

''I love this city.''

As they walk north, toward Mount Vernon, the homeless man smiles wanly.

''Yeah,'' he says. ''I like it, too.''

''Why is that?'' he's asked.

''You can get something to eat,'' he says simply.

OK, there's that. A few blocks away, Our Daily Bread fills empty bellies every day. There are churches and shelters offering help everywhere, and in East Baltimore, Bea Gaddy continues to perform her miracles.

At times like these, in cities like this, maybe you have to look a little harder for the good stuff.

It's there: all the people in row houses who sit on their front steps and chat with neighbors on warm summer evenings; the United Nations flavor at the Lexington Market; the stately grace of the Pratt Central Library, on those days when the city can still afford to open the doors.

And just knowing, like the guy on Charles Street, that no matter how bleak things get, and how bitterly cold are the nights, you can still get something to eat from people who still care during this long and treacherous time.

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